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Little Certitude Is Heard in America's Months of War Talk

March 19, 2003|Peter H. King

So now it appears inevitable: The bombs will begin to fall, bringing to an emphatic close the strange, often tortured prewar conversation that America had with itself over the last few months.

Public protests and talk show theatrics aside, this was not, by and large, a debate of shouts and thunder. Rather, it was a muttered discourse, one in which the comments that made the most sense tended to be punctuated, not with exclamation points, but with question marks:

Why Iraq? Why now? For what ultimate purpose?

Or, have we forgotten Sept. 11? Shouldn't we, in response to that horrific day, revise the way we think about war and our place in the world?

Since late last autumn, I have bounced about the country, heading out each week to a new place and talking to people about the prospect of a war that now seems just hours away.

Among other destinations, I've gone to ground zero in Lower Manhattan and the Petroleum Club of Midland, Texas, to the tiny Indiana farm town where the esteemed war correspondent Ernie Pyle grew up and La Verne Avenue in East Los Angeles, a neighborhood that in 1991 sent five of its sons to fight Saddam Hussein.

And while I did encounter strongly held opinion on both sides of the war question, what turned up most consistently was confusion, ambivalence, concern -- particularly about what a "preemptive" invasion would say about America and its core values.

"It gets complicated real fast," volunteer firefighter Michael Perry confessed one winter morning as he gave a tour of his tiny Wisconsin farm town. "And before long, if you are a thinking person, you just sort of run aground."

"I've got a lot of mixed feelings about where we might be at the end of this," an oil industry consultant in Midland said, drinking coffee with his pals at the Petroleum Club.

"What is the connection between Iraq and what happened Sept. 11?" wondered an usher working the right-field bleachers at a Cactus League baseball game in Phoenix.

These were not exceptional comments. This type of earnest, out-loud thinking turned up everywhere, in every trip, in almost every interview -- casting doubt on the certitude so often expressed in the polls.

Four months ago, as I started out, talk of possible war seemed almost nonexistent. Congress already had given President Bush a blank check of sorts to go after Saddam Hussein, and that seemed to be that.

When asked, of course, people would respond to war questions, but rare were the opportunities to eavesdrop on Americans debating the merits on their own, on the natural, if you will. And what little debate there was often bordered on simplistic.

In early November I came across a small but enthusiastic contingent of protesters gathered on a street corner outside the courthouse in Bloomington, Ind. It was twilight, and a light snow was falling.

The chanting of the demonstrators was no match for the roar of traffic pouring out of the Indiana University campus a few blocks away. A young man in a souped-up pickup truck slowed down and stuck his head out of the window.

"Bomb Saddam!" he shouted.

"No blood for oil!" the protesters chanted back.

"Bomb Saddam!" the young man bellowed once more.

"No blood for oil!"

"Bomb Saddam!" He shook his fist, honked his horn and peeled away -- and that, I made a note to myself, was the state of the great war debate.

Various and conflicting explanations for this early quiet were offered. There were those who said the war simply seemed too distant, the topic too abstract. Others considered invasion an inevitability, a done deal -- and so why bother even talking about it?

"I think at this point," said 45-year-old David Keppel, whom I met on the edge of the Bloomington demonstration, "people are still dealing with the shock of Sept. 11, and they are still reluctant to come out to something like this."

In time the protests did grow, along with the assortment of arguments presented by the White House in support of invasion. The conversation became more nuanced and certain rhetorical patterns emerged.

Many people, for example, took pains to make clear that their concerns about the war would not undercut their support for the soldiers who must fight it, if it came to that.

And almost every critic of the war felt obliged to note that they were "no supporter of Saddam Hussein." Those who argued for invasion, especially if they were older, often felt obliged to acknowledge that, no, they were not going to be the ones getting shot at.

War proponents tended to see Sept. 11 as a sort of Pearl Harbor. Just as Japan's surprise attack drew the United States into all-out war, not only with that country, but also with Germany and Italy, so, too, would the Al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. evolve into an invasion of Iraq.

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