American flags were out in force on Sunday afternoon at Caras Park, where Missoula Gulf War veteran Brian Wooden organized a Support the Troops rally that drew several hundred citizens to the banks of the Clark Fork for an afternoon of history, prayer, and unapologetic jingoism.
“This is the greatest country on earth, and that’s what we’re here to recognize today,” said emcee Monte Turner of KECI television, himself a former National Guardsman. The roar of applause betrayed no doubt at the claim.
The flags came in all sizes, from a huge banner unfurled from the Higgins St. bridge to prin-ted cardboard placards with the words God Bless America emblazoned atop the Stars and Stripes. Historical versions paraded across the stage in the hands of Missoula veterans as Turner described the import of each in a flag ceremony that kicked off the program.
Staffers for U.S. Congressman Denny Rehberg and Sen. Conrad Burns read prepared statements, and Sen. Max Baucus provided a letter of support that was read to the crowd. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung, and later “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was played over the loudspeakers.
Though the event was billed strictly as a “Support the Troops” rally—neither pro-war nor anti-peace, as organizers insisted—the crowd’s common denominator often seemed aligned along religious rather than political policy lines. Statements from both Rehberg and Burns followed the Bush script as to the necessity of “defending freedom” against the evil represented by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, before closing with crowd-pleasing recitations of “God Bless America.” Baucus’ statement went further, describing the assembled—many of whom, judging by the uniforms, were present or former members of the armed services—as “the backbone that is keeping America alive,” and proclaiming that “without God there can be no freedom.”
While most speakers—many of them veterans thanking the crowd for its support—hewed closely to the neutrality of the Support the Troops message, retired Army Captain Doug Mason employed a rhetorical device to address the crowd’s deeper concerns. After describing Iraqi torture methods, or a news report of an anti-war teacher in Maine accosting young students with parents in the military, Mason would pause and repeat: “But I won’t talk about those things, because today I am simply here to support the troops.” The message of much of his speech—that protesters of impending war lack true courage, since their protests are allowed by the freedoms won by soldiers—was not lost on the crowd.
At the rear of the pack, three quiet protesters sat on a picnic table and held a hand-scrawled sign reading “Support our troops with diplomacy, not aggression.” It was not immediately apparent if God had blessed them as well.