As U.S. military casualties in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark this week, some families of soldiers are speaking out against a war they believe is not worth dying for. Yet it remains unclear whether the grim milestone or the family protests will have an impact on U.S. public opinion ahead of November's presidential election. RFE/RL spoke this week to the families of some U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Some are bitterly opposed to the policies of U.S. President George W. Bush, while others are supportive, despite the deaths of loved ones.
Prague, 10 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Gilda Carbonaro's son left for hell on Thursday. She is not happy about it, even as many Americans consider her boy a hero.
Carbonaro, who lives near Washington, D.C., is a staunch opponent of the Iraq war. She believes the war is a mistake -- morally and strategically -- and a waste of lives, both American and Iraqi.
But her only son, a U.S. Marine sergeant, had wished to serve his country after terrorists attacked the United States on 11 September 2001. He got his wish on Thursday, departing from the southern state of North Carolina for the war's epicenter -- the central city of Al-Fallujah, where several Marines have been killed this week.
RFE/RL spoke with an emotional Carbonaro on her mobile telephone just before she said goodbye to her son, whose name she prefers to withhold: "It will be very difficult. I've held up until now, and it hasn't been easy. But I have to be strong because I can't let my son see how upset I am. He knows I'm upset, but I want him to leave with a clear mind and at peace with himself that his parents are going to hold up. For the past two days, the Marines have suffered tremendous losses, and he's headed for the very center of that hell hole. And, well, you can imagine how despairing we all are."
Traditionally, U.S. military families strongly back the country's military operations, equating support for the fighting with support for the troops themselves.
But the Carbonaros are one of many U.S. military families who have recently broken with that tradition and begun to speak out against the Iraq war. Their voices of protest grew louder this week as the U.S. death toll in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark -- 759 in combat and 246 from accidents and other causes. Some 126 soldiers from coalition nations have also been killed in Iraq.
Estimates vary, but some 5,000 Iraqi soldiers are also believed to have died in the war, and more than 10,000 civilians.
Nancy Lessin is co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, a group of 1,600 military families, including the Carbonaros, who oppose the war. Lessin's stepson has served one tour of duty in Iraq and remains on call for a possible return.
Speaking on her mobile telephone before boarding a flight in Boston, Lessin explained to RFE/RL why she and her husband feel compelled to speak out: "We felt that if the issue was weapons of mass destruction that might be there, that perhaps more weapons inspectors looking for them would be a more appropriate response. We never saw any links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. And we felt that if the U.S. invaded Iraq, we would see more, and not less, terrorism. We did actually think that there was a reason why this administration was gung-ho for invading Iraq, and that had to do with oil markets and empire building. And we didn't want Joe [her stepson] or any of our troops to be used as cannon fodder in that kind of reckless military misadventure."
As for the soft-spoken Carbonaro, she said talking politics with her son has been a great source of friction. He does not agree with her opinions, and she has tried to avoid such conversations. She said she and her husband sought to raise her son to live up to his responsibilities and duties, whatever they may be.
But she acknowledged that such an upbringing led in part to the present predicament, which she equated with a Greek tragedy: "How do you turn around and tell your son: 'Your president, he made a mistake. You need to abandon your men.' You don't tell your child that. You know, this is a Greek tragedy. I am here to say goodbye to my son, and I don't know what else to do except to talk to you and to hope that some of what I say can reach someone somewhere that can make a difference."
Following the Republican Convention in New York in late August-early September, polls showed Bush with a growing lead over Democratic challenger John Kerry. A poll conducted this week by "The Washington Post" and ABC News shows 53 percent of Americans trust Bush to do the right thing in Iraq. In contrast, only 37 percent have such faith in Kerry, who is seen as not offering a clear alternative in Iraq.
Patrick Basham analyzes U.S. politics and public opinion at the Cato Institute in Washington: "Right now, most Americans are willing to put up with the casualties. But I think a major one-day or over-a-couple-of-days loss of American life could change that. But to this point, they are accepting of President Bush's argument that this was probably a necessary venture and one that is full of all kinds of complications and setbacks, but we have to stay the course, we have to persevere and see this out."
Melissa Givens' husband died in Iraq last year. But she said she believes that toppling Saddam Hussein, who killed thousands of his own people, was the right thing to do: "I would hate to think that my husband died for something stupid. Some people say that the war is all about oil or a revenge thing, and I hate to think that because I hate to think that I lost the love of my life and my kids lost their father over something petty like that."
Givens, who lives in the central state of Colorado, gave birth to her second son 28 days after her husband was killed while driving a tank in Iraq: "Some days, you wake up and it's reality. And other days you wake up and everything's surreal. You know, it's way back in the back of your mind, and you kind of float through the days. Before you know it, a month has passed, a year has passed. And it feels like yesterday, and other times it feels like a million years ago."
She said counseling and church help her cope with her grief.
She said she is unsure whether she will vote on 2 November. But if she does, she says it will be for Bush.