Entertaining the troops

Posted: Nov 28, 2003 12:00 AM

TIKRIT, Iraq -- There's a time and a place for political criticism and spirited debate, and Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, seems not to understand either where nor when to voice such thoughts. Maines and her cohorts ran afoul of the American public this past spring when, just before the war in Iraq, she said she was "ashamed" that President Bush was from Texas. The comment itself was bad enough, but what really upset people is that she made it on the eve of war in a foreign land.

Last week, Maines was at it again. Heading into the holiday season, when it is especially difficult for young Americans in uniform to be so far from the ones they love, Maines protested on the "Today" show, "I think people were misled, and I think people are fighting a war that they didn't know they were going to be fighting."

The young Americans fighting this war here in Iraq don't believe they were misled. Their morale is high, their spirits are strong. They are doing a magnificent job, and they would like to know that they have the support of their fellow Americans for what they're doing.

I've been traveling this week with members of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, and these soldiers don't deserve to return home to the kind of welcome my fellow veterans got when we returned from Vietnam. These soldiers are fighting the good fight, and they don't need accusations from celebrity critics like the Dixie Chicks.

Nor do they deserve to have their actions chronicled by the likes of Sean Penn, whom San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein is considering hiring as a war correspondent. You may remember that Penn paid a controversial visit to Saddam's Iraq before the start of the war, so he could pursue "a deeper understanding of this frightening conflict." But the only "deeper understanding" he came to was his admission afterward that he was used as a dupe and a propaganda tool by the Iraqi leader. Yet that didn't stop Penn from accusing President Bush of "teaching a master class in the manifestation of rage into hatred."

Membership in Hollywood's Blame American First crowd was not always as big as it is today. During World War II, Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Stewart were just a few of Hollywood's leading actors who served in uniform. And of course, celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Ann-Margret, Connie Stevens and Raquel Welch didn't spend their free time criticizing the president or the troops. Instead, they joined Bob Hope and the USO in freely giving their time to entertain soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines overseas.

Today, actors like Gary Sinise and performers like Wayne Newton are the exception rather than the rule on a USO tour.

Wayne Newton, one of the world's great entertainers, first performed on a USO tour at the age of eight and has been entertaining the troops -- on land and at sea, at home and abroad -- consistently since Vietnam. He has given up holidays, vacations and various other opportunities to be with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in faraway places.

Two years ago, "Mr. Las Vegas" was named the chairman of the USO Celebrity Circle. I asked him how he recruits other performers to join him. "Like everything else, Colonel," said Newton, "there are those that run for the woods when times get a little tough and those that pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, you're going, count me in.' Those are the kind of people we have."

One of those who regularly picks up the phone to volunteer his time is actor Gary Sinise, who this year has been to Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, Italy, Germany and Fort Stewart, Ga. Now he's back in Iraq, spending his Thanksgiving vacation shaking hands and talking with the 5,000 soldiers and Marines at one of the USO-sponsored events. Instantly recognizable from his roles in such movies as "Forrest Gump," "Apollo 13," "Truman" and dozens of others, Sinise is a favorite among the troops and a strong supporter of the USO, which some people describe as "an island of tranquility in a sea of madness."

But during this holiday week, the American public can give thanks that the young men and women who wear our country's uniform are more than capable of navigating that "sea of madness." I asked Wayne Newton what the response of troops has been to his visit here.

"The response has been phenomenal," he told me. "We have been mixing and mingling in many different place in the last week, and I have not heard one gripe, I have not seen one person who's down in the dumps. Everybody's charged, they know what they're here for; they're here to take care of business, and they're doing exactly that."

America could use fewer celebrities like the Dixie Chicks and Sean Penn and more like Wayne Newton and Gary Sinise. The soldiers of the Army's 4th Infantry Division told me how much they appreciate the support of the American public and they wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.