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
we were Australian, as she was planning to visit Australia later this year.
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,
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,
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
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
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.