Vigils across the U.S. grieved the human cost of the Iraq war last week. At the same time, Marine generals and Iraq veterans teamed up with coal miners in a new initiative to bring an antiwar, anti-Bush message to key swing states.

On the evening of Sept. 9, 40,000 people gathered in 1,000 candlelight vigils from Boston Common to San Diego’s beaches, to remember the Iraq dead and wounded, and to call for peace.

A few days later, former top military leaders and veterans of the Vietnam and Iraq wars launched a double-pronged campaign: to push back what they call the “not-so-Swift” attacks on John Kerry, and to turn public attention to the “real problems” of Bush’s Iraq war policy and his callous neglect of veterans.

Speaking at a Sept. 13 media teleconference, former Central Command Commander Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar said the Bush-instigated “Swift Boat” attacks on presidential candidate John Kerry have dishonored soldiers in Iraq, as well as “all of us who served in Vietnam,” by calling the entire system of military medals into question. Meanwhile, Hoar charged, “in the last three-and-a-half years, this administration has cut corners on veterans of all wars, including the Second World War.”

President Bush is waging a war we never should have started, Hoar declared. In attacking Iraq, he said, Bush ignored “much higher priorities” for combating terrorism, shunned diplomacy and disparaged U.S. allies.

At the teleconference and an earlier event in Washington, Hoar was joined by retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Amvets Executive Director Bob Jones, and several Iraq veterans in announcing the formation of the Veterans Institute for Security and Democracy.

In addition to military leaders, the Veterans Institute for Security and Democracy advisory board includes Larry Rivers, former national commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, and Bobby Harnage, Sr., immediate past president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The group is opening an office in the West Virginia / southeast Ohio / western Pennsylvania area, where they will work with the United Mine Workers and others to get their message out. Retired Air Force Col. Richard Klass, the group’s president, said they are preparing a handbill telling voters “the Iraq war has not made us safer,” and highlighting Bush’s failures on veterans’ needs.

Calling Bush’s record on veterans “a sham, a disgrace,” Jones cited closings of Veterans Administration facilities, inadequate funding of VA programs, poor oversight, and chaotic bureaucracy. A secret Bush administration document reported by the Washington Post projects cuts in veterans spending totaling $910 million for the next fiscal year. Just in the state of Maryland, Jones said, this would mean a loss of $17 million, affecting over 500,000 vets. In Illinois, the VA is projected to lose $40 million, impacting 900,000 vets.

The Veterans Institute is also working in Iowa, aiming to reach into Minnesota, Wisconsin and other nearby states, and is engaged in “vigorous” fund-raising efforts to enable it to expand into Florida and western states.

Referring to the well-funded anti-Kerry Swift Boat group, Iraq veteran Marine Sgt. Rob Sarra said, “We don’t have $6.7 million but we have truth on our side.”

In Iraq escalated U.S. airstrikes have triggered new cycles of bloodshed. On Sept. 13, after a bomb set fire to an Army vehicle in a Baghdad neighborhood, wounding several soldiers, U.S. helicopter gunships fired randomly into the crowd that gathered, killing and wounding many civilians, including children and a news reporter. At the same time, a series of car bombs and mortar attacks by unknown or shadowy groups have killed and wounded scores of civilians. On Sept. 14, a car bomb tore up a crowded market near a police station where Iraqis were waiting to apply for jobs, and gunmen fired on a van carrying police home from work in Baquba, killing at least 60 people and wounding over 100. U.S. deaths in Iraq have soared over 1,000 and the Iraqi dead number 14,000 or more.

An exhibit of empty boots, symbolizing the lost lives of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, continues to make its way across the U.S., drawing families and strangers to mourn. The exhibit, “Eyes Wide Open,” was launched by the American Friends Service Committee in January with 504 pairs of boots. With each stop in a new city, more boots are being added to represent the newly fallen. Alongside the boots stands a wall of remembrance with the names of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed since the U.S. invasion.

“I just find it so heartbreaking,” one viewer commented. “They are all my brothers. … Not one of them wanted to die. We never learn … any one of these could be my son or anyone else’s son.”

“Eyes Wide Open” shatters the claim that the war has made America safer, says the AFSC. The exhibit is headed to the battleground states, with stops set for Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo, and Columbus, Ohio, as well as cities in Michigan, Georgia and Florida. For details, visit at

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.