Ever since the twin towers came crashing down and the cloud of jihad fogged the land, the crop dusters swooping low over the San Joaquin Valley had taken on a new menace. Even here, tucked away in the farm fields of middle California, fear had settled into the ground. Harvest to harvest, one year to the next, we watched tens of thousands of illegal migrants stream into our vineyards. Not a single suicide bomber was among them. Still, we could never be certain whether it was our vigilance or just dumb luck that kept us safe.
I am a native of this valley, fine-tuned to its quirks, but it wasn’t until the fall of 2004 that I saw the fear take a different turn.
One Friday evening, as the nation debated whether George Bush or John Kerry would better keep the terrorists at bay, I came across a curious piece of theater playing out along the busiest intersection in Fresno. A group of anti-war protesters, no more than 50 by a generous count, huddled on one corner of Blackstone and Shaw, waving “Honk For Peace” signs. On the opposite corner, an equal number of evangelical Christians and right-wing Jews held up U.S. and Israeli flags and shouted “Jew haters” at the peaceniks. It didn’t occur to me, at least not that first day, to stop my car and ask how a quiet vigil against the war in Iraq could be seen as an act of anti-Semitism.
I soon learned that the synagogue where my two sons had gone to preschool was exhibiting its own kind of madness. Temple Beth Israel hadn’t been the same since 9/11. Not long after the attacks, the more ardent conservatives in the congregation began showing up in military fatigues to guard the front gates. Their suspicions made even the top choice to be the new rabbi look like a traitor. In a meeting with temple leaders, he was asked about peace in the Middle East and ventured the opinion that Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat were two peas in a pod. The rabbi returned to South Carolina, never to be heard from again.
For decades, the temple had stood out as one of the few institutions in town willing to raise a voice for liberal causes. Back in the 1960s, temple lefties marched with Martin Luther King and protested the Vietnam War. Though the majority of the synagogue’s 1,000 members still counted themselves as Democrats, not even the most liberal among them cared to march now with Peace Fresno. The war in Iraq was a different war.
The temple’s loudest voices suddenly belonged to a committed band of Republicans led by Stuart Weil, a frog farmer who ran the local branch of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful Washington lobbying group known as AIPAC. I first spotted Weil on Blackstone and Shaw at a rally to reelect Bush, holding a sign that read “Liberate the People of Iraq.” He was a 52-year-old man with braces on his teeth and a ponytail that hung down from a bald crown. The ponytail wasn’t born of some midlife crisis. Like a religious man’s yarmulke, it was there to remind him of a constant presence. In his case, that presence wasn’t God but the Palestinian intifada, the never-ending assault of suicide bombings in Israel that had transformed his whole way of thinking.
A few days later, we stood inside a corrugated tin shed in the middle of a stretch of almond orchards and citrus groves where Weil tended to more than 1 million African dwarf frogs. He was a quirky mix of energies. He refused to talk about the methods he used to propagate more of the Congo species than any other breeder in the world—frogs destined for fish tanks across North America. Yet he had no problem discussing the various means by which he was mating evangelical Christians and Jews in the same united fight against Democrats and Muslims. Tapping into the valley’s deep reservoir of Pentecostal churches, a legacy of the Dust Bowl migration, Weil made friends with preachers and ex-military men who were so passionate about Israel that they considered themselves part of an army of “Christian Zionists.”
I didn’t know such a legion existed until I turned the radio dial one evening to KMJ-AM and made the acquaintance of John Somerville. He was a retired Marine colonel who lived in the hills above Fresno and clung to a worldview that could not have been more straightforward had it come down from God himself, which of course he said it did. Nations that supported Israel received God’s blessing. Nations that crossed Israel received God’s curse. The least hint of wavering on the part of the U.S.—any pressure to remove Jews from their biblical West Bank lands or carve out a Palestinian state—would be met with a hurricane-like calamity.
That all this could be seen and heard in the raisin capital of the world didn’t strike me as unusual. I assumed that the same thing, more or less, was happening in cities and towns across the country. At the same time, I suspected that the war on terror and the war in Iraq were playing out in the valley with an intensity that was peculiar to the land. Too many times before I had witnessed the Fresno factor, our collective ability to master the exaggerated form. When it came to concentrated poverty, for instance, no city in the country, not even New Orleans, outdid us. The same with IV drug users. We were a strange place that God had walled off from the rest of California. Our exile created the illusion that things such as fear couldn’t possibly reach here when, in fact, the opposite was true. Decades ago, Japanese Americans believed the valley would protect them from the fate of the internment camps. They left the cities and joined family members on farms only to discover that fear was even more irrational here. Townsfolk swore that Japanese growers were placing white caps over their vegetables not to protect them from frost but to guide kamikaze pilots toward our military bases. As the camp trains arrived, the Japanese fields were picked clean by the fear mongers.
People still call us “the other California,” and as far as politics goes, we have more in common with Oklahoma City than Los Angeles or San Francisco. Up and down the valley, the church is a kind of state. The mayor, police chief and city manager of Fresno are all evangelical Christians—men who don’t hesitate to publicly invoke Jesus’ name to explain their successes or scrub their pasts clean. And yet there is a farmer’s honesty that comes with the land. Unlike those in the big city, folks in the valley don’t disguise their words. In coffee shops and greasy spoons, you can hear people talking about issues such as race and class in the most raw and rancorous form, as if they were sitting in their own living rooms with only kin around.
Thus this place, my place, would become an ideal window to observe the war as it twisted and defined America.
Night after night during the buildup, Col. Somerville did his best to sound reasonable. To break up any tedium, KMJ added the voices of Victor Davis Hanson and Bruce Thornton, two classics professors at Fresno State who had spent their careers punching holes in multiculturalism. Since 9/11, their shared premise—that Western culture need not apologize for its superiority—had morphed into a call for war against Islam. Hanson, a raisin farmer whose family had worked the same piece of dirt since 1872, had become the hawk of the month for the Bush administration. Culling the lessons of the ancient Greek wars, his latest writings provided a historical cover for invading Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney was so pleased, he invited Hanson to his house for dinner. Great nations, Hanson averred, needed to wage war to remain great. As the statue of Saddam came tumbling down a few weeks later, it was hard to dispute Hanson’s boast that no campaign in the history of war had gone so smoothly and with such dispatch.
That victory, half-cocked as it turned out, became a kind of last word on the war. People, at least most of those who lived in our valley, had lost patience for any other details. That a real war had replaced the mythical first one didn’t seem to register. What was happening now in Iraq, the image of one clear madman replaced by a hazy blob of insurgents, was little more than an abstraction. Yes, we had a Navy air base rising out of the cotton fields, and poor kids from valley towns were signing up in strong numbers. If the SUVs were any clue—their rear ends magnetically dressed in “Support Our Troops” ribbons made in China—the war was everywhere. And yet it was nowhere. No homegrown kid—no Okie or Hmong or Mexican or Armenian—had come back in a flag-draped casket. You don’t belong to a place, William Saroyan once wrote, until one of your family has been placed into its ground. I wondered if maybe the same could be said of this war. It wasn’t going to be our war until we had given up one of our own.
And then on a cold November morning in 2004, as President Bush was counting the “political capital” he had earned in his reelection and was making plans to spend it, I picked up the Fresno Bee and saw the news: Two Buchanan High grads had died in Iraq. On the eve of a massive battle to overtake Fallouja, the two Marines had gone out on a late-night mission that ended with a bomb blast.
Growing up in a valley where so many dreams were hemmed in by the fields, Jared Hubbard and Jeremiah Baro had the fortune of being suburban boys.
Their fathers weren’t migrant farm workers following the crops but a policeman and a loan officer who chose to live in Clovis, an old rodeo town where the whites of Fresno had fled. Here the schools were big and brand-new and the athletic teams among the finest in the state. But after graduating from high school, the football star and standout wrestler seemed unsure what to do next. One thing was certain. Wherever one would go, the other would follow. It was Jared and Jeremiah, spotter and sharpshooter, right up to that Nov. 3 night in Ramadi, when an insurgent detonated a hidden bomb from afar. It must have hit just so because of the eight Marines walking along both sides of the road, only two—Hubbard and Baro—were killed.
The funeral was held on Veteran’s Day at a Catholic church in Fresno. The mourners included a congressman, state senators, the mayor of Clovis, the mayor of Fresno, scores of law enforcement officers from both cities, hundreds of family, friends and teachers, and a dozen boys, now men, wearing their old Buchanan lettermen’s jackets. Past the strawberry fields and new housing tracts, in a cemetery that faced the Sierra, seven Marine riflemen fired three times each and a bugler played “Taps.” As their parents fingered the U.S. flags handed them, Lance Cpl. Hubbard, 22, and Cpl. Baro, 21, were buried side by side.
Not much separated the two fathers in those first weeks. Jeff Hubbard put up a new flagpole along the front walkway of his two-story stucco house, flying the U.S. flag on top and the Marine flag on the bottom. He was a big, stout man with a balding head and owlish glasses whose impulse was to hunker down and say, “Heck with the world. Let me grieve.” His wife, Peggy, though, thought it was important that they share Jared’s story, so he welcomed me into his home, but on one condition: “Ask anything you want about Jared, but please don’t turn him into a political pawn. I know this war is controversial, and we just came through a nasty election. But I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t. We supported his decision to join the fight.”
Still, they couldn’t help but wonder how things might have turned out had they stressed college more. Whenever the subject had come up, each of their four children had pointed to members of the extended family who had found success without a degree. Jared, the second son, showed the most interest and aptitude in school. In fact, he was on his way to Fresno City College when he walked into the kitchen one day and blurted out that he wanted to join the Marines.
Hubbard had rarely played hard-nosed cop with his kids. Even when Jared came home with his eyebrow and tongue pierced, the displeasure he expressed was a quiet one. This time, as Jared talked about feeling adrift, his father cautioned him. Take the military test and see how you score. If you score high, you can become an officer and skip the frontline. Jared ended up acing the exam but still insisted on being a grunt. “How could I put my foot down?” his father asked. “He wanted to serve his country and go in with his best friend.”
As we sat in the kitchen, I didn’t realize that the Hubbards’ youngest son, Nathan, 19, had been listening to our conversation. He was lying on the couch just a few feet away, a guitar at his side. Suddenly he popped up, a smallish figure in a wool beanie and poncho, and gave a tug to his beard. He was out of school and between jobs, and he sensed an opening.
“I’ve always thought about joining myself,” he said nonchalantly. “I’m just not going to talk about it right now.”
His mother, a petite woman with a bob of blond hair, raised her voice for the first time beyond a raspy whisper. “No. No way. You’re not going.”
He took off the poncho and lifted his T-shirt sleeve. Above the bicep, he wore a tattoo of three interlocking ravens. The three boys—he and Jared and their older brother, Jason, an undercover cop—had gotten the same symbol of Celtic fidelity etched into their arms. “There’s lots of things popping in my head. Go there and honor him and maybe a little vengeance pumping through my blood, too,” he confided. “But I can’t do that to my family. I can’t put them through that.”
I drove a mile or two down the road to an apartment where the second father, Bert Baro, had hung a plasma TV high in the living room, a day and night flicker of Fox News. He was a small pit bull of a man who grew up fighting on the streets of Manila. As he watched the tube, he popped another beer and shook his head at the spectacle of the anti-war protesters. The fight against terror was a matter of will, he said, and Communist doubters were breaking our will.
“People say Communism is dead in America. Bullshit. They’ve just changed their coats. How do you defeat the most powerful nation in the world? You do it from the inside.”
His wife, Terry, knew where he was going and tried with a half smile to stop him. “Bert . . .”
“I don’t care how advanced we are,” he said. “I don’t care how Christian we are. We have to get medieval with these people.”
I wondered if what he had in mind was the treatment of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison.
“Abu Ghraib?” he sneered. “That’s not medieval. Yeah, we shamed them. So what? Yeah, we ran them around naked. So what? We didn’t go chopping their hands off. We didn’t go around castrating them.”
“Yeah, that’s medieval. That’s the difference.”
I didn’t bother telling Baro that my grandfather, Aram Arax, had been one of those Communists in the 1940s. In a valley hostile to organized labor, it took little more than a subscription to the Daily Worker to turn a citizen into a subversive. Hoover’s men followed him to bookstores and a Labor Day picnic along the Kings River. “Subject Aram Arax was observed eating a shish kebab sandwich,” one entry read. Every year, FBI agents in Fresno wrote headquarters in Washington asking if they should continue to follow him. Every year, the bosses wrote back, “Yes.” They followed him for 45 years, until he was blind and wearing diapers.
I also didn’t bother telling Baro that my own lesson in jihad had come at an early age, at the knee of that same grandfather. Jihad is what brought us to America. Grandpa was 15 years old when the government of Ottoman Turkey began a genocide against its Armenian population. As he hid in an attic in Istanbul, more than 1 million Christian Armenians were being slaughtered by Muslim Turks and Kurds. “Where is your Jesus now?” they taunted, ravaging Armenian villages that had preceded their arrival by 800 years. As a kid, I wondered why my grandfather wrote his poems in Armenian and shouted his obscenities in Turkish. No word, he taught me, was more vulgar than giaour. It was the reason Armenians paid a special tax to the Turks and couldn’t bear arms or testify against a Muslim in court. It meant infidel.
What the Genocide and Red Scare had in common was fear. The pashas had manipulated the fears of the Turkish masses, selling over and over the notion that Armenians were conniving with Russia to break apart the Ottoman Empire. The Communist peril, the enemy within—it, too, was rooted in the exploitation of fear.
None of this history offered much help, of course, on the morning of 9/11. My wife, an early riser, came into our bedroom and woke me up: “You’re never going to believe what’s happening.” We sat, like everyone else, transfixed in front of the TV. We even let our 3-year-old son, Jake, watch. On the third day, he grabbed his Legos and built two towers that he took to bed with him at night. A week later, sensing a new fear at Temple Beth Israel, I insisted that my wife pull Jake out of preschool. I reminded her that we weren’t Jewish and had chosen the school because it was safe and nurturing.
“You’re nuts,’' she said. “We’re in Fresno. They’re not coming here.”
“How do you know where they’re coming?” I shot back. “This is America’s greatest farm belt.”
I watched in a kind of numbed state as we made our way, fugue-like, through winter and spring. By the next year, the war on terror had marched into Iraq, and strange things began to unfold in the place where I grew up. For the longest time, I didn’t fit them into any pattern. If anyone had asked me back then whether some larger movement was afoot, whether the religious and secular were merging and odd new alliances were forming out of fear, my native eye wouldn’t have seen it.
Under the cloak of the Homeland Security Act, Sheriff Richard Pierce created an anti-terrorism unit that knew just where to set its sights. The ragtag members of Peace Fresno were so hungry for new recruits that they didn’t think to question the earnest young man who showed up one day eager to assist. For two months, Aaron Stokes sat through planning meetings and passed out fliers at anti-war rallies, and then he vanished. They didn’t see his face again until several months later when the Fresno Bee ran a story about a fatal motorcycle accident. The photo of the victim was a dead ringer for Aaron Stokes. Only his name was Aaron Kilner, and he was a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the anti-terrorism unit.
What was an undercover cop doing at the cookie-and-green-tea socials of Peace Fresno? The sheriff played coy: “For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, the department may visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public.” The whole episode wound up as a piece of absurdity in Michael Moore’s documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
It wasn’t just the cops making Peace Fresno feel beleaguered. The Jewish community was doing its part as well. Temple Democrats had not only abandoned the cause, but a few were joining hands with a pro-war movement under the banner “United We Stand With Israel.” At a kickoff rally at Woodward Park, Christians and Jews stood shoulder to shoulder on a grassy knoll, looking a little like bride and groom at a shotgun wedding. For the Christians, returning Israel to the firm grasp of Jews was a vanguard of the Second Coming. The Jews were willing to take their chances on Armageddon as long as the Christians supported Israel in the here and now.
As the program began, they converged on a few dozen peace activists marching up the hill. Scott Hawkins, a Mormon, saw a sign that called for a Palestinian homeland and went belly to belly with the biggest peacenik he could find. “You want to get past me?” he said. “I guarantee you there will be blood.” As the protesters retreated, his wife, Saundra Duffy-Hawkins, a district director for the California Republican Assembly, began to shout. “Jew haters. Jew haters. You’re just like Hitler.”
Among the speakers that evening were Somerville, the retired Marine colonel from the radio, and Hanson, the classics professor at Fresno State. Hanson had made his name here not as a war hawk but as a gentleman farmer who wrote poignantly about the struggles of the yeoman agrarian. The weather, the insects, the price of a ton of raisins—he had traded in all those vicissitudes for a new certainty. “In the post 9/11 world, there is no margin of error when dealing with a madman,” he wrote. “Saddam Hussein is more dangerous to the civilian population of the United States than was either the more formidable Hitler or Tojo. Saddam simply requires a dozen sleeper agents with suitcases of anthrax to pollute with microscopic spores multimillion-dollar high-rises, killing and infecting thousands.”
In the new world envisioned by Hanson—a view shaped by an ascending movement of neoconservatives who called themselves, with no small hubris, the Project for the New American Century—the aims of the U.S. and Israel were no longer merely compatible. What had been a strategic alliance in the 1990s was now something more sacred. Since 9/11, the two countries, much like Christians and Jews, were brothers in the same war against Islamic fundamentalism. What was good for the U.S. was good for Israel; what was good for Israel was good for the U.S. All lines were symmetrical lines. All roads ran parallel.
In January 2003, as the Marines prepared to storm Baghdad, the war’s opponents gathered in a small hall at Cal State Fresno to hear a USC linguistics professor talk about her life as an Israeli and U.S. peace activist. The premise of Hagit Borer’s lecture was hardly novel. She believed that Zionism and democracy were incompatible, and that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian West Bank needed to end for peace to begin.
“If you say a Zionist state cannot be democratic, you’re immediately branded an anti-Semite,” she said. “And if you’re like me, you are branded a self-hating Jew.”
A small, frail man who had been fidgeting in the front row blurted out in Hebrew, “Yes, that’s what you are.”
“That’s what you are.”
Borer tried to take questions from the crowd, but the man persisted. He stood up and began shaking his finger, not at Borer, but at Vida Samiian, the dean of arts and humanities who had organized the event with her husband, economics professor Sasan Fayazmanesh. Both had grown up in Iran and protested against the Shah while students at UCLA in the late 1970s.
“It’s all your fault,” the man shouted at Samiian. “It’s all your fault.”
Samiian could hear the indignation in his heavily accented voice, but she had no idea who the man was. John Krebs was a former county supervisor and Democratic congressman who took on corrupt developers and subsidy-grabbing farmers even as his virtue sank his political fortunes. His father had been one of the early Zionists who left Germany in 1933 and settled amid the Arab villages of British-controlled Palestine. When it came time to kick out the British and build a Jewish nation, Krebs joined an underground movement that rejected the terrorist tactics of more radical Jewish groups. After living a half century in the U.S., he didn’t support the policies of Sharon and no longer gave money to AIPAC. But the suicide bombings in Israel had bled away any sympathy he had for the Palestinians.
“Palestinian terror, Osama bin Laden terror, I don’t see any difference,” Krebs would later explain. “I see it as an anti-Western mentality.”
The reality, though, was that neither the PLO nor Hamas had ever staged an attack against the U.S. The purpose of the lecture series was to advance the idea that the Palestinian grievance against Israel was about dispossession and statehood, not Al Qaeda-like jihad. But for a speaker to even imply that a Palestinian suicide bomber carried in his heart a different—daresay more authentic—cause was too much to hear in this time, in this place.
After the Borer lecture, Krebs joined forces with Weil, the frog farmer who headed the local AIPAC, and other temple leaders. With a stack of angry e-mails backing them, they appealed to top university officials. President John Welty couldn’t very well cancel the remaining anti-war speakers or bar a planned Palestine Day. So, in an effort to mollify those on the right, he freed up $7,000 to bring in somebody with a different view. It was no small get-even that Weil’s choice for speaker was Daniel Pipes, the Middle East scholar who had written that “all Muslims, unfortunately, are suspect.” True to his word, Pipes had started his own “Campus Watch” website that drew up a list of university professors he believed were terrorist fellow-travelers.
Samiian and Fayazmanesh hoped it would end there, but those on the right wouldn’t let go. The high-speed grapevine buzzed with news about “Cal State Palestine” and the two Iranian professors who, depending on the website, were either Marxist or fascist or worn-out paranoids. “One wonders if the farming community of Fresno, California, is well enough represented by this local community of Marxists and anti-capitalists who run with and support the terrorists of the PLO,” read the story on FrontPageMagazine.com. Before it was over, Fayazmanesh would also find himself on Sean Hannity’s website, beneath the headline “Terrorist Prof at California State University, Fresno.”
Last summer, as the news from Iraq shifted, growing more optimistic and then more dim, I drove out to Clovis again to see Jeff Hubbard, the father of the slain soldier. He greeted me at the door in a “U.S.A. United We Stand” T-shirt and sat me down, like before, at the kitchen table. We talked about how football had shaped three generations of both our families. My younger brother was the head coach at our alma mater, and Hubbard was looking to get back to the Pop Warner ranks. His only hesitation was knowing that he’d be overwhelmed with images of coaching Jared and the rest of the Garfield Cubs.
“I don’t want to forget my son, but I don’t want to keep him so alive that I’m sitting here all day long in the past,” he said.
He hadn’t been to the cemetery in months, even though his wife, Peggy, went every chance she could. She worked long hours at Vons arranging floral bouquets for customers and extra ones for the grave. When he did make it out there, the flowers always told him how long it had been since Peggy’s last visit. They almost always were fresh. He would stare into the headstone at a son who had grabbed the best features from both of them and try to think of something to say.
“When I’m saying stuff, it comes out like I’m talking to him. But I’m not really believing he’s hearing it. I know I’m just talking to myself. I don’t want to say that death is the final thing. I want to say I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. ‘Gone.’ I don’t know what that means.”
His wife had rejoined one of the mega churches on a long avenue of mega churches near their house. He was an agnostic and found no comfort behind the compound walls. “I mow the lawn. I weed the flower beds. I feed the fish, take care of the dog. Then the day is done.”
He understood how Bert Baro, the father of his son’s best friend and companion in death, had found solace in taking the hardest, pro-war line. It didn’t work for him. Night after night, as he replayed the explosion that took Jared’s life, sifting the details still coming in from his platoon, adding to them details of a war growing more costly and bloody by the day, he began to ask questions that he couldn’t share with Peggy. Did we sacrifice our son for a worthy cause? Or was the desire to see that he died for something simply a rationale for other sons dying for nothing? Honoring the dead by insisting on more dead seemed the worst kind of selfishness, he thought. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to believe that the fictions that got us into war made the war itself a lie.
“I keep thinking that maybe there’s a reason for going to Iraq that our leaders just couldn’t share with us,” he said, shaking his head.
Over the next two hours, Hubbard and I began to wrestle with every aspect of the war. At first, it felt wrong to push the father of a dead soldier, and I apologized for treading on his grief with questions of politics—questions he had forbidden in our first meeting. But he said grief had done a funny thing. He had lost patience with the cable-TV pundits and their easy answers. More and more, he found himself reading lengthy articles and books about the war. He was searching for some ground that neither left nor right had found.
On the fireplace next to the kitchen table sat his son’s Marine Corps portrait, photos from the 2000 championship football team and the watch that, despite the bomb blast, was still telling perfect Iraqi time, 11 hours into the future. Sitting across from him, I was seeing not just the real face of war but hearing the honest debate that we never seemed to have as a nation. Watching his struggle, I felt I owed him a good look into my own struggle, how my feelings about the war also had grown more confused over the past year.
I told him I was not unlike so many other Americans who had been reluctantly moved to the side of war when Colin Powell went before the United Nations and detailed the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal and ties to terror. That the evidence turned out to be false changed everything for me. The fiction wasn’t Bush or Cheney lying about the contents of a particular intelligence report. Rather, the way they picked and hyped only the intelligence that fit their desired end was a malicious disregard for the truth. The whole process became a lie.
“The administration didn’t want a real debate,” I said. “Given the climate of 9/11, they knew that fear trumped everything. So they exploited our fears with mushroom clouds and biological clouds and clouds from our own crop dusters.”
He wondered if his son would have volunteered to fight—if Americans would have supported the war—if fear had been removed from the air and liberating Iraq had been the only imperative. Tragically, there was no way of knowing because he couldn’t return to those prewar days and have that conversation with Jared.
“I never believed that Saddam was connected to Al Qaeda. And I think the war is probably creating more terrorists than we’re killing right now,” he said. “But when you’re facing that kind of evil—people who want to destroy your way of life—you have to put down the gauntlet somewhere.”
Each night, when he stripped away the rhetoric on both sides, he was left with one question above the rest: “Can we win this war? I don’t mean the hype about exporting democracy and freedom. I don’t mean the simplifications like ‘we’re fighting over there, so the terrorists aren’t here.’ But is it doable to stabilize that country and help the Iraqis choose a better system? Not our system but their system.”
The more I listened, the clearer it became that for him the war had moved beyond the falsehoods of Bush and Cheney. It was now bigger than their ability to screw it up. He understood why the lies had turned so many Americans against the war, but the talk of bringing home the troops reminded him, oddly, of the Bay Bridge over San Francisco.
“Once you start, you don’t stop halfway over the bay just because it’s costing more than you projected and men have died along the way,” he said. “If the bridge can be built, you need to reach the other side.”
Before I left, I asked him about his youngest son, Nathan, who had seemed so lost. Was he still talking about honoring Jared by going to Iraq?
“I haven’t heard anything about it lately, and I kind of want to leave it alone. It’s hard to hold Jared in the light we hold him and then turn to his little brother and say, ‘If you choose the same path, it’s wrong.’ But he also needs to know that life has changed since Jared was killed. This family is not the same. This war is not the same.”
I stepped inside Stuart Weil’s giant tin shed expecting to hear the chirp of 1.2 million tiny frogs singing Congo love songs. As it turned out, a radio blared ranchero music, and the frogs did their chirping low and mostly at night.
“Welcome to frog nirvana,” Weil said as he greeted me. A female in the wild produced 50,000 eggs during her lifetime. Maybe two or three turned into frogs. Here, amid a labyrinth of open-air tanks, pumps, heaters and filters, with no predator to elude except an occasional pathogen from the sky, that same female gave birth to 50,000 tadpoles. A crew of Mexican workers made sure the big boys, the breeders, got what they wanted. This left plenty of time for Weil to pursue his other passion: building a Christian-Jewish bulwark.
Since the launch of the war on terror, the balance of power inside Temple Beth Israel had shifted. Weil and his group of right-wingers had assumed key posts and were using the synagogue’s e-mail list to promote lectures by gay-bashing Christians and pro-war Jews. Barry Price, a liberal and former temple president, wasn’t sure how to respond. A few years earlier, during a high holiday address, he stood up to Weil’s group, voicing his concerns about their strong anti-Muslim sentiments and lust for war. “Some of the right-wingers got up and walked out,” Price said. “I was called a traitor. I was called ignorant and naive.”
The Iraq war, he said, had put temple lefties in a bind, raising questions they weren’t keen to address. Was the decision to topple Saddam Hussein motivated in part by America’s devotion to Israel? Was it relevant that several of the neoconservatives who pushed hardest for war inside the Bush-Cheney administration—top defense aides Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith and consultant Richard Perle—were Jews who had worked for years to marry the security concerns of the U.S. and Israel? Feith, for one, had been honored by the Zionist Organization of America for his contributions as a “pro-Israel activist.”
“It was the one topic that people were most afraid to touch,” Price said. “The progressives in the temple had ceded the field to the vocal Jews on the right. We were cowed into silence.”
Sitting in his office in his khakis and tennis shoes, brow furrowed and head cocked, Weil now wondered if I might be betraying some prejudice for even raising the idea that a love of Israel had motivated the Jewish war hawks in the White House. “Is that how your liberal friends talk when you’re together?” he asked, eyes narrowing. He rejected the notion as a new version of the old canard that Jews operated with dual loyalties. The term “neoconservative” had become a liberal code word for “Zionist,” he believed. If the neoconservatives got us into war, the translation read: “The Jews did it.”
As chairman of the new local chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Weil no longer needed the temple’s blessing to promote his events. “You’d be surprised how many prominent Jews support me with money but anonymously, because they don’t want to risk the wrath of the liberals.”
Just as the second Palestinian uprising had opened his eyes, he predicted a similar awakening would one day hit me. With that in mind, I accepted his invitation to the 2005 Friend of Israel award dinner in Fresno. At the previous year’s dinner, Weil had promised to increase the crowd of 120 by “tapping into the evangelical community.” As I walked into this year’s affair, I could see he had made good on his vow. Preachers and flocks from several big churches were spreading chopped liver on crackers with their new Jewish friends. Weil got up and enumerated the Republican Jewish Coalition’s recent events: a pastors’ forum and a speech by the evangelical former mayor of Fresno and a retreat with Bridges for Peace, a Christian Zionist group whose members believed that Hurricane Katrina was divine judgment on the U.S. for pushing Israel to resume talks with Palestinians.
Weil then introduced Bill Manders, the old KMJ radio host who had experienced his own awakening a few years back when Weil and his friends sent him on a paid trip to Israel. He returned with a newfound appreciation for the challenges the Jewish nation faced. “When is someone going to step forward and say, besides me on the radio, why don’t we drop a nuclear bomb on Iran and blow them off the face of the earth?” The crowd applauded and shouted, “Yeah!”
Finally, it came time to honor this year’s Friend of Israel award winner. It was John Somerville, the short, well-built old Marine colonel I first encountered on the radio three years earlier. He thanked Weil for the honor and made plain that his passion for Israel came from the Bible but extended to the realm of politics and war.
“A true friend is not knocked off his perch when Israel is denounced for rough treatment of the Palestinians or when an Israeli politician is found to have his hand in the till or when Mossad carries off a dirty trick,” he said. “A true friend of Israel does not have to rework the ethical arithmetic in order to reckon whose side he is supposed to be on. A true Christian Zionist has the requirement of faith to prefer the blessings of Israel to all others. To be a Christian Zionist is to be an unconditional lover of Israel and of the Jewish people.”
The news release from the Los Angeles Army Recruiting Battalion office came over my fax machine early last fall. It was headlined “To Serve Our Country,” and it announced the recruitment of two more valley boys into the military: Nathan C. Hubbard, 19, and Jason R. Hubbard, 31.
Their situation, the release noted, “is a special one.” Jason and Nathan’s brother, Jared, had joined the Marines in December 2001. During his second tour of duty, Jared “gave the ultimate sacrifice.” The statement included remarks from the man who had recruited the brothers. “Words can’t describe what they are doing,” said Darren Mayes. “This is the true meaning of service to our country.”
I hadn’t talked to Jeff Hubbard in several weeks and the news took me aback. Not only had his youngest son acted on his bravado and signed up, but so had his oldest boy, a sheriff’s detective with a wife and newborn son. The next day, I drove out to Hubbard’s house and found him alone watching a Monday night football game. There was nothing diminished about him, not his firm handshake or clear eyes or sheer energy for talking. He had a philosophical side, so I didn’t expect to find him in despair. Nevertheless, I wondered how a man who had lost so much and whose feelings about the war had grown more confused could possibly have given his blessing.
Since the day the three Marines came knocking at the door 10 months ago, he told me, he knew that one son, if not both, would follow in Jared’s footsteps. “They didn’t tell us, ‘OK, we’re now driving over to the recruiter’s office.’ But we knew it was coming. Remember those conversations in the kitchen with Jared. Well, we had those same conversations with Nathan and Jason.”
A part of him wanted to tell them no, that they had already paid their price as a family, that if they were trying to honor their brother or pursue some silly notion of revenge, it wasn’t enough of a reason to go. It wasn’t nearly enough to put him and their mother through a new torment. Instead, he sat immovable in his chair, dulling his words, thinking it wasn’t right to hold one decision captive to another. What happened to Jared was its own world. Call it bad timing or bad luck or perhaps it had been scrawled into his forehead from birth. Each son, though, deserved his own hearing, apart from anything that had come before or might come after. So he listened as Jason and Nathan talked not about revenge but about duty in a time of war.
He told me this stoically, his face filled with resignation, as if the course of action of those around him, those he wanted to protect, was out of his control. “How do you try to change someone’s mind when you know that changing their mind is all about you, not them?” he asked.
This didn’t sound right to me. We had built enough of a rapport that I decided to challenge him.
“Jeff, this isn’t some tattoo or tongue piercing. You tell them, ‘You’re not going to do this. You’re not fricking doing this to me or your mom. Jason, you got a new wife and baby. You got a great job catching drug dealers. That’s your service to the country. And, Nathan, you go to school and honor your brother because you know college was his dream. That’s your service.’ You just don’t go leaving it up to them.”
He flashed a knowing grin. “When you decide to draw a line in the sand with your kids, what do you do if they decide to disobey you? Where do you go from there? Did we tell them how we felt? Of course we did. ‘We would rather you wouldn’t do this. We have given a lot. You don’t need to do this.’ We said it all.”
“But you didn’t put your foot down?”
“No. They told us they wanted to join to serve their country. For no other reason than it was the right thing to do. And I’m not going to let them do the right thing? The thing they believe in? I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let my questions become their questions.”
I pointed to the Army recruiter’s press release. “Now they’re using your sons for propaganda.”
“I realize that. ‘One brother dies and the other two follow him into war.’ It bothers me. But at the end of the day, I still believe in this war. I’m not happy with the manipulations. I’m not happy that some of those manipulations still continue. But I have to believe we’re trying to make that part of the world a better place. I still hold out hope that in 10 or 15 years I can walk the streets of Baghdad as an old man and say my son died for something. He really died for something.”
It was late, and he followed me out to the car. We shook hands and I thanked him for not losing his patience with me. He leaned over and stuck his head near my window. “There isn’t one clean answer,” he said. “You don’t think I know that?”
Maybe I had come for one clean answer, but who was I to push him anymore? It was enough that his struggle—set against the carnival of pundits and self-proclaimed patriots—was quiet and private and real.
I took the long way home that night, past the cemetery where the two boys were buried, past the strawberry fields being turned into suburbia, past the university where all eyes were now fixed on the Bulldogs’ Top 20 football ranking. I reached the corner of Blackstone and Shaw, where the pro-war demonstrators hadn’t staged a rally in months, and headed west toward Highway 99. In the vineyard rows, the grape growers had set down their bunches to make raisins, praying that rain would hold off for another three weeks. In the distant sky, the crop dusters were making another late-night run over the cotton fields. As I made a last turn toward the old fig orchard where we lived, the valley seemed quiet, almost at peace.
Mark Arax is a senior writer for West and co-author, with Rick Wartzman, of “The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire.”