2009/03/14:War? What war?After six years, the Iraq war’s supporters and protesters have one thing in common: They’re paying attention. Is anyone else? - IVAW, Todd Dennis, Fox Valley Peace Coalition

Two Americas, Part I: War? What war?After six years, the Iraq war’s supporters and protesters have one thing in common: They’re paying attention. Is anyone else?

By Steve Wideman •  March 14, 2009 Appleton Post Cresent

APPLETON — The question, scrawled in black ink on white poster board and stapled to a wooden lath, is inches from Bradley Bodee’s face as he stands on the corner waiting to cross College Avenue.

 

Ronna Swift of Appleton (right) talks with people passing by the Fox Valley Peace Coalition's monthly peace rally on College Avenue in Appleton on March 7. Swift is long-time opponent of U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Post-Crescent photo by Sharon Cekada

“Health Care or War?”

Bodee, 19, a Lawrence University physics major, doesn’t give the sign a second glance. Nor does he hear the anti-war chants of Ronna Swift, one of 15 gathered for a monthly Saturday morning demonstration against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bodee is plugged into his iPod, listening to the Young Dubliners, an American Celtic rock band. When the “Walk” sign flashes, he steps off the curb without exchanging a glance or a word with the protesters.

“I haven’t been able to keep up on the wars,” Bodee tells a reporter after he crosses the street. “I don’t really know where the war is at right now.”

Like other wars, the conflict in Iraq has divided the country into two Americas, but this is different. This time, supporters and protesters are on the same side: Americans who still pay attention to the war, including members of the military and their families.

On the other side are people like Bodee, who live in an America that’s no longer emotionally invested in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some say the wars have dragged on so long they’ve lost interest. Others are too worried about the economy to concern themselves with events half a world away that don’t seem to directly affect them.

The lack of a military draft is a big reason fewer civilian Americans are emotionally invested this time around, observers say. There’s even a school of thought that waning interest in the war stems in part from the lack of any searing, iconic photographic images from Iraq, something virtually every other American conflict has produced.

It’s a benign divide — generally, there are no shouts or confrontations; both Americas support and appreciate the troops. But it’s a divide nonetheless, separating two worlds that co-exist but often are unable to relate, and it’s everywhere — running through bank lobbies and airport concourses, restaurants and cemeteries, classrooms and street corners.

Some fear that public apathy toward the Iraq war, which has claimed more than 4,200 American lives, will threaten government and private funding needed to treat current and future war veterans.

Last month’s sendoff in Madison of 3,200 members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade Combat Team, headed to Iraq for 10 months, was a window on the divide. In stark contrast to the days of Vietnam, when thousands of University of Wisconsin students fearing the draft roamed tear gas-filled streets in protest, the event drew not a single protester.

“The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are kind of stale things,” said Lou Van Eperen of Combined Locks, commander of the 8th District, Department of Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars. “The general public is throwing its hands up and saying they can’t do anything about it anyway.”

A March 2008 survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 28 percent of Americans knew the approximate number of U.S. deaths in the war.

As Bodee walks away from his brief and unsolicited brush with the war, a clock on the corner points to noon and emergency sirens, their wail eerily similar to that of the air-raid sirens of the Cold War era, sound their weekly test.

The protesters pack up and leave. It’s time for lunch. For another month until the next scheduled protest, reminders that the nation is at war will disappear from downtown Appleton.

Geraldine Jay of Appleton joins members of the Fox Valley Peace Coalition during the group's monthly peace rally in Appleton on Feb. 7, 2009. Post-Crescent photo by Sharon Cekada

Apathy growing toward terror war

Five years after President George W. Bush appeared aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln before a banner emblazoned with the words “Mission Accomplished,” a reference to perceived victory in Iraq, many Americans “don’t really want to hear about the war,” said Stacy Hafley of Sturgeon, Mo.

Hafley is national organizer for Military Families Speak Out, a group calling for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel from Iraq. Her husband is a veteran of the Iraq war.

That the war has lost its hold on the American psyche is reflected in everything from the virtual disappearance of Iraq war stories from newspaper front pages and ewscasts on radio and TV — space and time now dominated by economic news — to a precipitous decline in the sale of yellow “Support Our Troops” ribbon magnets.

Magnet America of King, N.C., the largest manufacturer of yellow ribbons, saw sales peak at 1.2 million in August 2004. Now, sales are about 10,000 a month, said Chris Weeks, director of operations. Autism-awareness ribbons have supplanted war-related ribbons as the company’s No. 1 seller.

“We have a stockpile of just under 900,000 unsold yellow ribbons,” Weeks said. “The yellow ribbon fad for sure is gone.”

So is media interest in the war, a reflection of what editors and producers think their audiences want to read or hear about. According to the Pew Research Center, war coverage has struggled for several weeks to maintain 2 percent to 3 percent of the space or time available for news in newspapers, television, radio and online.

By comparison, for the week of Feb. 16-22, coverage of the economic crisis counted for 40 percent of the space or time. Next, at 6 percent, was coverage of the auto industry.

Coverage of the Iraq war in particular did not make the Pew chart, dropping to virtually nothing.

Declines in coverage tend to follow and reflect diminished public interest in a topic, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Rosenstiel said the war in Afghanistan long ago “became an afterthought in the media.”

“It was a war that didn’t exist.”

As the wars became less of a political issue in the presidential campaign, they became less of a story in the media, Rosenstiel said. Then, with fewer Americans dying in Iraq and the economy going south, public attention to the wars plunged to almost nothing.

John Towns of Neenah likes to point out that all of America isn’t apathetic toward the war. Towns has a bumper sticker on his vehicle that reads, “My grandson is in the Army.”

Army Sgt. Ryan Porter, 25, of Neenah, is a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Appleton-based Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment that shipped out Feb. 19 for a one-year tour of duty in Iraq.

After a recent visit to the grocery store, Towns found a note stuck under his parked vehicle’s windshield wiper.

“The note said, ‘We will be praying for your grandson,’” said Barbara Porter of Oshkosh, Towns’ daughter and the mother of Ryan Porter, of Neenah. “People are interested in and do care for our soldiers.”

Barbara Porter’s son-in-law, Eric Joachim-Rehorst, 22, of Hortonville, also is headed to Iraq with the Appleton Guard unit.

Joachim-Rehorst’s mother, Patty Rehorst, said the Hortonville school district has been supportive of her son.

“The high school has a wall that honors the soldiers,” Rehorst said. “For Veterans Day last year, the elementary school asked my son to talk about Veterans Day and being a soldier. Eric said that was neat.”

Though she protests U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Swift supports the troops. Her son Greg is in Afghanistan. But while Swift said she fails to understand others’ disinterest in Iraq and Afghanistan, she concedes that she too sometimes has difficulty staying focused on the war.

“I feel like I kind of removed myself from it when I became engrossed in the presidential campaign last fall and as we built an addition to our home,” she said.

Waupaca native Laura Naylor’s eyes were opened to public apathy toward the war when she returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005 after a year in Baghdad with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company.

Naylor, a military police officer, was in Iraq when another Wisconsinite, Michelle Witmer, 20, of New Berlin, died April 9, 2004, in Baghdad from injuries received in an attack on her Humvee involving a roadside bomb blast and small arms fire.

Still reeling from Witmer’s death, Naylor couldn’t believe the muted reaction of her fellow university students when she entered her first class.

“We had to introduce ourselves. I said I was in the National Guard and had just returned from the war in Iraq. All I got was a blank expression from my fellow students,” she said.

“I had served with someone who died. I had gone to hell and back and my fellow students were apathetic. They really didn’t care.”

The divide between those who pay attention to the war and those who don’t is more evident among full-time, active-duty military families, Hafley said.

“I sense there are two Americas,” she said. “The war doesn’t directly affect many people, so they don’t take the time to care."

Hafley said her husband’s deployment cost her some friends.

“My girlfriend shied away from me. She didn’t know what to say to make me feel better,” she said. “It was kind of like someone in our family died and you know nothing you say will make family members feel better.”

Hafley recalls going to her local bank with the couple’s three small boys shortly after her husband deployed to Iraq in 2005.

“I just started crying right there in the bank,” she said. “People saw me crying with my three boys and came over to offer help.

“When I told them I was crying because my husband was deployed, they all just turned around and walked off.”

War costs hard to comprehend

That the economic crisis has supplanted the war in the nation’s psyche strikes some as ironic.

“They (politicians) never talk about the money being spent daily to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan,” said U.S. Navy veteran and protester Todd Dennis of Madison, state coordinator of the Wisconsin Iraq Veterans Against the War.

“If people could make the connection between the ongoing war and the troubled economy, they would begin to realize something is going on,” Dennis said.

According to a Feb. 11, 2008, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report, the cost of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was expected to total $752 billion by the end of 2008. That equates to building more than 5 million homes valued at $150,000 each.

Historically, politicians justify spending money to go to war as a way to stimulate the nation’s economy, said Brian Jacobsen, senior external investment analyst with Wells Fargo Funds Management in Milwaukee.

“But now the cost of the war may be weighing on the economy rather than being stimulative,” Jacobsen said.

Members of the Fox Valley Peace Coalition hold their monthly peace rally in Appleton on Feb. 7, 2009. Post-Crescent photo by Sharon Cekada

Government promotes apathy

Laura Naylor’s father, Dan Naylor, who lives in Waupaca, said he thinks the U.S. government has promoted apathy toward the war since the beginning — the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Following the attacks, we were told by the government to resume our normal lives, to go shopping — literally, go shopping,” said Naylor, one of seven members of the state Department of Veterans Affairs governing board and also a member of Military Families Speak Out.

In a news conference at Camp David on Sept. 15, 2001, a reporter asked Bush how much of a sacrifice he expected ordinary Americans to make after the terrorist attacks.

“Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifices whatsoever,” Bush said.

The message that sent, said Gary McGoey, former Veterans Service officer for Outagamie County, was that ordinary Americans shouldn’t be bothered by the war. “The message from our government was to be vigilant, but to go about our normal activities,” he said.

That has become easier with each passing day. The Iraq war has “lasted so long people have become numb to it,” McGoey said. Retired UW-Green Bay public affairs professor David Littig said interest waned further when soon-to-be-President Barack Obama promised during last fall’s presidential race that he would bring U.S. military personnel in Iraq home within 16 months of taking office.

Late last month, Obama declared he will end combat operations within 18 months and open new diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.

Public attitudes toward the war are much different than they were in the 1960s and ’70s, Dennis said.

“War protests today are nothing like the scale of Vietnam, but then we don’t have as many troops in the war. And we don’t have a draft, so the war is not affecting college students,” he said.

The lack of a draft removes a sense of civilian investment in the war, said McGoey, a Vietnam-era Army veteran.

“The war on terror is being fought by volunteers,” he said. “Who gives a damn about war they don’t have to worry about?”

Had there been a draft, Dan Naylor believes, “We’d be out of Iraq right now.”

A member of the Fox Valley Peace Coalition returns the peace sign to a couple of motorists during the group's monthly peace rally in Appleton on Feb. 7, 2009. Post-Crescent photo by Sharon Cekada

Apathy may affect veterans care

Apathy toward the war eventually could hinder the ability of the DVA to serve veterans and build support for funding to deal with veterans’ needs, Naylor said.

“Without public support, can you imagine going to the state Legislature today in a state with a $6 billion budget deficit or to the federal government, which is facing a $1.3 trillion deficit, and asking for more money?” he said.

“When we are competing with rising unemployment, state and federal budget deficits, difficulties in the car, mortgage and banking industries and rising health care costs, we will continue a downslide in interest in the wars.

“And if people who aren’t involved in monitoring the day-to-day progress of the war get the perception we are pulling out, they’ll start thinking, ‘I don’t have to think about it. I don’t have to talk about it. I don’t have to deal with the war’s ugly ramifications.’”

Naylor’s 29-year-old son Joe, of Sun Prairie, served in Iraq from September 2003 to September 2004 as a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division. He now works with the state Department of Workforce Development finding jobs for disabled veterans in Dane, Jefferson and Dodge counties.

According to the Department of Defense, as of Jan. 16, there were 31,000 wounded in action in Iraq and 2,600 in Afghanistan since the start of hostilities.

“We are seeing more homeless veterans,” Joe Naylor said. “We began seeing homeless Iraqi veterans two years ago. The support is not there for them. They have nowhere to go. Some don’t have the job skills to even click a (computer) mouse. …

“Things need to change. We are going to need private funding. Private individuals and industry need to step up to help with funding veterans’ care.”

Dan Naylor said the job of keeping the public informed and interested in the war likely will rest with community organizations and veterans groups scattered across the state and nation.

Van Eperen, who founded the local chapter of the VFW’s Adopt-A-Unit program, a coalition of Fox Cities veterans groups providing support for families of local soldiers, is beginning a drive to raise $10,000 to support the Adopt-A-Unit work for the 127th and 395th families.

“People may not care for the wars,” Van Eperen said, “but they should care about our soldiers.”

Next Sunday: How war photos shape public opinion.

Steve Wideman: 920-993-1000, ext. 302, or swideman@postcrescent.com