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AMERICA ON THE VERGE

February 10 2003
Cover

AMERICA ON THE VERGE

February 10 2003

AMERICA ON THE VERGE

The rhetoric is heated. The troops are on the move. At a time of tragedy, the world’s remaining superpower prepares for war, reports JONATHON GATEHOUSE.

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THE URBAN CAMOUFLAGE is pretty convincing—baggy jeans and sneakers, hooded sweatshirts, knit caps to cover close-cropped hair—but there’s no mistaking the occupation of the college-aged men and women who are sipping pints of Airborne Ale or Regimental Red in this pub in downtown Fayetteville, N.C. They swagger when they cross the room, stand too straight at the bar, and address strangers as “sir.” And even as they listen to the local bands pump out Hendrix riffs and reggaefied versions of Bob Dylan chestnuts, their minds are fixed on faraway

places. “I’m ready. North Korea, Iraq, it doesn’t matter. I’ll go wherever I’m needed. I love my country,” proclaims Jesse Coy, a 21-year-old paratrooper from Montana.

He and his buddy, Stephen Whittle, a 22-year-old Texan, have just returned from a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan, to their base at Fort Bragg, 10 km northwest of Fayetteville. They’re enjoying being back in the land of running water and free-flowing beer, but they’re spoiling for a “real” fight. “I felt like I was doing something over there but it was almost peacekeeping,” says

Coy. “I wouldn’t mind some action.” Whittle waves his cellphone. “The call could come at any time,” he says. “If the President declares war they can send us right back out. People don’t want to see any more American lives lost, but it’s our job.” They laugh guiltily when asked if the ladies in the bar are being treated to the same speech.

Down the highway, past the pawnshops, strip clubs and fried chicken restaurants, the mood at the sprawling military complex is the same—eagerness, exuberance, supreme confidence. In his State of the Union address

last week, George W. Bush set the clock ticking toward a confrontation with Iraq. “America will not accept a serious and mounting threat to our country, our friends and our allies,” the President warned. “If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.” The loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-member crew on Saturday, though tragic, is unlikely to significantly alter the timetable for an administration driven by the memory of the more than 3,000 who died on Sept. 11. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is

scheduled to appear before the Security Council on Feb. 5, to make what is being characterized as a final appeal for the UN’s blessing. Hostilities could begin within weeks. At Fort Bragg preparations are well under way—more than 14,000 troops have already been ordered to the Gulf, and others are getting ready. Dozens of C-130 transports stand waiting by the airstrip. Even the Coca-Cola truck that makes deliveries to the base has been painted in desert colours.

In a cavernous gymnasium, some 80 members of the 82nd Airborne and other

skydiving regiments are undergoing advanced paratrooper training, learning to find hidden flaws in the complex web of packs, straps and lines attached to their torsos. Many of the soldiers already know they are shipping to the Middle East as soon as the course finishes this week. The others expect their orders at any time. “I’m excited and I’m nervous,” says Sgt. Brad Polensky, a member of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, who is facing his first overseas combat mission. The Wisconsin native will leave his wife and five young children behind at

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Fort Bragg. “They’re pretty much like any other family. They’re not thrilled, but they know it’s my job,” he says. “Besides, they know I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t going.”

Staff Sgt. David L. Haywood, a 15-year veteran of the army, has four children. He was single in 1991, when he fought in the first Gulf War. In his clipped, military manner, he says he’s looking forward to more action—“Roger that, sir!”—but admits that some of the things he experienced in the desert 12 years ago still linger. “I saw a lot of stuff that sticks with me—burned corpses, things of that nature. That kind of visual is something that doesn’t go away,” says Haywood. “The young guys are eager. A lot of times I have to let them know it’s not a picnic. This is real world stuff, it’s dangerous. You have to keep it in perspective.”

The stress of combat and revolving-door deployments has already been felt on the base. Last summer, as the first batch of soldiers came back from Afghanistan, there were five fatal incidents of domestic violence. All demobilizing personnel and their families now receive lectures on coping with the pressures of returning home, and the counselling services available to them— although the focus remains more on preparing troops to go to war than come back to peace.

Second World War-era barracks serve as the offices for the chaplins of the 2125th Garrison Support Unit—a reserve unit from Georgia that has been called up to help prepare the thousands of National Guardsmen and part-timers who are being dispatched overseas. A table is covered with knitted keepsake crosses, done in camouflage colours by local church groups. Maj. Howard Lucas, a Baptist preacher from Fayetteville, has been back on active duty for the past eight months, talking and praying with outgoing soldiers as they prepare to face battle, and perhaps their maker. Lucas, who ministered to troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, admits that some occasionally have concerns about violating the fifth commandment. “I try to let people know that God finds it a tragedy any time a human life is taken, but we live in an evil world,” he says. “To stand by and let evil take over is wrong. I don’t think it’s bad to let soldiers know that this fellow was also a husband or a father, but he was also an enemy who was

NOT EVERYONE IS BUYING THE PRESIDENT’S ARGUMENTS THAT THE U.S. MUSI

actively participating. It’s alright to stand in the way of people that are doing evil.” These days, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Lucas and the other chaplins often send the troops off with a lesson from Psalm 9. “When mine enemies are turned back, they shall fall and perish at thy presence,” it reads in part. “Thou hast rebuked the heathen, thou hast destroyed the wicked, thou hast put out their name for ever and ever.”

“I call it God’s 911 plan,” says Lucas.

“F— IRAQ!/’ the young man screams from the passenger seat, as the souped-up Dodge Charger thrums past the demonstrators. Lenore Yarger and her three colleagues, muffled against the freezing temperatures and holding homemade placards that say “Don’t kill for me” and “No Blood for Oil,” don’t even flinch. The group—sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller—has been gathering in front of the post office on Chapel Hill’s main street every Monday night since Sept. 11,2001, pushing the cause of peace. More people honk in support than hurl

curses, they say. The students hurrying to and from classes at the University of North Carolina across the street barely give them a glance as they pass by.

Yarger, a Catholic lay worker from nearby Silk Hope, has just returned from Iraq. She’s not buying the arguments that Bush and others in his administration are making about waging a “just war” to liberate a populace from a totalitarian regime. “Saddam is a brutal dictator, but the people of Iraq shouldn’t be held responsible for his acts— a war will kill tens of thousands of them,” says Yarger. “All we’ve done with 12 years of international sanctions is deprive the people of Iraq of the freedoms they once had. We’ve taken away their health care, their education system, drastically lowered their standard of living. I just don’t trust my government to tell me what the Iraqi people want.”

The unexpectedly large turnout at the last major public demonstrations against a war with Iraq—hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets on Jan. 18— has heartened peace activists, but their

prospects of stopping a conflict before it starts seem dim. One opinion poll after Bush’s State of the Union address showed support for war rising to 77 per cent. The numbers tumble if the U.S. decides to pursue a conflict without the support of the United Nations, but experts of all stripes agree that American voters will follow their historical pattern of rallying around the flag once a military campaign begins. Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a former director of defence policy and arms control for the National Security Council, says Bush and his circle of advisers are watching public opinion but aren’t basing their decisions on it. “The President knows that if he goes and wins decisively, he’ll have the support he needs,” says Feaver. “And he knows that if he goes and botches it, it won’t matter if people supported him in advance or not.” The White House has already begun the work of building a coalition, and spent much of last week lobbying allies, including Canada, to get on board regardless of the Secu-

rity Council. Feaver says the timing of the decision by France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder to speak out against the war option three weeks ago deeply angered Bush, and the administration is letting it be known that it will stand firm against nations that erect roadblocks to its aggressive effort to disarm Saddam.

The military option enjoys strong support in North Carolina, which is home to five major military installations and tens of thousands of retired servicemen and women. A survey conducted last month found nearly two-thirds of residents support Bush’s stance, though the number fell to only 23 per cent among African-American residents. Mandy Carter, a development coordinator for Durham-based advocacy group Southerners on New Ground, says minority communities in the U.S. are not only dealing with the sting of anti-terrorism legislation— with many Arabs and East Asians being forced to register with the government— but ever-present problems of racial inequality. “How can we be going over to protect the

rights of other people if we don’t enjoy full rights at home?” she asks. “And who are the troops that are going to be fighting? They’re usually young, poor, and often people of colour.”

Chip Smith, a community activist in Fayetteville, says he believes there is deeprooted distrust of Bush’s plan, even in such a solidly military town. North Carolina is reeling from America’s recent economic downturn, as dozens of factories have shut their doors. “In this area, particularly in rural counties, there have been thousands of people who have lost their jobs in the past couple of years,” he says. “There is all kinds of despair. And now we see billions of dollars being pissed away every month on a war most people don’t support. The sharpness of that contradiction affects more than a handful of people.”

Opposition to the war is turning up in some unusual places. Stan Goff, a retired 24year special forces veteran whose son Jessie, 19, now serves in the 82nd Airborne, attended the recent march in Washington and has been giving frequent lectures about what he sees as the real reasons the Bush administration wants a war: oil and continued political and economic hegemony. At his Durham home, Goff shows visitors photos of the right-wing death-squad members he worked with in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, and wonders where America gets off occupying the moral high ground. “George Bush is every bit as much a criminal as Saddam Hussein, so was his daddy, so was every president since World War II,” says Goff, a still-wiry 51-year-old. The war on terror is a failure, he says, and American troops now in Afghanistan, and soon in Iraq, will find themselves bunkered down in a hostile environment just like he experienced in Somalia. “I think we’re witnessing the decline of the American empire. It’s a very dangerous time.”

Erik Gustafson, a 32-year-old Gulf War vet, says his fledgling organization, Veterans for Common Sense, is hearing more and more doubts about Bush’s Iraq strategy from the community of 700,000 Americans who served in 1991. “I still think the last time around was a just case. Iraq invaded another country. It refused to withdraw. We had a UN mandate,” he says. “But this time, I hear a repudiation of long-standing American

VAGE A ‘JUST WAR’ TO LIBERATE THE IRAQI PEOPLE FROM A TOTALITARIAN REGIME

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traditions.” The idea of a “pre-emptive war” is troubling for many veterans, says Gustafson, who worries that the new lower threshold for hostilities could lead America into a perpetual state of conflict.

And while the media seem to be obsessed with opinion polls and the turnout at demonstrations—trying to gauge the feelings of the American public—Gustafson says they and the White House may be vastly underestimating the real level of opposition to the war. He points to moveon.org, an Internet based group that raised enough donations to air an anti-war commercial during the Super Bowl. “For a lot of Americans, joining in a big national rally where some of the folks up on stage are Stalinists is not natural,” says Gustafson. “Personally, I hate protests. But that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of our Iraq policy.”

IF AMERICA is indeed a country on the verge of war, the most remarkable thing is how few outward signs there are of the coming conflict and the roiling internal debate. The flags that decorated every front porch, car antenna, and highway overpass in the weeks and months after Sept. 11 have mostly been packed away. Unlike 1991, there are no yellow ribbons tied around oak trees for the boys and girls already serving overseas. And the message boards of fast-food restaurants promote 99-cent burgers, not support for the troops.

Even Washington, which felt like a city under siege for months after a hijacked plane crashed into the Pentagon, has returned to a semblance of normalcy. The monuments are open to tourists again and construction of the huge new Second World War memorial is well under way on the Mall. More streets are open to drivers, and it’s police officers instead of armed soldiers who man the checkpoints outside government buildings. The snipers atop the White House still train their binoculars on the tourists, but have a pillbox in which to take refuge from the cold. And in the land of the free, protestors are again allowed to picket on Pennsylvania Avenue, in groups smaller than 25, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., so long as they stay in constant motion along the prime section of the sidewalk.

The State of the Union address was broadcast on all of the major networks, but in

TO SOME, VOWS TO FIX THE ECONOMY SEEMED LIKE WINDOW DRESSING

comparison to last year, fewer Americans seemed to be looking to the President for answers. In bars and restaurants, you were more likely to find sets tuned to college basketball than the events on Capitol Hill. And many of those who did watch said they were disappointed. Even though Bush spent more than half of his hour-long speech focusing on the economy and other domestic policy issues, the public seems to doubt that the Republicans have the capacity to concentrate on any issue other than Iraq in the coming months. Louise Woodroofe, a schoolteacher from Virginia, said the vows to fix the stumbling economy seemed like window dressing. “We need some sort of plan to create jobs, and get things moving again,” she said. “But it’s clear to me that’s not the biggest issue for the President. He’s going to war with Iraq whether anybody likes it or not.”

Brie Stanners, who waits tables and tends bar in a downtown restaurant, also thinks the economy should be the government’s number 1 priority. “It’s more important for us to be in good shape here than to retali-

ate against somebody on the other side of the world, but the Republicans don’t seem to think that way.” She’s still waiting to be convinced that war with Iraq is a necessity. “A lot of other people have weapons of mass destruction. So why are we going to war now? Why with them? Nobody is explaining that to me.”

Doubts were also being voiced in North Carolina. In the Fayetteville cemetery, where generations of America’s soldiers have found their final resting place, Mavis Solomon and her mother Odie were paying their respects to the departed. Her son is already serving in Afghanistan, and the potential for war with Iraq is weighing heavy on Solomon’s mind. “Really, I just pray about it and try to leave it in God’s hands,” she said, surveying the red, white and blue flags that sprout from so many of the tombstones. “I don’t want him to pay the price, but I know that if this is like Vietnam, there will be plenty of that.” I?il

jgatehouse@macleans.ca