Let's Iraq and roll

In a surreal twist on the political demonstration, the Pentagon put on a show to mark 9/11 and honor U.S. troops serving in the war.

Published September 11, 2005 11:04PM (EDT)

Thousands attended a concert and march to the National Mall in Washington on Sunday, organized and billed by the Department of Defense as an event to commemorate Sept. 11 and honor U.S. troops.

The march started at the Pentagon and went across Arlington Memorial Bridge to a site adjacent to the Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial, where country singer Clint Black serenaded the crowd with vague, seemingly nostalgic platitudes of word and song.

Black told the crowd he's not a politician. "I'm gonna let the music do most of the talking," he said, before he launched into a new song with the refrain: "The code of the west is black and white, the good guys and the bad. You always know who's wrong or right, by the color of their hats."

Black previously hitched his ride to the war on terrorism when he released the pro-soldier song, "Iraq and Roll."

The march and concert has generated some controversy, with allegations that the Pentagon is trying to use the Sept. 11 anniversary to pump new life into flagging support among Americans for the war in Iraq. The event also made headlines when the Washington Post pulled its co-sponsorship in the weeks ahead because critics said the paper's involvement raised objectivity concerns. Other corporate sponsors stayed on board.

Antiwar groups have also said the march and concert were designed to pre-empt what has been billed as a major antiwar protest planned for Washington on Sept. 24. Some antiwar protestors have struggled to articulate their message while still expressing support for U.S. soldiers doing hard and dangerous work in the field. Sunday's march arguably allowed the architects of the war in Iraq, including participant Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to come out first in favor of U.S. troops.

Some marchers here expressed concern that troops might indeed interpret antiwar protests later this month as popular sentiment turning against the troops.

"One thing the media can never sort out -- Cindy Sheehan and that whole crowd -- is that those people are in Afghanistan and Iraq because they volunteered. Remember, we did not draft them," said marcher Elizabeth Kemp, from Nazareth, Pa. "They believe they are defending their country. Why not support them? You may not agree with the politicians, but why take it out on these guys over there?"

Marchers carried American flags and donned free, white "Freedom Walk" T-shirts, and carried bottled water under the hot sun. The event had most of the elements of a real grass-roots march, though it was hard to escape a surreal feeling of being at a pep rally organized by the government to support, well, the government.

Few marches in Washington, for example, feature people like Rumsfeld as a star, which gave the scene a distinct air of propaganda. A master of ceremonies announced from the stage when he arrived, "Our defense secretary is in the house!"

Black introduced Rumsfeld by saying that his own niece thinks Rumsfeld is "a hunk." Rumsfeld took the microphone to rally the crowd to march again next year. "This is our first March for Freedom and by the size of the crowd, I suspect it will not be the last," he said. Department of Defense materials said organizers will try to hold marches next year in all 50 states.

Department of Defense materials handed to the press said that the Pentagon organized Sunday's event to answer citizens' "call to action" for a meaningful way to mark the day, and to say thanks to soldiers. It was difficult to tell how many people marched. Organizers had said they expected 3,000 to 10,000 people; one event press person said 17,000 people were there.

Security was intense. The parade route appeared to be completely sealed off to all vehicles and even pedestrians who had not registered with the Department of Defense by last Friday afternoon. The concert was walled off from the rest of the mall by fences. Police were everywhere. Near the stage, dozens of chairs were set aside for families of those killed on Sept. 11, where Rumsfeld took time to visit with them.

Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in the crowd. I asked him who was paying for the whole thing. "I think it is the sponsors on the back of this T-shirt," he said, referring to the Freedom Walk shirts. The back of the shirts listed Clint Black (presumably not a sponsor), McDonalds, the Pentagon Channel, Stars and Stripes, Lockheed Martin, The Washington Times, Subway Restaurants, America Online, local radio stations, and others.

Marchers said the event provided a tangible way to show support for U.S. troops fighting overseas. Some said they were unaware that the Department of Defense had organized the day's events. Others, like Jack Lynch, from Lenah, Va., said they did not care who organized the march and concert, so long as troops get the message of support. "We came out to support our troops," said Lynch. "We support them no matter where they are at."

Kemp, the marcher from Nazareth Pa., had said she was a bit worried about talking to Salon, which she described as "liberal weenies." She eventually agreed. "I am a 30-year Navy wife. I very much support our people in Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought this was something constructive to do," she said.

But Kemp said she has her own concerns about Iraq, where the United States is "getting bogged down." Still, the event gave her a chance, she said, to show support for U.S. troops even on missions that might be "less than perfect." She said she does not care if the Pentagon organized the event; the message for the troops is still the same.

"You may not agree with the reason we are there," said Kristy Kuhn, from Arlington, Va., who was with Kemp. "But you have to support our troops. That is the only reason I came. They deserve our support and thanks."

The march was part of the Department of Defense's "America Supports You" program, launched in November 2004. America Supports You materials say the program is designed to highlight "the overwhelming show of support and gratitude extended to the brave men and women serving in harm's way." President Bush mentioned the program in a speech to troops at Fort Bragg, N.C. early in the summer.

Another marcher, Terry Murtaugh, from Burke, Va., said he was glad to have come. "I think it is a proactive way to observe the day and demonstrate solidarity with those who have lost their lives," he said.

But Murtaugh said he does not remember the last time a government agency organized a march and concert to support its own employees. "It is unusual," he said.

By Mark Benjamin

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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9/11 Iraq Middle East Pentagon