By Michael Riley
March 19, 2006
Skip Edwards drives around Telluride these days with 2,300 wooden crosses in the back of an old pickup. Khalid Rosa, a theology student, has changed his name, dropped plans to become an Episcopal priest and converted to Sunni Islam.
As the war in Iraq began three years ago this weekend, Jack Cahn was coping with a failing machinist business. Now he’s a small but growing defense contractor, with both his business and his life transformed.
“Whenever I read now about the soldiers who have died, I always look to see what the situation was. Was he supplied with what he needed?” said Cahn, who makes spare parts for missiles and tanks.
“I don’t see myself as being so removed from that line in the newspaper anymore,” he said.
As many Americans mark the anniversary, anthropologists, historians and public-opinion experts say America’s home front is entering uncharted territory.
Longer than any hostilities since Vietnam, the war also has given those at home less reason to stay engaged than any sustained American conflict in the past century.
There is no draft. Casualties are relatively low, a fraction of Vietnam’s toll. And while President Bush has tried to connect the Iraqi conflict to a monumental struggle against global terrorism, polls suggest that a growing number of Americans see the war as distant from the problems of their day-to-day existence.
Nevertheless, experts say that because of the length, cost and scale of U.S. forces involved, the Iraq war is reworking the fabric of American life in ways both subtle and substantial.
Military recruiters are combing high schools and colleges. The war-related economy touches thousands of businesses in hundreds of communities. The nation’s debt load is rising.
Last week, the president released the country’s National Security Strategy with four brief but powerful words: “America is at war.”
But it’s a war of a different kind….
“Peace button” pushed
When the Iraq war began three years ago, Khalid Rosa’s name was Roy Rosa.
Twenty-four at the time with a wide-set, handsome face, Rosa was just about to enter the University of Denver’s Iliff School of Theology when the air war’s “shock and awe” attack devastated Saddam Hussein’s military.
It helped propel a spiritual journey that led him to abandon his plan to become an Episcopal priest. He made several Muslim friends, started attending a mosque and eventually converted to Islam.
The experience has made him into a bridge between worlds that often seem mutually misunderstood. Christian friends ask about Islam, Muslim friends about Christianity.
It has also altered Rosa’s view of the war. He has learned Arabic and can now understand the words of those mourning Iraqi families on the nightly news. He has met Iraqis and Afghans whose lives have been destroyed by the war against terrorism.
“For me, it went from ‘those people over there’ to ‘those are my people,”‘ said Rosa, who continues his studies at Iliff and eventually hopes to work at a U.S. mosque.
He can’t see the war as just, but then again, he can’t see violence for any means as just.
“I grew up in California and used to play a lot of violent video games. This has really pushed my peace button,” he said.
“I think our intentions were good,” he said. But “to me, it looks like we made a mess out of their country.”
An economic journey
If Rosa’s journey through the past three years of war has been a spiritual one, Jack Cahn’s has been economic.
A former U.S. special forces soldier, Cahn watched as the economic downturn that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks gutted his former company, a precision machinist shop that depended on the plummeting telecom and aerospace sectors.
As the country headed to war in 2003, he knew there would be a need for replacement parts for aging military equipment that was about to be thrown into the harsh conditions of the Iraqi desert. And he knew he wanted to help.
He created a Boulder company, Aerospace Manufacturing Services, that would build parts for some of the military’s front- line weapons systems: tanks, missiles, machine guns.
Cahn said it’s not the easiest way to make money (military contractors often wait more than a year for payment), but it allowed him to contribute to the war in a unique way.
“I know that the guys who are operating the machine guns or the vehicles are truly thankful. Their lives are on the line, and they literally depend that when they are engaged in a firefight, their position isn’t compromised by parts that fail,” the Boulder entrepreneur said.
“I look at defense contracting not as an opportunity to sell a $600 hammer but from a patriotic sense, to serve my country, and from an ethical sense, to build parts that will save lives,” he said.
A close look at evidence
When the Iraq war began, Bruce Montgomery was the caretaker of 18 tons of evidence of Hussein’s brutality.
The 5.5 million documents, tapes, maps and photographs he oversaw detail torture, mass graves and the use of chemical weapons. They paint in bureaucratic detail how the Iraqi dictator gassed hundreds of Kurdish villages, waged war against Iran, paid informants, operated his secret police and slaughtered tens of thousands of people.
The documents came to Montgomery, faculty director of the archives at the University of Colorado at Boulder, by a long route. Kurdish rebels stormed Iraqi secret police offices in northern Iraq at the end of the Persian Gulf War, seizing the materials, which then passed to the U.S. military. They were analyzed for possible use in a trial against Hussein, but nobody knew then whether that trial would ever come.
So Montgomery brokered a deal to hold the documents at CU. In the early 1990s, Montgomery had created the Human Rights Initiative, a project dedicated to preserving documentation on human-rights abuses and issues.
In 1998, the Iraqi documents – some water-damaged, some scorched – came to Boulder in 3,000 boxes. Montgomery watched over them until the U.S. government took them back after the start of the Iraq war with the intention to use them in a trial against Hussein.
Even steeped in such evidence, Montgomery began to ask questions as the war crept on.
“When you see the real evidence of the atrocities that were committed, it does color your perspective (on the war),” he said. “It does not make you sorry that he was removed from power. But that’s a very different question from how the war was prosecuted. So I have mixed thoughts.”
“Just like Vietnam”
In many cases, the war has been experienced as a ripple felt through small actions or brief conversations.
A few months ago when the phone rang, Susan Franceski was suspicious when the unfamiliar voice asked to speak to her 18-year-old son, Alex.
A senior at Gateway High School in Aurora, Alex said U.S. Army recruiters had been there recently, looking for seniors to sign up. When they approached him, he took a brochure only because he didn’t want to appear rude. He threw it in the trash.
“I really wish you wouldn’t call anymore,” Susan Franceski said when the recruiter identified himself. She had signed a waiver prohibiting recruiters from approaching her son at school. “I don’t want my son to go into the military.”
“What if all the mothers said that?” the recruiter asked.
A child of the ’60s, Franceski has moved on since the days when she worked at an anti-war coffeehouse during the turbulence of the Vietnam War.
Her husband, John, is a conservative Republican who insisted when the Iraq war began that it would be short. In and out, he predicted. He fully believed reports of terrible weapons hidden in Iraq. Going to war was the right thing to do.
“Men are like that,” she says. “They are of the opinion that if someone hits you, you have to hit back.”
But she remembers feeling only dread. “This will go on and on,” she thought, “just like Vietnam.”
When she watched the images of bombs dropping, it awakened something in her.
The feeling of anger and frustration crystallized even more last summer when she visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. “All that death for what?” she wondered. She thinks the same about those who have died in Iraq.
This time, though, her activism is subtler. She talks to neighbors and friends, venting her worries and distrust. She has not taken to the streets as she once did in her younger days. But she won’t rule it out, either.
Activism’s new focus
Skip Edwards has taken to the streets – or at least to the grassy expanse of parks and fields.
In the early 1970s, Edwards flew transport planes loaded with supplies into combat zones in Vietnam. He returned with a load of pallets stacked with the coffins of dead soldiers.
On the Iraq war’s first anniversary, he decided to create a visual symbol of the human cost of war.
He riveted and glued wooden paint-stirring sticks into 574 crosses, painted them white, and pasted the name and hometown of a dead soldier on each one. He first took them to a peace rally in Grand Junction in 2004, where he decided he would turn them into a traveling exhibit.
Now, he has 2,300 crosses. Each one bears a picture and a narrative about how that soldier died. They have been erected in parks in Colorado and Montana 14 times and will be set up in Grand Junction’s Lincoln Park on March 25.
The crosses have changed Edwards’ life. He was a longtime environmental activist and summer river ranger for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Now, his cross project is a major focus of his activism, much of his work time, and the outward sign of the pain he feels over the war.
“I get very intimately involved when I am making the crosses. Each person becomes a real person. It strikes everyone as they are putting names on,” he said.
“People come and look and reflect. It’s not about people ranting and raving,” he said. “People see this and look inside themselves as individuals to think about what this war means.”
This story was written by Michael Riley with additional reports from staff writers Jenny Deam, Electa Draper, John Ingold, Steve Lipsher and Nancy Lofholm.