Supporting the Troops, Doubting the War

Supporting the Troops, Doubting the War

Supporting the Troops, Doubting the War

Iraq is changing lives and political sentiments in a small Midwest town.


Anna Deen is 39 years old, good-looking, with light brown hair, a pink halter-top and a pin on her right lapel. The pin has a photograph of a young man with a military hard hat on his head. Above the photo are the words “My Hero.”

Deen works as a program coordinator at the Salvation Army in the small town of Shelbyville, Indiana. The man in the photograph is her son, Kevin. He is 20 years old, a communications specialist currently stationed in Iraq. He is in the Army because, when he was 17, his mother gave him an ultimatum: Either do better in school, or she was calling the recruiters. He chose the Army, went through basic training in Georgia, was stationed in Germany and, from there, was shipped off to Iraq.

“I know my son’s there for a reason,” Deen says fiercely. “And whatever might happen, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And if I took it any other way, I’d be in a funny farm. I wouldn’t be here able to talk about it.”

Shelbyville is a very ordinary town. Thirty-two miles southeast of downtown Indianapolis, it has a population with an age distribution similar to that of the country as a whole, and with a median household income ($36,824, according to the 2000 Census) just south of the national average–which in practice means that it has a fairly affluent upper middle class and a large number of blue-collar workers and retirees struggling to pay their bills, worried about their health insurance and pension benefits, concerned about the loss of jobs through NAFTA and trying not to end each month further in the red. It’s an unostentatious, conservative, bedroom-community town, with a population just shy of 18,000, whiter than most but otherwise a pretty representative slice of small-town Middle America.

Shelbyville has dozens of churches, many of them fundamentalist, dotting its back streets, and a handful of mediocre restaurants, fast-food outlets and taverns with Bud/Coors/Miller on tap. Its population is not terribly political or outspoken, but the residents care deeply–in a traditional hard-work-and-duty sense–about town and country. The town’s motto is “Pride in Progress.” It has none of the in-your-face urban poverty of Gary, Indiana, or the glitz of a city like Los Angeles. Many of the houses, most wooden, some brick, are extremely large (three-story behemoths in the 5,000-square-foot region); but almost all of them sell for under $200,000. The more modest houses are still generally of a decent size, although they show signs of stress, with flaking paint, crumbling porches, gates askew. There’s a Wal-Mart Supercenter on the edge of town and a host of nervous mom-and-pop business owners fearful they’ll be driven out by its presence. And there are a lot of factories nearby that produce a variety of car parts for the large automobile companies.

The town’s businessmen, their stores and banks and restaurants located on Harrison Street and the east-west streets that intersect it on either side of the unimaginatively named “Public Square” (a small parking lot with a green bronze statue of a man holding two wolf cubs aloft, a nondescript water fountain and sixteen trees ringing its perimeter), belong to the Masons, the Knights of Columbus or one of the other lodges in town. Blue-collar Joes and Janes take out membership in the large Eagles Aerie on Franklin Street. Veterans come together for beers and bingo at the VFW or the American Legion post out by the cornfields on the poorer, western edge of town. On back streets of the scruffier residential neighborhoods, a handful of hair salons and barbershops also provide places to congregate and while away the time. A multiscreen cinema and a biker bar are the epicenters of the town’s entertainment.

Arguably, the only thing that marks Shelbyville out is that Army Recruiting Command says more of its young people are enlisting to join the Army than in any other town its size in the state of Indiana. For that reason, Shelbyville offers a revealing window into the way the war in Iraq is reverberating at home–changing people’s lives and, more slowly, their political ideas and allegiances.

According to the public relations firm Claritas, which recently conducted a survey of Army recruitment, residents of small towns in general are overrepresented in the Army: The firm estimates that 40 percent of Americans live in towns or hamlets with a population of under 20,000; yet, 46 percent of Army enlistees come from such communities. By contrast, 19 percent of Americans live in the nation’s largest urban centers, yet these areas account for only 14 percent of enlistees. And Shelbyville takes this trend one step further.

Army recruiters, operating out of a little office on East Washington Street, prowl the streets of town looking for teenagers and young adults. They visit high schools and junior colleges, fast-food outlets and malls. They attend local county fairs. They show up at community centers and conduct home visits. If the prospective soldier lives with his or her parents, often Mom and Dad will sit in on these meetings. Thus, when the Army announced it was more than doubling the sign-up bonuses available for people joining, it was a front-page story in the local newspaper.

Generally, the prospective soldiers enlist out of high school, 17- and 18-year-olds not on the college track, looking for something new. Army numbers indicate that in 2003, fifty-three people from Shelbyville and the surrounding area joined the Army and another twenty-two enlisted in the Reserves. And these numbers don’t include others who joined the Navy or Air Force. As of mid-August of this year, forty-five more have enlisted. “He wanted to make something more out of his life than working in a factory all the time,” 45-year-old Trish Jones says simply of her eldest son’s decision to join the Marines in late 2002.

Perhaps, shoring up the rhetoric about pride in country and patriotic duty, Shelbyville’s young men and women also join out of boredom, join for the same reasons Jeff Mills, now 39 and a local factory worker earning about $15,000 a year, did back in the mid-1980s: to travel to places they would otherwise be unable to afford to visit (Mills was stationed near Frankfurt, Germany, for three years). Perhaps, in the same way that many young boys and girls from small towns turn to drugs like meth and Oxycontin for a quick buzz, they join the Army for a dose of excitement, an antidote to the predictability of life in a town as small and constrained as this.

With a National Guard unit stationed just north of town–hosting Black Hawk helicopters that were quickly, and quietly, moved into more secure hangars after 9/11–and the sprawling Atterbury National Guard training camp not too far southwest of town, Shelbyville is a community saturated with currently serving personnel, veterans and family members of those off to war. Dozens of residents are in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia; some have served in Kosovo; others are stateside, waiting to be shipped off to one or another hot spot. The town is full of talk of who’s been activated, who’s returned home. The newspaper’s systems analyst was sent to Iraq for fifteen months; the fire department has two reservists in Iraq; the police department has an officer serving in Bosnia.

In 2003, 25-year-old Army Private Shawn Pahnke, who’d recently moved here with his pregnant wife to be near her family, was killed in action in Baghdad. (Pahnke’s wife, Elisha, still lives in town but declined to talk to me for this article.) So far, he’s Shelbyville’s only fatality in America’s twenty-first-century wars.

When the soldiers come home on leave, the VFW hosts homecoming parties in its back room. When they leave again, they leave behind a quiet town where yellow ribbons painted onto cars or hung on front porches next to the Stars and Stripes are about the most visible sign of political engagement, and a strong community that gently but firmly makes sure the wives and children of soldiers are taken care of, that money keeps coming in, that they have food on their table, that their cars are maintained.

Indiana has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964, usually by large margins. But its senators are split, one Democrat, the other Republican. And, at the local level, towns like Shelbyville bounce back and forth. At the moment, the mayor, a heavyset man named Scott Furgeson, who used to be the manager of a local pizzeria, is a Republican; his predecessor was a Democrat. And so it goes.

Generally, Furgeson says, Shelbyvillians let the federal government get on with what it says it needs to do on the world stage, while they worry more about local and state affairs–the upcoming governor’s race, a proposed revamping of the local property-tax assessment, trying to keep the Knauf insulation company from downsizing 400 fiberglass production jobs (other than that, the town leaders assure me, the current recession has largely passed Shelbyville by, although many of the men and women sitting around the Eagles bar watching the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race on August 8 disagreed with that). On the whole, Shelbyville’s residents are willing to give their elected leaders in Washington the benefit of the doubt on issues ranging from the torture at Abu Ghraib prison to the justifications presented for war against Iraq.

“My sense is there’s a lot of forgiveness for the President,” says Shelbyville News editor Bill Walsh. “Maybe we shouldn’t have got involved in it [Iraq], but now that we are, let’s make the best of it. I don’t think people are uncritical here, but there’s definitely a mood that you don’t switch horses in midstream.”

But while many share the sense of forgiveness he describes, at least some are starting to look at ways to abandon that horse. It’s not that there’s been a sudden conversion to the values and politics the Kerry/Edwards team embodies. Indeed, the local Democratic Party headquarters, the doors of which were locked throughout my stay in town, has only one tiny bumper sticker on its door mentioning Kerry’s name. The rest of its stickers and posters are concerned with local and state races, and the candidates in those races would just as soon have people forget their party ties to a liberal Northeasterner like Kerry. (Moreover, because of the workings of the Electoral College system, Democrats in Indiana, like Republicans in Massachusetts, are in practice largely disenfranchised in the upcoming presidential race; whether Kerry loses Indiana by 7 percent or 17 percent, the Democrats there really aren’t a part of current political calculations.)

So Indiana, and Shelbyville, will vote for Bush in 2004, just as they did in 2000. But neither will do so with anywhere near the same enthusiasm the second time around. There is a nascent sense of frustration here that will lead quite a few traditional Shelbyville Republicans to vote against Bush, and others to vote for the Republican ticket with fingers firmly clenching their nostrils shut.

Two weeks before the Republican convention, Mayor Furgeson tells me he hears Bush is ahead by only about seven points in Indiana, way down from the normal Republican presidential majority here. Interviews with numerous Shelbyville residents indicated that while many are still willing to vote for Bush, they do not have a rosy view of his policies and his Administration. And many others told me they could no longer support the President. Sometimes they could not quite articulate how this had happened, but it was clear they felt that their trust had been violated and their faith in government undermined.

In one breath, Shelbyville residents will express confidence in the government and say that while they supported the initial decision to topple the Iraqi regime, they wish more time and energy had been spent planning for the post-Saddam occupation. They’ll say the actions at Abu Ghraib were aberrational, and they’ll defend the soldiers by saying privates wouldn’t do things like that unless they were following orders. And they’ll point out that they should know, because they were in the Army themselves once. “Everybody I talked to [about Abu Ghraib],” says Chamber of Commerce head Lin Sexton, “said the chain of command went to Bush. It didn’t stop at Rumsfeld. It went right to the top. There was so much empathy for the soldiers already. When that happened, the empathy escalated. These guys are getting court-martialed because of mismanagement at the top.”

Others, like Anna Deen, will say Bush is an honest man, then they’ll turn around and blame his underlings for all the problems–Rumsfeld and Cheney, anybody except the President himself. “I don’t know how to put it,” Deen says, pausing between words, her voice a pent-up crescendo of frustration. “They just make decisions in their little room and don’t think about the outcome for myself. Or, on the news ‘private so and so is dead,’ and that’s somebody’s son or daughter. I don’t appreciate what they’ve done to our boys, what they’ve done to families in the United States, and the situation we’re in because of what they’re deciding and how they’re directing. But I have to believe that everything’s going to work out–because of my son. He is my army. They put my boy in harm’s way, and that’s being very selfish. That’s the government we live under–like it or not.” (It reminded me of the Little Uncle argument utilized by pro-czarist Russians in the early years of the twentieth century, when they blamed corrupt minions for their country’s woes and for leading their well-intentioned czar, their “little uncle,” astray. Everyone knows what happened to the czar only a few years later. )

Still others are even more outspoken. “I didn’t vote in 2000, but I’ll vote against Bush this year,” says Trish Jones, whose son Brandon is a Marine serving in Iraq, and who has two younger boys also thinking of joining up. A cashier in the nearby town of St. Paul, she’s a skinny, tired-looking woman in blue jeans and a Marines T-shirt. “I don’t think we should have been there [Iraq], and I still don’t think we should be there. There’ve been more people killed since [the war officially ended] than in the war. If it wasn’t for the war, the economy wouldn’t be like it is. As long as we’re at war, it’s going to get worse.”

Patrick Crohan is another Eagles member whose son, a medic in the Army, is in Iraq. A lean 48-year-old with a handlebar mustache and a sleeveless Budweiser T-shirt revealing his heavily tattooed biceps, he says, “In 2000 I voted for Bush. In 2004, I doubt if I’ll vote for Bush. I don’t think he has control.” When Crohan saw the photographs of US soldiers torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib, it made him feel sad. “You’ve got people with power behind them,” he explains angrily, “and they lose control over their people.” Trish Jones adds that “it shouldn’t have happened. Because we wouldn’t want it to happen to ours. We’re trying to make it better, not make things worse. It didn’t make me feel ashamed, but it just upset me that our guys could do something like that to them. There’s enough going on without us tying them to walls with chains.”

Anna Deen says that after the Abu Ghraib photographs began appearing on the television news, her son called her from Iraq and begged her to believe “we’re not all like that. Mom, we’re not all like that.” Bitterly, as she thinks of the damage done, she says, “They must have been really bored to do all that kind of stuff to those Iraqis. What were these people thinking? To, one, do these things, and, two, to take photos.”

Whatever the reasons, in towns like Shelbyville, change doesn’t happen suddenly. People aren’t radicalized overnight; the great, defining events of an epoch generally happen far away, and are experienced by residents secondhand–through newspaper and television reports, through the accounts of loved ones sent overseas to fight, through residents who travel to big cities like New York and come back full of stories. And, barring catastrophe, the good citizens prefer to just get on with their daily lives instead of spending their time politicking. If a man’s home is his castle, small towns like this are man’s citadels, spaces within which residents can try to forget about the broader, messy world outside.

Yet in an age as interconnected as ours, nowhere feels too far away from world affairs. Talking with residents, I was amazed how fearful they were. After 9/11, Mary Jo Phares, a retired police officer, recalls how she was called back to duty by the sheriff’s department to help provide round-the-clock private security detail to guard the local water supply. Die-hard Republican and local businessman Jim Ross–he runs a cement plant on the west side of town and tells me California is so left wing he wouldn’t bat an eyelid in sorrow if it were to drop into the Pacific Ocean–sits over a beer in Kendall’s Tavern and talks about how people are “scared to death,” how they try to squirrel their money away, afraid of spending in case there’s another attack, and how this in turn serves to dampen the economy. Young kids watch the news and ask their teachers and Sunday school instructors to tell them what it means to be beheaded. “It’s hard to tell them,” banker and ex-councilman James Garrett, an African-American active in the Second Baptist Church, admits. “It makes you think about what’s going on in the world. It’s sad.” Eagles membership director Russel Snyder worries that Al Qaeda might ram a truck bomb into his crowded club on bingo night. “We could lose hundreds of people in one night, and that scares me.” Trish Jones says that after 9/11 she was terrified even to walk down the street.

Shelbyville’s awareness of changes in the world since the last presidential election shows itself in ways as small as how somebody chooses to construct a sentence, or as large as how they view their political allegiances. Local VFW post commander Bob Reese, for example, continues to consider himself a Bush supporter, but the words he uses to express his solidarity with his country’s leader hardly represent a ringing endorsement of the President. A chain-smoking, wizened Air Force veteran with three tours in Vietnam behind him, no patience for antiwar movements and with a Stars and Stripes baseball cap perched on his head, Reese says slowly, “As commander of the VFW, I support and defend the Commander in Chief, the President. If he feels this is what we have to do to defeat terrorism, I have to believe in that thought.” In other words, one might not always agree with the Commander in Chief in private, but during a war, one does not voice dissent with the leadership in public.

Engineering consultant David Wells, on the other hand, has lost all patience with the President. He voted for Bush in 2000 but is adamant that he will not do so this time around. “I think he’s done a poor job,” Wells tells me in the smoky basement bar of the Eagles Aerie, as his fellow Eagles drink Bud, Coors and Miller, sit around vinyl tables and roar encouragement to their NASCAR drivers on the huge TV screen next to the stairwell. “Economically, I’ve probably lost about one-third of what I’ve got invested. I think he’s handled the war in Iraq totally wrong and is making enemies of all our allies. I don’t think he’s smart enough; and that doesn’t mean Mensa, it means common sense. His coalition amounts to ‘me and whoever wants to follow me.’ A coalition involves building a team and then confronting. He confronted and then tried to build a team. I’m cynical about Iraq. I think it’s a lost cause. It’s going to be like Vietnam.”

When I visit Anna Deen at her office, the metal front of her desk is plastered with photos of her son. Photos of Kevin at the ruins of Babylon, gun at his side. Photos of him trying on a shirt she sent. Photos of him with his Army buddies. A cork board on her wall has more of the same. For most of the time I’d spent with her, Deen had been silent about her son’s politics. Then, just as I was getting ready to leave, she let loose. “I know he’s really mad at the government. He supports his job. But the morale–he’s ready to get out.”

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