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British Committed to Gulf War, but Distracted at Home

February 13, 1991

LONDON (AP) _ Britons support their government’s determination to get Iraq out of Kuwait, but with little passion. The attitude seems to be: Get on with it as quickly and quietly as possible.

A Gallup Poll published last week found 79 percent supported the war, but 69 percent would just as soon have less news of it.

Newspapers and broadcasters already had taken the hint.

Early this month, the mass-circulation tabloids returned to their roots when Princess Diana’s brother admitted to one night of adultery. The story ran for days.

Perhaps more telling was an in-depth report about European Community policy on raspberry pricing in the main newscast Monday on the BBC’s Radio 4.

Last Friday, the war took third place behind six inches of snow that nearly paralyzed London and an Irish Republican Army mortar attack the day before that might have killed Prime Minister John Major and his War Cabinet.

″I think that the attitude of the British public is fairly phlegmatic,″ said David Penn, a curator at the Imperial War Museum.

Penn looks for signs of the public mood in war memorabilia that appears on the market. There hasn’t been much: a rubber Saddam Hussein ″anger doll,″ some ″Hussein’s Insane″ toilet tissue and a few T-shirts, including one with the Union Jack and Stars and Stripes that boasts ″These colors don’t run.″

There is none of the passion of 1982, when Britain fought the Falkland Islands war with Argentina.

″That was rather different, because it was British territory,″ Penn said. ″There was a very strong public groundswell,″ evidenced by a profusion of merchandise adorned with penguins.″

Public support for British troops in the gulf is strong. Tens of thousands of people responded to an emergency call for blood donors.

When U.S. B-52 bombers arrived at Fairford in the Cotswold hills, many residents were delighted. It was good for business, good for the successful prosecution of the war, and the residents genuinely like Americans.

Nina Theed, 66, said to a reporter before pedaling home on her bicycle: ″There’s a war on, and if this is going to shorten the war, that’s all there is to it.″

Beneath the united front, lopsided poll figures and an air of nonchalance, buzzes of unease sometimes are heard about the war, to which Britain has committed 35,000 people, 70 combat jets, an armored division and 16 warships.

Conor Gearty, director of the civil liberties research unit at King’s College, London, detects an undercurrent of fear.

″It is already apparent that, even without any extreme atrocity, the fear of political terror has captured our imaginations,″ he wrote in The Guardian.

″The West End is starved of tourists; empty jets ply once busy transatlantic routes; sleepy security staff slouch at every shoe shop, waiting to tackle Abu Nidal; resident foreigners unfortunate enough to be vaguely Middle Eastern are thrown into Pentonville (jail) without explanation or recourse to judicial review.″

Frictions were apparent in south London when the Lambeth council debated a motion condemning ″all attempts to whip up patriotic and pro-war hysteria ... as blatant racism.″

A fight broke out in the public gallery, where some demonstrators chanted ″Victory to Iraq 3/8″ The motion passed.

The IRA mortar shot deprived the Committee to Stop the War in the Gulf of its media event of the week, a stop a 10 Downing St. to present an anti-war letter to the prime minister.

Anne Kanes, a committee spokeswoman, said weekend protest marches were a pale shadow of the huge anti-nuclear protests a decade ago.

She conceded they had not dented public support for the war, but added: ″Certainly we would expect those polls to alter over the next few weeks.″

When British soldiers starting dying in a ground war? ″Hopefully not,″ she said, ″but they may be typically part of what turns people against wars. It would be nice if it wasn’t the case.″

Akbar Khan, a community worker at Birmingham Central Mosque, wonders how Britons will react to casualties. ″Relations with the English are all right now,″ he said, ″but what worries me is what happens when the bodies start coming back.″

Ominous rumblings have been heard from British soldiers in the gulf, who are described as seething over the lack of beer and pinups in Saudi Arabia. When they get home, one was quoted as saying this week, British Muslims ″are going to feel a backlash.″

Douglas Hogg, the second-ranking official at the Foreign Office, was heckled when he addressed the central committee of the Union of Muslim Organizations.

A delegation of the rival Muslim Forum, led by Zaki Badawi of the Muslim College, called on Hogg a few days later to apologize for the rough treatment and urged British Muslims to lower their voices.

″We belong to an Islamic culture which is used to overstatement,″ Badawi said. ″When you put our statements into English, which is a language of understatement, our expressions become extremely offensive and frightening.″

In the first days after the war began Jan. 17, traders in the financial district were at work at 5 a.m., their mood swings charted by sharp ups and downs in the market. Now, market strategist Robert Buckland characterizes the mood as ″relatively cheerful.″

″The Gulf War obviously is still the primary factor in people’s minds, but now people are thinking of stock ideas and prospects for lower interest rates,″ he said.

Leonard Solomon, who chats about the war while styling hair in his north London shop, criticized other Europeans and the Japanese.

″They’re not sending men, but they’re still prepared to reap the beneficial results financially,″ he said. ″I’m not surprised it’s just us and the Americans. It’s always been like that.″

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