Anti-war sentiments blend with pro-military culture

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Anti-war sentiments blend with pro-military culture
by Matt Stearns

Returning from a combat tour of Vietnam in 1969, U.S. Army Capt. Robert H. Scales Jr. stepped off the plane and into a torrent of abuse.

It got so bad that the West Point graduate and Silver Star winner went to an airport bathroom and changed out of his uniform before catching another flight home.

“People started banging on me about the fact that I was a soldier. … How could I be a part of a military that was so evil, that was doing such evil things,” recalled Scales, now a retired major general and a military historian.

Thirty-seven years later, public support for another distant war, this one in Iraq, is waning and some observers are drawing parallels to Vietnam.

But there is one dramatic difference between the two wars: The overwhelmingly positive view of the military and its troops among Americans – even among those who oppose the war…

     

“Since I’ve been back, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out to dinner, wearing my uniform, and people paid for my dinner,” said Sgt. Takiyah Tanner of Kansas City, Mo., a member of the Army National Guard who spent a year in Iraq. “Even if they didn’t support the war, they appreciate what we did.”

From an understanding that, as one Vietnam veteran put it, there’s a difference between “the warrior and the war,” to a Pentagon that learned how to fight on the public relations front, the reasons for the difference are varied.

But there’s no question the men and women in uniform benefit.

Most recent polling finds more than half of Americans believe the Iraq war was a mistake, that the war is not going well, and that President Bush is not handling the war well.

For example, a CBS News poll from April 28-30 found that 51 percent of respondents said it was a mistake to invade Iraq. Only 30 percent approved of Bush’s handling of the war.

But none of those frustrations seem directed at the military.

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press found in October 2005 that 82 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the military, a level that has remained essentially unchanged for the past eight years. That made the military by far the most popular government institution (the Supreme Court was second, at 62 percent). It also outpaced the popularity of the media and corporations.

There is no reason to believe that number has declined since last fall, said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center.

“There is bedrock support for the military,” Doherty said. “It’s very different from the 1970s.”

During the Vietnam era, the number of Americans calling the war a mistake first topped 50 percent in mid-1968, and never dipped below that number again, according to polls from the time.

The war’s increasing unpopularity was clearly reflected in society’s view of the military. A 1966 Harris Poll showed the military had a 61 percent favorability rating. By 1971, that had sunk to 27 percent. The military bore “the psychological scars of an unpopular war” through the 1970s, according to a 1989 history written by the Army.

Randy Barnes of Westwood, Kan., was an Army combat medic in Vietnam. He recalled returning to Kansas City and being told by a Veterans of Foreign Wars official: “We don’t want your kind.”

“The fact that it was the first war we ever lost had some impact on that, although it wasn’t the troops’ fault,” Barnes said.

Today, support for the troops amid an unpopular war is everywhere. Magnetic yellow ribbons adorn cars; restaurants host meal nights for returning wounded veterans; veterans’ service groups sponsor programs nationally and locally for both veterans and those still in combat.

“We got packages from schools, 4-Hs, Boy Scouts – toothpaste, hygiene supplies, T-shirts – all kinds of junk food,” said George Bellis, 39, a Lowry City, Mo., man who spent 13 months in Iraq with the Army National Guard and is now 60 percent service-related disabled. “My town had a welcome home party.”

Tanner, who was pen pals with a schoolgirl, said the support was a key to troop morale during her time in Iraq.

“It makes it 100 percent easier,” Tanner said. “You’re all alone in this desert. The support from home is all you’re looking for. When we got tuna and crackers and beef jerky, it was like Christmas Day.”

The support also helps on the home front, said Tricia Bellis, George Bellis’ wife.

“It takes the edge off,” said Tricia Bellis, whose third child was born three weeks after her husband was called to active duty. “It makes you feel like it’s not all down the drain. The fact that people hate what’s going on, but say, `Yeah, we’re praying for you, you did a good job,’ it’s like, Phew!”

Observers cite several reasons for the differences in public perceptions of the military then and now.

“I think people realized from Vietnam and the years since that the people who went to fight and the people who make the policy are two different people,” said Michael McPhearson, an Army veteran and executive director of Veterans for Peace, an anti-war group based in St. Louis.

McPhearson’s son is in the Army and serving in Iraq.

Barnes, a board member of Vietnam Veterans of America, said his group spent years educating Americans on the differences between “the warrior and the war.”

“The warrior, all he does is go where he’s told to go,” Barnes said.

Barnes also credits other veterans’ service groups, including the VFW, for establishing programs to support Iraq war veterans.

“The situation is altogether different,” Barnes said.

U.S. Rep Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he thought a big reason for the high level of support was the heavy use of National Guard and reserve units in Iraq.

“These are people who deliver your milk, fix your car,” Skelton said. “These people are known.”

Times are different, too.

The ghosts of the Vietnam era were exorcised in the triumph of the first Gulf War, Scales said. That success, combined with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that made many Americans realize that U.S. soil was vulnerable to attack, gave civilians a renewed pride in and appreciation of the military, Doherty said.

The military is also much more savvy in its public relations efforts now than it was in Vietnam, noted Bartholomew Sparrow, a University of Texas professor who has studied the relationship between the military and civilian society.

In Vietnam, reporters and cameramen roamed virtually unfettered, and Americans saw some of the more horrific aspects of war. In Iraq, the military exerts greater control over the images and news presented to viewers back home – helping deflect reports that could reflect badly on the troops.

“It’s agenda setting,” Sparrow said. “You put the nice stuff on the table and make sure the nasty stuff is off the table.”

Even many anti-war groups, such as Gold Star Families for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War, stress their connections to the troops and tout their support for veterans and troops in their mission statements.

Tomas Young is a 26-year-old Army veteran who was shot and paralyzed on his fifth day in Iraq on April 4, 2004. His brother is now serving in Iraq, and Young is a leader in the Kansas City chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Young said being pro-troops is important for his group’s credibility.

“Our society is pretty much pro-military,” Young said. “If you’re seen as being anti-troops now, you’d be ostracized.”

Today’s anti-war activists also feel “sympathy” for the troops in the all-volunteer force, said Richard Becker, West Coast coordinator for the ANSWER Coalition, an anti-war group that has organized protests in several major cities.

“I think the vast majority of people in the anti-war movement today realize people volunteer out of a dearth of opportunity,” Becker said. “For anybody to hold that against people would be foolish and short-sighted.”


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