[Mb-civic] Anguish in the Heartland ChiTribune
michael at michaelbutler.com
Sat Sep 25 12:14:14 PDT 2004
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Anguish over Iraq War Resonates in Missouri
By Tim Jones
Friday 24 September 2004
Carroll Meierer was all for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. "We had to do
something," she said.
But 18 months of war and more than 1,000 American fatalities later, the
resolution she felt about Hussein has turned to grim resignation about the
state of the war.
"We could stay there forever and it wouldn't be any different," she said
at the little red fruit stand she runs on the edge of Lexington, about 30
miles east of Kansas City.
Meierer, who grew up in a military family, is losing patience with the
war. Her 20-year-old son, Justin, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps, is
likely headed to Iraq early next year.
"He's my baby boy and he's my best friend," she said. "I want this war
over and I want it over NOW."
In Missouri, the debates over Iraq and the fight against terrorism have
lost much of the moral and patriotic clarity that defined last year's march
to Baghdad. American flags hanging from houses aren't as plentiful. Neither
are yard signs that say, "Support our troops."
As prospects for Iraq's political stability seem to fade, frustration,
anger, cynicism and bewilderment have seeped into arguments about the war,
fueled by reminders that--for some--have become incendiary: Weapons of mass
destruction. "Mission Accomplished." "Bring 'em on." Osama bin Laden.
In Missouri, a key battleground state that mirrors much of the nation
demographically and has the uncanny knack of picking presidential winners,
President Bush is leading Sen. John Kerry in the most recent public opinion
polls. Kerry, to the surprise of the Bush campaign, even pulled back his
television advertising in the state.
Yet the poll numbers and campaign stratagems do not reflect the roiling
mix of often anguished feelings about Iraq. Voters--even those who supported
the war--are in turmoil over the purpose of the conflict, whether it is part
of the war on terror, whether it is winnable anytime soon and whether it has
made America safer.
"I don't know how it's our responsibility to fix Iraq when we can't even
handle things here," Meierer said.
The war became the dominant theme in the presidential campaign this week,
with the election a little more than five weeks away. And it is likely to be
Topic A in the first debate between Bush and Kerry next Thursday in Florida.
It was nearly six decades ago that Winston Churchill delivered his famous
"Iron Curtain" speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. But this April,
that small college was the setting for some of the campaign's earliest
partisan sniping over security.
Vice President Dick Cheney set the tone when he questioned Kerry's fitness
to be president in such difficult times. "The senator from Massachusetts has
given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and the attitude he brings to
bear on vital issues of national security," Cheney said.
On Monday, Kerry warned that if Bush is re-elected, he will "repeat . . .
the same reckless mistakes that have made America less secure than we can or
Not since citizens in coastal communities turned off their lights and
patrolled shorelines more than 60 years ago to watch for German and Japanese
submarines have voters been so emotionally focused on security within their
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks created tremendous insecurity for Americans
and instilled national unity against terrorism. Now Bush argues vociferously
that Iraq is part of the war on terrorism. Kerry says they are not only
separate, but that Bush's prosecution of the war has been a disaster and has
drained resources from the fight on terror, making the nation less safe.
Bush and Kerry rely mainly on generalities about how they will make us
safer. And they don't say when or how the war will be concluded.
In the absence of specific answers, fear of one sort or another--what
might happen in Iraq or another country, what might happen at some
unsuspecting location in the United States, even in middle America--has
On Sept. 7, the same day Bush declared in the Kansas City suburb of Lee's
Summit that "America and the world are safer" as a result of removing
Hussein from power, Cheney told Republicans at a fundraiser in Des Moines
that there's a greater danger of another domestic terrorist attack if
Americans elect Kerry.
Cheney's remark has prompted Rev. Robert Hill, pastor of the Community
Christian Church in Kansas City, to prepare a sermon for this Sunday on the
"politics of fear."
"These are the tactics of fear-mongering, and they are absolutely
despicable," Hill said.
Bush, who won the state by about 3.5 percentage points in 2000, has
visited Missouri nine times this year, while Kerry has campaigned here 12
times since March. Recent polls have shown Bush extending his lead in the
state. But Missourians remain split on the war, suggesting that they are not
necessarily assigning blame to the president.
"We should have gone over there and flattened the country," said Diane
Wolf, a florist in the St. Louis suburb of Pagedale, speaking of
Afghanistan, Iraq or "whoever did 9/11."
But Meierer, who blames Bush for the situation in Iraq, said, "These guys
shouldn't be over there."
The war in Iraq and the battle against terrorism are "totally separate,"
Nona Sanders, a travel agent in St. Joseph, disagreed, saying, "Iraq and
terrorism are connected, and we can't just quit."
Criticism of the war and Bush are not right and should not be publicized,
Hogwash, said Albert Vandendaele, a retired farmer from North Kansas City.
"Now if anybody speaks out against it, you're unpatriotic," he said. "I have
a yellow ribbon on my truck. I support the troops. Who doesn't? But does
that mean you've got to support Bush also? No. No."
While there is no agreement on either the claim of safety or the charge
from Cheney, there is plenty of anguish in Missouri about the war--what it
has accomplished, where it is headed and whether it has made America safer.
"A lot of people just don't know, they don't have a solid opinion," said
Rep. Ike Skelton (news, bio, voting record), a staunch supporter of the
Pentagon and the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Skelton, who has represented the increasingly Republican 4th congressional
district in western Missouri since 1977, said, "A lot of people are just
asking questions. I think there is deep concern."
What people think about the war here could prove important in November. In
many ways Missouri is an amalgam of America--an uneasy confluence of urban
and rural, North and South.
Veterans make up 14 percent of Missouri's adult population, the highest
state percentage in the Midwest and two points higher than the national
average. And western Missouri is steeped in military history. It was the
Missouri theater of the bloody battleground with Kansas over slavery.
William Quantrill, the guerrilla fighter, terrorized the region.
The southern part of Skelton's congressional district is home to Ft.
Leonard Wood, a key Army training facility, and Whiteman Air Force Base, the
launchpad for B-2s flying bombing missions to Afghanistan. In Independence,
production has been cranked up at the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, the
military's largest producer of small-arms ammunition. The plant is operating
at near full capacity, on track to manufacture 1.2 billion rounds this year,
its highest output since the Vietnam War, and a clear measure of the
intensity of the conflict in Iraq.
Skelton is part of the region's military heritage. The Skelton family has
two children on military active duty.
But Skelton, now 72, has long had doubts about the war. In a letter to the
White House in September 2002, when Congress was considering Bush's request
to authorize military action in Iraq, Skelton said, "I have no doubt that
our military would decisively defeat Iraq's forces and remove Saddam. But
like the proverbial dog chasing the car down the road, we must consider what
we would do after we caught it."
Those kinds of questions are a daily concern in tiny Missouri City, where
two homes in particular, one on Walnut Street and the other on Main, bear
yellow ribbons and American flags, public reminders that children who once
lived here are far away and too close to danger.
The war in Iraq has put the mayor and school superintendent into separate
camps. Ray Lynn, mayor of this town of 295, has a son, Jeremy, stationed in
Tikrit, Iraq, Hussein's hometown. Mayor Lynn is steadfast: Going to war was
the right thing to do.
Jay Jackson, the school superintendent--and bus driver--in this
one-building district of 41 students, has two sons in the Army. Aaron is in
Kuwait and Miles returned from Iraq in May. Jay Jackson is adamant: The war
is a huge blunder.
'The Pain is Just Too Great'
Their homes sport the flags and the ribbons, and the men endure the
well-meaning remarks of friends who tell them, "We're praying for your son."
Neither man served in the military himself. Lynn, an autoworker, chafes at
criticism he hears from co-workers about Bush and the war. Jackson is
discreet about airing his views. When the two get together, as they do in
the front yard of the Civil War-era house that Jackson is restoring, their
friendship and delicate diplomacy govern the relationship.
"We talk about our boys, how they're doing," Jackson said. "We don't talk
about the war, the policy and the conduct of it. The pain is just too
In the privacy of living rooms, though, the divisions come out. Lynn sits
near a color photo of son Jeremy, daughter Heather and their spouses. All
four are wearing dress green Army uniforms. Attacking Iraq "definitely
needed to be done" because Hussein was a "player in terror" and represented
a threat to the U.S., Lynn said.
Lynn is convinced there are weapons of mass destruction. He is sure they
will be found and the decision to go after Hussein will be vindicated
"I have to trust that George Bush is doing the right thing. He is a godly
man," said Lynn's wife, Wanda, sitting in a rocker with an American flag
comforter. "We're all praying, and it's real hard."
War protests, especially those involving entertainers, push her over the
"They make me angry as hell. They obviously don't have a child in the
military. It sickens me," she said. "I just wish Hollywood would drop off
the face of the Earth. They're tearing down the morale of our children."
The Lynns believe the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism are one
and the same. They believe the job should be finished. They will vote for
The Lynns also agree with Cheney and his charge that America would be more
vulnerable under Kerry.
"Kerry wants to make us a sitting duck, and we'll be sitting ducks," Wanda
Barely a mile down the road at Jay Jackson's home, which is part Civil War
shrine with battle jackets and 30 handmade Confederate caps, the view is
starkly different. To Jackson, the ducks are already lined up in Iraq and
are getting picked off every day.
"We've created a new theater of operations for the terrorists," Jackson
said in his kitchen overlooking the Missouri River.
"I just keep thinking about the Missouri-Kansas border war and how smaller
guerrilla forces repeatedly terrorized much larger ones. For me it's a
dilemma so easy to see," he said. "We're in a guerrilla war, we're in a
jihad, and I think both candidates need to acknowledge that."
A Soldier's View
Miles Jackson, an Army sergeant and paratrooper who returned in May after
five months in Baghdad and eight months in Afghanistan, said the U.S. should
have focused on Afghanistan and finished the job there before moving on.
"You should have seen us on Sept. 11. We were ready to go. American
soldiers still feel that way about the terrorists. . . . It was a political
thing to slide attention over to Iraq," Miles Jackson said, sitting with his
father at the kitchen table. Invading Iraq should have waited, he added,
until it was clear the country presented a threat to the U.S.
Miles Jackson said he doesn't believe that electing Kerry will jeopardize
the nation's security. "It's ridiculous to say that we're more threatened or
vulnerable by putting someone else in," he said. "They'll find a way, no
matter who's in office."
Jackson said he doesn't believe there is anyone who doesn't support the
troops. He is troubled, though, by anti-war demonstrations. "If you get them
[soldiers] believing that what they are doing is wrong, it hurts morale," he
His father disagrees, albeit gently. "The only reason we got out of
Vietnam was because of the protesters. . . . A voice against the war is not
a voice against the military," Jay Jackson insisted.
There is no neat or quick fix in Iraq and little likelihood of winning the
hearts and minds of Iraqis, both said. Miles Jackson, who is on inactive
reserve and hopes to return to the Army after attending college, said as
long as Americans are in Iraq, "there will be problems. No matter what time
limit you put on this, there is no end."
"I don't believe most Americans understand how hard this is," he added. "A
lot of people think this is just cut and dried."
Bush repeatedly talks about how Iraq is on the road to democracy. But
Kerry warned Monday that "if we do not change course, there is the prospect
of a war with no end in sight."
To Pat McElroy this looks and sounds like Vietnam. McElroy, an Army
veteran who served in Vietnam from February 1969 to February 1970,
criticizes the political and public attitudes toward the war.
"You have all these people saying 'Yeah, we're the United States, let's go
over there and kick some ass, we're not gonna let them push us around.' But
when it comes to sending their kids over to fight, they all say they
wouldn't let their kids go," McElroy said. "They're happy to hold your coat
while you send yours."
He was speaking to a sentiment in Missouri, and elsewhere, that the
absence of a draft has enabled most people to back the war without bearing a
"If you had a draft there would be a huge change in attitude," said
McElroy, who is a battalion chief in the North Kansas City Fire Department.
McElroy says a Vietnam-era draft would never fly politically, and that has
created a situation where "somebody else's kids" are fighting the war.
McElroy has a son, Brandon, who is an Army Ranger. He completed tours of
duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A Change of Attitude
"If you have a chance of getting your arms and legs blown off, it changes
the whole attitude. Everybody has to have a stake in this," said the father.
Seventeen Missouri soldiers have been killed since the war began in March
"Now if you speak out against the war, you're unpatriotic," McElroy said.
"I'm afraid this is Vietnam all over again."
Even among those who supported the war and continue to support it,
frustration is building.
Louis George, who runs an army surplus store in Lexington, said the U.S.
was right to go in and remove Hussein. But the situation in Iraq "is not
going to get stabilized. You can put a democracy in there, but it won't
last," he said.
George, who served in the Army from 1975 through 1988 and has an
autographed photo of Bush behind his store counter, said he will vote for
Bush, but he also said the strategy in Iraq has to change. "When you fight a
war against terrorism, you cut off the head of the snake, and then ask
More than 890 American soldiers have died since Bush declared in May 2003
that "major combat" in Iraq had ended.
Rex Jones, a city employee in St. Joseph, said rising fatalities are the
price Americans will have to pay for safety.
In Smithville, which was the hometown of Missouri's first fatality in the
Iraq war--Marine Sgt. Nicolas Hodson, who died March 22, 2003, in a vehicle
accident--Richard Pendleton talked about his early support of the war.
Hussein was a threat who needed to be dealt with, he said.
"They needed to go over there, but they should have handled it
differently. They should have disarmed everyone after they moved in.
Instead, now we've got civilians running up and down the street with grenade
launchers. That doesn't work," said Pendleton, who is supporting Kerry.
The bar on Main Street sports bumper stickers that read "Semper Fi" and
"Osama Yo Mama." All across town opinions about Iraq are plentiful as the
conflict drags on.
Mardy Lyle, a retired beautician from Smithville, invokes the name of
Harry Truman, the nation's 33rd president and the only one from Missouri.
"Every once in a while I look up and say 'Harry, come back, we need you.'"
Time has helped burnish Truman's image and smooth over the fact that the
Korean War, which began on his watch, helped drive him from office.
Talking on the day U.S. fatalities in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark earlier
this month, Denise Messick said she is not impatient with Bush. "He had to
go in," said Messick, who runs a candle and craft shop on Main Street in
Smithville. When asked whether she feels safer since the capture of Hussein,
she paused and said, "That's a good question." Then she said "no," adding:
"I don't think any of us feel safe after 9/11."
'Who am I to Judge'
Messick and her husband have two sons in the Navy--one stationed in
California, the other in Washington. She doesn't want either one to go to
Iraq, but if they do she says she'll understand. "It's real easy for us to
second-hand quarterback what they did. I personally would like to see a
withdrawal starting, but who am I to judge?" she said.
Skelton, for one, is willing to judge.
"The truth of the matter is there are two wars. The real war is the war
against the terrorists in Afghanistan. . . . Afghanistan has not gotten the
attention it should have," Skelton said. "If it had, we would have bin
Laden, and if not him then his forces where they couldn't breed around the
"I have given a number of speeches around Missouri, and most of the time
people don't disagree," he said.
Meierer hasn't heard any of those speeches. She's not inclined to listen
much to politicians. She doesn't trust Kerry, and Bush, she said, did
exactly what she feared he would do--take the country to war. That's why she
didn't vote for him four years ago. The only person who impresses her is
John Edwards, Kerry's running mate.
Meierer describes herself as a political independent and undecided. "I
can't rely on either one of them," she said of Bush and Kerry.
The Meierer family is part of the Missouri military tradition. Her uncle
was killed in Vietnam. Her husband has 12 brothers and sisters, and all of
them, including her husband, served in the military.
"My son didn't know what he wanted. I was hesitant when Justin enlisted,
but I thought it would be a good opportunity for him," she said. "Now I
worry about car bombings and 'silly things' as much as I do combat."
"I've had it with Iraq," she added. "It's time for us to take care of
people here in the United States."
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