A Patriot Acts

Outside the Hyatt Regency Irvine hotel last Friday, amid the couple of hundred Bush protesters on the sidewalks, a counterprotester stood with an American flag and a sign that read "Bush = Strength."

The guy evidently found comfort in that equation, while to me it was like saying Bush equals nothing. The presidency comes preloaded with strength aplenty for whomever holds the position. That's why he's called the most powerful man in the world, the leader of the world's lone superpower, etc. The idea is to get a leader who equals reason, understanding, wisdom and compassion, so that our great strength doesn't fall willy-nilly upon the heads of the just and the unjust alike, as if it were no more than dumb nature or the lightning bolts of some capricious god.

The best point I have heard raised by pro-war folks is that we, in wielding our strength, have freed the Iraqi people from the murderous grasp of Saddam Hussein. This is true. But we struck him as an earthquake might: also killing thousands of civilian children, women and men, and untallied tens of thousands of boys and men in ill-fitting uniforms, along with leveling buildings and infrastructure, and with aftershocks sure to be felt for years to come. There were other ways, but they would have taken more than just strength. (Remember also that the Reagan and first Bush administrations used our might to support Hussein's tyranny for years, another reason to be wary of strength for strength's sake.)

One thing you do have to say for Bush is that he stays focused. While he was noshing at the Hyatt fundraising luncheon, much of the eastern United States was mired in the worst power blackout in the nation's entire history, causing as much disruption and economic loss as any terrorist could dream of causing. A commander-in-chief with less resolve might have gone flitting off to deal with the crisis, but Bush remained on point, raking in over $1 million for his reelection campaign at the luncheon. As he told a similar audience earlier in San Diego, "I have a job to do for the American people."

I doubt he was even aware of the protesters sweltering outside the Hyatt. And loud and colorful as they were, I doubt they raised the awareness of passersby, any more than the couple of ardently pro-Bush signs in their midst changed their minds.

The shrill anti-Bush bullhorn could be heard for blocks, and, along with the responsible folks with real messages, some signs labeled Bush a Nazi and fascist, while one simply read "Fuck Bush."

I can sympathize, having once been similarly moved to affront adults who numbed themselves to the lies and destruction of the Vietnam War. And it's hard not to be livid now about the reckless havoc Bush has inflicted on so many lives. But while that Thai-sticks-in-your-dreadlocks, "screw you" attitude might make you feel better, it doesn't change anybody's mind. And you need to change minds if you expect to change anything else.

I've been thinking a lot about Fernando Suarez del Solar lately. If there is anyone who has a right to be aggrieved and angry, it's him. His son, Marine Lance Corporal Jesus Suarez del Solar, was one of the earliest casualties of the war, killed on March 27. Suarez feels that his 20-year-old boy died in an unjustified war.

Recall how I griped about the plodding Aug. 3 Santa Ana rally for Dennis Kucinich? There were moving moments too, and one of them was when Suarez spoke, simply and movingly, amid tears, about the loss of his son. Kucinich had already made his speech and was back in the meet-and-greet, but he reemerged to comfort Suarez and speak extemporaneously about the devastation this war is having on American lives. A cynical person might write it off as a photo op for Kucinich, but there hadn't been many people or cameras there to begin with and most were gone by then. It was just a touching, sad and real moment of the kind you rarely see in American politics.

I spoke with Suarez via phone at his Escondido home Friday night. He had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he had spoken at a press conference held by Military Families Speak Out, an organization of some 600 families opposed to the war. He was spending a few hours with his family, and the next morning he had to clock in at his gas station job. He was clearly tired, but, when not apologizing for his poor English, he spoke eloquently about the path his son's death has placed him on.

Suarez has lived and worked on both sides of the border, he told me, but settled permanently in the U.S. in 1997 and became a citizen largely at the urging of his son, who dreamed of becoming a Marine. He'd grown up loving the uniform, and believed that, as a Marine, he could fight the drug traffickers who were poisoning his fellow youths. As soon as he graduated from high school in Escondido, Jesus signed up for a four-year stint.

Suarez recalled, "When Jesus came back from boot camp, he told me, 'Father, it is very different from what the recruiter told me. There is a lot of discrimination inside the Marine Corps. This is not for my people.' But still he was proud to serve with his other Marines. He told me that when he got out he wanted to become a fireman here in Escondido, to help the community that way.

"When this war came up, my son and I had different opinions. I told Jesus my opinion that this war is illegal; it is only for political, territorial control over there, and for the oil. But he told me, 'I think this way, Father. I don't know what Mr. Bush is looking for in this war, but I want this war because we need the destruction of Saddam Hussein's government, because he is a very bad person.' And I said, 'This is correct. Saddam is no good, and the Iraqi people don't have freedom or liberty. But this way is not the way, when there are other options.' Jesus told me, 'Yes, but the president says go, and I go.'"

Barely a week into the war, Jesus became one of the first U.S. casualties. Suarez says that the military told him his son had been shot in combat. Later he found instead that Jesus had been killed by an unexploded U.S. cluster bomblet, when his company was sent into an area without being warned that the bombs had been dropped there.

"When Jesus entered the service, I knew it was possible he might go to some war and pass away. I understand and accepted this. But I no accept that Jesus and the other boys pass away in an illegal war," Suarez told me. "Mr. Bush said there was a connection with al Qaeda, that there were massive destruction weapons, but they find none. I would ask Mr. Bush why he didn't let the United Nations do its work instead of the war. Mr. Bush, why aren't your family members in the military? Now, in May, Mr. Bush said the war is over, but still our children are dying, and people there are saying, 'Yankee, go home.' If it is freedom we want for the Iraqi people, it should be the United Nations there, not us."

Suarez has already lost one job because his employer couldn't spare him for all the anti-war work he is now undertaking. Money is the least of it. He rarely is able to speak of his son without crying, but he feels it is the only thing he can do to give his death meaning.

"It is very hard. Every day when I speak about this, I cry, because I remember my son. I see my wife cry every day, and it is very sad for me. But I think that my son's death, and all the boys who have died in this war, it needs to have a meaning. I think that meaning has to be peace. They were lied to, and cannot die heroes in an illegal war. They can only be heroes of peace, where their sacrifice reminds people that war is the last thing, not the first thing. This is the one important reason I have, when I speak out about the war, because I don't want other families to have to cry like my family cries for my son."

Suarez asks that you write to your representatives in Congress and ask them to bring our troops home now. You can check out the Military Families Speak Out website at mfso.org.


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