It's a question, they say, that is on the minds of countless thousands of parents, spouses and children who are increasingly skeptical of the Bush administration's constantly evolving rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq: "Do you think now is the time for my son to come home in one of these?" Massachussetts-based Nancy Lessin is recounting how she tried to enter the hallowed political chambers of the U.S. Capitol carting a body bag to ask this question. She was arrested.
The audience who packed the Steelworkers Hall on Friday, February 6, to listen to Lessin, a co-founder with husband Charley Richardson of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), heard how this org is striking a chord in the burgeoning anti-occupation movement.
Since circulating a poster with their son's picture - he returned from Iraq last May - and the statement "Our son is a Marine. Don't send him to war for oil," the group has grown rapidly; it's more than 1,000 families strong now, from 200 families pre-invasion.
It all began as a debate in a convenience store, recalls Richardson before the forum. "I wanted to put a picture of my son on the table and say, 'This is one of the people who can die in this war, so if you're going to talk about it, you look him in the face.' It's so easy to have an abstract discussion."
MFSO harkens back to the early 1970s Gold Star Mothers anti-war group and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, one of whose most prominent members, John Kerry (who nevertheless supported the Iraq war), is now a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"Thank God I found you. I thought I was alone," is a common feeling expressed in letters to MFSO.
But many military families, the audience heard, are still afraid to speak up for fear of retribution. That may change, however, come this spring's massive troop rotation, after which 40 per cent of ground forces in Iraq will be made up of reserves and National Guard members - now they're 20 to 25 per cent.
Richardson calls them "opportunity draft" conscripts, who joined because in a jobless economic recovery only the military has offered assistance with college tuition and career training. Few conceived of desert warfare when they were promised they could serve their country at home fighting floods and forest fires.
As part of the growing disquiet, Lessin and Richardson advise Canadians to expect another historical rerun, to be asked to provide sanctuary to military refusers who will choose Canada over the unpopular call-up to Iraq.
Lessin quotes from a sampling of the letters she has received. One self-described diehard Republican wrote to Bush, "How dare you say 'Bring 'em on' to the Iraqi resistance when you are standing cowardly behind my loved one? I am for the first time in my life ashamed of being an American."
Another comes from a Marine who writes, "I will fight for my country with a smile and a willingness to serve any time my country needs. I did not sign up to give my life for a personal grudge between two dictators."
Lessin cradles one letter from an American grunt describing the Russian roulette that takes place every time a truck enters his compound and troops have to climb aboard to escort it into the base, never knowing if it might explode. He describes how a general he refers to as a "Roman Caesar" was redecorating his well-appointed office when the truck bearing his new carpets blew up, killing one soldier and injuring 15 others.
"This man came to Iraq to die for a general's carpet," wrote the dead soldier's comrade. "What we really need here are big trucks that can haul away all the bullshit, and a few to get our asses back to the airport."