As the U.S. war against Iraq continues into its third year, soldiers continue to die. The death of the 2,000th U.S. servicemember was announced on Oct. 25. Of the other 1,999, three servicemembers from Northern Nevada were killed in action: Marine Lance Cpl. Donald Cline, Jr., of Sparks, Sgt. Eric Morris of Sparks and 2nd Lt. James J. Cathey of Reno.
And number 2,000 was scarcely announced, when 2,001 followed.
In protest against the war and in commemoration of the deaths of U.S. soldiers and sailors because of the war, peace vigils were held throughout the nation on Oct. 26. About 125 protesters gathered on the steps of the federal building in downtown Reno that night.
Some military leaders objected to marking the 2,000th death. In Iraq, military spokesperson Steve Boylan said the latest death “is just as important as the first that died and will be just as important as the last to die in this war. … The 2,000 servicemembers killed in Iraq… is not a milestone. It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives.”
But Arizona’s Tucson Citizen pointed out that this is a society in which “round numbers are the measure on which we rely, whether we lost 10 pounds or survived 10 years after battling cancer.
“Numbers aren’t magical; they alone cannot tell a story. Yet the world held its breath as 1999 melted into 2000. And Wednesday, Americans’ despair deepened unapologetically when the GI death toll from the war in Iraq reached 2,000.”
The theme “Bring ’em home” resounded quietly at the Reno protest. The mood was somber, as the candlelight broke the darkness, and reflective songs punctuated by moments of quiet marked much of the peace rally. Some rallies are raucous; this one was subdued. Signs dotted the protest, the words at times poignant. One large banner centered behind the speakers read, “How many deaths will it take ’til they know that too many people have died? American soldiers: 2000.”
That reference to the Vietnam-era anti-war song was reiterated by a Wednesday night protester born long after that war. Jeremy Wilson of Sparks, 20, said, “I was against the war when we went there, and one person died—that was too many.”
Although Wilson said he’s been against the war since the beginning and has attended many protests, it was his father, Patrick Wilson, who urged him to attend on this night. It was Patrick’s first protest. He came, he said, because he wanted to show support for the soldiers serving in the war.
Both Wilsons are scared. They know two people who are fighting in Iraq: Jeremy’s cousin, Lance Cpl. David Wilson, and Jeremy’s friend, Lance Cpl. Danny Kinder. Both Marines were deployed to the war this year.
Not all protesters personally know someone serving in Iraq. Some attended the Reno protest because they remember the Vietnam War from having served in it or having protested against it or both.
Jonathan Andrews of Reno was one. He said he served in 1968-69 in Vietnam and thereafter worked as a draft counselor until the end of the war. As counselor, he advised those called into the war about their options.
These days he’s worried about the Iraq war and has been attending protests against it. He came to the Wednesday night gathering because, he said, “We do not honor the soldiers who died in Iraq by having more soldiers die in Iraq.”
As Andrews spoke, the songs continued around him. Throughout the vigil, at different times protesters were chanting, “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and an original song called “The Answer Cannot Be More Death.”
Besides songs, a moment of silence was offered for the 2,000 soldiers dead in the war. The mood brought tears to the eyes of Tracy Dean, a protester who spoke quietly with disbelief at the number of deaths. The war, she said, “is a really sad waste of energy and life and is creating a lot of pain.”
She, like others at the Wednesday night vigil, had attended earlier protests, too. Bill Miller of Reno said he was against the war from the beginning and participated in protests even when the American invasion of Iraq was just beginning in 2003 with the “Shock and Awe” campaign.
Miller said he enlisted in the Vietnam War but soon regretted the decision. Then, as now, he had serious misgivings about the war. From the beginning, two years ago, he thought the Bush administration’s claims of the presence of weapons of mass destruction were a smokescreen.
Speaking after the protest, he said he was impressed with the turnout. Then, echoing the quiet that often punctuated the vigil Wednesday night, he paused for long seconds while searching for his next words.
“It’s always a question of what to do, what’s effective. It certainly makes some difference for us all to stand out there and hold candles, but it’s not enough in and of itself.”
In Miller’s case, he has returned to active participation in the local Democratic Party. He believes the tide is turning against the war and, at some point, the country will find “a more humane and mindful way of doing things” despite what he called a “remarkably accountability-free administration.”
Shirley Lafreniere holds similar views about the Bush administration. Driving in from Dayton and noticing neighbors attending the protest, she and her husband, Donald, echoed each other’s statements that the administration has no plan of exit from the war.
“I think Bush wants to escalate the war,” Shirley said, “and go into Syria and Iran.”
With two grandsons who served a year each in Iraq, the Lafrenieres were relieved when both men returned safely this spring.
Shirley says she believes that the war is wrong and was so from the beginning. She concluded, “You don’t even want to get me started on Bush,” to which her husband agreed.
Surrounding the Lafrenieres and their neighbors, the night began to draw to a close. Strains of “Down by the Riverside” were followed by “The Great Amen.” The crowd dissolved quietly within minutes.
The next day, Bill Miller reflected on the U.S. war against Iraq and the power structure that led to a war that more and more Americans are protesting.
“What we’re up against is overwhelming,” he said. “It’s corporate power unchecked. … We live in this strange fishbowl … where the fish are screaming, but you can’t hear anything.”
For one night in Reno, you could hear something. For one night in Reno, you could hear the songs, the protesters’ brief and somber speeches, the soft conversations between concerned citizens. Mostly, though, you could hear the quiet.