A war begins in gulf, at home

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

January 17, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

And so, the war begins.

Allied forces attacked Iraqi positions in the Persian Gulf about 7 p.m. yesterday. Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm.

Shortly after the attack began, anti-war protests here began to escalate.

"A student called our offices and told us about it," said Sharon Ceci, local co-chair of the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East. "We confirmed it with our national offices. And right after that, we started calling everyone in our local network.

"I'd say we were mobilized in about an hour," Ceci said. "It was really amazing."

By 9 p.m., the group had mustered about 150 protesters in front of the National Guard Armory at Howard and Preston streets, where they joined hands, rocked back and forth and sang "We Shall Overcome."

They also banged on cymbals and pots and pans and waved signs that read, "No blood for oil" and "Bring the troops home now."

They chanted, "Hell no, we won't go, we won't fight for Texaco!"

Midnight arrived and the chanting and singing and sign-waving continued. Midnight passed and they were still at it.

It could have been fun, like a carnival.

It could have been romantic and exciting -- the way the '60s generation prefers to remember the protest against the Vietnam War.

But last night, the Persian Gulf War was too fresh, people were too grim.

"When I heard they had started fighting, I felt like crying. I really did," said Denise Andrews. "I felt angry and humiliated. I felt sad and embarrassed for our country. I felt that this was a war that didn't have to be."

You might recall that the United States fought two wars during the '60s and early '70s.

There was a war in Vietnam and a war at home, a shooting war and a shouting war. American soldiers clashed with the Viet Cong. American authorities clashed with American citizens.

People got hurt on both fronts. A government went mad with paranoia and had to be brought down.

The whole period was so ugly, and the social and political fabric of the country was so brutally scarred that no reasonable person could have predicted we'd go through it all again so soon.

But last night, hostilities began in the gulf, and if the fighting escalates as expected, if the allied assault stalls and bogs down, we might very well see hostilities of a different sort here.

The anti-war protesters had the corner of Howard and Preston streets to themselves last night. But polls show that the public is deeply divided in its support for the gulf war.

And there are enough ongoing divisions and resentments already.

"My quarrel isn't with Saddam Hussein," said Daki Napata, a community activist who fought in Vietnam.

"Saddam Hussein didn't veto the Civil Rights Act of 1990, George Bush did. Iraqi soldiers didn't march down the streets of Washington, D.C., wearing sheets over their heads, my fellow citizens did."

Those anti-war protesters predict that opposition to the war in the gulf will spread a lot faster than it did against the war in Vietnam.

The Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East is helping to organize a national March on the White House Saturday. Tens of thousands of people are expected.

"People were organizing in protest against this war before the shooting even started," Ceci said.

"Now that the shooting has started, I think you will see the protests grow and spread," she said. "I don't think anyone has any illusions at all about the morality of this war."

Brendan Walsh, who runs Viva House, a local shelter for the homeless, said, "This is a lot different from the early days of protest against the Vietnam War.

"In the beginning, at least in Baltimore, most of the people against the [Vietnam] war were white and over 25," Walsh said. "The people you see here are much more diverse. There are more blacks, here. More young people. That says something to me."

If opposition is indeed so widespread and broad-based, we might escape the trauma of Vietnam.

But it seems more likely to me that the shooting war could lead to another shouting war and that it could be just as bitter and ugly as before.

And so, the war in the gulf begins. We have many, many reasons today to pray for peace -- on all fronts.

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