Silent night

Nevadans speak against George Bush’s war while his prestige and polls decline

Paula McDonough (left), Lisa Stiller (center) and Ellen Pillard held candles at the Brick Park protest against the war.

Paula McDonough (left), Lisa Stiller (center) and Ellen Pillard held candles at the Brick Park protest against the war.

Photo By David Robert

An accurate figure for the number of dead in the U.S. war against Iraq is difficult to obtain. After a house to house survey, the number of Iraqi civilians killed was estimated by the British medical journal Lancet in the range of 100,000, but that was more than a year ago. The number of dead Iraqi servicepeople is even more difficult to find. The Pentagon figure for U.S service dead is 2,157. Other allied military dead are reported at 201. 291 civilian contractors have been killed, most of them not U.S. citizens. Ninety-one journalists from various nations have been killed.

Last week in Reno, a small group of protestors shivered in the darkness and cold to raise their voices against the war.

It may not have seemed a fruitful time for hope. As the United States passed its 1,000th day fighting Iraq, reports of U.S. corruption, torture and spying tumbled on top of each other. The government is spying on its citizens who protest the war. The president claims responsibility for attacking Iraq despite faulty intelligence and said he’d do so again. Names that mark the war’s devastation continue to arrive, including the addition Dec. 8 of 20-year-old Thomas C. Siekert of Lovelock. The numbers climb, too—9 billion American dollars per month to fund the fighting.

Amid these reports, Nevada activists joined thousands across the country spurred to action by such national organizations as Move On to protest the war. In Reno, a group of activists protested in Brick Park on Tuesday evening and presented a petition to withdraw from the war to Rep. James Gibbons’ staff on Wednesday.

At the Brick Park Christmas tree, 19 protesters sang songs and spoke against the war, their breath puffing white and candles illuminating faces.

“I’m here tonight to advocate human rights and stop the violence,” Reno resident Jan Gardipie said.

Paiute and Shoshone Gardipie focused on what she considers the Bush administration’s disregard for the growing number of American voices advocating peace. “The government, they’ve always had the upper hand and control of our native people, like they do today, and they’re doing the same to other countries, different people. And people are just now noticing because it’s happening to their families—the deaths, unnecessary deaths that are occurring, and it’s not right. It’s not right at all.”

Speaking quietly over strains of “We Shall Overcome,” “Silent Night,” “Imagine” and “Dona Nobis Pacem,” some protesters voiced even stronger opposition to George W. Bush’s digging in his heels on the war against Iraq.

Calling Bush a “cavalier egotist” who is waging an “obscene” war, one man said, “This is the first time since the end of the Vietnam War that I’ve been embarrassed to be an American because we … have already engaged in preemptive war to countries that were no threat to us, and also the fact that now we’re debating torture, and we’re becoming as low as the people that we’re fighting. … I can’t believe it.”

The day after the Brick Park protest, a dozen people organized by the Reno Anti-War Coalition gathered on the steps of Reno’s federal building to deliver a petition to Rep. Jim Gibbons demanding an end to the war.

According to Reno Anti-War Coalition spokesperson Lisa Stiller, more than 1,000 constituents from Gibbons’s second congressional district signed the petition, which asked for “Congress to insist on the immediate formation of an exit strategy for Iraq with a specific timeline for withdrawal.

“As of Dec. 13, 2005, we have lost 2,150 American service people in Iraq; officially, 15,881 have been wounded. President Bush himself has just spoken of the more than 30,000 Iraq civilians who have lost their lives in the course of the conflict. Over $226 billion have been spent on this war.

“Our continued presence in Iraq is fueling the conflict, impeding any progress the Iraqis can make towards stabilizing their country. We have spent almost three years training Iraqi troops, and it is time to let them take over the security of their country. A majority of Iraqi people favor an end to the U.S. occupation and a hasty withdrawal of our troops.”

In an interview with the Sparks Tribune, Gibbons responded to the letter by saying he believes that developing an exit strategy invites terrorists to persevere in Iraq. Gibbons cited last week’s election in Iraq as evidence that the U.S. military is bringing the country closer to democracy and disagreed with the letter-signers that the U.S. war against Iraq has destabilized the country.

“We need to ensure that Iraq is a stable nation that can defend itself from the insurgents and terrorists seeking to destabilize the country and use it as a safe haven to plot against America,” Gibbons told reporter Tom Darby. “And we are making significant progress; in fact, this week marks the third time this year that a national and democratic election or referendum will be held in Iraq.”

Stiller, who with two other protesters delivered the letter to Gibbons’s aide, said she was concerned by a seeming unwillingness by his staff for Gibbons to meet with the protesters. When told that the procedure to meet with him would be to arrange an appointment, Stiller said the aide indicated that it would be difficult to meet with Gibbons since he is in Washington so much of the time. Stiller reacted to that later by saying, “Well, we’re his constituents, we’re very concerned constituents, and we just gave [the aide] a petition with over a thousand signatures, and you’d think he would take the time to meet with us. … The fact that there seemed to be very little interest of having him meet with us disturbed me.”

Other protesters said they are also concerned that federal officials farther up the federal food chain than Gibbons are showing a lack of interest in hearing from the mounting number of voices against the war.

Gardipie said of Bush administration officials, “They’re going along the same road. Right now, it’s becoming more and more evident [that a growing number of Americans are against the war], so he has to address it, Bush has to. Even though he doesn’t want to, he has to. … I think that’s just terrible, you know, he just looks the other way.”

Mark Pritchard of Reno left no doubt as to where he stands on the issue of the war on Iraq. david robert

Photo By David Robert

Protesters interviewed for this story all felt that Bush is not listening, but several held out hope despite suspected presidential deafness.

“It’s time to stop and look at the destruction,” said Laura Fillmore, a leader of the Reno Anti-War Coalition who attended both the Tuesday and Wednesday events, “and begin to see that the future is really in our hands as a people. It’s in our time, it’s within our reach. And we just have to make our leaders understand that we’ve had enough. The time is now for peace.”

Lee Dazey, a longtime Reno activist and advocate for the Western Shoshone Defense Fund more than five years, went a step farther.

“There’s a paradigm shift in terms of Americans with the opposition to the war,” she said. “The paradigm shift is that maybe war isn’t the answer, and people are looking at some of the things that we were saying before we went to war: What about diplomacy? What happened to being able to go to the international community to resolve conflict? So, maybe a thousand lives would have been saved—and that’s just our troops. We haven’t even talked at all about the loss of lives in Iraq, and let’s face it, war doesn’t kill the targeted people, it kills innocent people—people just like you and I with our kids and women and children.”

One indication of the shift Dazey described may be opinion surveys, which show a growing number opposing the war. Earlier this month, a CNN/USA Today poll reported that 58 percent of those polled believe that Bush has no effective plan for winning the war against Iraq. From a 2005 high of 52 percent in March, the two-year anniversary of the war, his approval rating has dropped steadily to 42 percent now.

Bush’s decline in public stature has been reflected on Capitol Hill, where both parties in the Senate last month approved a requirement for quarterly reports from the Bush administration on how the U.S. is moving towards an eventual exit from Iraq. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid called the 79-19 resolution “a vote of no confidence” on Bush’s war policy. Last week, the president was forced to accept a bill to ban the use of torture against detainees in U.S. custody, a law that U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona had been advocating since July. The anti-torture bill received bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. And U.S. senators blocked a renewal of the authoritarian PATRIOT Act, a move fueled by the New York Times report of Bush administration electronic eavesdropping against U.S. citizens.

Dazey’s paradigm shift was evident among a small group of Truckee Meadows residents last week. Fewer than 20 on Tuesday night and only a dozen Wednesday afternoon participated. Nevertheless, their commitment roared louder than the softness of their numbers allowed. Shivering in temperatures that never broke 30, so cold that noses dripped, the protesters stomped their feet to circulate blood’s warmth. The activists, who said they believe in the power of democracy to bring peace, spoke and sang of their passion for a withdrawal from the war.

At the end of the Tuesday night protest, standing in front of the Brick Park Christmas tree, the circle of protesters listened to Chris Good sing about an informal Christmas truce during the first world war that began on Dec. 19, 1914. British and German soldiers spontaneously ended their fighting that cold night, joined in the middle of No Man’s Land and shared chocolates, photos of family, a raucous soccer game, and Christmas carols. In fact, it was the sound of the carol “Silent Night”/“Stille Nacht” that reportedly prompted soldiers in the two opposing sets of trenches to communicate with each other. The truce continued for several days, threatening to “prematurely” end the war.

Good ended with the final lyrics from a 1984 John McCutcheon song:

“But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night

‘Whose family have I fixed within my sights?’

’Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung

The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung

For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war

Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.

“My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell

Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lessons well

That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame

And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.”

Lyrics used by permission ©1984 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)