War and Conflict

Tensions at the Veterans Day parade take a big toll

The parade lumbers down Sixth Avenue, swings awkwardly onto Broadway Boulevard and then recovers its jerky rhythm--an eclectic entourage of troop carriers, flags, floats and bittersweet bonhomie, all marking Veterans Day in a country at war.

Michael Allen watches this procession from the curbside, beneath the brawny oaks of Veinte de Agosto Park. Although not himself a vet, Allen says it's important that members of our military, past and present, get their due respect. So each time a float or uniformed contingent rumbles by, he and his son hoist a red blanket dotted with white stars to block the view of a sign held by anti-war protesters several feet behind.

"IN MEMORY OF THOSE KILLED IN IRAQ," reads the protesters' sign. "HOW MANY MORE?"

Allen is a young, taut guy, in dark shades and a black MIA T-shirt. He says protesters have a right to speak their piece, but calls this the wrong place and time. "I thought being Veterans Day, it might be nice to keep politics out of the whole event. Leave politics out for one day.

"I don't think we're here to celebrate war," Allen says. "I think we're just here to honor those who, whether they wanted to or not, answered the call."

Standing next to him is Robert Lee, who spent four years in the Army and is now active Navy. Lee says the protesters get his goat. "Just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean you should do it. There's also something called respect."

But others see things a bit differently. Susan Thorpe and Rosemary Hallinan are holding up the anti-war sign, each grasping a supporting pole. "You've got these people who have been blocking us," Thorpe says. "But everybody else in the parade has been supportive of us. It's that way every year--99.9 percent love us. But there are always a few who don't."

Hallinan nods in agreement. "They're teaching their kids to block free speech," she says, pausing to buttress her sign against the breeze. "Eighty to 90 percent of the people are against the war. And I think the reaction here with regards to our signs are the same as the figures nationally."

As if on cue, an older vet in a military cap leans out the window of a passing parade truck. He gives the women a thumbs-up as the truck slowly disappears.

Such is the profound muddiness of this war. Now well into its fifth grueling year, the conflict seems to spawn more frustration by the day. Consider that, to date, approximately 1.5 million vets have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and nearly 3,900 have given their lives. But this year alone, the federal government will underfund veterans' programs by about $2.8 billion. And young returning veterans are twice as likely to be unemployed as other Americans.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush and most of the Republican establishment argue for keeping our troops in Iraq, where victory perpetually lurks just around the corner. And in Congress, Democrats have been unable or unwilling to dislodge that chimera. On Nov. 16, Senate Republicans blocked legislation that included $50 billion for the Iraq war, but also required the drawdown of troops to begin within 30 days of enactment.

At the same time, the mission grows evermore complex. No longer must we simply worry about guerillas and fanatics. According to The Washington Post, field commanders in Iraq "now portray the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaida terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias."

Then there's the sobering price tag. President Bush has requested a total of $607 billion for the Iraq war. But last week, Democratic staffers with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee reported the war's true cost to our economy is closer to $1.3 trillion.

Considering all these facts, it should come as little surprise that gatherings such as military funerals and Veterans Day parades are now political flashpoints. And according to Scott Gartner, a political science professor at the University of California at Davis, that advent has sparked its own debate. "There has been a lot of discussion about political arenas," he says, "about whether these are appropriate places to display support for or against the conflict.

"Obviously, the point of the funeral is honoring the person who died, and the parade is for honoring the person who served. You can be against the war and still think it's inappropriate for someone to protest against the war at a funeral or parade. Those are two separate issues."

But Gartner suggests that one reason activists turn up piecemeal at these events is because few national figures--with the possible exceptions of Cindy Sheehan and Congressman John Murtha--have crystallized anti-war sentiments into a crusade, even as the Iraq campaign reaches what Gartner calls "historic levels of unpopularity."

So instead, the protests become local--and the conflict becomes personal. "When you're in front of the Lincoln Memorial with 500,000 people protesting the war," he says, "nobody is going to be there who is for the war."

But national recognized leaders aren't leading those mass protests. "And one reason they're not doing that is because the war is so unpopular, they don't have to."

Back downtown, the parade is petering out. Bringing up the rear are a few remaining floats--the John Deere tugging a trailer full of kids, a camouflaged Hummer, the festooned flatbed toting a huge yellow mousetrap ("Trapping the Enemy, Truly Nolen Style").

Five blocks away, Howard Douglas, a Korea vet, and his son, Alan, sit high in the cab of a '70s-era troop transporter. They just finished their parade run, and to Howard, some protest signs went overboard. "Especially the one about torture," he says. That sign said: TORTURE NEVER WINS HEARTS AND MINDS. "I think they overdid it with that one."

Alan Douglas says the signs didn't bother him. "I don't think I would take offense. They were just saying that they didn't want the war to continue."

He grips the steering wheel and scratches his temple. "Of course, everybody would rather not have war, period," he says. Then he fires up the truck and rumbles off into the neighborhood streets.