A mother’s war
A son on the frontlines supports the same war his Iranian mother is protesting back home
In 2005, a painting of an American-flag-clad United States descending into a toilet bowl was hung at the Department of Justice on I Street in Sacramento. When controversy ensued, protesters took sides. Zohreh Whitaker stood in support the art and the artist’s right to hang it. Her eldest son, Christopher Whitaker, criticized the display. He stood on the other side.
“I didn’t talk to him when he was there. It just made me cry,” said Zohreh, an antiwar activist from Gold River, of her 33-year-old son, who is now an Army medic serving in an infantry in Iraq since August 2006.
After September 11, the political views of Zohreh and Christopher, “a mother bear” and “a mama’s boy,” as described by Zohreh’s twin sons Andrew and Nicholas, became more and more polarized.
“She went left. He went right,” Nicholas said.
Zohreh, a 63-year-old housewife and longtime activist, leads or is a member of several local peace organizations, including the Sacramento Coalition to End the War, Military Families Speak Out, Grandmothers for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace and Peace Action.
She was arrested for the first time in September for causing a disturbance in the office of Congresswoman Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento. Federal police removed the members of the SCEW “playing dead” in the hallway. The group refused to leave the office until Matsui signed a declaration of peace that included a promise to vote no on further war funding.
“I’m dead scared, but I have a son in Iraq,” Zohreh said before the arrest. “I’ve done the marches and signs, and it hasn’t worked—this is the next step.”
The Iranian mother who grew up in England said that the Whitaker family, which also includes her husband Jim and 28-year-old twin sons, are all socially progressive except Christopher, whom Nicholas calls “the token conservative of our family.”
Over Iranian dishes with rice and yogurt or traditional meat and potatoes, the dinner-table conversation gets heated.
“For our family, politics, it’s almost like discussing how the Giants or how the Kings are doing,” Andrew said. “I do give [Christopher] more than his fair share. I know my older brother probably gets a little frustrated sometimes.”
Christopher, who Zohreh thinks is in favor of the war, has not criticized his mother for her activism.
“He’s been very tolerant, I have to admit, but he has no choice,” said Zohreh. “I’ve done this much longer than he’s been in the military.”
“She is tireless, ferocious, brave, courageous, a lot of one-words,” said Laurie Loving, 52, co-founder of the capital region chapter of Military Families Speak Out. “I’d guess that she devotes a part of each day doing something to end the war or serve the world in some way.”
According to Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, press officer for the office of the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, there are 283,848 troops currently deployed to support the war as of September 30. The pre-emptive strike led by the United States reaches numerous locations across the globe, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Arabian Sea, Bahrain, Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, Kuwait, Oman, Persian Gulf, Qatar, Red Sea, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Guantanamo Bay, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Yemen.
Christopher is slated to return home for a one-month leave sometime in mid-November. He does not know where he’ll be stationed next. A second round in Iraq is a possibility. As of August 31, almost 122,000 of currently deployed service members had been deployed to the war on terror more than once, according to Withington.
Rebecca Davis, 52, of Orrington, Maine, co-founder of Military Families Voice of Victory, which supports the Iraq mission as outlined by the Bush administration, has three sons in the military including a 23-year-old son serving in the Army in Iraq.
She said she disagrees with the antiwar activity of military families. “I have a hard time wrapping my head around it,” she said. “It emboldens the people who are aiming at our sons and daughters.”
Loving also has a 23-year-old son who served in the Army in Iraq from August 2005 to August 2006.
“We military parents who have always been peace activists walk a fine line opposing the war and supporting our soldiers,” she said. “We oppose our administration’s war policies. We do not oppose the military. We believe the administration has abandoned our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, really.”
Loving didn’t tell her son, who is now an active reserve studying culinary arts in Oregon, much about her antiwar efforts while he was in Iraq, so that he wasn’t distracted, she said. While she talked with legislators, marched and protested, she sent care packages to troops, including valentines and chocolates and books and magazines.
Both Andrew and Nicholas don’t see the two ideas necessarily going hand-in-hand.
“I don’t see being supportive of the war and support for him being the same thing,” Andrew said. “I just want my brother back.”
Andrew added that he doesn’t see Christopher as a soldier.
“I’m very proud of what he’s doing, but at the same time, he’s my brother.”
“We want them home. We want them safe,” Zohreh said. “It’s just what every mother, father wants for their children.”
She wants Congress to cut war funding, the United States to concede a loss in Iraq and for the troops to come home.
“This is not a justifiable, legal war,” she said. “I just feel so resentful that this administration has put our men and women in that position.”
Zohreh had chosen to appeal to Matsui because she did not feel represented by Republican Congressman Dan Lungren of the third district, which includes the largely wealthy and conservative Gold River.
Lungren wrote in a letter to constituents: “It is my view that it would be a serious mistake for those of us in Washington to try to micro-manage the conduct of the war in Iraq. At a time when we finally have a counterinsurgency strategy which has produced an improvement in the security situation, it is not the time to be ‘second-guessing’ General Petraeus and our military leadership on the ground in Iraq.”
Zohreh sat in the living room of their expansive home in the company of three dogs, two of which are Christopher’s bassett hounds, Donny and Beauregarde, on a sunny Wednesday in October. She read one of the e-mails she receives from Christopher every two or three days: “I’m not entirely sure how much time I have at this particular patrol base.”
“What’s a patrol base?,” Zohreh asked the e-mail.
“I’m ready to get out of here. I think I’ve just about reached my I’ve-had-enough point. I can feel myself getting irritable and cranky with little provocation.”
“He never says anything of what he really, really does,” Zohreh said.
Christopher joined the military in 1996 after being recruited at UC Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in molecular and cell biology. He was first accepted to the school when he was 16. Feeling socially unsettled, Christopher left the university to study at American River College for two years, then returned to school in Berkeley. He enlisted just after graduation.
“I didn’t know he was even interested until he had already signed the papers. I was devastated,” Zohreh said. “I have nothing against the military in the sense that it’s a necessary part of a country’s protection, but I wish it wasn’t my son doing it.”
Both will stay the course, according to Zohreh. She will protest until the war is over, and Christopher plans to be a lifer in the military.
The Army sergeant took a digital camera, computer, clothes and books with him to Iraq.
“I’ve tried to push in some progressive books I noticed he hadn’t taken with him,” Zohreh confessed. “He did have, what’s O’Reilly’s book? He didn’t take it with him, thank God. And Ann Coulter, oh God. I actually confronted him.
“He said, ‘Mother, you have to know the other side in order to know who people are.’
“So I said, ‘Why didn’t you read my side?’
“He said, ‘I already know your side.’”
Zohreh conceded with a laugh.