ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

cover - Divisions over Iraq


Sidebar: High school students march for peace
But some express support for the war

WITH AMERICAN AND BRITISH forces making dramatic gains every day -- and with the possibility that Saddam Hussein and his two sons were killed in a bombing raid Monday -- the debate over the war in Iraq is fast becoming moot.

Like it or not, a military government headed by a United States general will soon be calling the shots in the battered Middle Eastern country, much like the provisional government headed by Douglas MacArthur that was set up in Japan at the end of World War II. After a six-and-a-half-year occupation, MacArthur and his assistants packed their bags and left, leaving behind something new: a fledgling democratic government in a country without any democratic traditions.

That government persists to this day, as do the American military bases established during MacArthur's reign, the bulk of which are concentrated off the Japanese mainland on the island of Okinawa.

A similar future is envisioned for Iraq, although there are critical differences between that country today and Japan in 1945 -- a key one being that the Japanese people accepted MacArthur because he had been endorsed by the Japanese emperor; there is no such figure in Iraq to give whoever heads the military government there a similar imprimatur. Also, the Japanese had surrendered unconditionally, while the Iraqis are not likely to; and Iraq, riven by age-old ethnic and religious animosities, is a much less cohesive country than Japan was.

All of which suggests that the peace in Iraq may be more difficult than the war. Nonetheless, there's no disputing that this is a watershed moment in world history: America now has a new military beachhead in the Middle East. There's also no disputing that the way in which the Bush administration achieved this has been controversial both abroad and at home. Here in Humboldt people are still struggling to come to terms with what has happened in the past days, weeks and months. And while virtually everyone supports American troops, people are divided about the wisdom of this war, not to mention its legality and morality. What follows are brief snapshots of the views of some community members.



"I am not for war," said MariLou Renner. "But I feel peace comes at a price." Renner should know. Her oldest boy, Cameron, is in Iraq right now. He's a logistics officer in the 3rd batallion, 2nd Marine division. She and her husband, Mike Renner, owner of Renner Petroleum, believe that Cameron is presently somewhere south of Baghdad. They talked to him on the telephone on March 15, when he was in Kuwait, prior to the invasion. And he wrote them a letter two days later. Since then, silence. Which isn't really surprising. As MariLou Renner put it: "There's no way he can take time to sit down and write a letter because he's fighting for his life."Photo of MariLou Renner

That, of course, is just it. Her son is in harm's way, and like every loving mother her instinct is to protect him, never mind that he's a fully grown, 25-year-old adult. Given the fact that he's on the other side of the world, she can't. So MariLou Renner is having to endure an exquisite kind of torture that only the parents of soldiers at war -- perhaps only the mothers of those men and women -- can fully understand. "I've had a nervous kind of feeling before, but I don't think I've ever had this kind of feeling before. It's very, very nerve-wracking. I just get a feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's almost like my heart is being torn out." At another point she said something that revealed a fundamental truth about parenthood: No matter what the situation, you feel responsible for your children. "I feel like I'm taking my first son and sacrificing him," Renner said. "In a way, every day is a death."

[left, MariLou Renner and her son Cameron]

Renner and her husband have had good cause to be worried: Cameron was involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the war to date, the firefights in and around Nasiriya, an urban center in central Iraq. She knows that he survived because a colonel recently sent an e-mail to his own wife at the Marine's Camp Lejune base in North Carolina that said everyone in Cameron's division survived; the colonel's wife, in turn, passed along the e-mail to the troops' wives.

Cameron, a graduate of St. Bernard Catholic School in Eureka, met his wife, Sarah, at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where they were both students. An all-around athlete and student body president in high school, Cameron studied business and animal science at Oregon State and had planned on being a large animal veterinarian. But then an aptitude test he took in college showed that he was strongly suited for the military, and Cameron switched direction.

"It was a shock to my life when he went into the military," his mother recalled. "But when I looked back on him as a little child, I wasn't really surprised. He was always a real spiritual child, very loving and compassionate. But he always had a really determined, strong side, too."

Cameron has a child of his own, a 9-month-old girl named Scarlet. In his letter in March he talked of missing her, and made reference to the fear many soldiers have: that the things they see and have to do in combat will somehow make them fearsome to their loved ones when they return. "I hope she is not afraid of me or anything," he wrote.

Cameron's mother's greatest fear is obvious. Given the military's practice of personally informing loved ones of combat fatalities, Renner said that if someone were to knock on her door in the middle of the night for no good reason, "I would probably choke them." She also expressed frustration at anti-war protesters, who have been fairly visible in both Eureka and Arcata. She said they are "angry," not peaceful, and have a "political agenda."

"I don't have trouble with the Women in Black," she went on, "because they are truly praying and standing for peace. Praying for our boys and peace -- that's a peace march to me."


Bud Tillinghast, a retired United Methodist minister, is opposed to the war. But he said he also supports the troops.

"People who support the war assume that people who are against the war are not concerned for our American troops. But attempting to divide the community in terms of anti-war and anti-troops is a false dichotomy that only hurts everyone.

"Religious leaders who have to deal with families who have lost sons and daughters are sensitive to the concerns of families for the safety of their children," he added.

Tillinghast, along with about 30 other local religious leaders, endorsed an advertisement for the March 15 "peace march" in Eureka that appeared in local newspapers. Now he said he wants to join with local veterans' groups "to plan a welcome back for our troops when they return."

The minister said his opposition to the war stems from his belief that it is immoral. For a war to be just, he said, "it should be the last resort." In this case, President Bush did not try to avoid war; quite the opposite. As a result, the whole diplomatic saga at the United Nations, in Tillinghast's view, was nothing more than a sham. "Despite taking this to the U.N., a decision had already been reached by the administration and the neo-conservatives to change the complexion of the Middle East."

Tillinghast said the war was immoral for another reason: It violates the principle of proportionality because the United States is using overwhelming force on a comparatively weak nation.

Tillinghast said he genuinely believes the president is what he proclaims to be: a devout Christian. But he said Bush is a Christian "in the tradition of the Crusades, where the world is divided between those who are good and those who are evil.

"For me, the line between good and evil goes through the human heart; it is not an external thing. Therefore, we are all involved with good and evil. With good intentions, I can do evil things."


Abdul Aziz, a Humboldt State University business professor who was born in Pakistan, is also troubled by this war. Doubly troubled, actually, since his faith -- Islam -- demands two things of him: loyalty to his country, which in his case is America since he is a U.S. citizen; and loyalty to all Muslims everywhere.

"There's a saying of the prophet Mohammed," Aziz said. "Two Muslims are like two fingers of the same hand; when one hurts, the other will feel the pain.

"So the Muslim community is torn," Aziz went on. "Muslim-Americans are feeling the pain right now because so many Iraqi civilians are getting killed. But at the same time we are citizens of the U.S.Photo of Abdul Aziz

"It's very hard," he added. "How do I support the troops when I don't like the war? I keep praying."

Like Tillinghast, Aziz believes President Bush deliberately pushed for war. He also expressed deep skepticism about one of the justifications offered by the president: the need to deter future terrorist attacks on the United States.

"This preemption can lead us to a path of fighting many more wars. It can also encourage other strong nations to start wars with weaker nations." Aziz expressed concern that the example of the war in Iraq could cause India to attack his native Pakistan over the Kashmir, long a disputed area between the two nuclear-armed South Asian countries. He also said that Israel could look to the Iraq war as justification for taking preemptive action against Palestinians to prevent suicide bombings. Finally, he said many countries in Africa, a chronically unstable area, could use the doctrine of preemption to wage war on their neighbors. "The preemption principle itself could lead to world chaos," Aziz warned.


Like Aziz, Saeed Mortazavi is a professor in the business school at HSU and a U.S. citizen. Unlike Aziz, he is an Iranian by birPhoto of Saeed Mortazavith, and, as such, is worried that his home country might be America's next target.

For one thing, Iran shares a lengthy border with Iraq. For another, Iran is one of three countries -- along with Iraq and North Korea -- that President Bush has described as comprising an "axis of evil."

Mortazavi has no love for Iraq or Saddam Hussein. "This is a regime that fought against Iran for eight years [in the 1980s] and killed about a million Iranians." Mortazavi pointed out something else: The United States assisted Hussein in that war, both in terms of intelligence and in terms of military technology.

Mortazavi said the warnings the Bush administration issued last week to Syria and Iran about coming to Iraq's aid are merely the latest in a string of negative statements directed at Iran. Before Iran was part of the axis of evil, it was deemed a rogue nation by American officials.

Mortazavi said that if derogatory characterizations of a country are used to prod the government in power to move in the right direction, that's one thing. But if they "are used in a military sense to dehumanize the country so it can become a military target, then there is a significant problem with that."

Mortazavi said "there is no good justification for military action against Iran.

"Iran is a developing democracy. Iranians should be given a chance to reach their own democratic solution without the intervention of other countries."


Jerry Partain bristles at the suggestion that the United States is on the brink of a binge of conquest. "I can't go along with people who say we are at the beginning phase of an imperialist mode. It makes no damn sense.

"I don't see any evidence or believe that the United States is ready to go into North Korea and Iran," he added.

He said attacking Iraq was justified, in part, because Saddam Hussein is such a cruel tyrant. Because of America's might, he said it would have been less defensible to have done nothing and allowed him to remain in power. "I don't see how we could keep from doing something given the way he's abused his own people.Photo of Jerry Partain"

He also doesn't think, as some do, that the real motivation behind the war is to gain control of Iraq's huge oil fields. "Hell no," he said when asked. "We could have taken all the oil fields we wanted in `91 [during the Gulf War] when we had 200,000 troops over there."

Partain is a retired HSU forestry professor. He served as the head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection from 1982 to 1989. He has traveled extensively, visiting 64 countries, and is one of the more articulate conservative voices in Humboldt County.

He said he was not surprised at the resistance the Bush administration encountered at the U.N. in the weeks leading up to the war. "That's been the problem with the U.N. all these years. They talk a lot. They write a lot. They spend a lot of time in hotels and bars. But they are very shy on doing anything."

He said the opposition had much to do with jealousy of American power, particularly on the part of the French. "That's what was really goading them. They're descending rapidly on the scale of real producers and they don't like it." Partain said jealousy is also the root cause of Arab resentment toward America.

But then won't attacking Iraq fan the flames of resentment further and produce, as the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak put it, "a hundred Bin Ladens?"

Partain said no, that American strength would deter attacks. "They'll be less likely to attack a strong horse," said Partain, who believes that avoiding problems is what causes things to fester. "The Clinton administration avoided lots of problems and things got worse." One thing Partain said the Bush administration shouldn't avoid is the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"We need to get Israel to accept a Palestinian state and get that established. That would do more for stability in the Middle East than anything else."


Paul Blank, an HSU geography professor, is perhaps the rarest of birds in this debate: someone who, by his own account, is on "both sides of the issue."

A fluent Arabic speaker who lived in Cairo in the 1970s and 1980s, Blank is both "horrified by the horror of war and the way the administration has run roughshod over the international system," and "hoping against hope that the war will effect change for the good in a situation where the status quo is unacceptable."

Like Partain, he believes that the Bush administration must now follow up and resolve the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I'm not optimistic, but I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised."


Melanie Williams, an HSU political science professor, said that the Iraq war is one more example of a growing divide among Americans that can be traced to the disputed 2000 presidential election. "George Bush says he's a unifier, but he keeps renting us asunder." Whether it's the war, his budget proposals, civil liberties, or international agreements, the president through his actions keeps "showing the deep ideological divisions" within the country.


Mike Harvey, county chairman of the Republican Party, said "Frankly, it's not the time to debate the war, but a time to support and send prayers to our troops and their families. In fact, it's a time to send prayers to the millions of innocent Iraqi civilians."


Eureka Mayor Peter La Vallee, who opposes the war, said the whole debate about Iraq has left a sour taste in his mouth. "I'm tired of being told that the federal government has all the answers and that I'm unpatriotic if I question [the war]."


David Meserve, an Arcata city council member who believes the United States is bent on economic and military domination of the planet, said he's felt a real sense of "powerlessness and despair" since the war broke out.

He said he's particularly bothered that Americans "are getting so hated in the rest of the world.

"I don't feel as safe to travel as I used to," Meserve said. "I feel like I'm going to have to wear a sign on my back saying `I'm an American but I disagree with my government.'"


Hugo Papstein, owner of two local talk radio stations -- KINS and KWSW -- that feature Rush Limbaugh, said the vociferousness of anti-war protesters in the Humboldt Bay region is misleading -- most people, "a silent majority," are for the war. "The people I talk to are certainly supportive of the war effort and understand why it was necessary," Papstein said. He remarked that he saw an "awful lot of support" at the recent jazz festival. "There were standing ovations every time a patriotic song was played," he said.

High school students march for peace
But some express support for the war


ON A CLOUDY MORNING LAST WEEK, just after the end of first period, a group of students began assembling in front of Eureka High. American flags were pulled from backpacks; a few kids held hand-lettered signs. One identified the group as "EHS Students for peace." Another asked, "How many lives will it take to end this war?" Yet another boiled the issue down to a single word: "Death?"Photo of student march

Within minutes about 100 teenagers set out en masse, walking briskly toward the county courthouse. At the front of the crowd, Brandon Moore, age 16, one of the students who organized the walkout, held a red sign marked with a large peace symbol.

"I felt that we needed to do something to show that the student body has a voice," said this clean-cut sophomore, who was wearing a tie. "We need to say how we feel to show people what we want for our generation. We want peace."

[right, Eureka High students march down J Street.]

When the school administration got wind of the walkout they proposed an alternative -- a school assembly where students could air their views on the war.

Moore said he and the other organizers felt the administration was "trying to downsize our voice and our opinions. It seemed like they weren't taking us seriously and wanted to control what we wanted to say."

When administration officials saw that the students weren't going to back down, they circulated a memo warning that anyone who left class would be punished. "If I get in trouble I'll accept it," Moore said. "If I get suspended I'll pin the notice on my shirt and let people know that I got in trouble for what I believe in."

Moore said he hoped the assembly would still take place. "We want to have student speakers pro and con, plus a panel with speakers from Veterans for Peace and Women in Black along with speakers from recruitment offices and local people who have family members over in the war right now. We want students to be able see what the different opinions are and maybe learn something that might further their knowledge.

"We can't just sit back," he went on. "What's happening right now will affect our lives when we grow older."

As the students made their way down J Street, one marched apart from the rest. Matt Knudsen, a junior dressed in desert brown camouflage pants and a USA sweatshirt, held a sign saying "Support Our Troops." A campaign button on his hat declared his support for President Bush and Vice-President Cheney.

"I'm protesting the protesters," he explained. "I didn't want to cut class, but somebody has to be out here to protest what they're doing. I think we need to support America, and support our troops, even if you don't agree with the war. The troops are out there defending our freedom and the freedom of the Iraqi people."

Knudsen assured me that plenty of students at Eureka High support the war. As if to confirm that, a girl came up and said she was in favor of military intervention. "People need to see both sides," she declared.

Photo of student with signIn her mind the war in Iraq is a matter of self-protection. "The Iraqis are making biological and chemical weapons. I believe they could release them all over the United States. It'll be just like we're animals locked in the pound being put to sleep. We couldn't escape them," she said with fear in her voice.

When asked her name, she said she wanted to remain anonymous. "Both of my parents are against the war," she explained. "I don't want to get in trouble."

[left, Matt Knudsen shows his support for the troops.]

The group assembled on the courthouse steps for a series of speeches. Student Shamara Wiley started things off with a call for understanding, reading a speech adapted from one she delivered at the March 15 peace rally in Eureka.

"I draw most of my inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," she began. "I'm an advocate for peace and non-violence. The only way we can stop the war and stop violence is to change the way we perceive others. If we perceive others as inferior then it makes it easier to oppress them. If we perceive others as evil, it makes it easier to kill them. We must begin to see others as equals, as brothers and sisters."

At one point two students who had not been on the march brandished signs with pro-war messages: "Bombs over Baghdad" and "Turn Iraq into a parking lot." When the crowd began to rumble with jeers, Moore silenced them saying, "Respect their opinions. They have the right to speak."

A furious hailstorm soon pummeled the crowd, forcing many to seek shelter under a courthouse overhang.

"I'm not part of the protest, I'm for [the] war," said Jessica, a 15-year-old sophomore, over the cloudburst. "I think Saddam Hussein is a very bad leader; his people are afraid of him. So I think we should defeat Saddam Hussein. He has no right to hurt his people that way."

"Most of the people that we fought so far just gave up because they're afraid of Saddam Hussein," added her friend Aubrey, also 15. "They don't want to die for him."

So are we fighting the war to help the Iraqis? "Not really," said Aubrey, turning pragmatic. "We need the oil. If we don't fight this war they'll find some reason not to give it to us."

The hail dispersed most of the crowd; some sought warmth inside the courthouse and used their cell phones to try to find a ride back to school. Outside, the remaining protesters moved to the street corner where they waved signs urging passing motorists to honk for peace. A couple of students battled playfully with hail "snowballs."

The die-hards were still gathered in a small crowd. Moore stood in the middle clutching what was left of the "EHS Students for Peace" sign. Soaked by the rain, most of it had fallen away. All that remained was a small rectangle that said "Peace."




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