An informal poll of the attitudes of Americans regarding military actions and their impact on the environment.
Note: When the following was written, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was a main east-west traffic artery in Washington, D.C. with six lanes. Today, it is closed to all vehicular traffic between 15th and 17th Streets.
The telephone calls started going around town Wednesday afternoon. Someone who knew someone who knew someone at the Pentagon was hinting that the bombing would begin that night.
Crawling home through rush hour traffic that evening, the co-hosts of the drive home talk show I was listening to abruptly ended their mind numbing trivia quizzes and began broadcasting the audio from the television evening news. Peter Jennings was telling us, "One thing is certain: this war is going to define George Bush's presidency. I think almost everybody in the U.S. is agreed to that." The air war of Operation Desert Storm had begun, striking targets in Iraq and Kuwait to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
During dinner that night, I discovered that Desert Storm had caused the emergence of a heretofore unseen dimension in the character of my sixteen year old daughter, Erin. She had always been surprisingly calm and collected no matter what crisis was spinning out of control around us. Not tonight. The bombing had fired within her a white hot fury. She declared with absolute finality that she and her friends would be joining the demonstrators in Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House the next evening.
Never before had I seen such determination. Concerns about her safety in such a place at such a time in such crazy world were dismissed with incredulity. Still, I could not bring myself to forbid her from going, there being something nostalgic about a full-scale anti-war demonstration. I couldn't help but feel proud that Erin was not only grappling with the significance of the Gulf War, but had strong feelings about it.
Being the anxious father nevertheless, I drove up Pennsylvania Avenue the following evening on my way home from work to survey the scene. On the radio Rep. Don Edwards of California saying, "I didn't believe we could be so stupid." Rep. Ron Dellums of Michigan was calling for an immediate cease-fire. In the park were hundreds of demonstrators holding signs such as "Don't bag our boys," chanting anti-war slogans, and slowly waving candles back and forth over their heads. Later that night, Erin would come home with tear stained cheeks, clutching her stub of a candle in a paper cup as a memento of the stand she had taken for world peace.
At that time Pennsylvania Avenue was divided into six traffic lanes in front of the White House with a large median strip painted on the wide boulevard with thick double lines. The strip was large enough that a security vehicle could park there. So large, in fact, that its occupants could open their doors and walk around the median without fear of being struck by oncoming traffic.
As a rule of thumb, the larger the demonstration expected by the Secret Service in Lafayette Park, the more vehicles were parked in the median. On this evening, several patrol cars were positioned in it, sending demonstrators a strong reminder to not get carried away and try storming the White House fence.
Having read the news reports of other demonstrations against Desert Storm taking place around the country, I decided that it might be interesting to drive by the White House each night until the war was over to check this barometer of public opinion.
On Friday, the first polls were published showing that 86% of the American people approved of the President's decision to launch the attack. Dan Rather told us, "More than 24 hours have passed since the U.S. and its allies first launched Operation Desert Storm; a night, a day, and now another night of continuous, devastating bombardment of Iraq and occupied Kuwait." Rep. Dellums called it "a tragic day for humanity." Rep. Bernie Sanders called on Bush to stop the bombing and start negotiating.
That night even more demonstrators congregated in Lafayette Park with The Washington Post describing the crowd as "cross-generational," a phrase seldom used during the Vietnam protests. Earlier that day, the demonstrators had begun throwing rocks and bottles, and fourteen were arrested. The number of vehicles parked in the Pennsylvania Avenue median strip was growing as well. In addition to police cruisers, the Secret Service had brought in several of its black Chevy Suburbans. Across the street in the Cabinet Room, President H. W. Bush was telling reporters, "Don't want to get caught up in some semantics about all of this. He's got to get out of Kuwait. Got to do it with no concessions or no conditions."
Monday, Saddam Hussein began parading captured American pilots on television who had been beaten and tortured. They mumbled, "I think our leaders and our people have wrongly attacked the peaceful people of Iraq." The crowd in Lafayette Park stepped up its protest, and the Secret Service drove more vehicles into the median strip, the long, metal line looking less like a reminder and more like a fortress.
Wednesday's papers reported Scud missiles hitting Tel Aviv, killing three people and injuring 96. Gen. Colin Powell described the strategy to defeat the Iraqi Army as "very, very simple. First, we're going to cut if off, and then we're going to kill it."
Media defense analysts predicted dire consequences when the ground invasion started, with Andrew Goldenberg of the Center for Strategic and International Studies saying, "I would expect pretty fierce resistance from the Iraqis" that could "translate into several thousand U.S. lives.
Broadcasting directly from Baghdad, Peter Arnett of CNN ran footage of Iraqi workers in a factory bottling milk and wearing uniforms with "BABY MILK PLANT--IRAQ" printed in English on their backs. Arnett then ran more footage, reporting it was the baby milk plant destroyed by American bombs. The crowd in Lafayette Park continued growing, and huge demonstrations were staged in other cities around the country, complete with flag burnings.
During dinner that evening I tried, very casually I thought, to discuss the war with Erin. She stood up and left the room.
Later that evening, reporter Tom Aspell told anchor Tom Brokaw on the NBC evening news that "Saddam will not micromanage this war; his commanders have complete authority to make decisions on the field." Thursday’s papers headlined accounts of Saddam executing his top air force commanders.
The Pentagon announced that day that the U.S. was conducting some of the heaviest bombing of the war. By war’s end, an estimated 100,000 Iraqis would be killed in the conflict.
The press was also giving the first indications that Saddam might unleash an oil spill in the shallow and enclosed waters of the Persian Gulf. Iraqi Government officials had been repeatedly warning that war in the Persian Gulf could lead to the destruction of the region's oil resources and trigger a global environmental catastrophe. The Iraqis had rigged Kuwait’s oil wells to explode if attacked.
The crowd in Lafayette Park was now enormous. It was so intimidating that the Secret Service had assembled a solid wall of vehicles along Pennsylvania Avenue from 15th Street to 17th Street, a steel line three blocks long of buses, police cruisers, Park Service horse trailers, paddy wagons, and unmarked police cars--literally anything on wheels that could be rolled into the median strip to form a protective barrier.
Emotions continued rising over the weekend, and protest marches were held throughout the country. Surveying the political scene, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute observed that the Congress "is a very nervous Congress. It's an off-balance Congress in the sense that '92 may be a watershed year, off-balance because the war throws in a confusing factor." The Iraqi government declared, “"The next days will witness the defeat of the covetous invaders."
Sunday night, Peter Jennings began his broadcast of the evening news with, "Remember before the war in the Gulf began, Saddam Hussein said he'd use the oil weapon? Well, he did, and now the most significant U.S. attack of the last 24 hours has been to turn the oil off, at a place called Minaal Ahmadi, where the Iraqis have pumped more than 100 million gallons into the Gulf."
Saddam was flooding the Gulf with 400 times the amount of crude spilled in Alaska by the Exxon Valdez, creating what weekend CBS news anchor Connie Chung called "the worst spill in history."
One of the networks ran an interview with Salman al Dowsary, a Saudi desalinization plant manager who said, "While the fresh water may be safe, wildlife is in grave danger; the shallow waters are especially vulnerable, and the Gulf is home to several species of endangered birds."
All the networks were showing film of white sea birds struggling for their lives. Some were flapping their wings, helplessly trying to escape the black goo. Others, their feathers matted to their lifeless bodies, were being washed ashore on oil-stained beaches. The AP wire reported experts and government officials warning that the spill would slaughter turtles, dolphins, whales, sea cows and birds, and that the fishing industry in the Persian Gulf could be ruined for a decade or longer. The New York Times reported, “Television images of the beaches showed a sea as dark and thick as molasses, coming ashore in wavelets that broke with a slurping sound instead of a splash.”
Environmental cleanup crews from around the world began gearing up for an international effort to contain the spill, and those already on the scene bemoaned the limited resources available to handle something of this magnitude.
Driving down Pennsylvania Avenue the following day, it was if I’d woken from a week long dream. No crowds of angry anti-war protestors. In fact, no people other than the few regulars who had been in the park for years protesting government sponsored mind control, nuclear proliferation, and Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. The resident homeless had reclaimed their benches. Overnight, life had returned to its pre-Gulf War normalcy.
Equally surprising was Fort Secret Service. The solid-metal barrier that had stretched for three blocks on Friday had vanished. Not more than three or four police cruisers had been left parked in the median, and the officers who drove them were leaning over their hoods, the routine of regular White House patrols having resumed.
In a single stroke, Saddam had torpedoed the anti-war movement in the United States. Even Erin's attitude changed from white hot fury to silent, grudging acceptance of the bombing, particularly now that it was being directed at the pipes carrying the oil from the fields into the Gulf's shallow waters.
A few days later President Bush, his approval rating now reaching nearly 90%, told the American people that the Gulf conflict was "a just war" with a noble aim. Few Americans disagreed.