Two weeks before Christmas 1990, we received a duffel bag in the mail. Thirty-two pounds of dirty civilian clothes and freshly-creased never-worn Class A uniforms, cassette tapes, souvenirs from Japan, about five dollars in pennies, a combat helmet–and a set of dog-tags.
Only a week earlier, we had learned that our son, a Marine stationed in Okinawa in an artillery battalion, would be going to the Persian Gulf. Like almost all troops about to be put into “harm’s way,” he had sent home his personal possessions. During the three years he had been in the Marines, he occasionally sent home boxes when he was transferred. But never before had he sent home his duffel bag with neatly-pressed regulation dress uniforms and his dog tags. It was then we knew he would be going into combat.
That previous summer we had became active in a fledgling anti-war movement–and also became leaders for a military support group in northeastern Pennsylvania. We carefully distinguished between our support for the troops and our loathing for the politicians who were leading our country into war that seemed to be fought because a President and Congress were greased by the nation’s oil industry. Tuesday night, January 15–Martin Luther King’s birthday, the day of the U.N. deadline, and what would prove to be the day before the war began–we helped organize the county’s first Peace Vigil. About a hundred of us, candles lit against a moonless sky, surrounded by news media, stood in front of the court house of a rural northeast Pennsylvania county of 65,000, talked about war and hoped for peace. We talked about Kuwaitis in comfortable exile in Cairo and London encouraging America’s involvement, while our children, spouses, parents, and friends were in an oil-covered desert preparing to “liberate” their country. We talked about the necessity of our country to defend itself, but we questioned how defending Exxon or invading dictatorships to protect other dictatorships or indulging jingoistic politicians was protecting us.
In the early days of the air war, when the “coalition” force was wreaking so much destruction from aerial attacks, and while the news media seemed to believe everything the government and military told them, Americans sat transfixed to the bombardment of Prime Time Desert Storm, overwhelmingly cheering the war, proud that we were “whipping Saddam’s ass.” It was a good feeling, a patriotic feeling, knowing that our technologically-adept military was doing everything right. Only later did we add “collateral damage” to our vocabularies and learn that the Patriot missiles were only about one-third effective.
While most were planning for a lightning six day air war, some of us cautioned that this war would never be won, that it could easily be as long as the Vietnam War, with just as many casualties. Nevertheless, at least in this war, the military could prove its capabilities, unlike in Vietnam when all the king’s men had to fight not only those whom politicians called our enemy, but our politicians as well. A quarter century earlier, for almost a decade, we had been active in a swirling protest against war; we shouldn’t have had to do this again. Americans should have learned better. But we hadn’t. We destroyed buildings. We killed people. We had the superior statistics of war. But we didn’t defeat Iraq.
A dozen years later, the “Butcher of Baghdad” is still in power and more popular than ever. And in America, a jingoistic president, the of-shoot of a former president, is consumed by incestuous business interests and bent on diverting public attention from the economy and myriad domestic issues. Unable to destroy terrorism in Afghanistan or to find a 6-foot-5 inch terrorist who is on dialysis and living in caves, he now wants Americans to invade Iraq and destroy that nation and its resilient dictator to complete his father’s unfinished crusade.
In the past year, we have learned that our government has much in common with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, our coalition partners at the time and our current allies-of-the-month. We have learned that our three governments have an overwhelming desire to restrict free speech and a free press, have instituted new “rules” to pare away our civil rights, have made up regulations that put fear into our hearts for exercising our rights of assembly, and have determined that holding citizens indefinitely without any charges being filed is justified either to protect national security or to cover up their own ineptitude.
We have learned that although most of the terrorists who painted a target upon America lived in, were trained in, and protected in Saudi Arabia. But, we won’t do anything against that nation which still has one of the largest oil industries in the world.
We have listened to a President who saw no hostile fire while in the Texas National Guard, encouraged by a vice-president and secretary of defense who never served in the military, tell us Iraq is on the verge of making nuclear weapons, that it is harboring terrorists, that it needs to be destroyed. But we haven’t listened to Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who says there is “absolutely no evidence” that Iraq has any intention or capability of making nuclear weapons. We haven’t listened to Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the former National Security Advisor, who says “there is scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the Sept. 11 attacks.” We haven’t listened to Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), the House majority leader, who says the U.S. has no justification in making an unprovoked attack upon Iraq. We haven’t listened to Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War and current secretary of state, who opposes military intervention. We haven’t listened to James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger, secretaries of state who served under the current president’s father, who question the wisdom of attacking Iraq. We haven’t listened to Henry Kissinger, a former national security advisor and secretary of state, who argues that “military intervention in Iraq would be supported grudgingly, if at all, by most European allies.”
In our dining room more than 12 years ago sat a duffel bag. But it wasn’t the duffel bag that caused us to cry for all our sons and daughters; it was a postal tag on the duffel bag that told us about our government. It cost our son, a Marine lance corporal who could lose his life in a country he barely even knew existed, $24.89, almost a day’s pay, to send home the last of his personal possessions. In a multi-billion dollar war effort, the government didn’t even have the compassion to pay our son’s postage.
We need to destroy terrorism. We don’t need more duffel bags returned home. And, most of all, we don’t need to launch an unprovoked attack that will bring home American youth in body bags.
Rosemary Brasch is a labor/worker specialist, and family services specialist for the Red Cross disaster services. Walter Brasch, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, is the author of 13 books; his latest is “The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era” a probing and witty look at the Clinton administration. You may reach the Brasches by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org