Remembrance of a War Past

An unfond look back at Freedom Toast, TV jingoes, and a pro-war bully called Tony Hall

Eventually, it will be over. America's troops will return from Baghdad. The country's acrimonious spring will warm to summer. Peacenik parents will celebrate barbecues with their warmongering spawn, and all will be normal again.

We'll have a moment to take a breath, reflect, and cast our minds back to the second Gulf War. Myself, I'll see blurry images, isolated and surreal ...

There was "Freedom Toast," the breakfast confection formerly known as French.

There were the iris bouquets, the bottles of French wine, and the hundreds of well-wishing phone calls that arrived at the San Francisco French Consulate.

I'll recall the friend who phoned from Mexico City to ask whether I, as a U.S. journalist, had been repressed or censored: Foreigners were that astonished by U.S. media jingoism.

I'll remember that TV was embarrassing in its jingoism, but a few newspapers distinguished themselves, including the Bay Area's two major dailies -- the Chronicleand the Mercury News-- which, in fact, produced voluminous, sometimes heroic, generally worthy coverage of the war.

I'll remember an unforgettable scene at a Board of Supervisors hearing toward war's end, when Supervisor Tony Hall browbeat a woman who'd been arrested as an anti-war protester, causing her to cry.

But mostly, as I reflect upon the national outpouring of hypocrisy and cruelty and mawkish self-importance that accompanied the war, I'll realize what a peculiar country we live in -- schizophrenic, delusional, and grandiose in the extreme.

Are we really the best people to be ruling the world?

I thought it best to start my journey through this season of surrealism with the consul general of Spain in San Francisco. Spain, after all, produced Gaudí, Dali, Miró, Domínguez, and Picasso. At the Spanish consul general's residence, some boob threw a rock through a window just as the war was about to break out.

"There was no note or anything. He just broke the glass. If someone was doing it as a form of protest, it was a pretty dumb protest," explains Consul General Camilo Barcia. "Not long ago, there was another chap who was on a bike. He was at the front door, doing something you usually should be doing in a private restroom. I don't think he was protesting or anything. There's just no way to read any meaning in the rock-throwing, either."

Still, it's not the Spanish-, but the French-speakers who've felt the brunt of recent American craziness.

There was Bud Selig telling all baseball fans, including the French Canadians who attend Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos games, that they had to sing "God Bless America" rather than "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. To make matters worse, Jays fans had to endure Celine Dion's recorded rendition of "GBA" during the April 1 season opener in Toronto.

There were "Freedom Fries." In March, you'll recall, the moronic U.S. House of Representatives banned the F-word from cafeteria menus.

Around the country, French consulates and embassies received scornful mail. But in San Francisco, French diplomats got bouquets.

"We took irises to the French -- fleur de lis, as they call them," says 55-year-old state worker Tom Kelly of Berkeley. Kelly and two dozen of his friends were among those who sent flowers, French wine, and other gifts to the French Consulate here. The consulate received 800 phone calls, 90 percent sympathetic. (French diplomats living outside San Francisco, meanwhile, received mostly hate mail.)

Kelly's group also visited consulates of the other coalition of the unwilling countries. "Couldn't find cornflowers, the German national flower, so we also took irises to them. And we took sunflowers to the Russians," he says.

Befitting their status as speakers of the language of diplomacy, the French received Kelly's anti-war group coolly, yet cordially. The Germans, not a very easygoing group to begin with, were cooler still. But the Russians behaved like, well, Russians. They invited the group inside. They wanted to have their picture taken with the anti-war folks. "They expressed their appreciation for our visit, and how terribly saddened [they were] by the outcome of the situation in Iraq, by the very fact that this whole thing resulted in a war," Kelly recalls.

After I received the call two weeks ago from my friend Tonio, a Mexico City pharmacist who worried I might be suffering under U.S. government censorship, I did what everybody's been doing these days: I watched TV. Specifically, I turned to TV Azteca and its Scud Stud, Javier Alatorre, reporting from Jordan.

Like some other non-U.S. news broadcasts, TV Azteca gave the appearance, when compared with kowtowing U.S. coverage, of being run by a crack team of hardened journalists with an eye for hard-to-find yet groundbreaking news. TV Azteca coverage of the U.S. attacks on Al Jazeera and the shelling of the Palestine Hotel, where the international press corps was staying, was far more thorough than the CNN or MSNBC broadcasts my basic cable package gives me. The day's other TV Azteca lead stories -- the U.S. bombing of residential Baghdad neighborhoods and critics' claims that the U.S. Army was holding up Red Cross relief to parched, starving Iraqis -- received scant airplay stateside.

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