05/11/2006 12:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Coming Home: A Soldier Returns to the Family He Didn't Leave Behind (Part 4 of 4)


Even though the two women who welcome RJ home aren't the ones who sent him off, we've risen to the occasion

But can you be an anti-war mom and support the troops?

HBO, often smartly one-step ahead of the national zeitgeist about New Jersey wiseguys, LA funeral directors or Utah polygamists, has recently been re-running Michael Moore's film as the administrations poll numbers plummet. But more striking today than the flagrant Bush/Cheney dissembling is the moving last half hour which follows the lives of a few families in Flint, Michigan and their offspring serving, and sometimes dying in Iraq.

Moore sensed that this was where the anti-war movement would have its most visible and passionate leadership: within the ranks of mothers who had lost their sons. Before Cindy Sheehan appeared on the national radar, Lila Lipscomb of Flint, a proud patriot who taught her "multicultural" children that the military was the only way of getting the education and training she couldn't afford to provide them, traveled all the way to Washington to confront the President after the death of her son.

"The War Tapes", which this week won the International Documentary award at the Tribeca Film Festival, turns three New Hampshire National Guardsmen into brutally honest verite documentarians while the US-based director concentrates on their troubled loved ones at home. The most moving section follows Zack Bazzi and his mother who fled from civil unrest in Lebanon and emigrated to the US when he was eight. He considers himself a professional soldier though he is now attending college and reminds us that his job is to complete his mission irrespective of political considerations. But the irony of his returning to the middle east and functioning as a translator for his unit won't be lost on anyone who sees this film. As a single mother, Mrs. Bazzi tries to reconcile his need to serve ( he's already a veteran of two other tours in Bosnia and Kosovo) with her fear.

Not unlike the generals, mothers, too, have emerged as partisan, unable to watch passively anymore as the soldiers are alternately praised or reviled, hired or fired, captured or killed. Confederations of like-minded mothers have proliferated since the war began. In addition to each branch of service having its own mothers' group, there are the American War Mothers founded during WW I, a group affiliated with the Veterans Administration. Then there's the Blue Star Moms of San Francisco, identified as non-partisan but pictured waving little flags. They're a branch of the Blue Star Mothers, mommy-vigilantes on the alert for anyone "dishonoring" the troops. The American Gold Star Mothers whose children have died are also zealous on the subject of patriotism. Their stated mission is to perpetuate "the noble principles for which [the soldiers] fought and died". Other bereft mothers, the Gold Star Families for Peace, are Cindy Sheehan supporters, "organizing to be a positive force in our world to bring our country's sons and daughters home from Iraq". Each of these groups organize lunches, readings, knitting circles and letter writing campaigns. Only the Mothers Against the War, presumably with no entry requirements other than maternal instinct, have a minimal website that doesn't give much comfort about their reach. But just last week, the Granny Peace Brigade whose eighteen members had been arrested at the entrance to a military recruitment center when they tried to substitute their service in Iraq for those of the younger soldiers in Iraq were exonerated by a NY judge.

I wonder how this will sit with Joel Stein who stated in a recent column that 'being against the war and saying you support the troops is one of the wussiest positions the pacifists have ever taken".

But how can I fault the young men like RJ who answered the call, however mixed their motives, when my four sons are safe and sound, pursuing their educations and careers because they can? We have heard a great deal about the "bad" soldiers who have abused prisoners and have lost their moral compass. We have heard about those who are maimed or traumatized. RJ is my proxy for all the rest--the ones who seem to be fine so far, but are coming home to very conflicted messages about what they did in this relentlessly miserable war. He often feels that his service, and that of his buddies, is overlooked or forgotten. In Iraq, late at night under the stars, and here in the U. S., he wonders if anyone knows or cares.

I feel the pain of Cindy Sheehan and Lila Lipscomb and Mrs. Bazzi from my cozy kitchen window seat. I also feel the pain of the mothers of Darfur or the Sudan or Niger who have had to watch as their children waste away and die. But Cindy and Lila and Mrs. Bazzi aren't even in a remote African nation. These are my countrywomen. RJ says, " In my eyes, my mother is the true survivor".

This Mother's Day, I think all of us, especially the mothers that don't have children serving, need to own this messy war with the mothers that do. The Blue state moms must find common cause with the Red State moms. Without this solidarity, the anti-war effort will remain what it is now: a splintered, fractured, powerless collection of spare parts. We're the insurgency that needs to rise up and humble the Bush administration and its murderous policies. They're the ones that seem to have gotten the Kuwaiti sand in their eyes and never gotten it out.

Meanwhile, here's some things we can all do today. Contact Mothers Against the War and volunteer to help. Then, though we've missed the deadline for the Mother's Day message posting at the daily newspaper of the US military, I think we should all send messages to the troops.

Finally, since other than Joey's parents, I'm the only one I know who has actually cohabited with a veteran, (what a scary statistic) I'm here to tell you that if everyone were to adopt a veteran, we'd get a lot further towards troop withdrawal, faster. Seek out veterans and open your homes to them. Though the army now has programs for repatriation and retraining the soldiers, why go to the desert to be debriefed when you can debate spoiled formerly pro-Kerry Dems, grow plump with gourmet cooking and hibernate under the comfort of a goose down duvet? Now that RJ's eating his steak "a la béarnaise" and the potatoes "alla romana" I somehow feel that he and I have found out how to meet each other halfway. When the midterm elections roll around, I know I won't hesitate to ask him to do the right thing.

Plus, in my head, I have developed a complicated equation that trades my hospitality for his years of selective service and I'm using him as a human amulet to ward off the draft.

I have lived with two veterans. One taught me the glory of war, the other the misery. One told robust tales of bombing raids and aerial maneuvers, his brown leather flight jacket a permanent totem in our front hall closet, often taken out for sorties as pedestrian as trimming the backyard bushes. The other talked about stifling 14 hour days living in the belly of tank amidst sandstorms and fierce heat, his only talisman against fear a hidden tattooed necklace with an ancient Yaqui motif. One boasted of welcoming Italians and dishes of pasta, the other kept his own quiet counsel about door-to-door raids conducted in dusty villages on foot in the dead of night. Though they were separated by half a century, both made their way without continuing their educations, re-entering the work force as ambitious salesmen. Each was defined by his war and the irreplaceable camaraderie, proud to have served, still a believer in defending an American dream from which they'd previously derived little personal benefit.

I've tried to give RJ the unconditional support a mother would. But sometimes during my nightly brawls with insomnia, I can't help but wonder what RJ (and Joey and the other soldiers) did in those Iraqi homes--and if they could imagine a mere two years later, ever repeating those flawed and unsettling missions.

But I think that he's probably going to marry my niece and I'll never really know.