The polls tell us that 56% of Americans want us out of Iraq within a year and 47% want us to begin leaving at once. There is no doubt that the war in Iraq is very unpopular with Americans, but the breadth and depth of that sentiment is not discussed often enough. And I suspect that the degree to which the war has “touched” the lives of Americans is underestimated.
I found confirmation of what the polls tell us in traveling to Fayetteville, North Carolina, for the aniti-war demonstration at Fort Bragg which I am told is the largest military base in the world and the point of departure for many troops going to Iraq. On Friday evening while waiting for the plane to depart Providence, RI, I fell into a conversation with a guy at the airport bar. When I told him where I was going and why, he wished me well. Turns out his son was part of the Guard sent to Iraq and upon his discharge, he decided to return as a highly paid “security” guard (aka mercenary) to help finance a marriage and family. His father was visibly distraught at this, and we commiserated that a few extra dollars in your pocket are nothing if you have lost a part of your head or worse. He wished me well.
On the plane the woman sitting next to me was a Berkley student and a young Republican returning to visit her family in Fayetteville on Spring break. Her mom is an Army pediatrician about to return to Iraq for her third tour of duty. This student was the sole disappointment in all my conversations over the weekend. She seemed to care little about the dangers her mom would encounter and was only interested in my advice on how she could get into medical school. (I gave none.)
At the hotel in Fayetteville I stopped for a beer late that night and two guys sat down next to me, both in their twenties. One of them had on a row of peace buttons; my favorite among them was “Fight wars not war.” To my surprise, they were not demonstrators but GIs in civies hanging out. They both had gone to college and both enlisted for financial reasons. Neither agreed with the war but both felt they had to go. Sad.
The next morning I had breakfast at a coffee bar in downtown Fayetteville and picked up the local paper. There on the front page was a very sympathetic account of the plans for the demonstration along with instructions on how to get to the march and rally that day. The reporter did not even bother to mention the idea that somehow we were antagonistic to the troops, a fear that led of Paul Reikof of Operation Truth to oppose this demonstration. On Sunday another sympathetic report appeared in the paper post march. I suspect that this favorable reportage was due to the work of the North Carolina anti-war activists over two years. So it can be done.
There was no editorial comment in the paper on the demonstration, but there on the op-ed page was a pro-war opinion piece by Charles Krauthammer. To me it was revealing that the only pro-war sentiment I found in the paper was not home grown but sent from afar, from Washington, DC, where Krauthammer is a columnist for the rabidly pro-war Washington Post. It is quite amazing that these ideologues penetrate so far into local media where they tell Americans far and wide what to think. The rant by Krauthammer was barely coherent that day; he is a very bitter, old neo-con, brimming to overflow with hatred. In his bilious tirad of the day he was praising the wisdom of the down to earth American as opposed to the effete European and American intellectuals. He must be very unsettled as he comes to realize that grass roots America is ever more hostile to the idea of waging war and sacrificing live to make the world safe for Oil and the Likud.
The demonstration was conventional as these things go, with several thousand participants. The speakers who had lost loved ones in Iraq were especially moving. There was even one lone Democrat, Lynn Woolsey, who said she came because she was invited by military families and spoke very briefly, somewhat timidly and not very optimistically about her efforts to get more Democrats than the present 41 (and 2 Republicans) in Congress to sign on to the idea of immediate withdrawal from Iraq. But her mere presence may well signal a concern on the part of the Dems that their pro-war stance is eroding their base, as well it should.
The usual suspects had tables and banners, but there was also a table with a number of Libertarians who are passionately opposed to the war and eager to discuss their ideas with the Left. In fact in the most recent LA Times poll more Libertarians and Independents than Democrats called for the U.S. to get out of Iraq right away! Here is an alliance waiting to be born.
There were only a handful of counterdemonstrators, partly, I suspect, because there is little support for the war and partly because the Republicans and Democrats want as little attention as possible drawn to the war on its second anniversary. They prefer a news focus on steroids in baseball or the feeding tube of Terry Schiavo on this anniversary weekend. For the same reasons the police presence was massive and polite if a bit wary.
But this demonstration like hundreds around the country gives cause for optimism. The pro-war ice is kept in place only by the two war parties and it is beginning to crack.
And, no, I did not run into Christopher Hitchens in any of the bistros.
JOHN WALSH can be reached at email@example.com.