COLUMN ONE : Feeling on Top of the World : The prevailing sentiment across the country is that the nation showed its greatness in standing up to Saddam Hussein. But some still doubt whether war was necessary or wise.
And so the war had come to this, few Americans killed, the enemy turned tail, the “mother of all battles” no more than a shrinking violet easily plowed under.
Wednesday, exactly six weeks after the fighting began, people across the nation took stock of what had occurred and by and large felt darned good about it.
“I tell you, at school we say the pledge of allegiance every day, but those kids lately, they say it like they mean it,” said Vernon Paul, high school principal in the tiny West Texas town of Seminole.
Frances Trigo, a bookkeeper in Costa Mesa, pounded her hand down on a table as if a platoon of Iraqi soldiers were scattering underneath. “They know we mean business now,” she said.
Sea to shining sea, the prevailing sentiment was much the same: Hooray for us! We kicked butt! America the Great! We take no guff from no one no more no how.
And what of George Bush? Certainly, the tag “wimp” has been swept over by the desert sand. Now the President is spoken of as something of a John Wayne with an Ivy League diploma.
“When (Bush) ran for office, I wasn’t for him; I always thought he was weak,” said Mary Baldimar, owner of a small flower shop in Honolulu. She thought his wife was the tougher of the two. Now that makes her chuckle.
Bush really stood up to the Butcher of Baghdad, she said: “And he didn’t let anyone else push him around either, not even Congress.”
This week, the images being imprinted in the American psyche seem largely ones of a gutsy, resourceful nation. America is no longer the aging slugger who can’t get the bat around on a fast ball. It is a lithe warrior and a cunning strategist and a heroic liberator.
Of course, that is not everyone’s view. To some, the new world order has merely turned out to be as murderous as the old. And America is arrogant and foolhardy and selfish.
There is a lot of sorting out to do.
This is a window into some of that sorting, a view that changes, person to person, room to room, city to city.
Richard Hull, 42, raises hogs in Graham, Tex. His face looks kind and gentle beneath his cowboy hat. He said he was surprised the war had gone as well as it did:
“I thought they would put up a better fight. He (Hussein) had us bluffed pretty good, had us thinking he was stouter than he really was. I am not an advocate of war. But with this experience, it just shows you that some people don’t understand any other language but force . . .
“We have a great country, and this situation just reminded everyone how great America is. They woke up a sleeping giant. It makes me feel real great.”
Hull was attending a livestock show in Houston. So was Diana Blount, a thin, deeply tanned woman from Olton, Tex. She had brought her son to the big city to enter his pigs in competition.
“George Bush showed he was stronger than anyone thought he was,” she said. “I didn’t vote for him, but I’m for him now. He didn’t back down; he showed he had a spine.”
To many, the war has erased a generation of lingering hurt, as if the newsreel footage from the war in the Gulf has been recorded over that of the war in Vietnam.
“After Vietnam, we’ve now regained our credibility,” said Pat Martinez of Irvine. “We looked namby-pamby before, (but) now we went in decisively.”
She was out window-shopping at Orange County’s posh South Coast Plaza with her two little boys and a friend, Christie Anderson. The two women agreed in their approval.
“With all the air bombing, (the Iraqis) didn’t stand a chance,” Anderson said pridefully. “It was an excellent plan.”
Others were more analytical. Some stressed that Saddam’s actions during the war forever settled the question of whether economic sanctions would have driven him from Kuwait.
“It would have just dragged on interminably,” said Dick Kornbluth, a retired businessman visiting Denver from his home in Vestal, N.Y. “Even now in Baghdad you see photos of plentiful food supplies . . .
“We have an aggressive dictator brought to heel, with no colonial aspirations on the part of the coalition. It sets a precedent. Others in the world with aspirations similar to Saddam Hussein will think twice before they undertake such a venture.”
Yet amid this praising hum remains a residue of doubt. Was America right to fight? Will the war leave much of the Arab world thirsty for vengeance?
Terry Yackley, 35, a county sheriff, is not so impressed at the U.S. military success. He was taking a break from lifting weights in a downtown Detroit health club. The war was a mismatch, he said. Who boasts of beating up a lesser?
“I think Bush is going a little too far,” he said. “He’s trying to humiliate Saddam Hussein now. It’s like the bully picking on the little kid. He’s got him beat up and now he wants to make him say ‘uncle.’ ”
In the last few months, Yackley has learned some disturbing things: “I heard on a radio news show that we sold him weapons, and our ambassador told him he could do whatever he wanted with Kuwait. That kind of bothered me. If we had nothing to do with Iraq and we went in to defend Kuwait, that would be one thing. But when we’re involved in this under-the-table-type-thing, I don’t know. I’m kind of disillusioned.”
Ovester Pennington lives in Detroit. He is a construction worker. During his lunch break, he said it was hard to take much pride in a military victory when so many problems at home are neglected.
“The war is a cover-up,” he said. “It’s taking attention away from what’s really going on in America. The economy is a mess, race relations are terrible. The war is keeping our minds off how bad things really are . . .
“I’m not going to clap my hands and make American soldiers no heroic welcome. For what? There’s no heroics in this. The bully jumped on the little guy, and now we’re pretending to be heroes.”
Lisa Horvath Blume, 25, works in the development office of the Denver Art Museum. “I’m glad it’s over, but I’m worried that the Arabs are going to feel they’ve been humiliated and will retaliate,” she said. “Face is very important in the Arab culture.”
Besides, to her, U.S. policies seem oddly inconsistent. “If (the war) was against aggression toward an unarmed nation, why didn’t we take similar actions to help the people in (China’s) Tian An Men Square?”
Leo Lott, 71, lives in Missoula, Mont. He is a retired political science professor at the state university there. He sees only alarm in America’s fast cruise to victory.
“We’re a rotten, spoiled country,” he said. “We regard it as a right to consume whatever resources we want at whatever price we want to pay.”
It was a chilly Tuesday evening at UC Irvine. Hundreds of students headed for a night of watching basketball at the new Bren Center on campus.
But physics graduate student Karl Yee stood outside, bundled in a red-and-blue scarf. He was virtually alone. He swept leaves off the concrete floor of an anti-war “tent city.” It had been home for him and about a dozen other students for the last two weeks.
“To tell you the truth, I had this dream when we started about having 50 or so tents lined up the hill,” Yee said. “I think the peace movement really got its butt kicked this time.
“The point we tried to make is there are practical alternatives to war. But our problem was that Hussein was just not a very nice guy. In a lot of people’s minds, being pro-peace is the same as being pro-Hussein.”
He went back to sweeping leaves.
Things were much the same in Seattle, at the University of Washington. Business student Matt Frank, 21, was wearing his sunglasses as he walked across the campus. “The guidelines were to win decisively, with as little loss of human life as possible,” he said approvingly. “And I think we’ve done that.”
James Daab, 57, works in a waste water treatment plant in Phoenix. Wednesday, he did his grocery shopping wearing a yellow ribbon affixed to his Dallas Cowboys cap. He flies the flag at home.
“I definitely support Bush,” he said. “I’m proud of him. I’m proud of all the countries who joined with us, too.”
Like many in Ventura County, Yosh Suyama, 49, of Oxnard, has carried a flag on his car ever since the war started. But this week, the ex-Army soldier breathed a sigh of relief.
“I knew we were going to win,” he said as he sat on a bench at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks. “We had too much technology on our side.”
Tony Moutsoulas, 33, owns a Greek restaurant along a busy roadway in Lynn, Mass. He came to this country from Greece in 1966 at the age of 9. He considers himself a great patriot.
“There’s just one good lesson we’ve given the rest of the world: that nobody can fool around with the United States,” he said, relaxing at one of his tables. “You just can’t push us around, here, there or anywhere in the world.”
Pat Condon, a Miami truck driver, backed his 18-wheeler up to the loading dock of a supermarket. There were frozen foods to unload. But his thoughts only pulsed with news of a military victory. He described his feelings as plain as he could.
“I think we’re bad ass,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will mess with us after this.”
Contributing to this story were staffers Lianne Hart, Ann Rovin, Amy Harmon, Doug Conner, Anna M. Virtue, Edith Stanley, Eric Lichtblau and Psyche Pascual as well as free-lance contributors Mike Clary, Dan Baum, Laura Laughlin, John Laidler and Susan Essoyan.