Private Thoughts of War

By - May 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By John Hughes

One of the many stories of the Iraqi War and Reconstruction is the personal thoughts and feelings of rank and file Milwaukeeans. Beyond poll numbers, beyond anti-war demonstrations and radio talk shows, beyond politicians, pundits and headline grabbers, there are the common woman and man. In a series of five interviews with Milwaukeeans of both genders, from different neighborhoods in the city, Vital Source spent time with some of your neighbors, who shared their thinking on this war and its widespread implications.

We asked them why the United States went to war. We asked whether or not the consequences of not taking action are worse than the bloodshed and death that continue after weeks of fighting. The interviewees shared their hopes and fears for the outcome of the war. They were asked their opinions on military intervention in North Korea, which, like Iraq (until weeks ago), has a murdering despot at the helm and, far more demonstrably than Iraq, possesses weapons of mass destruction. Finally, we asked the two women and three men what should and would happen if, once democracy is established in Iraq, the citizens there were to freely vote to cut off the supply of oil to the United States.

The people in question were thoughtful. A query would be posed and, almost universally, a reflective pause would follow before an answer was given. Each appeared to be nurturing the question, thinking his or her way through. They were all well informed, and had been following the news on television and radio, in the press, and on the Internet. They weighed the pros and cons of the war with gravity. At times, even their stated position (for or against the war) could not be easily delineated once in conversation on the subject. And even those whose viewpoints came out at the same place arrived there by very different paths. In all, our conversations with these “average Milwaukeeans” reflects the complexity of millions of conversations on the subject of war and its aftermath heard daily in our city and around the country.

Five people, five perspectives.

An East Side woman, Katherine, who professed to viewing spirituality from an Eastern perspective, who spoke of “karmic loops” and quoted Sartre, called President Bush “an idiot” and then came down squarely on the fence with regards to endorsing or opposing U.S. actions in Iraq. She called herself “a hybrid hawk and dove.” Dan, a Milwaukee man living a stone’s throw from the West Allis border in a traditional blue-collar neighborhood, was opposed. Dean from St. Francis was also opposed. Terry, from Racine, spoke at length and with fervor using language that made me refer to him as “pro-war.” He became quiet at that moment and said, “Sometimes war is a necessary evil, but it is always evil. I prayed every day that the war would not happen, that a diplomatic solution would be found. But when the war began, I prayed for victory.” Mary from Glendale was articulate and opposed to the war.

Why war?

Why did the United States go to war? According to Dean, the reason was oil and the desire to control it. To Mary, it was mainly about Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and their personal agendas. It was not about the oil. To Katherine, there were several reasons, including oil, the vendetta of the Bush family against Saddam Hussein after Desert Storm, and a need to direct America’s attention away from economic woes.

Katherine also said that there was a subsidiary need, to free the people and give them a chance for living different lives. But as a feminist, she believes that no woman, no matter which government replaces this one, will be liberated. The Islamic faith and Arab culture make Iraq a “veiled country” for women. Then she paused, grew pensive, and added, “But what if the weapons inspectors were not allowed to see everything, and Iraq developed nuclear weapons? With a madman at the helm. We could all go up in a mushroom cloud, possibly. So that gives me pause.”

Dan, a man involved in the Natural Law Party, which advocates pacifism, said that the U.S. went to war for “a multitude of reasons.” They include oil, ousting Saddam Hussein from office, the Bush family vendetta and weapons of mass destruction, which, Dan believes, “they don’t have to a great extent.” He was the only interviewee who mentioned the link of Iraq to the terrorists, in which he does not believe, because “Hussein and bin Laden aren’t at all on the same page.”

Terry said, “Saddam Hussein posed a clear and verified danger to the political and economic stability of the region as well as to global security. He was a loose cannon. Once he got nuclear he could hold the world hostage. He was insane. And the U.N. was an impotent body incapable of enforcing its own resolutions.”

was it worth it?

We asked them if the consequences of not taking action were worse than the violence and bloodshed we’re seeing. Dean said yes, and added, “This is the dilemma. You can’t sit back when someone is committing crimes against humanity. But the response needs to be calculated.”

Mary said no. Katherine said, “Possibly yes. I don’t know how to answer that. I’m coming toward yes.” Dan said, “Potentially, but you need to define ‘not taking action.’ There are other actions and alternatives Bush didn’t see. Increasing the inspections effort in time and personnel. A stricter monitoring of importing and exporting of WMD materials. If the Iraqis had so many of these bombs, where are they?” And Terry said “Yes, absolutely. He’s been killing his own people for 30 years. He’s been extending his reign of terror throughout the whole region. Containment is a viable strategy. It worked with containing Qadaffy. But nuclear capability in Iraq would make the stakes a lot higher.”

Hopes and fears.

The hopes of all five interviewees were roughly similar: a quick and victorious end to the war, a real and lasting peace and democracy for the people. Katherine mentioned her hope for an end to the oppression of women there.

The fears of these five were many. Dean is concerned that 20 years from now the government soon to be installed will “turn around and bite us in the ass.” Mary feared an “unpredictable widespread retaliation from all corners. I’m afraid this war has incited huge backlash from the world.” Katherine, who has Jewish ancestry, fears “increased racism” against Jews in America. She sees the possibility for “increased problems in the Middle East, more war, leading to a domino effect. I think there is a karmic loop for countries. So, if you’re pushing up against other people’s boundaries, being a bully, you have no control over how the karma’s going to play out on you.”

Dan fears a holy war of Muslims against the United States and England. He fears increased terror within American borders, and “the possibility that the U.S. will arrogantly insist on setting up the government themselves, rather than the U.N., which would increasingly alienate our allies.” He also fears, simultaneously, that Iran will invade Iraq after the U.S. leaves, and that the U.S. will have to stay “forever,” due to Iraq’s having been weakened by sanctions and a punishing defeat.

Should North Korea be next?

The five were unanimous that the United States should not invade North Korea, even though that nation possesses the same qualities that President Bush listed as his reasons for invading Iraq. Dean said, “We can’t be the world’s policeman, nor should we be. Besides, we’ve got to see this Iraqi war through to the very end, and that means reconstruction.” Mary said, “We’ve got to work this through with Iraq. If we keep going around policing, we’ll quickly reach a point of diminishing returns.” Katherine said, “Not at this point. If there is a great sense of threat, though, yes.” Dan said, “It’s not a crime to have Weapons of Mass Destruction. We do!” Terry said, “North Korea is China’s little Communist stepbrother crapping all over the place. It’s China’s problem. China must reign them in.”

Sovereignty for Iraq?

All of the five Milwaukeeans agreed that the U.S. should uphold the sovereign right of the Iraqi citizens to decide whether to export oil here. They were split on whether we would. Dean said, “Given our track record, no way.” Mary said, “Yes. It’s the right thing.” Katherine said, “No, we’d angle around it somehow. Double-speak. Slide out the back door. And what really bothers me is that I’d just kind of shrug my shoulders, because I’m busy with my life.” Dan said, “We’d use bribery, legal blackmail, threats to cut off aid. No, we wouldn’t uphold Iraqi democracy that way.” Terry said, “Any decision they would make would have a consequence. Not a punishment, but a consequence. With regards to aid. Because the global community has a mutual responsibility to its members. I say, more power to ‘em. But cutting off the supply of oil to the United States would be a huge misstep.”

Private thoughts, private lives.

We tried to get the five to meet, to have a panel discussion of these questions. Three of the five did not want to. A fourth claimed to be too busy. They have their thoughts, and were willing to share them with us (as long as we used pseudonyms for two and did not publish their photographs), but didn’t want to discuss in public. “It’s too personal,” said Mary. “I don’t want to butt heads with other people over this,” said Dan, “when they’ve got their minds made up.”

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