Life during wartime
News from the home front with two deploying Gulf War vets, an arrested Muslim protester and a roomful of lonely Greens
In the middle of a bare armory warehouse, members of the 270th Military Police (MP) Company of the California National Guard stood at ease. Young boys and officers leaned over from the second-story railing, watching them. Before the soldiers, Governor Gray Davis pounded his fist on the podium and insisted that he would be there to support the troops when they returned. He reminded them that he, too, was a military man.
After they had shaken the governor’s hand, the MPs fell out of line and wandered through the surrounding crowd of friends and family; some of them cuddled children dressed in miniature fatigues. It was early afternoon, and members of the 270th didn’t yet know they were flying overseas on the same day the United States would begin its assault on Iraq.
While some families arranged themselves for pictures, falling almost instinctively into attractive tiers and grinning as if the event were any other family gathering, one female soldier clung to another woman, smiling and crying at the same time. Other soldiers, looking uncomfortable, snuck away to stuff their packs with additional supplies.
In front of the National Guard Armory, a platoon’s worth of slouching green packs leaned against each other, topped with sunglasses and bottles of water. Two male MPs had arranged a number of them into what passed for a pair of easy chairs. The two men lay stretched out, seemingly napping in their sunglasses, their arms and legs as heavy and lifeless as the packs themselves.
Spc. Patrick Nihipali and Spc. Richard Wheeler both had joined the Marines in 1987 and had served in Desert Storm as infantrymen.
The biggest difference between infantry and military police, they agreed, was the presence of both men and women.
“That’s probably the hardest one to get over right now,” said Wheeler, without smiling. He was big and pale and spoke in the low, slow voice of a man who was bored but needed to conserve his energy.
“We gotta watch what we say,” said Wheeler, “how we act.”
The first time they went overseas, into the sand, where a sergeant claimed that the sun could bake the earth at 120 degrees, both Wheeler and Nihipali got used to commands like “assault the objective” or “take the hill.” Wheeler said he’d hit the ground a day and a half into the ground war and then spent 95 percent of his time traveling on Amtrak buses. He said he had only spent 5 percent either in combat or in handling prisoners of war.
As an MP, said Wheeler, he expects to “secure” areas instead of attacking them.
But according to Sgt. 1st Class Tom Stein, the 270th spent recent weeks preparing for everything from urban warfare—in case it has to support the ground troops by securing supply lines—to performing interrogations on prisoners before turning them over to military intelligence. The company wouldn’t even know its mission until it got overseas and became acclimated to the heat and the sand that would coat everything, as though the MPs were perpetually at the beach. At least the MPs would have access to the Army’s phone banks and what Stein called its Internet cafes.
Improved communications with the outside world seem to be one of the hallmarks of this conflict, especially because President George W. Bush has allowed a group of reporters to witness it. The servicemembers don’t necessarily see this as a plus. Nihipali put himself in the shoes of an Iraqi infantryman and decided that a journalist with a camera made a good target.
“Especially with that big lens pointed at the enemy,” said Nihipali. “He’s going to look at you like, ‘Man, that’s a rocket.’” Nihipali, a good-natured guy with large, round eyes, cocked his head as if he were a bit skeptical himself.
Wheeler thought of the reporters as just another thing he had to take care of. He sounded seasoned and unafraid, until he thought about the potential for chemical warfare.
“I’m not really afraid of his troops,” he said of Saddam Hussein, dropping his head and lowering his voice. “It’s more the chemicals, if they are used. That’s the one thing that worries me.”
Nihipali cleared his throat and shifted around in his makeshift lounge chair. He broke the silence by reminding Wheeler that the last time they’d been in Iraq, they’d worn chemical suits—padded, camouflage uniforms much heavier than their regular uniforms. Over those go the rest of the gear, which, according to the soldiers, can equal more than a hundred pounds if you count water, ammunition, weapons and MREs (meals ready to eat.)
As if to demonstrate the MRE, a younger soldier ripped the top off a silver bag. A big dollop of something that looked like red curry slipped over the side, and he caught it up in his spoon and ate it.
“There are actually MRE cookbooks,” said Wheeler, for making concoctions out of supplies like salt and hot sauce.
“You can make cookies,” said the younger soldier, looking quickly at Nihipali. The older soldier looked doubtful.
“Pudding,” said the younger man, and Nihipali responded with enthusiasm, raising his hands and breaking into a grin—almost as if he’d just heard he was going home.
At 5 in the morning, as San Francisco was just about to wake up to a brutal day of anti-war protests, Layla (who prefers to keep her last name private), an activist for women’s rights and the rights of Palestinians, skipped out on her last final at the University of California at Davis and joined about 20 people heading west. She wore a checkered scarf from Palestine as a hijab draped over her head—a symbol of Muslim modesty. Though she’d hoped to join thousands of others railing against the war in Iraq, by 11:30 a.m., all her plans had changed.
Layla and a few friends made their way through San Francisco’s streets and quickly found themselves in a crowd of 100 to 150 people at Market Street and Montgomery. There was no action planned for that intersection, but the crowd was sizable enough to block traffic, if it hadn’t been halted by police on horseback. The officers surrounded the crowd and pushed those in it into an ever-tighter pack. Layla said the mounted officers used their clubs on the crowd to subdue people.
Squeezed together shoulder to shoulder, Layla said, she and her fellow protesters were not given the time or opportunity to separate themselves from the group.
“They have to give you warning,” said Layla, but even though it was only mid-morning, she could see the police already were fed up.
There were too many people to arrest, Layla decided, and as a tactical move, she and her friends sat down in passive resistance.
That’s when she saw a girl reach around a police officer to hand a flower to someone outside the pack. An officer shoved the girl backward, and when she again reached over, Layla said, one of the officers passed behind her, took hold of the girl’s ponytail and yanked. The protester fell backward, landing partly on Layla, who said she heard the officer chuckle.
In spite of the crowd’s size, Layla was pulled up, photographed, asked a few questions (including what her name was) and then loaded onto a bus.
“If you don’t get up now,” Layla heard a cop tell another female protester at the steps of the bus, “I’m going to bounce you up these stairs.”
While the woman continued to resist, the officer warned her that no one was watching. He repeated his threat.
“We’re watching,” yelled Layla out the bus window, to which she heard this response: “Who cares? You’re nobody.”
The sting seemed to stay with her. “Oh, I guess I’m nobody,” Layla told herself. She said another officer referred to her hijab as “that dishrag on your head.”
Comparatively, jail was cushy, except for the initial search. A female officer told Layla that if she didn’t remove her headscarf, “I will strip-search you naked,” as Layla put it. She reluctantly complied.
The protesters were packed together into holding cells at San Francisco County Jail, and Layla said the jailers eventually kicked the regular inmates out of what she called “the hangout room.” It was turned over to the female protesters, who introduced themselves to one another and compared stories of what they’d seen that morning. The girl who’d been pulled by her ponytail had a bruise on her hip, Layla remembers, but wasn’t badly hurt. Another girl had broken her wrist during a fall.
Inside the jail, the novelty of getting arrested soon wore off. Layla said she and the others were served sandwiches and water at one point, but that was it, and they were detained well into the night. At one point, a group of them called KPFA and spoke on the air about their arrest, saying that jail was giving them an opportunity to network.
Outside, law-enforcement officers continued to try to keep the city under control. Layla said that was the reason she and the others weren’t released all day; the police knew the protesters would go right back out to the streets.
For 14 hours, said Layla, the women waited, occasionally playing games of checkers or chess. There were books, too, but mostly, they just waited in the brightly lit room without blankets or pillows or any quiet corner in which to sleep.
When they finally were released in the middle of the night, Layla and her friends made their way back to the Richmond BART station and drove back to Davis. During the whole 24-hour ordeal, they’d spent almost no time protesting.
A week after the arrest, Layla isn’t feeling especially brave.
“They have my fingerprints,” she said with concern.
Though she has nothing to hide, she’s afraid the FBI will come to her house, she said. Two of her friends already have been questioned, and, when she thought back on the protest, Layla realized that very few Muslim women had risked getting arrested with her. In spite of reassurances from local law enforcement and Muslim leaders, protesters like Layla are still wary.
“This is not a safe time to be Muslim in America,” said Layla. “I’m fleeing the country as soon as I graduate, and I do mean fleeing.”
The Green mile
Even at the start, things weren’t going right for the Sacramento County Green Party members. Upon arriving Saturday afternoon at the downtown office building where they were to meet, they found the conference room locked, forcing them to relocate to another building down the street. Then, the guest speaker was a no-show. According to the agenda, Jeanie Keltner, a longtime peace activist, would deliver “an inspirational speech” about the local anti-war movement. But she had to attend an anti-war meeting elsewhere.
As party members munched on a potluck lunch, bombs fell on the other side of the world, and there was nothing the Greens could do about it.
“We’re pretty disgusted with what’s going on,” said Starlene Rankin, a local Green organizer. “Nationally, we called for Bush to be indicted for war crimes.”
In the street below, a steady stream of hundreds of flag-bedecked cars and trucks leaving the pro-America rally around the corner at the Capitol honked madly at one another, and dozens of Harley riders gunned their thunderous engines. Party members tried to talk over the noise without shouting.
Local Greens have been participating in anti-war demonstrations but not without the horrible feeling that they’re powerless to stop the war.
Even during times that should galvanize membership, Sacramento’s Greens are struggling just to keep their organization alive. On a table in the back of the room, a coffee can for donations contained $6.
Instead of the war, most of the conversation centered on how to build the party and how to name priorities. That’s no easy task for a group that only makes decisions when almost everyone agrees. “We’re a decentralized organization,” Rankin said. “We don’t want to make these decisions from the top down.”
One member, Craig Bond, repeatedly urged colleagues to get focused and not to let peripheral things like the party’s anti-sprawl action group detract from the goal of getting Greens elected. “I’m concerned about the party,” Bond said. “We’re changing how the world views war, but we couldn’t do anything to stop it. The best thing to do is to elect somebody who has the power to make a difference.” Bond also raised the idea of supporting another party’s candidate whom they liked instead of necessarily finding and backing one of their own.
“We need to do some fund-raising,” said another member. “This is serious business.”
Ken Adams, a former Green congressional candidate, quipped that the main goal right now “is just to keep the party alive.”
Local Greens are thinking about having candidates for local offices, but they haven’t found any candidates so far—or even decided what seats to target. Rankin, who also works with the state Green Party, said those members are thinking about targeting congressional Democrats who support war.
That tactic raises an issue Greens would rather avoid: the spoiler question. Asked if they helped elect a president who is carrying on a war they oppose, Rankin didn’t want to discuss it. “People should be able to vote their conscience,” she said.
Greens really don’t talk much about spoiling the 2000 election, Adams said. “We don’t see it that way.” And although he frequently gets an earful about Bush and the Patriot Act, he lamented that, apart from state legislators in Maine and New Jersey, Greens have no elected representatives to call on.
As the meeting went on into the afternoon, the polite and articulate discussion was often drowned out by the noise outside.