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This Pro-Defense State Stands Ready

South Carolinians say there are good reasons to go to war in Iraq. But beneath the patriotism lies anxiety and some opposition.

January 22, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Through the course of many wars, South Carolina has earned its stripes as a state where support for the military is unwavering, patriotism is considered an obligation of citizenship and trust runs deep that national leaders will do the right thing.

"If the president says we've got to go [to war], then we go. Our military will do their job well and we'll back them," said Talmadge Tobias Jr., city manger of Sumter, the home of Shaw Air Force Base.

Three of the base's four F-16 squadrons would likely end up in Iraq in the event of a war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Conversations along a broad swath paralleling Interstate 26, which connects South Carolina's two largest cities, Charleston and Columbia, suggest one of the nation's most traditionally hawkish and pro-defense states hasn't changed its colors when it comes to Iraq. President Bush is popular and a majority of people interviewed at random believes -- contrary to what national polls show -- that he has presented sufficient evidence against Hussein to justify a war.

But beneath the expressions of patriotism lies anxiety, and sometimes opposition. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings' mail from constituents is running 9 to 1 against going to war, an aide said, and expressions of concern over the nation's direction are common.

"We're a nation demanding safety and pining for prosperity," the Greenville News said in a New Year's Eve editorial. "Unfortunately, 2002 ends with our nation fretting about war, terrorism and the economy."

The prospect of an unsettled future, of too many unwanted ingredients bubbling in the same caldron, is a widely held perception. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month reported that 57% of those surveyed were "less hopeful" about the world's prospects for 2003. That was a 12-point increase over a similar poll taken three months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Yes, I really believe this war is necessary and I believe Saddam Hussein's a threat to us. We should have killed him when we had a chance 10 years ago," said Capt. George Ayers of the Charleston Fire Department, which has already seen 10 of its 200 men called up as reservists for duty in the Middle East.

"I'm 100% with that," said Assistant Chief Tom Reynolds. "Only this time, if we're going to have a war, we ought to really go to war. I don't want any Vietnam. I'm convinced what's-his-name has nukes and sponsors terrorism. That's reason enough for war."

On the ground floor of the firehouse, five blocks from Charleston Harbor, where the Civil War started in 1861 when Confederate artillerymen fired on Ft. Sumter, Demail Seabrook and half a dozen other firemen were washing a firetruck. Seabrook, a six-year Air Force veteran, was asked whether he agreed with his bosses' assessment.

"Not at all," he said. "The war is about oil and our belief the world belongs to us because we're Americans. If we can't get what we want peacefully, then we take it by force.

"A lot of people think I'm anti-American when I talk against the war. Not true. I just think if you're in a position of power, you should show some wisdom. You should be fair, and we're not. Terrorism doesn't belong to just Al Qaeda. I mean, we've been trying to take out Castro for 30 years and if that's not terrorism, I don't know what is."

"Pardon me," said one of his colleagues, half-joking, as he left the group. "I might get sick if I hear any more of this."

Although polls show about 60% of Americans supporting a war against Iraq, the numbers drop sharply if "significant casualties" are involved or if the United States goes to war without substantial international support.

In South Carolina, where tens of thousands of military retirees live, two other concerns are frequently mentioned: that after the Persian Gulf War (148 U.S. combat fatalities) and Afghanistan (fewer than two dozen), Americans have become too casual about war, viewing it as a low-casualty affair played out on video screens during a general's slick briefing, and that leaders who send troops to war are seldom the ones whose own children go off to fight.

"That Saddam Hussein is part of the larger problem is indisputable," said Michael Bullock, an Episcopal minister in Columbia. "What concerns me is the long-term view. There is real fragility in the Middle East. I haven't heard a lot of thoughtful conversation about a postwar period, or much awareness articulated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Achilles' heel of the region's problems.

"I've got three children and two are old enough to serve in the armed forces. I'm of the Vietnam generation, and thinking back, the horrible, embarrassing truth is that only when parents like my parents started losing kids like me, did casualties become intolerable."

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