Gulf War, Unlike the Conflict in Vietnam, Was Popular Back Home WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Randi Henderson

As U.S. troops amassed and went to war a half a world away, Americans at home were galvanized into a groundswell of support and an outpouring of pride.

It would be called "the new patriotism," this outpouring, and by the time the war started it was hard to find a neighborhood not decorated with its symbols -- yellow ribbons and American flags.

A strong undercurrent of this patriotism was a reaction to the last war fought by American soldiers. The thought was spoken and written and broadcast again and again: This would not be another Vietnam, an unpopular war opposed by the public. This would not be another war for which returning soldiers would have to justify their service.

This would be a war Americans could stand behind.

Even members of the small but active peace movement often made the point that while opposing the war, they supported the American troops. It was not unusual to find anti-war activists sporting yellow ribbons of their own and waving flags, rather than burning them.

Although Congress was less than unanimous in voting President Bush the power to proceed with the war, it soon became apparent to elected representatives that their constituents were foursquare behind the effort -- "wide and deep" was how Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., described the support for the war in his home state.

Lawmakers offered numerous resolutions in support of the president, the war and veterans. Nearly 100 veterans' bills have been introduced in this session of Congress, including one proposal for a "hire a veteran" week and another guaranteeing that veterans' cemeteries be open for burials on weekends.

When the war began on Jan. 17, TV brought it live into our homes and Americans tuned in to round-the-clock coverage. After a few days, it was back to business as usual -- almost.

TV returned to regular programming -- with frequent interruptions for war updates.

The Super Bowl was played as usual -- but singer Whitney Houston's rendition of the national anthem was certainly listened to more closely and applauded more ardently than in previous years.

A few weeks later, on Feb. 14, we sent valentines not only to our lovers -- but to soldiers we had never even met.

We donated so much blood that the Red Cross couldn't use it and thousands of gallons were dumped.

And we matched the highly touted technology of war weaponry with technology on the home front, faxing messages to the troops in the gulf and calling toll-free 800 numbers to inquire about the status of individual soldiers.

Those first couple of days after the war began, when it seemed nothing could go wrong for the United States and its allies, a heady rush of euphoria swept the country. And although the reality never became too grim for the American public, as casualties remained hearteningly light, instant news coverage made one family's tragedy every family's tragedy.

"Our boy came home and we know exactly where he's at," Joyce Jenkins of Coultersville, Calif., told a reporter when her 21-year-old son Thomas was killed in action. "But there's lots of other men and women over there who need our love and support."

Support was there, for anyone willing to walk around the corner or pick up a telephone. Groups sprang up like crocuses in the spring, offering support for spouses, children, parents, support for anyone touched by the war who could find succor in meeting with people similarly touched.

If there was a downside to all this national unity, it was in how some people chose to vent their enmity. Saddam Hussein was there for everyone to hate, but for some he wasn't close enough.

In Gaithersburg, an Iranian motorist -- mistaken for an Arab -- had his skull broken and suffered partial paralysis after being beaten with a metal pipe. Gunshots were fired into the car of a Palestinian family in the Midwest. Pan American airlines refused a ticket to an Iraqi citizen. In Charlestown, Mass., an Arab-American landlord was warned in a letter his building would be burned if he did not move out fast.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which tracks "hate crimes" against Arab-Americans and Arabs in this country, reported 43 incidents from August through December 1990, and more than 50 the first two months of this year. (Previously such incidents had numbered fewer than a dozen a year.) Two-thirds were threats in the form of hate mail or abusive phone calls, and the remainder were actual incidents including arson, vandalism and physical assault.

Most Arabs were America's allies in this war, but patterns of discrimination took little notice of that. "It is as though Arabs are put into one bag and shaken up and one is picked out to be targeted," said Albert Mokhiber, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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