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Agreeing Only on Hope for the End

Despite opposing views, two families want to see soldiers come home soon.

March 28, 2003|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

The Chevy pickup parked in front of Arturo Rodriguez's Norwalk home bears a KPFK bumper sticker. In his living room, the radio plays that Pacifica Network station born of the peace movement during World War II. There are interviews with antiwar protesters, talk of a boycott of American products and a discourse on the "illegality of America's attack" on Iraq.

Fifteen miles away, Tom Barbre sits in the study of his Long Beach home watching "Operation: Iraqi Freedom" on the Fox cable TV network. Against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings and rumbling tanks, an anchorman narrates the action triumphantly: "Our Marines were catching hell from all areas.... Our Marines are ready and able to take it!"

Neither Barbre nor Rodriguez is particularly troubled by what he hears and sees. Both came to grips long ago with their feelings about this war. Now they watch it unfold in ways that reinforce their competing views.

For Barbre, the military action is a righteous response to the threat of terror. "We need to take care of Saddam," he said. He regards this "not so much as a war, but like a policeman going after a bad guy."

For Rodriguez, the campaign is an unjust waste of lives and money; a cruel flexing of military muscle that reflects misplaced priorities of a citizenry "conditioned, as a society, to be ignorant ... pacified by the media and Hollywood."

Both men hope the war ends soon, the soldiers come home and the Iraqis experience liberty. Neither man is out carrying a peace sign or waving the flag. As the conflict enters its second week and the body count grows, they are -- symbolically at least -- hunkering down with their families, seeking comfort inside a cocoon of beliefs that are heartfelt and steadfastly held.

"I think we're like most people," said Barbre, 52. "Most people have gotten to the point of, 'Let's just take care of it, get it over with, bring the boys back.'

"I think we were all euphoric after the first bombing," he said. "This week kind of shook everybody back to reality.... The prisoners, the soldiers killed. But we're in it now, whatever it takes."

He said it is time to get behind President Bush "and hope he made the right decision."

Children of Veterans

A barrel-chested, plain-spoken man, Barbre has spent 31 years as a Los Angeles city firefighter, the profession of his father and grandfather. His wife, Shelly, 46, is a professional chef who teaches cooking classes and has spent years volunteering with local charities.

Both are the children of veterans. They live with their 12-year-old daughter Megan in a comfortable corner house in Long Beach's Belmont Shore, an unpretentious beach community whose main drag attracts an eclectic mix of trendy couples, partying college students and parents pushing strollers to the ice cream shop.

Here, people are hanging out American flags, just as they did after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and conversations about war often include references to the threat of future attacks.

Shelly Barbre supports the war partly because she sees Saddam Hussein as a link in the chain of terrorism. "If we don't go after him," she asks, will Los Angeles be next? "Have we forgotten what happened on Sept. 11 -- all those innocent people who died? I put myself in the place of the widows, the wives of the firefighters who lost their lives."

She is infuriated by those who denounce the war in peace demonstrations. "People who protest the war are cowards," she said, leaning forward in her chair.

Her husband shook his head and interrupted. "Not cowards, Shelly," he said softly. To him, the marchers don't matter anymore: "The protesters are irrelevant right now."

She didn't waver. "Yes, Tom, cowards. Cowards!" Her voice rose. "They're the children of the parents who were out protesting the Vietnam War."

Shelly Barbre's father came here from Mexico, fought with the Air Force in the Korean War, then owned an auto upholstery shop in Lynwood. "He was so proud of being an American -- we couldn't even speak Spanish in our home," Shelly said. "He stressed learning English. This was our country.... Be proud to be an American."

She knows that the escalation in fighting this week may shake the convictions of some, but she remains confident that her country is right. "It's hard to see it in the light of the bombings, the ... POWs and everything else. But you have to keep in the back of your mind that it's a good thing for the Iraqi people to get rid of that mad man.... Once we get over this hump, I think they'll see that."

Contrasting View

Arturo and Lisa Rodriguez see that "hump" differently.

"People thought it would be so fast and easy," said Arturo Rodriguez, standing in the living room of his tiny Norwalk home, swinging his baby son in his arms. "Now Marines are dying. People don't want to think about that, but it's becoming hard to avoid. When we see what war really means, that's death, and that's going to make a lot of people sick."

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