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Golden Gate [X] Press - Hundreds Attend Vigil to Pay Respect to War Victims

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Golden Gate [X] Press - Hundreds Attend Vigil to Pay Respect to War Victims

Just days before the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, hundreds of people packed the Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco to commemorate both American and Iraqi victims of the war and condemn the continued occupation.

Speakers at the March 16 event included Cindy Sheehan, Code Pink activists, former government officials, an Iraq War veteran and protesters from the Vietnam War era. The event culminated in a peace vigil outside of the Veteran's Memorial on Van Ness Avenue.

"We are literally bleeding ourselves to death economically and spiritually," said Ying Lee of the Watada Support Committee. The organization is named for Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned official of the U.S. Army who, due to moral objections, refused orders to deploy to Iraq in 2006.

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Lee said the current anti-war movement is "scattered, divisive, unformed" and needs to be better organized in order to gain strength to be truly effective.

Nihar Bhatt, 30, of Students Against War, agreed.

"At the base level we need to bring more activists into the movement. There is a lot more anti-war sentiment than what is expressed in the movement as it exists," he said.

Joe Wheeler of Veterans Against the Iraq War, who served as a surgical assistant in Iraq in 2003, said an impulsive reaction under the pressure of official orders drives American soldiers in Iraq to kill civilians.

"It's a ‘fight or flight' response," he said, recalling the experience of driving into an urban area while being ordered to fire his M16, an order he refused to follow.

"Your body reacts," Wheeler said. "Your mind doesn't."

Daniel Ellsberg recalled similar situations in the Vietnam War in which American soldiers were torn by an intense moral dilemma when ordered to kill innocent civilians.

Ellsberg was an official in the defense and state departments in the 1960s who played a significant role in shifting public opinion regarding the Vietnam War. As a RAND Corporation analyst, he released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971. The documents were a classified analysis of the war commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

Bhatt made the point that there is a mutual importance of the anti-war movement and its support of former soldiers speaking out against the war.

"Veterans bring their experiences from the front line," he said.

Bill Simpich of Iraq Moratorium argued that the $2.8 trillion used to fund the Iraq war is an extreme misuse of the nation's resources.

"This money needs to be used to fund human needs," he said.

State Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) agreed, saying that universal health care for Americans "could have been paid for five times over" with the money funneled into the war.

Former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and current independent vice presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez condemned the "imperial" motivations for the war. He emphasized the continuing effort of the war is the result of a failure on many fronts—on the part of the nation's elected officials, the mass media that has failed to accurately portray the war to the American people and the anti-war movement which is still inadequately mobilized.

Beyond its immense economic and human toll, the war is fundamentally immoral, he argued.

"It was wrong from the very beginning," Gonzalez said.

In addition, he said that any Democratic politician who initially supported the decision to go to war or backed the Patriot Act would fail a "progressive litmus test" and cannot be trusted.

The participation of young voters in the upcoming election represents hope, and will be the "magic bullet" that could cause a positive new direction for American policy, Migden said.

"That is what we're going to build on to end the war and set the policy straight," she said.

The anti-war movement is crucial to countering the possibility of U.S. military aggression expanding throughout the region, said Justin Raimondo of

"The longer we stay in Iraq, the closer we are to a war with Iran," he said. "We must act now to prevent that scenario from playing out."

Both liberal and conservative politicians are to blame for the ongoing occupation, Raimondo said.

"The enemy is in Washington," he said. "Our choices are few—protest or passivity in the face of evil."

Sheehan, a congressional candidate for Speaker of the House, concluded the event by reflecting on her personal loss. She told the story of her son who was killed in Sadr City, a mission forced upon him against his will.

"Today I have one dead son," she said to a silent hall, using a tissue to dry a tear. "When your child is killed in a war, they always say ‘Your child volunteered. Your child was a hero,'" she said. "What makes him a hero if he was ordered to kill innocent Iraqis?"

Sheehan further acknowledged the Americans and Iraqis who lost their lives in the war and the politicians who put them there.

"It's bullshit that we're not impeaching," she said.

A Code Pink member recited the names of deceased Americans and Iraqis through an amplifier while each attendee was given a rose and encouraged to join in a peaceful march to the Veteran's Memorial.

The crowd marched down Van Ness Avenue, interrupting the flow of traffic and shouting, "Five years too many!" as cars blared their horns and police followed. Nobody was arrested.

When the congregation reached the Veteran's Memorial, each person placed their flower in the crevices of the building to honor the dead.

"Put your roses down in whatever prayerful or meditative way that you want to," said Sheehan, who led the march.

An acoustic guitarist joined the crowd, strumming songs against war.

"Where have all the soldiers gone?" he sung. "Gone to graveyards, everyone."

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