Greencastle, Ind. – An unusual addition to this summer’s Putnam County Fair was the team of Army recruiters wandering among pens of sheep, cattle and goats, collaring 4-H youngsters, passing out trinkets and touting the possibility of a free college education.
Dressed in camouflage, combat boots and black berets, the soldiers were an impressive group, and the kids were listening. Trouble is, like everywhere else in America, their parents at home were also listening — to the news from Iraq.
Recruiters are spending this critical summer canvassing rodeos, fairs, X Games, NASCAR races and rock concerts. The Army recruiting chief for the Chicago area is Sgt. Major Ozell Johnson. He recently told the Lehrer Newshour that young men and women are persuadable: “However, when they get home and tell Mom and Dad, ‘Hey this is something I want to do,’ then that’s where the resistance starts.”
Of course it does. War reverses the natural order of things and forces parents to bury their children. While we were enjoying our county fair corn dogs and funnel cakes, we were also attentive to the news from neighboring Ohio, where Lucky Lima Company, a weapons platoon from Columbus lost 16 men in one week. This is on top of five casualties in May and two in July.
Paying attention to official statements about the war from Washington is like riding a yo-yo. Newsweek dated Aug. 8 reported, “drastic troop cuts are in the Pentagon’s secret plans.” The Aug. 9 lead story in The Star was headlined, “U.S. troop presence to grow in Iraq.” Secretary Rumsfeld says it all depends on how well Iraqis are able to handle things on their own. The insurgents’ bombs are getting bigger and more sophisticated; our growing casualties include nearly 1,850 dead and 13,000 wounded. Iraqi soldiers and police are sadly unprepared and any Iraqi official cooperating with the U.S. has a target on his back. What parent wouldn’t be skeptical?
The war on terror once was President Bush’s strongest suit, but now polls show that support for his Iraq policy is tanking. In the beginning it was easy to support a war that promised to be short and called upon most Americans for no sacrifice whatever. No danger, no taxes, no worry. The administration declares flag-draped coffins “classified” and attempts to hide them. The families of reserves, National Guard and regular military are paying the full price of this senseless, badly managed war. The rest of us put flags and “Support Our Troops” decals on our cars and wonder how long Donald Rumsfeld can hold onto his job.
As the funerals for Lima Company began, the price of Iraq came home to Ohio last week. Against that backdrop, in nearby Cincinnati, Marine veteran Paul Hackett almost won a special election in a district that Bush won by 64 percent in 2004 and the Democrats have not carried in 30 years. How difficult it must be for a veteran to come home and oppose a war when his comrades are still at risk in the violence of Iraq. But Hackett gave it to the voters with the bark off. He called President Bush a “chicken hawk” and said the war is a misuse of the military. When returning veterans begin to speak out, the times they are a’changin’.
How horribly painful must it be for a parent to conclude that the son she lost in Iraq was needlessly sacrificed in a poorly planned, ill-prepared military adventure without honest motives. That is the case of Cindy Sheehan, a Gold Star mother whose son Casey was killed in Sadr City in April 2004. Sheehan is camped outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. She is demanding a meeting with the president and a better explanation of his intentions than his Aug. 3 statement: “We have to honor the sacrifices of the fallen by completing the mission. . . . The families of the fallen can be assured that they died for a noble cause.”
Now other Gold Star families are traveling to Texas to join Cindy Sheehan. A crowd will soon form in Bush’s driveway, a gathering of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in a war that the rest of us are mostly free to ignore. This crowd from the families of the fallen will be hard to ignore. Along with Paul Hackett in Ohio, it is one more sign — far more important than the declining polls — that the times they are a’changin’.