Latinos Say 'Yes' to Iraq War -- But Why?

A small sea of American flags waved gently in the warm summery breeze at a recent pro-troop rally in Los Angeles. The throng of Junior ROTC cadets, medal festooned World War II veterans, and community residents listened to spirited speeches that praised the troops and urged support for the war. During the rally, dozens of passing motorists honked horns, pumped their fists, and shouted out words of encouragement to the crowd.

The rally didn't differ much from the dozens of other pro-war rallies held in Deep South and Midwest cities in recent weeks, except for one thing: It was held in Los Angeles, and the participants were Latinos. They staged the rally at a memorial site named after Raul Morin, a Mexican-American writer, who wrote about Mexican-American Medal of Honor awardees. A rally organizer said that it was to counter anti-war protests.

That so many Latinos vigorously back the war is no fluke. A Pew Research Center poll in February found that far more blacks than whites oppose the Iraq war. The press has played up the differing black and white attitudes up as yet another example of the racial divide. But it makes almost no mention that in the same poll nearly seventy percent of Latinos support the war. A poll taken in March by Republican pollsters, Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates also found strong pro-war support among Latinos.

At first glance, the strong pro-war sentiment among Latinos seems to defy political reality and public perception. Latino civil rights groups and the Congressional Hispanic Conference have pounded Bush for his assault on civil liberties protections, affirmative action programs, his tax cut giveaways to the rich, support of school vouchers, and further gut of spending on social programs. The Caucus was near unanimous in opposing the Congressional resolution last October that gave Bush total power to wage war against Iraq. Latino activists have staged large anti-war marches in Los Angeles. And the majority of Latinos are Democrats.

But things are changing. In Texas and Florida nearly one-third of Latinos voted for Bush in 2000. Congressional Latinos are politically divided. In March, four Latino Congresspersons publicly broke with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. They called it too liberal, and activist, and formed the Congressional Hispanic Conference. In 2004, Republican strategists say they will pull out all stops to bag more Latino votes for Bush in 2004.

Many Latinos praise Bush's pro-immigration, bi-lingual education, family values and small business stances. While Latino civil rights groups railed against Bush's appointment of controversial conservative judge Miguel Estrada to a federal appeals court, the United Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the United Latin American Citizens enthusiastically backed his nomination.

Then there's the military. During the mid-1990s, Secretary of Army Louis Caldera, a Latino, prodded the army to intensify its recruitment efforts among Latinos. Many low-income young Latinos, particularly recent immigrants, bought the military's pitch that the army is the place they can acquire skills, training, and career advancement. But for many this is a cruel illusion. According to Department of Defense figures, in 2001, Latinos were heavily concentrated in low level, less skilled supply details in the army and Marines.

Still, while ROTC programs are being dumped or chased away from major university colleges, Junior ROTC programs flourish at many predominantly Latino high schools. The army has become a testing ground for many Latinos to prove their loyalty and devotion to America. Many immigrants have fled countries that practice state terror; they readily accept Bush's pronouncement that toppling Saddam Hussein fulfills America's mission to establish freedom and democracy in the Third World.

At the Los Angeles rally, several participants spoke with reverence and respect of Marine Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, a recent immigrant from Guatemala. Gutierrez is believed to be the second soldier to die in battle in Iraq. At the start of fighting, six Latinos were listed as killed or captured.

Latino activists say this is more reason why Latinos should oppose the war. But the high battlefield risk has further kindled patriotism, and pride among many Latinos. The top-heavy pro war sentiment among many Latinos spurred Xavier Bacerra, the former chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a centrist Democrat and no Bush cheerleader, to join with a conservative Republican Congressman to co-sponsor a recent Congressional resolution urging support for the troops.

Military recruiters will continue to sell the military to young Latinos, especially recent immigrants, as the one place where they can be all they can be. But the high Latino death rate on the battlefield, and the often-failed promise that they will get top-level training and education, badly mock that claim.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).


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