Every week one Texan soldier dies in Iraq and 10 are wounded. Gary Younge reports on how war is affecting Bush's home state
Saturday October 6, 2007
In Texas, late summer, the sun clings to you like a second skin, baking the day and all those who venture into it. The Lone Star State is vast, the size of Germany, Italy and Denmark combined, and coping with the heat is one of the few things that unites everyone who lives here. On a sweltering Friday, Carl Rising-Moore and three others stand next to a ditch by the Broken Spoke ranch in Crawford, Texas, and wait for President George Bush to arrive home for a barbecue. Rising-Moore holds a banner saying "Traitor ... Impeach". The secret service tell him to move to the other side of the gate. He refuses. They arrest him and send him to jail.
More than 100 miles away in Fort Worth, Lance Corporal Patrick Myers returns home to streets lined with American flags and an escort of "Patriot Guard Riders" on motorcycles. Myers, 23, used to ride a motorcycle himself, but rolls home today in a wheelchair from an army medical centre in San Antonio. Two years ago he was driving his Humvee near the Syrian border in Iraq when it struck a wayside bomb and he lost both his legs.
In a New York courtroom, Texas oilman David Chalmers pleads guilty to conspiracy in a scheme to pay illegal kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime in return for the right to buy oil.
And in Austin that same day, Will Martin, 19, stands in the shadow of the State Capitol at the head of a youth demonstration to announce the end of the war. "A lot of young people lack the confidence to challenge authority," Martin says. "We want to tell them that things can change if you want them to. The first step is to declare the war over."
While the war does not dominate daily conversation in America, it nags at people's consciousness, like a dripping tap or a wayward car alarm. "It is kind of like a low-grade fever," a Democratic congressman told the New York Times recently. "It worries them, but they are so used to the drumbeat of death, destruction and confusion, they don't know how to react."
Nowhere more so than in Texas, home to nearly 200,000 military personnel as well as the president who has deployed them. According to a recent Lyceum poll, Texans believe the war is by far the single most important issue facing the nation. Almost everyone here, including me, seems to have a relative or friend in the military or to have served themselves - my cousin from Houston has fought in the war.
In any average week, the body of one Texan soldier will be flown home from Iraq and 10 others will return wounded. In that sense, this random Friday was the beginning of a very regular week.
Martin had hoped for 1,000, but in the end only around 150 show up. Most I speak to are disappointed with the turnout. "We haven't had a good demonstration here since March," David Morris says. "It's hard to tell why people aren't more motivated."
Austin, a university town, has a reputation, as a liberal island marooned in a sea of Texan conservatism, that is not entirely deserved. Texas isn't that conservative and Austin isn't that liberal. The last time Bush's approval ratings were above 50% here was January 2006 - he's more popular in 20 other states. In 2004, the year Republicans took the state with 68% of the vote, Dallas elected a lesbian, Hispanic, Democratic sheriff. Most of the border counties are also Democrat. It may be the home state of the leader of the war on terror, but it was also the native land of the leader of the war on poverty, President Lyndon Johnson.
"Texas is unfairly characterised as homogenous and monolithic," says Daron Shaw, the director of the Lyceum poll. "On some issues, like gun culture, it's almost impossible to be too conservative. But on others, like immigration, it's a moving target and much more diverse than people give it credit for. When I conducted the recent poll, I was shocked by how polarised and disparate attitudes to the war actually were."
Back at the State Capitol, what the demonstrators lack in numbers they make up for in spirit. Six older women, one bare-breasted, spell out "I-M-P-E-A-C-H" on human billboards, while another man carries a banner rallying "Girlie men against imperialism". Most messages involve permutations of "oil", "troops", "impeach", "war", "Bush" and "Cheney".
The demonstration began as a re-enactment. In 1967, guitarist and activist Phil Ochs declared the Vietnam war was over to a crowd of around 100,000 (eight years before the White House recognised that the end had come). Forty years later, Martin and the other teenage organisers - some of whose parents had demonstrated against the Vietnam war - replicate Ochs' message, word for word at some points, for a smaller crowd and a different war.