For everyone except George W. Bush and his entourage, the recent siege of Falluja and the standoff with the militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gave occasion to rethink the conventional wisdom about the US-led occupation of Iraq.
No longer was the Iraqi insurgency confined to an area defined by that thoughtless American neologism, “the Sunni triangle.” Early during the fighting, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani pointedly declined to condemn the Sadrist militia’s storming of Spanish and Salvadoran positions in Najaf. However, Sistani, once (wrongly) touted by US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as having issued “the first pro-American fatwa,” did condemn the decision of US military commanders to surround and bomb Falluja. News reports showed that Iraqis from all ethnicities and sects were appalled by the civilian casualties in the beleaguered city. Turkmen from Mosul sent a relief convoy southward, and the Shiite and Sunni Arab denizens of Baghdad donated many pints of blood. In tandem with the humanitarian response, anti-occupation sentiment was clearly on the rise among Iraqis.
Reacting to the news, individuals as diverse as neoconservative pundit William Kristol and liberal Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi bemoaned the insufficient number of American “boots on the ground.” Senator Richard Lugar, generally seen as a weathervane of small-town common sense in the Republican Party, wondered whether the planned June 30 “handover of sovereignty” to a still undefined Iraqi entity was approaching too quickly.
Even the hapless Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, who has yet to distinguish his ideas on Iraq from those of the White House, called for “a political strategy that will work” in Iraq—though he seemed to have no clue what that would be.
Yet when Bush addressed the nation on April 13, he could not acknowledge—or remember—a single slipup in the ostensible first phase of the neoconservatives&rquo; self-appointed mission to remake the Middle East. Intending to invoke former President Ronald Reagan with his steely-eyed admonitions that America would not waver, he struck even the devoutly Reaganite Kristol as “depressing” in his bravado. The act is wearing thin.
The day after Bush’s speech, Nancy Lessin began a Washington news conference with a rousing denunciation of Bush’s “betrayal” of her family’s trust. Co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, which opposes the ongoing occupation, Lessin welcomed her stepson—a Marine—home from Iraq. Most of her fellow speakers were not so lucky—but they did share Lessin’s anger with the commander in chief.
“All of the troops and all of their family members signed an oath, a contract, to defend country and constitution,” Lessin said. “But contracts have two sides.” Where, she asked, were the vaunted Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were so dangerous as to mandate a preemptive strike? What connection had been proven between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden? Why was the term “liberation” so absent from statements by Iraqis about the US presence in their country?
The fathers, mothers, wives and aunts whom Lessin introduced were not in a forgiving mood either about the now transparent fraud of the Bush administration’s justifications for the Iraq invasion. Said Annette Pritchard, whose nephew William Ramirez was killed on February 11, one month before his twentieth birthday: “The army keeps calling him a hero, but his mother says he was a victim.” Vicky Monk, whose son is in Iraq, sent this message to Bush: “You’ll be joining the other half of the country in the unemployment line, if I have anything to say about it.”
The members of Military Families Speak Out cannot be dismissed as graying, Birkenstock-wearing hippies who fly the UN flag at demonstrations. They hail from places like Ravenna, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia. A third of the speakers at the news conference were Latino. Luis Maldonado’s son, deployed to Iraq in April 2003, is not yet a US citizen. Wayne Smith, a Vietnam veteran, took pains to specify he was not a pacifist. “I have killed for this country,” he said, “and I would do it again.”
Yet speaker after speaker emphasized that the Iraq war, waged as it was on false premises, was wrong. Madalaine Miller Strauss, the aunt of a Marine who lies wounded in an Iraqi hospital, remarked that, being a New Yorker who experienced the September 11, 2001, attacks firsthand, she had at first supported “this atrocity of a war.” Like the others, what made Strauss speak out was that her nephew was deceived about why he was going into combat. “We do not seek President Bush”s consolation…[and] we do not share his historic mission.” Three participants spoke of how their husbands and sons would see their tours of duty extended by the Pentagon’s latest stop-loss order—another Bush administration promise broken.
Michael Hoffman, honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in August 2003, joined up during the 1999 Kosovo campaign because he thought the US military “did good things in the world.” Hoffman, who said he opposed the Iraq war before being deployed to Kuwait, insisted that his sentiments reflected a deeper pool of opinion among serving soldiers than one might think. There was “unspoken pressure” to keep quiet, he claimed. “Sometimes, it’s spoken, too,” he continued, recounting the story of an Australian journalist embedded with his artillery unit during the invasion. The unit’s captain instructed soldiers not to speak to the reporter “if you don’t have anything good to say.” Hoffman said his junior commanding officer, a first sergeant who had told the troops the war was about oil, muttered: “Well, then I’ve got nothing to say to the bastard.”
It is commonplace to hear people complain that Americans go on trusting their government, especially on foreign affairs, long after its means of persuasion for pursuing a specific policy have been proven lacking. Polls show that popular support for Bush’s war in Iraq is still holding at just above the halfway mark. As yet, there has been no mass rebellion against the stop-loss order among US soldiers or military families, and television interviews with soldiers disgruntled with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld no longer air.
There is no draft today to engender the widespread discontent that powered the protest movement against the Vietnam war. But one should not underestimate the populist anger of Americans when they decide that they have been lied to, or when they feel that they or their neighbors are paying the price for someone else’s mistakes. If Bush’s blithe arrogance pushes American opposition to the escalating Iraq conflict past the tipping point, the grieving and heartsick parents of Military Families Speak Out may play a crucial part in that transformation.