War In The Balkans: Captured Soldiers - Ribbons bind the emotions of Middle America Middle America

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ON SHOPFRONTS in rural Michigan, on prison doors in East Texas and on a chain-link fence in a Los Angeles barrio, yellow ribbons were fluttering in the breeze yesterday, bringing together three very different parts of a nation. They were there to mark solidarity with the three Cavalry scouts captured by the Yugoslav army on the Kosovo border, who were facing a military trial in Kosovo yesterday. America sometimes seems a fragmented, disjointed country, more conscious of what divides it than what unites it. Those ribbons are a reminder that moments of crisis, threat, or confrontation, can create a sense of common ground, albeit fleetingly.

The incarceration of the three men from the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Regiment, known affectionately as the One Quarter Cav, has brought America together and, apparently, made the country more willing to engage in the conflict in the Balkans - for the moment. But the yellow ribbons should be a reminder of something else: that this effect can be very fleeting, and that public opinion when Americans are in harms' way can be volatile, unpredictable and highly dangerous for politicians to mess with. The yellow ribbons at Palestine High School, in deepest east Texas, were accompanied by a simple message: "Come home safely Steven Gonzales". His parents work for the Texas prison department, and there were yellow ribbons on the many jails of east Texas - even on death row.

In Capac, Michigan, where Christopher Stone grew up, yellow ribbons were tied to trees, shops, lamp-posts, car aerials, and anything else that could be found. "In the tight-knit, blue-collar East LA community where [Andrew] Ramirez grew up, three flower arrangements arrived in succession at the modest stucco home of Andrew Ramirez Sr., the soldier's father, who remained in seclusion," said the Los Angeles Times.

"The capture of three American soldiers, one from Los Angeles, puts a face on the risks of the war in Yugoslavia," the LA Times editorialised. "It's the end of the `Game Boy war'," said Senator John McCain, a Republican who favours ground forces for Kosovo. Sgt Stone's family in Texas has received calls from Governor George W. Bush and three US Congressmen.

The media has run admiring portraits of all three, who until yesterday were nameless soldiers in an unknown country to most Americans. "Nice guys. Dedicated military men. And tough enough to endure this ordeal," said USA Today, describing all three. "It looks like they beat him up a little bit. That's a thing that they shouldn't do to anybody," Michael Cordan, the shopkeeper who sold Capac its yellow ribbons, told the paper. "He probably put up a scrap," said Ed Colby, another citizen of Capac.

The fact that two of the soldiers have Hispanic backgrounds has added to the sense of solidarity. "It shouldn't take an incident in Kosovo to recognise Mexican Americans' contributions to our defence," wrote a columnist in the LA Times. The fact that Yugoslavia planned to try these men under its own military law further incensed people. The US would not permit a foreign trial for the Marine aviators who cut a cable in Italy and sent a cable car plunging to the ground, killing the occupants.

Alongside the pride and solidarity there is anger, summed up by General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, when he said: "We've all seen their pictures. We don't like it," adding: "We have a long memory about these kinds of things."

And everywhere, there is the stars and stripes: on the soldiers' left shoulders, behind President Bill Clinton as he spoke at Norfolk naval base, in the background of the photograph of Specialist Gonzales held by his father as he brushed away a tear. Mr Clinton struck the same note as Gen Clark, saying: "America looks after its own."

For the moment, the arrests have been the excuse for an increase in the rhetoric, a fillip of anger and concern. But there are clear risks for the White House. Popular support for the war in Kosovo is well below those for the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. The latest opinion poll, by USA Today, CNN and Gallup and taken before the capture of the three, reveals contradictory views. Public confidence in Mr Clinton's ability to conduct foreign policy has fallen sharply; a majority think the US will not achieve its objectives in Kosovo; and an overwhelming majority think that Nato's actions have made things worse in the Balkans. But a similarly overwhelming majority think that the air strikes will, in the end, improve things, and believes Mr Clinton can handle the situation. The number favouring ground troops - though still in the minority - has risen.

But the yellow ribbons hold a larger political message for Mr Clinton. The inspiration for the idea comes from "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," the song which Tony Orlando and Dawn made a hit in 1973. In 1979 when the US embassy in Tehran was occupied and Americans held hostage, yellow ribbons blossomed across the country. The crisis led President Jimmy Carter to mount an abortive and deadly raid in which US soldiers were killed at a lonely desert airstrip. Those fragile strips of fabric became a symbol both of America's desire to bring its people home, and of the failure of the White House. The hostages were eventually freed - after Carter lost the election.