Blind Loyalty Latest US War Casualty

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The Age (Australia)

Blind Loyalty Latest US War Casualty

by
Ian Munro in Pemberton, New Jersey

PEMBERTON, New Jersey, is a military town, but it emerges from the highway like a vision of an older, simpler, idealised America conceived by Norman Rockwell.

0720 08This is not a holiday, yet Pemberton's historic main street is dressed in national flags, the Stars and Stripes lifting from every lightpole, and most front porches. The streetscape reflects more optimistic times. The houses are Georgian and Victorian, brick and timber, multi-storied, high-gabled and elaborately decorated.

Cars bear transfers of yellow ribbon that speak of supporting "our" troops. Overhead, lumbering jets cast giant shadows as they approach McGuire Air Force Base.

Also adjacent to the town is Fort Dix, the military camp that has done more than any other to prepare troops for the conflict in Iraq.

If George Bush loses towns like Pemberton, then he has surely lost America. And it seems he is losing this piece of small-town America, population 29,000.

Virginia Green, 29, is a self-described "army brat". Her father was army. Her husband is air force, stationed at McGuire. Her brother also is army, and presently in Iraq.

Mrs Green shares Mr Bush's faith in God and says she knows he is a good man, since he trusts in God for making executive decisions. But she adds that the conflict in Iraq has persisted too long.

"Me and my husband try not to be political people - we try to take authority from God," she said. "I think he has been a good president. But I do think in some ways, instead of letting God totally rule his decisions (Bush) has let some of the other people higher up do that.

"I would like to see an end to it but I know everything is not ready for that. I wish the Iraqi people would get more into the freedoms they used to have."

Pemberton's streetscape might appear frozen in the 19th century, but the views of its citizens on the role of the military in Iraq, and on President Bush are shifting more rapidly. Local Methodist pastor Jare Hopkins-Doerr has seen a shift in the six years she has been in the town.

The congregation she led at the time of the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991 insisted on a community-wide prayer vigil. When the US went into Iraq there was no groundswell for a corresponding time of reflection and hope in Pemberton.

About one-third of her congregation is military personnel and their families, and there was probably 90 per cent support through the church for Mr Bush's move into Iraq. Now, it might, just might, be 50:50, she said.

"About two years ago, I began to hear some of our military people questioning overall. They were disappointed in the lack of planning and strategy, but I did not hear any question as to whether we should be there," Ms Hopkins-Doerr said.

"This is a military town. There's an ingrained nature not to question military authority. Questioning the involvement in Iraq would not have have been there four years ago, and it sure is now. And mostly, what I hear is that there are no good solutions. People also distinguish between Afghanistan and Iraq."

Military people mostly shy away from commenting, as do their spouses, who say they would not like to cause embarrassment for their partners. But even among this group, there is a suspicion of the President's motives for going into Iraq.

One young woman, about to begin college and whose parents are both in the army, said she believed the conflict was a Christian pursuit of Muslims. Asked her own religious fealty, Chantel Wheeler said she was Christian.

Herbert Bell, 53, and ex-army of 20 years' service, including two years in Vietnam, lives down one of Pemberton's pretty side-streets, displaying still more Stars and Stripes. He has none of the reticence of current military personnel in speaking his mind.

"He is the worst president we ever had. Worse than his Dad. People are speaking but it seems they are not speaking loud enough, or Bush is not listening. Everyone can see what's wrong - you must be brain-washed or crazy not to understand it," he said.

Mr Bell, it must be said, did not vote for Mr Bush, and identifies himself as a Democrat in this mostly Republican town. But, he said, for him it was clear from the beginning that the war was wrong; that one country cannot tell another how to organise itself.

He is upset, too, that mostly it is people from average or struggling backgrounds who are fighting the war.

"All the kids, rich ones going to college for some reasons have got ways of getting out of the war. For the average citizen, it's hard for them to lose somebody in the war, but they are (seen as) expendable."

Out of town, where the corn fields begin and the air is rich with country smells, Eleanor Kirkbride's home has none of the historic grandeur of the township.

But she has made up for it by leaving in place her red, white and blue budlights and the sweeping red, white and blue bunting across her front veranda. It all went up for the Fourth of July and it will come down she knows not when.

Mrs Kirkbride, 76, is a fearful woman who does not like to leave her dairy farm, but when she does, she said she is watchful all the time. She worries too, about her granddaughter, who has an Iraqi boyfriend.

"I hate to see our boys being killed over there. Then again, you don't know if they (terrorists) are coming over here," Mrs Kirkbride said.

But, she said, the war in Iraq had continued too long. "I would like to see them finish up and get home. I would like the people over there to take over their own country. Every day you see there's more being killed and that's disgusting."

At the local florist, businesswoman Norma Ward is circumspect when asked about the performance of the Bush Administration. She said she thought they were working to the best of their ability. And then she laughed.

Her friend, Cristy Ratcliffe was disturbed by the revelation that the country's top national security advisers had concluded that the strategy for fighting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Pakistan had failed, and that the terrorist network had rebuilt and reorganized.

"They said on the news the threat is back to where it was on 9/11, so we got nowhere," she said.

There is in the town a real sense of war-weariness. "Why are we the world's police?" asked Charles Fisher, who has lived in Pemberton since he returned from Vietnam in the 1970s after two years in the army.

"The only reason we are there is because of oil - if it's not in the country, it's a route to it. He has picked up where his father left off. Everybody's tired."

Copyright © 2007. The Age Company Ltd.

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