Iraq war, reconstruction stir debate among African-Americans

Reaction to Marine's death shows divisions, especially in families of U.S. troops

War in Iraq

April 14, 2003|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Flowers and a large photograph sat near the coffin of Marine Staff Sgt. Kendall D. Waters-Bey, killed in the opening days of the war in Iraq. The sobs of family members rent the air at St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore.

About 800 mourners, most of them black, turned out for the funeral April 4. It was a tremendous outpouring of grief for a Marine who died in a war that was firmly opposed at its outset by a substantial majority of African-Americans -- even though blacks make up a disproportionate share of the armed forces.

Now that the war seems all but over, the huge amount of money the United States is planning to spend on reconstruction in Iraq -- about $2.4 billion through September was included in Presidential Bush's supplemental budget request to Congress -- is a subject of contention among African-Americans.

Daryl Jacobs, 31, a truck driver who lives in Northeast Baltimore, said he believed that the money allocated for the war and its aftermath "could have been put in other places, like education, fixing Baltimore's streets, and public housing. It could be spent in other ways than war. There are potholes in Baltimore as big as Jacuzzis."

The reaction to Waters-Bey's death illustrates the division the war has created among African-Americans, especially among the families of black military personnel. After learning that his son had been killed in a helicopter crash, a grief-stricken Michael Waters-Bey appeared on television holding the Marine's photograph. "I want President Bush to get a good look at this, really good. This is the only son I had, only son."

But after the funeral, Brad L. Waters, a first cousin of Sergeant Waters-Bey's, praised the Marine's sacrifice and voiced support for the war.

"I think Kenny did a good deed; I'm not happy that he lost his life, but he was doing what he wanted to do, he was happy and he was brave," said Waters. As for the war, he said Bush made "a good call."

The one large national survey that measured black attitudes in the midst of the war -- a Gallup Poll conducted by telephone of 2,028 respondents released March 28 -- showed a wide racial divide. Just 29 percent of black Americans favored the war with Iraq, while 78 percent of white Americans supported it.

A spokeswoman for the Gallup organization said the poll didn't explore why blacks overwhelmingly opposed the war. Nor has Gallup released a follow-up survey to determine if attitudes have changed after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and the evident joy of many Iraqis at its demise.

But interviews during the past two weeks indicate that opinions among African-Americans remain divided. The war has staunch supporters, and factors such as politics, concern that the war will drain money from social programs and the nation's history of racial injustice shape the views of its detractors.

Another factor that weighs heavily is the high number of blacks in the military. Blacks account for 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, but they make up 26 percent of the Army's personnel. Black women account for nearly half of the women in the Army. Overall, blacks make up about 20 percent of the personnel in all branches of the volunteer military.

Rep. John R. Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, said that "it doesn't take a lot of imagination" to look at the war from the vantage point of race. He recalled that midlevel officials in the first Reagan-Bush administration had used racial epithets in referring to Arabs.

"The racial implications are hard to evade," said Conyers, adding: "Would this be happening to them [the Iraqis] if they were not nonwhite?"

Conyers predicted that opposition to the war and the subsequent military occupation will mount as the public becomes aware of the financial and human costs.

Outside St. Matthew's, Waters disagreed. "I think the way the world is now, with all these terrorists, we were headed in a bad direction [and the war is] worth it," he said. "We don't want to lose the lives of our soldiers, but if we wait, and wait and wait, we might lose millions of lives. There's a lot of people against [the war]. But I think Bush did a good thing."

As six Marines carried his cousin's coffin out of the church, two veterans wearing American Legion caps stood at attention. Members of a West Baltimore post, they felt compelled to attend the funeral even though they did not know the family.

"This war is needed because Saddam is a very evil man, and something had to be done to stop him," said one of them, James Jackson, 61, a Vietnam veteran, as he walked aided by a cane in the church's parking lot.

"A lot of people don't understand why we're over there, but if you talk to veterans, now that's a different story. A lot of people in my senior building have a lukewarm feeling about it. Some just don't like war. I really have to explain to people what's going on and why we're there."

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