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Loathe to protest, or to cheer

INSIDE/OUT

I was working in the shipping office of a plastic bag factory near

the El Toro Marine Base when Gulf War I began.

A co-worker of mine, Scott Hallen, ran into my office and shouted,

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“Bush is walking in the Rose Garden!” Scott was the company’s

resident hard-core Republican. He had a loud, booming voice, a

permanent sheen on his forehead and an almost disturbing familiarity

with the minutiae of American warfare.

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I immediately took what he said to mean that the orders had been

given, or at least a countdown had ended, and that the bombs were

already falling. A moment later, the AM station I had been listening

to suddenly cut away to CNN’s famous broadcast: Bernard Shaw’s

trembling voice announcing that the skies over Baghdad were

illuminated and the sound of air-raid sirens and heavy weapons fire

roaring in the background. I turned up the radio as loud as it would

go and called to Danny, the guy I shared the office with. Danny ran

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into the room.

Our office manager, Lorena, also ran in. Her husband was a Marine

officer who five months earlier was shipped to Saudi Arabia. Every

morning after he left, Lorena would drive to work, walk in smiling

and exchange pleasantries with everyone. Then she sat at her desk and

turned her radio on, and as the day progressed grew gloomier and

gloomier, the news reports growing shriller and darker with each

hour. She took her lunches in the break room, where Scott held court

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every day with energetic speeches on the moral and nationalist

justifications for, in his words, bombing Iraq back to the Bronze

Age.

“This is the test every democracy eventually faces,” he opined one

day. “It’s how a peace-loving people responds to naked aggression

that determines whether it’s fit to survive.”

“Yeah, sure, that’s what this is all about,” Danny said

sarcastically. “We’re just a peace-loving people trying to survive in

the wicked world. War is peace. Where have I heard that before?”

“You got a better idea?”

“Yeah, no blood for oil!”

“Right,” Scott rolled his eyes. Over the months his opinion of

Danny had turned from disregard to open contempt. “As soon as you

convert your off-roader so it burns tofu, I’ll start listening to

you.”

As rude as Scott was being, I felt he had a point. For all his

rantings about the big oil barons and their hold on the politics of

war, Danny had to be one of their biggest customers. He and his wife

both drove huge 4-by-4s and loved to go off-roading on the weekends.

But the larger problem with Danny’s anti-war sentiments was the

fact he offered no alternatives to the actions he opposed. When Scott

demanded to know what Danny would do if he were in charge, he either

went silent or suggested some course of action so implausible that

everyone in earshot shook their heads.

As for me, I was the big fence-sitter. When the prospect of war

with Iraq first arose I was almost reflexively opposed to it, galled

at the notion of American soldiers dying to protect some faraway

monarchy. Then I heard the reports of Iraqi atrocities and switched

my stance. Then I heard the reports that some of the atrocities never

happened, and I switched back. By Jan. 16, 1991, I had taken to

avoiding a stand one way or another, loathe to protest with so many

U.S. troops abroad, loathe to cheer since that would put me in the

same camp as people like Scott.

“Lorena, why don’t you sit down?”

“No, I’m OK, John, thank you.”

John, the company president, had heard the sirens on my radio and

also come in. He was a tall, gracefully aged Texan who wore cowboy

boots and addressed everyone with the same courtesy with which he

would ask a lady to dance. He supported military action in the Gulf,

but it was clear to everyone he was uncomfortable with the prospect.

A few months earlier, the government had placed a stand-by order

with our company for 10,000 heavy-gauge, extra-long plastic bags. As

much as John was pleased to get the business, it bothered him that

Washington was publicly giving assurances of a short and relatively

bloodless war while privately stocking up on body bags.

The five of us huddled around the little radio on my desk,

listening to the sounds of Baghdad under attack. For the better part

of a year, we knew this moment was coming, the moment when the

talking would stop and the shooting start, but now that it was upon

us, it was unlike anything we had imagined. None of us had ever heard

the sound of modern warfare, of air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft

guns and artillery happening all at once. It was a foreign, soulless,

unforgiving sound that defied comment or dismissal.

Even Scott, so enamored of the notion of glorious combat that he

belonged to a Civil War reenactment society, was silent and ill at

ease. He stood with his hand over his mouth, his eyes wide and his

expression pained. Danny stood next to him, hands in pockets, staring

down at the floor before his feet and chewing his lip.

“Lorena, please, you should sit down,” John said, putting a hand

on her shoulder.

“I’m OK, John!” she said hotly, shaking off his hand.

Lorena didn’t want comfort. Her expression was one of hard anger.

Between her and her husband were a million Iraqi soldiers, and one

look at her convinced me she wanted to kill them all, wanted them all

dead or captured so the war could be over and her husband could come

home. John sighed.

“If anyone wants to go home now, to maybe be with family or say

prayers for our boys, you can do so,” John said. Then he shook his

head and walked out of the room.

Driving home, I passed a crowd of people who for the past week had

been holding “support our troops” rallies on a street corner near the

Marine base. I imagined they were husbands and wives and fathers and

mothers who a year earlier probably couldn’t have imagined they would

one day be waving signs in the air and shouting at passing drivers to

honk their support.

The news must have just reached them that the war had started,

because when I pulled up to the corner they were putting their signs

away. No one cheered. No one honked. The time for rallying was over.

I watched as they picked up their signs and silently walked away.

* DAVID SILVA is the city editor of the News-Press, the Leader’s

sister paper. His columns run Saturdays. Reach him at 637-3231, or by

e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com.


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