Agreeing Only on Hope for the End
The Chevy pickup parked in front of Arturo Rodriguez’s Norwalk home bears a KPFK bumper sticker. In his living room, the radio plays that Pacifica Network station born of the peace movement during World War II. There are interviews with antiwar protesters, talk of a boycott of American products and a discourse on the “illegality of America’s attack” on Iraq.
Fifteen miles away, Tom Barbre sits in the study of his Long Beach home watching “Operation: Iraqi Freedom” on the Fox cable TV network. Against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings and rumbling tanks, an anchorman narrates the action triumphantly: “Our Marines were catching hell from all areas.... Our Marines are ready and able to take it!”
Neither Barbre nor Rodriguez is particularly troubled by what he hears and sees. Both came to grips long ago with their feelings about this war. Now they watch it unfold in ways that reinforce their competing views.
For Barbre, the military action is a righteous response to the threat of terror. “We need to take care of Saddam,” he said. He regards this “not so much as a war, but like a policeman going after a bad guy.”
For Rodriguez, the campaign is an unjust waste of lives and money; a cruel flexing of military muscle that reflects misplaced priorities of a citizenry “conditioned, as a society, to be ignorant ... pacified by the media and Hollywood.”
Both men hope the war ends soon, the soldiers come home and the Iraqis experience liberty. Neither man is out carrying a peace sign or waving the flag. As the conflict enters its second week and the body count grows, they are -- symbolically at least -- hunkering down with their families, seeking comfort inside a cocoon of beliefs that are heartfelt and steadfastly held.
“I think we’re like most people,” said Barbre, 52. “Most people have gotten to the point of, ‘Let’s just take care of it, get it over with, bring the boys back.’
“I think we were all euphoric after the first bombing,” he said. “This week kind of shook everybody back to reality.... The prisoners, the soldiers killed. But we’re in it now, whatever it takes.”
He said it is time to get behind President Bush “and hope he made the right decision.”
Children of Veterans
A barrel-chested, plain-spoken man, Barbre has spent 31 years as a Los Angeles city firefighter, the profession of his father and grandfather. His wife, Shelly, 46, is a professional chef who teaches cooking classes and has spent years volunteering with local charities.
Both are the children of veterans. They live with their 12-year-old daughter Megan in a comfortable corner house in Long Beach’s Belmont Shore, an unpretentious beach community whose main drag attracts an eclectic mix of trendy couples, partying college students and parents pushing strollers to the ice cream shop.
Here, people are hanging out American flags, just as they did after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and conversations about war often include references to the threat of future attacks.
Shelly Barbre supports the war partly because she sees Saddam Hussein as a link in the chain of terrorism. “If we don’t go after him,” she asks, will Los Angeles be next? “Have we forgotten what happened on Sept. 11 -- all those innocent people who died? I put myself in the place of the widows, the wives of the firefighters who lost their lives.”
She is infuriated by those who denounce the war in peace demonstrations. “People who protest the war are cowards,” she said, leaning forward in her chair.
Her husband shook his head and interrupted. “Not cowards, Shelly,” he said softly. To him, the marchers don’t matter anymore: “The protesters are irrelevant right now.”
She didn’t waver. “Yes, Tom, cowards. Cowards!” Her voice rose. “They’re the children of the parents who were out protesting the Vietnam War.”
Shelly Barbre’s father came here from Mexico, fought with the Air Force in the Korean War, then owned an auto upholstery shop in Lynwood. “He was so proud of being an American -- we couldn’t even speak Spanish in our home,” Shelly said. “He stressed learning English. This was our country.... Be proud to be an American.”
She knows that the escalation in fighting this week may shake the convictions of some, but she remains confident that her country is right. “It’s hard to see it in the light of the bombings, the ... POWs and everything else. But you have to keep in the back of your mind that it’s a good thing for the Iraqi people to get rid of that mad man.... Once we get over this hump, I think they’ll see that.”
Arturo and Lisa Rodriguez see that “hump” differently.
“People thought it would be so fast and easy,” said Arturo Rodriguez, standing in the living room of his tiny Norwalk home, swinging his baby son in his arms. “Now Marines are dying. People don’t want to think about that, but it’s becoming hard to avoid. When we see what war really means, that’s death, and that’s going to make a lot of people sick.”
He and his wife can barely stomach the television coverage. “It’s like a game,” he said. “They show you the artillery, the bombs they’re going to drop, how precise they are. There’s no human aspect. There’s no debate ... just beating the war drum.”
They hope the specter of increasing carnage will add momentum to the peace movement and lead more Americans to question the cost, the motivation and the essence of the war. “If we demand the truth, we’ll see the war has to stop,” he said. “Americans are not that evil.”
As Shelly Barbre relates to the widows of the World Trade Center firefighters, Arturo Rodriguez can imagine himself, or his son, as a frightened, young soldier forced into combat. He sees the preponderance of Spanish surnames among the dead and missing as evidence of the disproportionate burden minorities bear in war.
“It’s no surprise,” he said. “It’ll always be our kids that go -- poor people, people of color, put in harm’s way,” fighting wars waged by politicians whose children will never face enemy fire.
He recalls sitting in a recruiter’s office years ago, taking the test for military service, a high school dropout with no job and no money. He left without signing up, realizing that he didn’t want to fight. “I was just looking for a way to survive,” he said.
“Kids don’t go to war because they believe in the cause,” he said. “They join because they think they have no options. You can’t find a job, you need money, an education.... What are the choices?”
He and his wife support the troops, he said. And they admire the protesters. “Everybody should have a position, unless you’re numb to it and you just want to disconnect,” said Lisa Rodriguez. Polls show that opposition to the war is strongest among young members of minority groups -- people like Arturo, 29, and Lisa, 26. “We would do more if we could” to protest the war, she said. “But we need to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. And the time we have left we need to spend with our kids.”
The soft-spoken couple are children of Mexican immigrants. They met at Norwalk’s John Glenn High, married and bought a house in Norwalk on a street lined with small tract homes and bustling with children at play, within a mile of where both their families still live. Their two sons -- Quiztoc, 3 and Ahuitzotl, 8 months -- bear names reflecting the couple’s pride in the indigenous people on their Mexican family tree.
Although neither went to college -- Lisa is a clerical worker and Arturo works in food service at the state hospital near their home -- they are ardent students of history. “We try to be around people we can learn from,” Lisa said. “We realize there’s so much about the world we don’t know.”
Their bookcase holds an eclectic mix: “The Daily Lives of the Aztecs”; “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”; and “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.”
The personal evolution that led them to embrace their native culture, become vegetarians and reject the materialism that characterizes many of their friends’ lives also gave them a vision of themselves as global citizens. “We realized that our way of life affects the world,” Lisa said, “so we have to live responsibly.”
But they admit that they are nervous about speaking out. Polls show that three-quarters of Americans support the war, so Lisa Rodriguez steers clear of the subject at work, worried “that people might consider me like a terrorist, just because I disagree.”
And although they shared their views with The Times, they asked not to be photographed after accounts of recent clashes between pro-war and antiwar demonstrators led them to worry about their safety. “They make it scary,” said Arturo Rodriguez. “They say if you’re antiwar you’re pro-Saddam. That’s not how we see it at all.”
For them, opposing the war means exercising a nascent sense of empowerment. “We thought we only had so many choices,” Lisa Rodriguez said. “Now we realize we have a world of choices.”