Sergeant battles for right not to fight He refuses gulf duty, faces court-martial

December 16, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

FORT RILEY, Kan. -- For seven years George Morse has been a good soldier. Now he is refusing an order. He says he will not go to the Middle East.

The 25-year-old sergeant says he is a conscientious objector to war. He is one of a few active-duty servicemen and a handful of reservists who have publicly claimed a moral unwillingness to serve since the Persian Gulf crisis began. His court-martial is to begin tomorrow.

What others see as an act of cowardice, he sees as courage. It is tougher to say no -- to face ridicule, prosecution, and maybe prison -- than to go, he says.

"War is wrong. Wars don't really solve anything," he said. This is a recent conclusion, he admits, brewed of a mix of moral reawakening, disagreement with the Persian Gulf buildup and resentment at the military. It produced what he describes as an absolute stand: "I'm saying I can no longer in good conscience be a member of the military. I will have nothing to do with combat."

He does not feel he is failing his part of a deal. He fulfilled his enlistment -- he was supposed to be discharged this week. And the pay and benefits he received were meager compensation for long, tedious duties and the relative impoverishment of an enlisted man's life, he said.

"People start talking to me about my benefits. I've done nothing but sacrificed my own family and given hours and hours of my life to an organization that does not care," he said. "I've sacrificed all a person needs to sacrifice for this Army."

It is not a popular stand. Even many of those with doubts about the military buildup in the gulf bristle at the notion that a serviceman might refuse to go.

Sergeant Morse, the father of a 3-year-old, has been pilloried in the local newspaper: "Very transparent," huffed an editorial in the Manhattan Mercury; he's a "dirty, yellow coward," railed a letter to the editor.

Other soldiers concur. "I think he's letting down his country," said a 27-year-old first lieutenant at the Army hospital here.

"He ought to sit in jail for as long as we are over there," agreed a 20-year-old private preparing to ship out to Saudi Arabia.

Sergeant Morse considers the criticisms calmly. The pressure has had an effect: Before he declared his refusal to go, he threw up at the very thought of what he would have to face. In a long interview at his off-base apartment near Fort Riley, he worked through a slow succession of cigarettes as he carefully explained his reasons.

"I'm not worried about people who have made up their mind that I'm a liar," he said. "What I hope to do is encourage people who have the same feelings as me, who are sitting on the fence, to give them some encouragement.

"War is wrong. Senseless killing," he said. "I'm not proud of the fact that it took my life being directly affected before I got off my butt and took a stand. But I can't let that criticism keep me from standing up for what I believe."

His home has the feeling of a place under siege. His mother has arrived from Michigan to give moral support to her son, and his father soon will follow. Andrea, his 23-year-old wife, nervously packs: Their lease expires this month, and with the future uncertain, she will move in with her in-laws.

Michelle -- 3, bright and blond -- scampers about amid the sense of tension in the home. Her parents have told her that Daddy may go away awhile to jail.

"She said she would get the key and open the door and get me out," said Sergeant Morse.

Just down Fort Riley Boulevard from their apartment, 11,500 other soldiers prepare to leave for the Middle East. The 1st Infantry Division is leaving for duty for the first time since the Vietnam War. The rail yard bustles as soldiers load 1,400 rail cars with boxy, armored vehicles newly painted in the faded yellow hues of desert sand.

As the Union Pacific rumbles southward to the Houston shipyard with the equipment, soldiers board buses for Topeka and the flight to Saudi Arabia. The air control tower at Fort Riley is festooned with an 84-foot yellow ribbon. The signboards of local businesses cheer on "The Big Red One."

Pentagon spokesmen say they have seen no increase from prior years in the number of conscientious-objector applications. The services combined usually get about 185 each year, they say. But those spokesmen acknowledge that applications recently filed would not yet have made their way to the Pentagon's notice.

"Right now, it's not a significant number," said Army Capt. Barbara Goodno at the Pentagon.

Groups that assist with such applications disagree. "Our phones are ringing continuously," said Robert A. Seeley of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors in Philadelphia. The War Resisters League in New York recently counted 34 cases of dTC servicemen and women who have publicly objected to going to the Persian Gulf.

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