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'Ribbon' Rhetoric

An anti-war patriot experiences bumper-sticker shock


Published October 13, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Even here in liberal Vermont, famed nationally for civil unions and Howard Dean, every other car seems to sport a "Support Our Troops" yellow-ribbon magnet. Other magnets announce that the driver is "Proud to Be an American," while another red-white-and-blue variety proclaims that "Freedom Isn't Free."

These signs bother me. What exactly do they mean? Why do people put them on their cars? I suspect most of them indicate support for President Bush and the war in Iraq. Others who slap the magnets on their cars may question the wisdom of the war, but they want to express concern for the young men and women in the army -- many of them from lower-class families for whom military pay and benefits are very important.

I've been thinking about these magnets and why they bother me so much. I do not intend to vote for George W. Bush. I think the war in Iraq was a mistake, and that we are in the early stages of another Vietnam-type quagmire. I'm glad Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, but the way we went about forcing this regime change has alienated the entire Arab world and many of America's allies, and it has resulted in a chaotic, violent, deeply divided, occupied country on the verge of civil war.

For their own reasons -- oil? Revenge? Need to divert attention from domestic problems and failures? Testosterone? -- Bush and his advisors got us into a war in Iraq with a terrible new policy of "pre-emptive" war that could justify aggression against anyone. It doesn't matter that another country hasn't attacked us, or anyone outside its own borders. If we don't like the suspicious way a country is acting, we'll invade! This is analogous to my distrusting a neighbor down the road -- he looks sneaky, we had a big argument, and I've seen him with a very large gas can -- so I set fire to his house.

I do support our troops, however, just as I support any vulnerable human being in a dangerous situation. But just now, I am not terribly proud to be an American, at least not in terms of the way we have treated Iraqi prisoners and the alarmingly racist and jingoistic tendencies I see in some fellow citizens, in presidential and official pronouncements and in many media messages.

I can't blame this entirely on George Bush, despite his simplistic, black-and-white statements about the "evil" enemy. He is simply expressing the same blind ethnocentrism we have always demonstrated. For instance, a natural disaster in the United States totally dominates the news. Yet when Hurricane Jeanne recently killed more than 1500 Haitians and left 200,000 homeless, it barely rated a couple of minutes on the evening news.

The basic attitude seems to be: American lives matter a whole lot more than anyone else's. So while I do worry about the poor Americans who are far from home and loved ones, trying to maintain order in Iraq, who may at any moment be killed by a sniper, blown up by a suicide bomber or kidnapped and beheaded, I also worry about the Iraqis. More than 1000 Americans have died in Iraq so far. That's horrible. But some 15,000 Iraqi civilians have died, many of them innocent women, children and old people. Where are the car magnets that say, "Support the Innocent Civilians in Iraq"?

It is Orwellian for George Bush to talk self-righteously about how we have brought freedom to Iraq when we have instead brought bombs, missiles and chaos. "Freedom Isn't Free," the mindless magnets say. What does our invasion of Iraq have to do with our freedom? It is astonishing that Bush seems to have convinced so many people that we were acting out of national self-defense. Who actually believes that Saddam Hussein was going to bomb the United States? I thought this sort of paranoia went out with the Cold War but, no, it is alive and well. "Bombs Aren't Free" would be a more appropriate car magnet.

Recently, the U.S. media parroted military press releases, informing us that American fighter jets had carried out a "precision strike" on a suspected insurgent stronghold of the "al-Zarqawi terror network" in Fallujah. But of course such bland and reassuring jargon hides the reality of what happened. They didn't know exactly who they were bombing. They killed 16 people and wounded 37. That's all the media reported. We don't see the faces, we don't know whose child was killed, whose grandmother, whose friend.

Imagine for a moment that Iraq has invaded the United States, and that Saddam Hussein is strutting around in military garb, talking about how he has brought freedom to America, but lamenting that there are a few die-hard terrorists who insist on attacking the patriotic Iraqi troops. So they bomb a building in Burlington where they suspect some rebels are hiding. Only guess what? They kill your best friend and his youngest daughter, and his wife and son are in the hospital. The boy has lost a leg. If we still had any sort of free press at that point, can you imagine the headlines? The television coverage? But of course that isn't happening here, thank God, and we really don't want to know too much about what is happening to ordinary people in Iraq just now. Then we would have to think about it.

The official attitude appears to be, "Well, it's too bad if a few children are killed or maimed, but you've got to expect collateral damage. This is war, after all." And if a rare TV station or newspaper actually does show a picture of a maimed or dead Iraqi child, we protest their insensitivity in showing such gross things. Instead, we occasionally get pictures like the one I saw recently, a small photo on page 6A of the September 27, 2004, Burlington Free Press showing a screaming woman dressed in black robes. The caption underneath said: "Umm Qais cries after one of her grandsons died and four sons sustained injuries in a U.S. airstrike Sunday in Sadr City, Iraq." But she looks foreign, and her name is weird. Readers may have paused for a moment to think, "Gee, that's too bad," but probably spent more time reading the accompanying article, in which the top U.S. military commander for Iraq, General John Abizaid, said, "I don't think we'll ever achieve perfection, and when we look for perfection in a combat zone we're going to be sadly disappointed." Tell that to Umm Qais. She, too, is "sadly disappointed."

I hope no one thinks I am anti-American. We have a wonderful country and we are lucky to live here. That's really my whole point. Instead of being so self-righteous and self-satisfied, perhaps we could afford to worry as much about the rest of the world as we do about ourselves. Not that I think we should worry less about our own troops. But those who are truly concerned should put a more intelligent magnetic message on their vehicles: "Support Our Troops -- Bring Them Home Soon." Such signs are, in fact, now on sale at Burlington's Peace & Justice Store on Church Street.

I hope P&J will use profits from the sale of their magnets to push for peace. I also hope they offer their magnets at cost to military families or others who are conducting fundraising events for our troops overseas, just as many manufacturers of the ubiquitous "Support Our Troops" magnets do. It is a myth, however, that all the profits from these magnets go to support the troops. Most of the profits go to good old American retailers who know a good thing when they see it. Mindless jingoism sells. And it's a lot easier to put a magnetic yellow ribbon on your SUV than it is to really think about suffering humans, whatever their nationality may be.

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