Iraq war, reconstruction stir debate among African-Americans

Flowers and a large photograph sat near the coffin of Marine Staff Sgt. Kendall D. Waters-Bey, killed in the opening days of the war in Iraq. The sobs of family members rent the air at St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore.

About 800 mourners, most of them black, turned out for the funeral April 4. It was a tremendous outpouring of grief for a Marine who died in a war that was firmly opposed at its outset by a substantial majority of African-Americans -- even though blacks make up a disproportionate share of the armed forces.

Now that the war seems all but over, the huge amount of money the United States is planning to spend on reconstruction in Iraq -- about $2.4 billion through September was included in Presidential Bush's supplemental budget request to Congress -- is a subject of contention among African-Americans.

Daryl Jacobs, 31, a truck driver who lives in Northeast Baltimore, said he believed that the money allocated for the war and its aftermath "could have been put in other places, like education, fixing Baltimore's streets, and public housing. It could be spent in other ways than war. There are potholes in Baltimore as big as Jacuzzis."

The reaction to Waters-Bey's death illustrates the division the war has created among African-Americans, especially among the families of black military personnel. After learning that his son had been killed in a helicopter crash, a grief-stricken Michael Waters-Bey appeared on television holding the Marine's photograph. "I want President Bush to get a good look at this, really good. This is the only son I had, only son."

But after the funeral, Brad L. Waters, a first cousin of Sergeant Waters-Bey's, praised the Marine's sacrifice and voiced support for the war.

"I think Kenny did a good deed; I'm not happy that he lost his life, but he was doing what he wanted to do, he was happy and he was brave," said Waters. As for the war, he said Bush made "a good call."

The one large national survey that measured black attitudes in the midst of the war -- a Gallup Poll conducted by telephone of 2,028 respondents released March 28 -- showed a wide racial divide. Just 29 percent of black Americans favored the war with Iraq, while 78 percent of white Americans supported it.

A spokeswoman for the Gallup organization said the poll didn't explore why blacks overwhelmingly opposed the war. Nor has Gallup released a follow-up survey to determine if attitudes have changed after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and the evident joy of many Iraqis at its demise.

But interviews during the past two weeks indicate that opinions among African-Americans remain divided. The war has staunch supporters, and factors such as politics, concern that the war will drain money from social programs and the nation's history of racial injustice shape the views of its detractors.

Another factor that weighs heavily is the high number of blacks in the military. Blacks account for 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, but they make up 26 percent of the Army's personnel. Black women account for nearly half of the women in the Army. Overall, blacks make up about 20 percent of the personnel in all branches of the volunteer military.

Rep. John R. Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, said that "it doesn't take a lot of imagination" to look at the war from the vantage point of race. He recalled that midlevel officials in the first Reagan-Bush administration had used racial epithets in referring to Arabs.

"The racial implications are hard to evade," said Conyers, adding: "Would this be happening to them [the Iraqis] if they were not nonwhite?"

Conyers predicted that opposition to the war and the subsequent military occupation will mount as the public becomes aware of the financial and human costs.

Outside St. Matthew's, Waters disagreed. "I think the way the world is now, with all these terrorists, we were headed in a bad direction [and the war is] worth it," he said. "We don't want to lose the lives of our soldiers, but if we wait, and wait and wait, we might lose millions of lives. There's a lot of people against [the war]. But I think Bush did a good thing."

As six Marines carried his cousin's coffin out of the church, two veterans wearing American Legion caps stood at attention. Members of a West Baltimore post, they felt compelled to attend the funeral even though they did not know the family.

"This war is needed because Saddam is a very evil man, and something had to be done to stop him," said one of them, James Jackson, 61, a Vietnam veteran, as he walked aided by a cane in the church's parking lot.

"A lot of people don't understand why we're over there, but if you talk to veterans, now that's a different story. A lot of people in my senior building have a lukewarm feeling about it. Some just don't like war. I really have to explain to people what's going on and why we're there."

Based on the Vietnam experience, there is a widespread misperception that black soldiers were doing the bulk of the fighting in Iraq. During the early days of the Vietnam War, there were large numbers of blacks in the Army's front-line combat units.

In today's Army, blacks make up a little more than 10 percent of the combat infantrymen. And, among enlisted members of the entire military, blacks hold 26 percent of the support jobs, and 22 percent of the technical jobs.

Although today's military is made up of volunteers, critics say it still draws minorities and whites from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. On a level playing field, they might have gone directly from high school to college, or been able to find decent jobs in the private sector, the critics say.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson sees a parallel between the Bush administration's opposition to affirmative action and the high number of blacks in the military. He said Bush and fellow conservatives oppose affirmative action to "lock us out" of schools and universities while they "lock us in the war zone in Iraq."

He also wonders whether black veterans returning home will be able to find jobs with so much money diverted to the Middle East.

Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the war and the Bush administration's tax cuts will result in reductions for domestic programs. "Where else can the money come from?" Mfume asked.

Iraq's extensive oil reserves and Bush's re-election campaign are the basis for the war, not the liberation of the Iraqis or the war against terrorism, Conyers argues. Without the war, the nation's economic ills would have made Bush unelectable in the next presidential race, he said, but a rapid victory could give the president the momentum to win re-election.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, opposed the resolution giving Bush the power to use military force against Iraq. And once the war began, he remained skeptical about its costs and eventual reconstruction:

"There are many people in our districts that are looking at the situation in Iraq, and they certainly are very patriotic. But as we talk about building new schools [in Iraq], they need new schools, too. As we talk about ... creating universal health care in Iraq, we've got 40 million people in this country who need health care, too. When we talk about election reform in Iraq, we've got some problems with election reform here in this country ... as evidenced by the 2000 election."

But he did express his admiration for American troops: "I support and stand united behind our courageous men and women in uniform who will bear the burden of that action."

On April 4, Cummings and others eulogized Waters-Bey during the funeral.

After the funeral, Johnnie Hardy watched as the hearse pulled away from the church. Hardy, 70, a staunch Baptist who lives in Baltimore's Northwood neighborhood, said God put the president in the White House to conduct the war.

"This is a war that had to be, and Bush is the man to do the job that needed to be done," said Hardy. "God's will will be done. If you read the Bible, you'll see, all through history, when a king won't do right, God will raise up somebody like Bush to take him out."