Father’s Day remembrance

A Californian honors his fallen son

Bill Mitchell has had better Father’s Days.

Bill Mitchell has had better Father’s Days.

Photo By Chris Gardner

Give sorrow words:
the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er-fraught heart,
and bids it break.
—William Shakespeare

On March 20, the first anniversary of the Iraq war, Bill Mitchell, a devoted father, joined the worldwide protest in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He carried a big photo of his son that read, “Bring my son home now.”

A week later, his son, Sgt. Michael Mitchell was killed attempting to rescue a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Sadr City—killed in an occupation his father tried to end.

All tragedies are unique.

Last week, I reached Bill Mitchell in Atascadero. We talked about his grief, his son’s courage in battle, the fire in his soul and his campaign to halt the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Mitchell is a new member of Military Families Speak Out—more than 1,500 soldiers, veterans and relatives opposed to war in Iraq.

Q: Tell us about your son, Michael. What was he like?

A: Mike was one of those ’90s, sensitive kind of guys. Mostly, he liked to spend time with his fiancée. He was engaged to be married in August. He was an athlete, excelled in high-school track and field, cross country and wrestling. When Mike was a kid, I single-parented him for five years. In the ’80s, you didn’t hear about single dads. Every night, I sat with Mike on the couch. He was an avid reader, and he would make me read The Little Engine That Could 10 times a night. Let me tell you that if I tried to skip a page, he would catch me every time: “Oh, no, Dad. You missed it.” I used to read to that boy.

Q: How did Mike die in Iraq?

A: He was killed in combat in Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad. It was April 4, during the first day of the Shiite riots. My son was only days from coming home. He was a tank mechanic. Someone came up and said, “There’s a platoon of soldiers from Fort Hood caught in an ambush in Sadr City.” My son raised a hand. One of his buddies said, “Why don’t you stay here?” Mike said, “If my buddies are going, I’m going with them.” My son was too damned cocky. He thought he was a superman.

Q: I remember reading about the battle in Sadr City in Newsweek. When U.S. commanders shut down the Shiite newspaper, the Shiites rebelled. They set up roadblocks built from washing machines, refrigerators and burning tires. Twenty U.S. soldiers were trapped by an ill-trained militia armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

A: Mike was one of eight men killed that day. He was shot through the right eye and died instantly.

Q: How do you and your family cope with the tragedy?

A: Man, I need to ponder that one. I can tell you that the days are not getting easier. It’s not like I am OK with his loss. I look at a picture or just have a thought. Those people closest to Mike are not getting over this. I remember the days before he died. Anytime the phone rang, I feared for my son’s life. But nothing prepared me to know the real devastation that event has brought me. My life is so much worse than I could ever have imagined. Everything I do, 98 percent involves Michael. Everything I do involves my son’s death. I’m not getting over it.

We sat with Mike right before he was cremated. Next morning, I woke up, and subconsciously I knew Mike was dead. Each day brings revelations anew and new anger. I wish I could be OK with it, but I am not happy—and not happy with [George W.] Bush.

“He thought he was a superman,” said Bill Mitchell of his son, Michael.

Photo By Chris Gardner

Q: Recently, I have seen a number of funerals on TV. When a soldier dies, it is typical for a parent to say, “My son died for his country. We support the occupation and should finish the job.” It’s as if the funeral sanctifies the war that claimed a youth’s life. Your response seems quite different. You are turning grief into protest.

A: I refuse to let my son die quietly for an unjust war. I was against the war before it began. I was semi-politically active. Now, Mike’s memory pushes me. I have raised the level of my activism. Now that my son will never come home, I am more firmly against the war than ever. A fire has been lit within me, and, unfortunately, the path of my life has been altered. I feel that I must put myself out there and do whatever I can to see that no other parent learns of the pain that comes with losing a child to war. I want to go to Washington. I want to stand on people’s desks, if that’s what it takes. You saw that guy [Michael] Berg, whose son was beheaded? He blames Bush and [Donald] Rumsfeld. I want to meet him. I want to stop this insanity.

Q: Around the week your son was killed, newspapers finally published a photo of flag-draped coffins. How did you respond?

A: I actually wrote a letter to The Seattle Times, praising the editors for publishing the photos. I am quite sure my son was in one of the coffins in the picture. Hiding the death and destruction of this war does not make it easier for anyone except those who want to keep the truth away from the people. I know the current government policy has the bodies being flown in under the cloak of darkness. I would be willing to help that poor woman in Kuwait who lost her job over the picture, which she felt needed to be seen. The other parents who lost children on the same day as my son would also feel that she did a service for us.

Q: Your son was awarded a Bronze Star for attempting to rescue 20 soldiers trapped in Sadr City.

A: He volunteered for a dangerous mission, risked his life to save his buddies. I believe that the actions on the day he died make him a hero. But in the broader scheme of things, I do not think the war is a war of self-defense. I am having a major problem with being OK with his death under the circumstances. And I don’t really believe that Iraq, or the world or the lives of his family and friends, are better due to his death.

Q: A heroic soldier in an unheroic war.

A: Yes. Mike was killed by the very people he liberated. That’s insane. My son wrote me letters and told me about the Iraqi kids. I got pictures of Mike playing soccer with the Iraqi kids—shaking hands after the game, just like in America. But a couple of days after they played soccer together, the same kids were throwing rocks at the GIs. I’m a Vietnam-era veteran, and there’s a parallel to Vietnam. You don’t know who the enemy is. Mike never pointed his gun at Saddam’s henchmen. His regiment was not fighting the Republican Guard or the Fedayeen. Mike was sent in to fight the Shiite militia in Sadr City. The Shiites were oppressed by Saddam. [Muqtada al-Sadr] is the cleric. His father was killed by Saddam. Now we are fighting Saddam’s enemies. Something has gone astray, and no one is asking, “What is our nation doing?” We just continue to fight anyone who gets in the way. The editor of Editor & Publisher magazine compares what is taking place in Iraq to the Tet offensive.

When my son died, I couldn’t keep my face out of the TV. The very night I found out about Michael’s death, I couldn’t sleep. I was flipping to CNN. There was a speech of Bush saying, “The enemy is trying to challenge our will.” Our will. I wrote that down, and I’m thinking, “What about their will?” Their will may be as strong as ours. I’m sure that the person who killed my son believed he was right. We were inside his country. I think oil is one reason we are there. If the major export from Iraq were broccoli, would we be there?

Q: Your concern is not only that your son was killed, but that he was killed by someone he wanted to help.

A: We are fighting a different people than when the war started, and the government does not even acknowledge the fact that the enemy has shifted. There was no insurgency a year ago. It’s Orwellian.

Q: Explain what you mean by Orwellian.

A: You remember Winston [the protagonist in 1984]. He works on a newspaper, and his job is to rewrite the archives. In the middle of some war, the enemy changes. So, Winston has to go back and rewrite history. First, there’s enemy one. Then there’s enemy two. So, he rewrites the story. That’s what it is like in Iraq. Now al-Sadr is the enemy.

Q: Your comparison to Orwell’s 1984 is evocative. Switching enemies is a major feature of permanent war. If you will allow me, I still remember a vivid scene in 1984, where some orator enrages the crowd, inflaming hatred of Eurasia. At the beginning of the speech, the enemy is Eurasia. Then, someone slips the speaker a piece of paper. Without any explanation, without a change of tone, he changes the enemy. He substitutes Eastasia for Eurasia. The enemy is switched without any admission that a change has taken place. The frenzy of hatred continues at the same pitch. Only the name of the enemy is different.

A: And we have created enemies because of our actions. Iraqis are responding to what the United States has done. Fifteen months ago, we fought Saddam; there was no insurgency. And now we are gunning for Shiites as we put some of Saddam’s generals back in power. That’s Orwellian.

Q: Do you think the president fabricated the case for war?

A: It’s probably not a popular opinion, but honestly I do. My son died with dignity in an undignified war. I spoke out against the war when my son was alive. I’m not going to roll over now. I only wish I would have done more. But now I’m more committed.