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Ordinary Americans React To Calls For Strikes On Syria

Soldiers rappel at the Sabalauski Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Ky.
U.S. Army Jennifer Andersson
Soldiers rappel at the Sabalauski Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Before we hear from President Obama Tuesday night, let's hear now from some concerned citizens. The president will go on television to ask for support to press Syria to stop using chemical weapons.

Polls suggest Americans are largely opposed to military strikes in Syria. For a sampling of opinions we have reports from Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and Kentucky.

We begin at a place whose residents know a lot about overseas conflicts: Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Our report is from Blake Farmer of member station WPLN.

Just outside this sprawling post which stretches across the Tennessee-Kentucky border runs Fort Campbell Blvd. Businesses along the strip have signs that read "welcome home the 101st Airborne." It's an air assault division that's been on near constant rotations since Sept. 11. While there's been no talk about sending a unit like this to Syria, many folks here would rather not see another conflict in the Middle East.

"Our military is tired," says Geri Phillips, an Army mom. "We're sick of it. We don't need to be in any more countries."

Phillips says she's proud of her son's three tours of duty, even though she's not sure they've accomplished all that much.

"We can't always constantly get involved in other countries and make them democratic like us. It's just not going to happen," she says.

Only if the U.S. suffered a direct attack would Phillips support a military strike.

For the men and women in uniform, it's difficult to have a public opinion since the commander-in-chief has spoken.

"I thought this was going to be a cooling off period for us for the next couple of years," says Staff Sergeant Darius Duncan, who served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion. "But whatever is necessary, I guess. That's kinda how I feel."

But only from a distance — Duncan sees no role for ground troops.

"We can send tomahawks from my grandmother's backyard, so I would say keep boots off the ground and hit 'em hard where it counts," he says.

Other soldiers say they've been so busy training for what will likely be another trip to Afghanistan; they've hardly paid attention to Syria. A few have told me off the record that they hope Congress blocks the White House from going ahead with airstrikes.

"I'm afraid this is just the beginning," says Deborah Piercy, who runs a shipping and greeting card shop just off post. Her husband fought in the first Gulf war, and she says Congress needs to consider all the steps before pulling the trigger in Syria.

"We have to show them that we're not afraid to do what we have to do. But I certainly hope they've thought long and hard about it," she says.

Piercy worries a U.S. strike will only prompt retaliation of some sort from Syria.

Next to Los Angeles where the AFL-CIO is holding its convention. NPR's Nathan Rott samples opinions there.

Richard Trumka, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president, addresses members during the quadrennial AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles on Monday.
Nick Ut / AP
Richard Trumka, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president, addresses members during the quadrennial AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles on Monday.

President Obama was scheduled to speak to the thousands of labor organizations and union delegates that have gathered here. It was an appointment he wasn't able to make because of the crisis in Syria.

The AFL-CIO endorsed Obama in both of his elections, so you might think most of the people streaming out of here would support the president and his call for action.

"I think we should stay out of Syria," says Dale Moerke of Minnesota who is a union member and a veteran. "I support my president, he's the commander-in-chief, but he's wrong on this one."

He voted for Obama twice but says he doesn't see the point in intervening in Syria's civil war.

But Beth Soto of New York disagrees: If we just watch 1,400 people get gassed and we don't do anything about it, we don't stand for humanity then."

She says that the world needs to do something — that the Syrian government should be punished in some way to, if nothing else, uphold international law.

But if that action falls to the United States alone?

"I don't want us to go in any stronger," Soto says. "I don't want us to go in there like we did with Iraq and take out the president and topple the statues and all. I don't want a shock and awe."

She thinks that's possible — that the threat alone may be enough.

One of Soto's friends, who's been following the news on her smartphone, says reports that the Assad regime may be willing to cede control of its chemical weapons is proof of that. But many people I talked to here aren't that optimistic.

"Well this is just gonna be a few bombs and that's it. And we're just going to kill the bad guys so-called and that's it. That's not likely to happen," says Paul Wilcox.

He thinks any involvement would lead to more involvement. And Wilcox says the U.S. can't afford something like that. He too is a supporter of Obama, but he thinks the commander-in-chief should be focusing on America, on the economy.

Wilcox would like to tell the president that he needs to keep his promises about jobs and ending wars. He adds it's keeping those promises, that people here want to see.

Finally to Central Pennsylvania. Emily Reddy of member station WPSU talks to people in State College.

Old Main, the administration building on the campus of Penn State University.
Jeff Brady / NPR
Old Main, the administration building on the campus of Penn State University.

At Penn State University classes are in their third week. Hundreds of students stream through the HUB-Robeson student union — rushing to class or eating and studying at long rows of tables.

Justin Perez, who is waiting in line for a coffee, is a graduate student in English and considers himself "very left wing." He hopes Congress will vote down a strike on Syria.

"They have bigger problems at home to worry about. Such as figuring out the Obamacare situation before they go overseas and spend money there," Perez says.

At a table across the room, David Heineman, who is doing physics homework, says reports the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people don't factor into the decision for him.

"He had been killing people with conventional weapons for a long period of time. I'm not absolutely certain why there's such a great distinction with the chemical weapons," Heineman says.

But for the most part, students asked about Syria say they haven't been paying attention to the news.

That didn't surprise John Smerbeck, who's eating lunch with his wife on the patio outside.

"Students, they worry about what's immediately in their face. So unless Syria comes here to Penn State University no one's really going to pay attention," he says.

Smerbeck has done three tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. He now teaches ROTC students, and says his job won't let him say what he thinks Congress should do.

Nearby, Penn State employee Bob Mills is plotting out where to put in a fence. He thinks the United States should protect its own borders, and stay out of other countries.

"Unless we want that country, there's no sense going in and picking fights. We donate our kids' lives for their kids and there's no gain by it," Mills says.

He says wars have been going on in Syria since Bible times and U.S. involvement won't make a difference.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Blake Farmer
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Emily Reddy