Travel back with us to the spring of 2002. The nation is liquored-up on Osama bin Laden, adrenalin, the war in Afghanistan, dirty bombs, shoe bombs, anthrax—and the dawning realization that, while the president of the United States might look like a chimp, he is almost certainly not as smart as one. Relax, Irvine-based syndicated shock jock Hugh Hewitt tells MSNBC's Alan Keyes on May 6, 2002. “I believe that a year from now, when Iraq has been toppled, you will look back and say, 'You know what? We were a little too quick to judge this president. There were plans within plans within plans, and he was executing them.'”
Seven months later, on the same network's Buchanan N Press, Hewitt parroted the administration's claim—now exposed as a lie—that Iraq had and was ready to use weapons of mass destruction. Hewitt's mangled syntax suggests he was channeling the president hisself when he asserted, “We are going to war against Iraq because they have the potential via weapons of mass destruction to deliver to themselves the same kind of deterrent that North Korea now possesses as a result of the Clinton-Carter appeasement of the 1990s.” That twisted attempt to link all threats in an unholy trinity—nuclear, communist and Clinton liberals—led Hewitt, by now almost breathless with anxiety, to his conclusion: “We have to go and remove that problem before it metastasizes and threatens the entire region, including American interests.”
Illustration by Bob Aul
Now, of course, we know there was no metastasizing threat. The weapons of mass destruction? Nonexistent. Saddam Hussein? Can't find him. The link between Saddam and al-Qaida? Gone. The joy with which Iraqis were going to greet America's gum-chewing gods? Check the body bags. The plan within a plan for leaving Iraq? In a White House memo dated Oct. 16, Secretary of State Don Rumsfeld admitted the administration has no plan—no way to measure whether “we are winning or losing the global war on terror,” no exit strategy, no blueprint more detailed than the prediction that the way out of this mess is likely to be “a long, hard slog.”
If Hewitt has a talent, it would appear to be his endless capacity for stating with precision the opposite of what's true—and then to attack administration critics. When Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) admitted he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war,” Hewitt—jacked-up on 200-proof American can-do spirits—reached deep into history for the most subtle comparison available: in a March 19 Weekly Standard column, he compared Daschle to Nazi sympathizers. Daschle's despair at watching peace slip away was, Hewitt alleged, “unprecedented for the leader of the opposition party in Congress.” Unprecedented? Yeah, for that sort of politicking, you have to go all the way back to late 1998. Shortly after Bill Clinton ordered U.S. forces in Iraq to enforce UN mandates with surgical air strikes, Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott released a one-page statement reading in part, “I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time.”
If Hewitt is asked to reconcile all this—his puffed-up predictions, the Nazi-name-calling, the grotesque errors of fact, the blind partisanship masquerading as patriotism—he'd be best advised to quote one of Ronald Reagan's more famous misspeaks. Reading from a teleprompter John Adams' observation that “facts are stubborn things,” Reagan Freudian slipped: “Facts,” he said, “are stupid things.
According to www.citiesforpeace.org, more than 160 U.S. cities have passed resolutions opposing the war in Iraq. Inspired by these numbers, Mark Leyes took action last spring: he wrote a resolution supporting it.
“If there are cities that are going to oppose the war,” reasons Leyes, “then as a counterpoint, it's important that we go on record and support it.”
“We” is the Garden Grove City Council, on which Leyes is a member. Largely on the portly politician's insistence, the five-person council unanimously approved on March 25 his resolution supporting “the President of the United States and the U.S. Armed Forces in the matter of disarming the despotic regime in Iraq.”
No other Orange County city took a position for or against the war. The Fullerton, Irvine and Laguna Beach city councils rejected citizen-written proposals opposing the war. County Supervisors Chuck Smith and Chris Norby scuttled a motion by fellow Supervisor Bill Campbell that would have sent a letter to President George W. Bush announcing Orange County's support; Campbell sent his own letter anyhow on official letterhead.
The councils and supervisors argued that local governments should focus on local issues, not international skirmishes. But Leyes felt otherwise. “As the senior member of the council, [the resolution] reflects the sentiment of a large portion, if not a majority, of city residents,” says Leyes, who says he didn't consult anyone before putting the resolution on the March 25 council agenda.
The Garden Grove City Council has done nothing since to follow up on its pro-war resolution—there isn't even going to be a city-sponsored Veterans Day ceremony this year. Nevertheless, Leyes is unapologetic about passing the resolution or his continued support for the war.
“The war has been successful to a large extent, but it isn't finished in that we haven't been able to gracefully exit,” says Leyes, who never joined the service. “There's continued resistance. I wish we could get a better handle there or get to the point where we feel comfortable exiting the nation and bring our boys home.”
As to the disappearance of the war's supporters, all Leyes can do is shrug. “It's just human nature, I guess,” he says. “The urgency seems to have gone out of it.” Then he thinks about what he just said. “Maybe it would be a good time for the city of Garden Grove to re-assert our position.”
The Irvine War Memorial
It seems Irvine desperately needs a war memorial. What else would explain the sudden appearance of a hodge-podge of wooden stakes and plastic American flags on the corner of Yale and Bryan immediately after bombs dropped on Baghdad? Irvine City Councilmember Christina Shea declared the site “unbelievable and breathtaking.” What was truly unbelievable and breathtaking was the knee-jerk patriotism of the Irvine City Council. On July 22, they voted 4-0 to turn that patch of sticks into a permanent Iraq War Memorial at Northwood Park. Now, all of Orange County can target Irvine with eggs as the body bags—or “transfer tubes,” as the Pentagon calls them—come home. Asher Milgrom, the memorial's creator, said, “They're dying over there for us over here. It's that simple.” No, it's not Asher. They're dying over there because we'll believe anything over here. In wartime, gullibility is contagious. Irvine Council member Mike Ward said the memorial was the best idea that has come before him during his 11 years on the council. The best idea? We'll remember that. “It's this community's deepest wish that these efforts might ease the suffering of those families that have suffered the ultimate sacrifice,” said Irvine resident Pam Gooderham. I recall this moment at the memorial: a boy of maybe five asked his mom if she would erect a sign with his name on it. “You're too young,”she replied. In a moment off weakness, I hesitated and lost the chance to tell her, “Don't bet on it.”
“I've had so many people come
up and ask about Kenny, and
when I tell them he's still over there,
they say, 'He's still over there? I thought
the war was over? It's not over. They're
dying over there every day.”
Barbara Sanderfur with son Kenny
Photo by Jeanne Rice
It's the Peace That's Killing Her
When Barbara Sandefur's son finally came back from Iraq last month, she expected to meet a different young man. Kenny enlisted with the Marines upon graduating from Huntington Beach High last year, joining because of the discipline and structure, something Barbara credits with giving him the motivation to finish high school.
“They really pushed at the end, and that was good,” she says. “Of course, they also said he wouldn't see any combat action for at least two years. Yeah, right.”
But the Kenny who came back from Iraq was pretty much the Kenny who'd left: headstrong, she says, “in need of an attitude adjustment.” A teenager, in other words, which is what Kenny will be until he turns 20 later this month.
One of the first things he did upon returning—besides tell Barbara that he didn't want to talk about what he'd seen in Iraq—was buy a truck. He has been driving around, though never out of cell phone range from Barbara, who calls to check up on him regularly—”A mom thing,” she says.
She hardly slept while he was in Iraq, napping occasionally in front of one of the televisions that were always on in her house, always certain to first turn on a VCR because “I knew the moment I fell asleep was the moment I should have been there.”
Things only got worse once the war ended. Kenny is part of the Marine First Division that led the drive into Baghdad. During those days, soldiers killed in action were top news, their pictures flashed onscreen along with their names and hometowns, their qualities and aspirations recounted. But after George W. Bush declared an end to combat operations in Iraq—later backtracking to say he'd meant it was an end to “major” combat operations—something changed. Soldiers kept dying, but increasingly their names and pictures didn't make the evening news; their deaths were handled more matter-of-fact, often buried inside other stories about the efficacy of nation building or how the war was playing in New Hampshire.
These were the worst times. Barbara pacing, checking her TVs, websites and message boards for the name of the dead soldier. When a car door would slam on the street outside, she waited for the officious footfall and knock at the door that would signal an end to life as she knew it. That it never came allowed her only a moment of relief.
“I'd feel good, and then I'd feel guilty right away,” she says, her tone quivering somewhere between sardonic and grief-stricken. “I'd feel guilty for feeling good because I knew there was someone else getting that knock on their door.”
The people who stood on corners waving flags had all but disappeared, as had, apparently, the weapons of mass destruction Kenny and the other soldiers had been sent to destroy.
“I don't believe people realize the war is still going on,” she says. “I mean, I've had so many people come up and ask about Kenny, and when I tell them he's still over there, they say, 'He's still over there? I thought the war was over?' It's not over. They're dying over there every day.”
By the end of the summer, Barbara had started writing letters to Bush—”When Bush says, 'Bring 'em on!' I yell at the TV, 'You go over there and bring 'em on, okay?'”—Senator Barbara Boxer and Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. She wrote:
My son and the Marines have been in Iraq for over nine months now. They have done the job YOU sent them over there to do. We have continued to be lied to. We were told they would be home once they reached Baghdad. Now, five months later, they are still there being used as peacekeepers, used to guard and protect the same people YOU sent them over there to kill. When is enough enough? You have forgotten the Marines and left them there, and they need to be brought home. As an American, I am demanding answers. As a mother, I am begging for answers.
There were no replies, save for the Australian newspaper that asked permission to publish her letter, but Barbara's father told her to decline because the paper was “anti-war.” And Barbara was not anti-war. It's the peace that's killing her. Even though Kenny is home, she has continued to write and pace and cry. When she met his homecoming bus, she started bawling again, this time “for all the boys who weren't on the bus.” When she found out that the 15 soldiers killed when their helicopter was shot down Nov. 3 were not given proper protection, she was outraged. The fact that her son made it back didn't make it okay.
When Kenny came home, she thought returning to Iraq an impossibility—When is enough enough? She joked that she'd break both his legs before she'd allow him to go back. Last week, she found out Kenny's unit was likely going back to Iraq in February. With that reality staring her down, she's not only wondering about why but also how?
“How do you send your son back into that?” she asks the day five more soldiers die aboard a helicopter, her voice now flat. “How do you do that?“
Cook: Not a Blowhard
Photo By Jeanne Rice
In mid-April, just after the U.S. military swept through Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the California chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) launched an offensive of its own. The goal: support the troops by decorating the entire country with yellow ribbons. To jump-start that process, YAF showed up at an April 21 Huntington Beach City Council meeting and urged the city to pass an ordinance requiring yellow ribbons to be attached to trees in front of every city building as well as to the antennas of every city-owned vehicle.
The ribbons would be available free-of-charge from YAF—which called for nuclear weapons to be dropped on Afghanistan after Sept. 11 and staged anti-French wine-spilling spectacles in LA earlier this year—at its website (www.yellowribbonamerica.com). At the meeting, the council heeded the call to action, but Councilwoman Debbie Cook earned YAF's ire when she questioned how long the ribbons would be tied to trees and car antennas.
Specifically, Cook pointed out that U.S. troops had already been in Afghanistan for 18 months and more soldiers were being sent abroad every day. “If we're looking at years and years of seeing these [ribbons] on poles, they start to look ragged,” she argued. “I would encourage people to actually consider doing something to contribute, something rather than just the typical jingoism we get so hung up on during these times. . . . Of course I support the troops. But this becomes meaningless. Just because you put a ribbon or a flag on your lapel does not make you patriotic.”
Don't tell that to YAF member Brad White, however. In a recent interview, White claimed that hanging yellow ribbons is about the most patriotic thing you can do when troops are in harm's way—other than enlisting for active service, which neither White nor anyone he knows has done.
“We must support the family members of the people who have gone [to Iraq],” White said. “We need to continue the mission of going out to the cities and getting support for long-term objectives, like getting the state of California to declare a yellow ribbon day.”
Unfortunately for YAF, Operation Yellow Ribbon appears to be moving more slowly than Operation Iraqi Freedom. Not a single news story has appeared in the past six months about YAF's ribbon crusade, nor has the group succeeded in convincing other cities to follow Huntington Beach's bold example. In fact, the group's website—which includes links to outdated stories on U.S. casualties in Iraq—hasn't been updated since it posted a bulletin attacking Cook last May.
'WHAT ARE YOU
Protesting the war has become a little more festive at the weekly Friday-night vigil at Bristol and Anton in Costa Mesa. Credit the gaily-lit topiary reindeer that now stand in frozen frolic on the grass behind the protesters.
It also doesn't hurt that very few of the motorists passing by these days bother to hurl invectives or threats at the protesters. During the “active” phases of the Afghan and Iraq wars, it wasn't pretty.
“When we first came out here and protested the Afghanistan war, boy, were we in trouble. Flags were on every other car; people were flipping us off, cursing us and yelling at us to go back to Russia,” said Mike Mang at last week's vigil. He's one of the organizers and has been there every Friday for more than two years. “It's totally reversed now. We're getting all kinds of friendly honks, thumbs-up and peace signs. Even the flip-off guys don't flip us off so much anymore. They just give us a thumbs-down, which is a little more civil.”
They have to savor such small victories, since all those honks and peace signs have yet to alter the conduct of the war one whit.
Still, many who show up at the vigils think the tide of public sentiment is slowly turning. Bill Mattson of Newport Beach said, “I try to keep a tally on the reactions going by. Initially, maybe one in 10 cars was supportive. Once troops were on the ground, support for us dropped off, and there were counterprotesters across the street. Now, I think people are realizing they've been lied to and are showing a lot more support.”
The counterprotesters are long gone, as are the unit of cops that once eyed the vigil warily from across the street. But this may also be due to the drop in the ranks of the protesters.
“We had between 400 and 500 people out here when we were invading Iraq,” Mattson said, “and now it's down to a hardcore of about 30 who show up, but sometimes its 50 or more if something Bush says disturbs people.”
One longtime attendee, Melissa Armstrong of Costa Mesa, wonders if their signs are even registering with the passersby. “I think people refuse to admit there's a war going on,” she says. “The war is over as far as they're concerned, and they may see us as just a bunch of yahoos on the corner with no reason to be here.
“So many people ask me, 'Why are you still going? The war is over—what are you protesting?' I come because I think it's so important to get this message out. For all of the people who are sitting in their cars trying to forget there's a war going on, we're at least a little reminder.”
Another regular, Tom Lash, doesn't necessarily see the drop in angry responses as a sign of victory. “They're a very vocal minority who only raise their voices when it looks like we're a threat to them. They got their war, so we're no threat to them now.” Not a cheerful assessment, but that hasn't stopped Lash from attending. One quixotic cause is rarely enough, and he also is filing to run against Dana Rohrabacher as a Green in the 46th District.
Sheldon: Queer eye for the God guy.
Photo by Keith May
BACK TO OUR
Given its well-earned reputation as being somewhere to the right of the Bog People, you might expect the website of the Traditional Values Coalition (TVC)—headed by local boy/crazy the Reverend Lou Sheldon—to be a hotbed of pro-American, pro-war, kill-'em-then-convert-mongering. And indeed, in the days when the war in Iraq was top-of-the-fold news—you remember March and April—the TVC website did have stories headlined “President Rallies Troops in Florida” and “Dixie Chickens Are Coming Home to Roost.” But these days, war fervor is nowhere to be seen on the site, having been completely displaced by the TVC's traditional bread and butter: homosexuals and the limp-wristed Democrats who fund their gay proms. Among the “Top 10 Reports” on the TVC website Nov. 3—the day after 15 American soldiers died when their helicopter was shot down in Fallujah—were “Homosexuals Recruit Public School Children,” “Homosexual Propoganda Campaign Based on Hitler's 'Big Lie' Technique” and “Federal AIDS Dollars Fund Homosexual Proms and Fisting Seminars.” To be fair, these were also all part of the “Top 10” even when the war was in full swing because, when you come down to it, the TVC and its fans are way into homosexuality. Witness that on the same day the TVC touted the president rallying troops—April 24—there was also a story about “CA Homosexuals Want Phallic Memorial; Others Plan 'Wet 'n' Wild' Sex Orgy.” And that, kids, is how the war was won.