The War, Patriotism, etc

 

Australians often ask us what the ordinary American really thinks of the war in Iraq.

It’s hard to get a sense of how the people in general feel about the war - you can't have

an in-depth political discussion with everyone you meet casually.  However, we have

certainly spoken to some who were very cynical about Bush's conduct of the war and

openly opposed to his administration.  It seems clear that the country is very much

divided over the war.


On a swamp tour near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, we met a woman who was interested

that we were Australian, as she was planning to visit Australia later this year. Totally
unsolicited, she said something like 'I'm so pleased you've come to visit us, despite

our horrible President'.  Later, in Washington DC a cab driver told us, again totally

unsolicited, that he thought Bush should be tried for war crimes.

 

We had a few drinks in Memphis with some college students who were there for the

annual 'Memphis in May' music festival.  They were from Arkansas and I think a few

from Kansas also.  Some of them asked us what we thought of the war – we replied

that in our view they should probably have concentrated on Al-Qaeda rather than going

into Iraq at that time.  They accepted this, and were very sceptical of Bush's motives.

 

Just reading the letters to the papers and listening to the radio it’s clear that opinions

are very polarized.  We were there when the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal hit

the media, and it was interesting to see up close how this was reported and the reactions

of Americans to it.  USA Today (the only national newspaper) covered it in great detail

every day when the story broke, and it was also covered, complete with pictures, on

the popular '60 Minutes', which is what really caused the issue to take off.

 

I think it’s fair to say most Americans seem outraged and very upset to have these

abuses done in their name.  Many letters to the editor we read (mainly the Orlando

Sentinel and USA Today) are along these lines.  On the other hand you do get the more

gung-ho Americans also writing to the papers, and also the right-wing columnists.

While they accept that what has occurred is disgusting, they say things like 'why are

America and the world not equally outraged when the Iraqi insurgents are daily killing

the people sent there to liberate and help them?'  I see from the internet that some

letter writers to the Sydney Morning Herald at home express similar views.

 

A few days ago (early May, 2004) USA Today ran on the front page a detailed article

on the results of opinion polling conducted in Iraq.  There were about 20 questions

asked – long story short the bottom line was that the Iraqi people are glad America

got rid of Saddam but overwhelmingly want them to leave ASAP, regardless of the

chaos that may well ensue.  Given that many foreigners think the American media are

overwhelmingly supportive of the Bush Administration’s actions, it’s interesting

that a very mainstream, middlebrow paper would give the reader an unvarnished

and presumably very disheartening view of the feeling in Iraq.

 

While driving along, we listen to all sorts of radio stations.  Apart from the music

stations, we tune into everything from NPR (National Public Radio – a bit like the

ABC at home) to the right-wing ‘shock-jocks’ who dominate the radio talk shows here,

much as they do at home.

A few times we saw protests against the war - one in Venice, California.  In some places

we went (The Mall in DC, New York City, Cape Cod, Venice Beach and many others)

there were lots of anti-Bush T-shirts, stickers and other paraphernalia on sale.  At the

same time, it is clear that many support the President, and you do see stickers such

as ‘Pray for W’ on cars as you drive along the highways and byways.  It is

expected that the presidential election in November will be very close.  


Nobody we have discussed it with knows that Australia is also involved.  When I asked

one of the students we had a few drinks with in Memphis whether he was aware that

we were also in Iraq, he actually asked me 'on which side'!!  They generally know

Tony Blair is with them, but there’s very little public recognition of our role (admittedly,

a fairly small role – a few hundred troops, I think).

Everywhere, but especially in the South, you see bumper stickers along the lines of

'We support our troops', 'United we Stand', 'Power of Pride', 'Proud to be American',

‘These Colors Don’t Run’ and similar patriotic slogans.  In small towns you will often

see rows of flags flying from each lamp-post along the main street.  The military these

days is largely manned and officered by Southerners, and many units are based here.

So, you will see banners such as '(insert name of town here) supports the 509th Infantry

Regiment'.

 

Driving into small towns in the south, you sometimes see photos of soldiers framed and

attached to telephone poles. I am not sure whether these are guys who have been killed

over there or just hometown boys who are serving.  It is not uncommon to see the flag

being flown on a little mast that attaches to your car window.  I don't know how much

of this is a response to 9/11 – The American people have always been known for their

patriotism and for flying the flag, but I suspect all of this would have been much less
prominent prior to 9/11.

 

Apart from the bumper stickers and flags flown from cars, the Stars and Stripes can

be seen everywhere – much more so than our flag would be flown in Australia.  You

see huge US flags flying from shopping malls, car dealers, clusters of motels etc as

you drive along the highways.