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Signs and soldiers

Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.

HONOLULU – For the past month, my wife and I have been traveling across this great land from sea to shining sea and beyond, and while few of the folks we’ve talked to have been touched by the war in Iraq or seem to give much of a hoot about that Country Without Joy, we didn’t find one person who wasn’t gung-ho about supporting our troops.

Hawaii is something else. Here, many locals aren’t afraid to question the wisdom of what this administration is doing in Iraq and openly wonder how Uncle Sam is going to climb out of the hole. But here, too, in spite of the widespread doubts, support for the troops is quickly apparent and even ratcheted up a notch or two, an unconditional, heartfelt commitment flowing from the Hawaiian people – from doctors, lawyers, divers, bellmen and entertainers, to our servicemen and -women.

Maybe the connection comes from Pearl Harbor, which forever burned the horrors of war into the souls of these good-natured people. It’s probably also because Hawaii has long played host to millions of our warriors, both those lucky enough to be stationed here and those on holiday.

It hasn’t always been this way. When I was a kid growing up in California while Nazi jackboots were crushing their way across Europe and Japan’s fascists were killing and raping their way across China, there were plenty of signs all around Santa Monica reading: “Dogs and Soldiers not allowed.”

Soldiers back then were the lowest of the low.

Then came Dec. 7, 1941. Barbed wire, machine-gun bunkers and patrols replaced the sunbathers on our beaches, and occasionally shells from nervous anti-aircraft gunners would crack in the sky.

Everyone knew we were in trouble. And so the signs came down, and now it was, “Hey, soldier, let me buy you a beer,” and “Hey, sailor, how ’bout coming over tonight for a home-cooked meal with the family?”

From 1941 to 1945, the citizens couldn’t do enough for our defenders – it was even no longer a stigma for a girl to date a soldier. Americans are always fast to fall back in love with their warriors when danger comes knocking.

But then the war ended, and the Army was slashed from 8 million strong to less than 400,000 as the politicians wrongly concluded that missiles and big bombs alone could stop foreign aggression and cut the forces accordingly. And the signs went back up.

In 1950, we were again in the middle of a savage war, this time in South Korea, where we initially suffered the worst military beating in our history. It was just another war in a long string of American fights – like Iraq – that had to be bailed out by grunts on the ground because all the fancy missiles and all the atomic end-alls turned out to be irrelevant. Millions of reservists were called up, billions of dollars were thrown at our rusted and effete armed forces, and the people were once again enamored with GI Joe and deeply concerned with the sharpness of his bayonet. And the signs came back down.

But as the fighting droned on, these same fickle Americans grew bored and made the conflict America’s “Forgotten War” – a war in which the disconnected were hung out to die on such deranged misadventures as Pork Chop Hill, soon twisted into romance and high adventure by the Hollywood dream machine.

After Korea, the nation really got into the Cold War, and the national attitude became: “Are these mud soldiers really necessary, especially when we’ve got all these neat weapons of mass destruction?”

Vietnam was one more cycle of more of the same. At first, the citizens said, “Go get ’em, baby.” But within a year, their heroes were being called baby-killers and were blamed for their politicians’ mistakes.

Since then, there have been many fights – Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm – all of which were quick, clean and over before the public could become involved.

But this time around in Iraq, we’re two years into another increasingly ugly war, with no exit plan in sight. At least to date and especially here in golden Hawaii, the blame for the insanity is not yet being placed on those facing the elephant instead of the politicians who caused the mess in the first place.