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When Rose Met Cindy: The Case Against the War in Iraq
Published on Friday, September 23, 2005 by The Independent / UK
On both sides of the Atlantic, two mothers who lost sons in Iraq have launched campaigns to end the conflict. One camped outside George Bush's ranch. The other stood in the general election. This week, they came face to face for the first time. Andrew Buncombe reports
Along the sunbaked sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue came the sound of singing. It was music from an earlier generation, but as relevant now as it ever was. "All we are saying is give peace a chance," chanted the group of demonstrators as they made their way to the north-west gates of the White House. "All we are saying is give peace chance."
At the head of the huddled group was Cindy Sheehan, the woman whose soldier son, Casey, was killed in Iraq last year and whose campaign to demand an explanation for the war from President George Bush took her to the gates of his Crawford ranch, made headlines around the world and - seemingly almost single-handedly - re-energised the US peace movement. At her side was Rose Gentle, a woman whose son, Gordon, was also killed in Iraq and who has launched a similarly relentless campaign to demand answers from Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"It's exciting to be here, to let George Bush know what we think about the war," Mrs Gentle said moments afterwards, standing at the junction with 17th Street, carrying a photograph of her son wearing his uniform of Royal Highland Fusiliers. Asked if she thought he would have approved of her campaign, she glanced at the photograph of the young man, 19 years old, and replied: "Gordon would have wanted this. His pals are still there [in Iraq] and he would have wanted them home safe. They still keep in touch."
She added: "Those young boys don't know who's with them or who's against them. People think we are against the troops but we are for them - we want them home safe. Once they're dead, the [authorities] don't want to know them. For a 19-year-old with just 24 weeks basic training to be sent to Iraq..."
Had the US and Britain not invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003 it is unlikely that Mrs Sheehan, 48, from Vacaville, California, and Mrs Gentle, 40, from the depressed Glasgow suburb of Pollok, would ever have had reason to know each other. As it is, they and many of the other demonstrators, who have this week made their way to the US capital after a tour that has taken them to 51 cities in 28 states, share a terrible bond.
Mrs Sheehan's 24-year-old son was killed in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City on 4 April when his unit, the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment, was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. Gordon Gentle was killed by a roadside bomb in the southern city of Basra on 28 June last year, the day the US and Britain purportedly handed back control of the country to an Iraqi government.
"We have been in e-mail contact for months but this is the first time we have met," Mrs Sheehan said of Mrs Gentle as she later stood in the sunshine on the National Mall, helping set up a "Camp Casey" memorial within view of the Capitol Building. "It helps [meeting the other people who have lost loved ones]. They really are the only people who know what I'm going through."
Mrs Sheehan said she would like to accept Mrs Gentle's invitation to tour the UK and share her message with British audiences. It was important that the anti-war message was as loudly heard in Britain as the US because "they have troops in Iraq. They are part of it", she told The Independent.
The families' descent upon Washington to participate in three days of anti-war protests this weekend organised by the group United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ) comes at a time when public support in the US for the war stands at an all-time low. A recent poll conducted for The New York Times suggested that only 44 per cent of Americans now believe the invasion of Iraq was the correct thing to do. Around 80 per cent are concerned that the spiralling costs of the occupation are diverting resources needed in the US.
Mr Bush's own ratings have similarly sunk to record lows. A Gallup poll released this week suggested only 40 per cent approve of his performance, down from almost 90 per cent in the aftermath of 9/11.
Yesterday, Mr Bush showed no sign of changing tack. Speaking at the Pentagon where he had just received an update of the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, he claimed that withdrawing US forces would make the world more dangerous and allow terrorists "to claim an historic victory over the United States".
The President claimed that terrorists had been emboldened over the years by the hesitant US response to the hostage crisis with Iran, the bombing of US Marine barracks in Lebanon and the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. "The terrorists concluded we lacked the courage and character to defend ourselves. The only way the terrorists can win is if we lose our nerve and abandon the mission. For the safety and security of the American people, that's not going to happen on my watch," he said.
Of Mrs Sheehan and the other protesters who will be gathering in Washington this weekend, he said: "I recognise their good intentions but their position is wrong. Withdrawing our troops would make the world more dangerous."
But veteran peace camp-aigners in America are confident they have reached a "turning point" - which they attribute to several factors. The war in Iraq, which may have been responsible for 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, has now taken the lives of more than 1,900 US and almost 100 British troops. The publication of the Downing Street memo appeared to suggest that Mr Bush had made up his mind to invade Iraq as early as the spring of 2002, whether the UN supported him or not. And on one single, shocking day this summer, 14 marines from the same Ohio town were killed in an attack on a convoy near the city of Haditha.
Bill Dodds, a UFPJ spokesman, said: "And then a few days [after the 14 marines were killed], at a Veterans for Peace convention in Dallas, someone got up and said: 'We've got to go to Crawford.' That was Cindy."
He added: "The momentum had been gathering and then, at the end of the summer, there was definitely a big boost with everything [that was happening in Crawford]. We saw some old faces return and some new ones joined ... We think this could be a turning point."
The day after the 8 August meeting, Mrs Sheehan and a small group of supporters headed for Crawford, where Mr Bush was spending his holiday. Though he repeatedly refused to meet with her in person and despite an attempt by some on the right to smear Mrs Sheehan, she was able to seize the opportunity of a bored White House press corps camped out with nothing much to do to win public support for her hitherto unnoticed campaign.
From across the country protesters arrived in Crawford, where a temporary memorial to Casey and the other US troops killed in Iraq had been established. Mrs Sheehan demanded that Mr Bush immediately withdraw US forces to prevent further loss of life.
In Washington, some suggested that Mrs Sheehan's campaign was counter-productive because it gave conservatives a target they could attack. She dismisses the charge. "Distracted attention? I think that I focused attention on the war," she said.
Mrs Gentle's attention on the war changed forever on the morning of 28 June last year. That morning, before she left home for her job as a cleaner, she had switched on the television and watched a report about the death of a British soldier in Basra. She watched the footage that showed the soldier's body, his face obscured by a sheet, and then left for work. A few hours later, two members of the Army came to where she was working and broke the news."They sat me in the back of a car and told me that Gordon had been killed," she said. "I realised it was Gordon I had seen lying on the floor ... It was 10 days before I could get him home."
Mrs Gentle, who ran against the Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram, in the East Kilbride, Strathaven & Lesmahagow constituency at the general election last May, only joined the peace tour this week in Washington. She flew by herself from Glasgow, packing her favourite brand of cigarettes, and joined up with other family members and veterans. They have been staying in motels and hostels, sleeping on the sofas of friends, eating dinners cooked by other supporters.
For the group, including Bill Mitchell, whose son was killed in the same battle that Mrs Sheehan's son died in, it has been a packed week. On Wednesday they held a press conference on Capitol Hill, delivered a letter to the White House urging Mr Bush to withdraw the troops and then ended up with an emotional three-hour presentation in front of a packed audience at American University. Yesterday, the group had arranged to meet with Senators John Kerry, John McCain, Edward Kennedy and others before heading off for more public appearances.
Mrs Gentle said while there were some people who clearly disagreed with their campaign, the overwhelming response from the people they had met was positive and supportive. The other family members had also been supportive, but being part of the group was not easy.
"Meeting with the other family members does make you feel sad," said Mrs Gentle, who is suing the Ministry of Defence, claiming that her son's vehicle should have been fitted with electronic jamming equipment. "No one here has done anything but shed tears ... People tell me it gets easier but how can it get easier when you turn on the TV and [some more soldiers are being killed]. Tony Blair and George Bush should be held responsible for this."