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Gary Younge
A week in the war in Texas

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.

Friday, Austin

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.

Psychologically, it seems as if America has not yet finished with the Vietnam war, let alone this one. Throughout the week, Vietnam would keep coming up, stalking the debate like a cloud in search of a silver lining. By the end of the week even Bush will be drawing his own idiosyncratic parallels between Iraq and Vietnam.

Back at the Capitol, Martin strums his guitar and Ruby Willmann, 17, performs a poem likening the trapping and shooting of hogs to enlistment in the military. It ends with Amazing Grace. As the march sets off through town, some honk their horns in support, a couple shout abuse. And most just look on, with curiosity or indifference.

Saturday, Dallas airport

At Dallas Fort Worth airport, Connie Carmen waits with red, white and blue pompoms and lungs full of patriotic fervour. It's before 7am and the "huggin', kissin' grandma" is ready, as she is most mornings, to welcome home the troops from the front in Afghanistan and Iraq. "They're my heroes," she says. "They're fighting for my freedom."

At international arrivals, a couple of hundred others wait with flags and banners. Almost every morning it's the same. They consult a hotline the night before, which tells them what time the plane is landing from Prestwick or Shannon airports, and the word goes out. On an average day 150 people will show up; at the weekend it goes up to around 350. As well as friends and families there are church and veterans groups, boy scouts and even a girls' soccer team decked out in stars and stripes.

But Carmen is one of a few regulars with a pass that lets her through security to greet the soldiers the moment they step off the plane. When they emerge, her pompoms are the first things they see. Her shrieks - "We love you" and "Welcome Home" - draw the attention of the passengers waiting in the lounge. A few stand up and clap as a blur of camouflage yomps along the walkway.

Back at the arrivals gate, it's like July 4. The soldiers make their way out of customs and into a crowd reaching out to touch them, hug them and shake their hand. There is a baby dressed in camouflage and a woman wearing a picture of Christ on the cross with the message, "He did this for you." Donna Cranston, of Defenders Of Freedom, which supports returning troops, stands with a clipboard directing the soldiers to their connecting flights.

Supporting the troops has become an unconditional part of the American political and public discourse. On many planes, the flight attendant will announce if there are soldiers on board and, to great applause, thank them for their service. Quite how this support for the troops relates to support for the war is far less obvious. War protesters wear bumper stickers saying, "Support the troops, bring them home."

Bert Brady, who comes to Dallas most mornings, concedes such a position is possible: "I know people say they support the troops but oppose the war, but you don't see many of them here." Once again, the ghost of wars past is present. "It isn't like it was with Vietnam when people spat on the soldiers and called them baby killers," Brady says. "The bad thing about that time was that there were people who knew it was happening and didn't stand up like this. We're not going to let it happen again."

Sunday, Sherman

At the entrance to the sanctuary of the Faith Church at Sherman, a picture of Braden Long as a boy stands alongside a quotation from President Bush's address the night the bombing of Afghanistan started: "We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail."

Inside, Long, a gunner with the First Infantry Division, lies in a flag-covered casket. Two weeks earlier, just three days from his 20th birthday, his Humvee came under grenade attack in Baghdad and he was killed. White boys from small towns are overrepresented among the military casualties returning from Iraq, but their deaths seem to make little impact on national public opinion about the war.

"The American public is partly casualty-phobic," says Christopher Gelpi, associate professor of political science at Duke University, "but it is primarily defeat-phobic. You can muster support for just about any military operation in the US so long as you can get enough of the defeat-phobic people on board."

Long had wanted to join the military since he was eight. He reported for basic training a month after he graduated from high school. A few months after that, he married Teresa, who today sits clutching his medals and wiping her eyes. "I met him August 18 2004," she told the Hays Daily News. "The first day of school, I heard about him. The second day of school, I saw him. The third day of school, I met him, and the fourth day of school, I started dating him."

Compared with other military funerals, Long's is a well attended if low-key affair. We learn that in his short life he had acquired a love of cars, family and country. For the second time in three days, I hear Amazing Grace. With a Stars and Stripes shimmering on a screen overhead, the military chaplain, Ken Sorenson, says, "Freedom is never free... This death serves as a reminder of the cost."

Seven uniformed men come marching down the aisle in formation, small steps, shoulders back and turning as one towards the casket to carry away Long. On their way out, an older veteran stands and salutes while others sob.

At the Cedar Lawn Memorial park, six soldiers meticulously fold into a triangle the flag that had draped the coffin and hand it to Teresa - a widow and not yet 21.

Monday, Dallas

In the overflow room at the Earl Cabell federal courthouse in downtown Dallas, around a dozen people are watching lawyers shuffle papers and listening in on a terse judicial exchange.

"Do you see the memo?" asks one lawyer.

"I see it," comes the reply. "It's not fact. But I see it's written."

"Just answer the question. Do you see it?"


The lawyer is representing the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a charity accused of funnelling at least $12.4m to Hamas. President Bush closed the foundation and froze $4m of its assets shortly after September 11. The witness is an Israeli secret service agent, which is why the court has been cleared and we cannot see his face.

"The whole thing is a charade," Mustafaa Carroll says afterwards. He is the executive director of the Dallas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair). Earlier this year, Cair was named as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the Holy Land case, so Carrell has a particular interest in it. "The trial is strictly political. It's not about terrorism. It's about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The American public don't have a clue about what is going on in the world, which is why it's difficult for them to make a fair assessment. We have no love for people who blow themselves and others up indiscriminately - that's not our thing. But we don't see a Palestinian mother's pain as being any different from an Israeli mother's pain."

Carroll is a convert. Raised in a Christian family, he was destined for the ministry; his brother is a chaplain in the navy. "People were always somewhat sceptical [about his being a Muslim]. But unless they saw you with a kufi on or 'covered funny', as they put it, then they really didn't pay much attention."

When he came to Texas from Gary, Indiana, in the late 70s, he had other worries. "Before people saw me as a Muslim, they would see me as a black person," he says. "And since I was coming to the south, that was my main concern."

September 11 changed all that. "People started driving by mosques and shooting inside with high-calibre guns. Since then there's been a culture of fear." But Carroll doesn't think the Muslim experience in Texas is worse than anywhere else in the country. "If you try to buy a house or get a job and you have a certain name or wear a scarf, you might not get it... But I have found some of the most open-hearted, honest, decent people in Texas. I know there are some crazy ones here, too. But at least they're not talking out of two sides of their mouths."

Carroll says the Iraq war has simply "ramped up" hostility towards Muslims. After September 11 the Bush administration said to itself, "We're going to have to whoop somebody's arse," he says. "And if not you [Bin Laden], then somebody that looks like you. Saddam Hussein was a good candidate for an arse-whoopin'."

Tuesday, San Antonio

On the first day of the war, Eric Alva, 36, sat in his Humvee just outside Basra "waiting for word" to invade. "We'd been there for about two and a half hours," he says. During that time he got out of his truck a few times. Once to get supplies for another vehicle; another time to heat up his MRE (meal-ready-to-eat) of spaghetti and meatballs. The third time he went to the passenger side to get something, he can't remember what. In the end, it wouldn't matter. He never made it. On his way, he stepped on a landmine that he must have twice walked over and was blown 5-10ft away. "There was black smoke everywhere," he recalls. "My hearing was gone. I could see that my arm was blown open. I tried to sit up, but my lower half couldn't move."

His fellow soldiers rushed to him, ripping off his clothes so they could administer emergency aid. Many things ran through Alva's mind at that moment. He thought he was going to die. He had broken his promise to his mother that he wouldn't get hurt. And why weren't they removing his right boot?

Alva's right leg had been blown off. The war was just three hours old. "I have the dubious honour of being the first American to be injured in the war," he says. While in hospital in Washington DC, he received a visit from President Bush and former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. When he came out of rehab in San Antonio, he was sporting a prosthetic leg emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes. His arm was a mass of scars and he was missing his right index finger.

Alva was invited on Oprah and CNN. In San Antonio he became a local celebrity. When he went to restaurants people would sometimes pay for his meal. His closest friend, Darrell, told him he should capitalise on his renown: "If you ever plan to do anything about this, you should do it quickly, because people won't remember you 10 to 15 years from now."

So Alva did. He told the world that he was gay, that Darrell was his partner and that he had earned the right to challenge the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell".

He contacted the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights advocacy group. Next, he came out on Good Morning America. Within minutes he was the centre of a different kind of attention. He was the grand marshall in San Francisco's Gay Pride parade and was on the cover of the Human Rights Campaign's magazine. How did those who praised him for his service respond to his sexuality? "Most people were really good about it. People who have a problem with it just don't mention it. And that's fine."

As a gay man in the military, Alva knew he had to be careful. He had started having a clandestine relationship with a fellow soldier, but broke it off after a friend warned him to be more discreet. "We would have both been discharged if someone had reported us," he says. Once he dated a man who wanted to get serious. "I said, Terry, you can't call me at work." Terry didn't get it. Alva had to call it off.

Slowly he took others into his confidence. But one man he told threatened to report him. "My friends gathered around and said, 'If you say anything, we'll make up something about you.'" The man dropped it. But, for all that, Alva enjoyed his time in the military. "I was having fun. I loved the discipline, the structure, the organisation. I loved the physical fitness and the camaraderie. I had a great time."

Alva no longer supports the war. "Back in 2004 I would have said, yes, I support the troops, no matter what. But I don't support the government's decision to stay there. I don't say, 'Bring the troops home' because I know it's not that easy. But I don't support our cause any more. I don't know what our cause is any more."

And the incongruity between Alva's sacrifice abroad and experiences at home soon became too much for him. "In 2005, Texas voted to change its constitution to ban gay marriage. I thought, 'That means you, Eric. This is your state. You can't just sit here any more while they strip your rights away.' I fought for full equality, so that people could be treated with dignity and respect abroad. Why should I come back and be treated like a second-class citizen?

"I was not the first gay American to serve my country and I won't be the last. A number have died. But the government's not going to recognise the partners of a gay soldier and say, 'I'm sorry to inform you...' " The veterans' benefits he gets, including preferential loans, can't be passed on to Darrell. "If anything happens to me, Darrell couldn't stay in this house. That's wrong."

Wednesday, El Paso

On John Cook's desk, there is a hand grenade with the inscription "Complaint department". Just where you would pull the pin, it says, "Please take a number." Such is the gallows humour of the mayor of El Paso, a military town on the Mexican border that is home to between 12,000 and 15,000 soldiers stationed at the Fort Bliss base.

At the airport, families are in tears either because someone is leaving for the front or has just come back. My cab driver is a veteran. So, too, is Cook - he'd been at the base himself before heading out to Vietnam. "Back then, the demonstrations were aimed at the warriors rather than at the war," he says. "This time, it's the exact opposite."

The hotel where I'm staying features the Pentagon Channel - a propaganda outlet for the defence department; when I tune in it's carrying an ode to the troops from secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. There is an entire economy of tattoo parlours, brothels, pawn stores and bars up on Dyer Street that are dependent on the troops.

"The military is a crucial part of the town," Cook says. "It's the largest single employer and the main economic driver." According to economists at the University of Texas in El Paso, it contributed $2bn to the local economy in 2005.

Around 19,000 more troops are coming to El Paso, following a routine military shake-up a few years ago, bringing with them more jobs and demanding more schools and housing. But the changing nature of America's wars will also change the demands on the local economy. "In this war, we're fighting guerrillas with no uniforms," Cook says. "Our soldiers have giant Humvees and they are operating bombs with garage door operators. We need things like unmanned jeeps rather than tanks."

So with the new influx of soldiers is coming a new emphasis on robotics, unmanned aerial craft and other technologies. "That will probably be bigger to the economy than the 19,000 soldiers," Cook says with a twinkle in his eye. "It means defence contractors are coming and will probably stay. We've got about 700 graduate engineering students at universities near here. It's a major opportunity."

Thursday, Crawford

Back in August 2005, Cindy Sheehan told a Veterans For Peace convention in Dallas that she was going to stay outside George Bush's ranch in Crawford until the president interrupted his holiday and spoke to her. Sheehan, whose son, Casey, had died in Iraq a year earlier, had met the president once before and says she felt patronised. The president never made an appearance, but reporters did and, soon, so did many others who joined Sheehan at "Camp Casey".

Sheehan's protest marked a significant turning point in the coverage of the war on the home front. By that time, a slim majority of Americans were already against it - but to read the papers or watch TV, you wouldn't have known it. Now the anti-war protest had found an acceptable and accessible face in the form of this white, suburban, middle-class mother seeking answers about her son. "For some reason the revolution was not being televised," says Kay Lucas, director of the Crawford Peace House. "But when the media turned their cameras on Cindy, they found a peace movement that was already there and was already active."

Around 13,000 people signed in at the house during that time. With them, says Lucas, came a sense of camaraderie. "There was a lawyer from Arizona who directed the traffic, a retired grandmother who did the parking, a Texas state representative who drove the shuttle bus."

The peace house was set up to establish a permanent presence after around 1,700 protesters came to demonstrate in Crawford when Tony Blair went to meet Bush shortly before the war. At the end of that August came Hurricane Katrina and effectively the end of Bush's credibility. "It was like the exclamation point on a very important sentence," Lucas recalls. A lot has changed since then. The Republicans are out of Congress. Bush's popularity never recovered, Cindy Sheehan is now challenging Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco for failing to impeach the president and stop the war.

Crawford is small - a population of 705 and one main crossroads. A few years back, a rash of stores selling Bush memorabilia opened here. Now, as the president's lame-duck status becomes increasingly evident, not even protesters come any more. But the memory of them still rankles. One shop sells a T-shirt asking, "Sin-D Sheehan. What planet are you from? V-Nuts or Uranus?"

So the week ends as it began. One more body has come home to Texas and another Texan has died in Iraq. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City that same Thursday, Bush is harking back to the Vietnam war, warning of dire consequences if the job is not finished. "Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price for American credibility, but the terrorists see it differently," he says.

Over at Camp Casey, less than a mile from the Peace House, Carl Rising-Moore is out of jail and back holding the fort. "So long as George W Bush is coming to Texas, I plan to live either here or in jail," he says. "I don't know whether I'm delusional - that's possible - but my dream is that the American people wake up out of their slumber. And if they wake up in time, they can save the republic."

And, with that, he headed out, in the searing heat of late afternoon, to "take back" the ditch in the name of peace and the republic.

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