Wilkes-Barre Proud and Patriotic


Two giant American stone eagles stand guard here on top of the twin pillars of the Market Street bridge over the Susquehanna River. There is a word carved under each of them: PATRIOTISM and PERSEVERANCE.

A little farther upriver there are two monuments in front of the Luzerne County Courthouse, one the anchor of the U.S.S. Wilkes-Barre, a World War II cruiser, one of the first ships to steam into Tokyo Harbor in 1945, and a Vietnam War Memorial dedicated two years ago. It shows a soldier with a broken sword above the names of the 83 local men killed there. Behind the soldier is a map of Vietnam punctured by large pungee sticks, the bamboo spikes used there as booby traps to maim American soldiers on jungle trails. "A symbol of the barbaric guerrilla warfare" of the Vietcong, says the plaque.

"U.S.-1; Iraq-O," says a sign in the window of the doughnut shop on Public Square. The anchormen and women on WYOU, the local CBS affiliate, wear buttons that say "Supporting Our Troops." The station gives them away, but a sign on the news bureau on the square says they are all gone for now. "Desert Shield Maps" are on sale in most stores.

This old coal town of 58,000 people is a tough American place where high school wrestling draws big crowds. And the gulf war draws bigger support, with a "Desert Storm Desk" on local television news showing pictures and mini-biographies of local men and women called up from their reserve units for duty in Saudi Arabia. In nearby Kingston, photographs of local servicemen and women are displayed on a hall of fame wall in the lobby of the municipal building.

One local newspaper, the Times-Leader, listed 10 separate events and programs, from free psychological help for the families of military personnel to blood donations, on just one day, Wednesday. The lead editorial called for a war crimes trial for Saddam Hussein. A columnist, Marjorie Levin, said: "We have a chance to repair our national psyche . . . If we win this one, we'll be able to bury Vietnam." Another, Jean Torkelson, said a local anti-war priest belonged in jail -- which is where he is after trying to break into an Air Force base to paint blood on a B-52.

Vietnam veterans here have moved quickly to support and identify with the Iraq generation of soldiers, broadcasting their own message: "Don't treat them the way you did us!" The night before, 150 people gathered at the Vietnam Memorial and tied a yellow ribbon around the wrist of the arm holding the broken sword. "We honor the commitment of those who serve now," said County Judge Joseph Augello. "Now is their time for sacrifice."

So, have no doubt that Wilkes-Barre is patriotic and most of the talk around town is of perseverance in this new war.

But even here, the other paper in town, Citizens' Voice, is editorially counseling against rushing into a ground war in Arabia. Over in Hazleton, the Standard-Speaker editorially mulled over the "hypocrisy of defending a country, Saudi Arabia, that fundamentally opposes "freedom, equality and democracy." Shorty Jones of Mountaintop is writing letters again to all the papers, saying things like this: "This isn't a war to protect democracy or stem the flow of communism. It's a war to protect the rich oil barons, their 20 or 30 wives, their castles and their fleets of expensive cars . . . For this we have to lose thousands of Americans and billions and billions of dollars?"

Even in the conservative Times-Leader, a third columnist, Steve Corbett, was writing about the 35 local residents who wanted to picket at the White House last Saturday and were pushed away by policemen in riot gear as a couple of assistants to President George Bush laughed at the scene. "Our flag," Mr. Corbett said, "is as much mine for opposing the war against Iraq as it is yours for supporting it."

Readers responded by questioning Mr. Corbett's patriotism -- and manhood. A page of photographs of reaction to war around the state of Pennsylvania showed a man holding a pistol in front of targets with Saddam Hussein as the bull's eye, and a Marine recruiting office spray-painted with the words "Resist . . . Resist." All of this just two weeks into the action.

"This will not be another Vietnam," promised President Bush of adventure in Arabia. Perhaps not, but seeing the great patriotism and first nagging doubts of the people of Wilkes-Barre, it seems to me that on the home front, which is the front that really counts, Iraq may be Vietnam in fast-forward.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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