At first glance, a recent Nightline episode called “Mothers of the Fallen” seemed like another attempt by the mainstream media to convince the public that the war in Iraq was a mistake and not worth the lives of any more American soldiers. It attempted to personalize the question, by talking to a group of mothers in Ohio who have recently lost sons in Iraq. But some of the mothers gave a vigorous defense of the war and the ultimate sacrifices made by their sons. Nightline may have gotten more than it bargained for.
For this hour-long Nightline Special Event, Cynthia McFadden was the sole host. Fifteen mothers were shown on camera but 29 in total were interviewed. Ohio was picked because of the large concentration of recent deaths of troops from there. As part of the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Marine Regiment, the Lima Company included nearly all of the 24 lost Marines of the 160 who went during its 7-month deployment. All told, the number of dead from Ohio has passed 100. Only three other, much larger, states have had more deaths.
McFadden told the TV audience that “We don’t claim?that the views of the mothers here are representative of the views of the nation as a whole, or even the military families in general. But at a time when the casualties of war are being used by all sides to make political points, we wanted to listen to the words of those who suffered those losses personally.”
She asked the question of why did your son join the military? The first mother answered that after 9/11, her son said, “I have to go defend God and country.” She tried talking him out of it but he wouldn’t hear it. Another said her son really felt the cause was right: “My son, ever since he was a little guy, wanted to be a Marine. This was his dream.” Of course there were a lot of tears. Most of the mothers said they never believed their sons would not be coming home alive.
McFadden asked about the impact of the deaths on their view of the war. Jody Davids read a letter from her son, which she was supposed to get only if he died in Iraq. “I want you to know that I don’t fear death,” wrote her son. “And while I wish I could live out the rest of my life happily, I’m proud to give my life in the name of freedom. No matter what happens, I wouldn’t change a thing that I did. I’ve never been more proud of myself than I am right now. I think I have finally found the key to happiness. Live your life in a way that you can be proud of everything you do. No regrets. I hope that you don’t ever have to read this letter. I understand that you are sad now, it’s only natural. I only hope that you can find comfort in the fact that I died for you all?my family and the country that I love. Don’t be angry. I knew the risks and chose to accept them. Nobody made me do it.”
There were several mothers opposed to the war. So McFadden asked, “Is it possible to support the troops and not the mission?” One said that it doesn’t make sense to support troops but not the mission. Natalie Wilkins, one of two black mothers to speak, asked why we aren’t bringing the boys home, since we hear the war is over. “I love them, I do support the troops,” she said. “I just don’t want another mother to feel the way I do.”
McFadden asked about the mission in Iraq. “The mission is to deter terrorism, provide freedom for the Iraqi people, and to protect our country,” said one. “Because if we’re not over there, those terrorists are going to be over here again.”
When some of the mothers repeated the erroneous claim that we were deliberately lied into the war by the Bush administration, that led to a question about Cindy Sheehan, the celebrated anti-war activist who lost her son in the war and has accused the President of being a terrorist. Surprisingly, even the mothers opposed to the war weren’t too sympathetic toward Sheehan. One mother said Sheehan “makes me angry, because she’s loading the guns for the enemy, she’s empowering our enemy. She does not speak for me. Nor for my son.” One mother opposed to the war said she was glad Sheehan spoke up, but another countered: “It’s all politically motivated.”
Debra Meyer said Cindy Sheehan, “as far as I’m concerned, dishonors her son’s memory. It’s all about her and her political views, and not about the guys.”
While some had complaints about the Bush Administration’s handling of the war or response to casualties, all were proud of their sons and their sacrifices. Carole Hoffman said, “I’m not a politician. I’m not a military strategist. I’m a mom. I’m a mom who would never choose to sacrifice a son. God is the only parent father that has that much love. Our sons, all of these young men, died fighting for freedom for the Iraqi people. Fighting for their families. For their brothers. Their comrades. If we leave, before the job is done, then their deaths are in vain.”
One said, “We stand together as Gold Star mothers who are proud of our sons. Our sons did not die in vain. And I will not tolerate hearing that, regardless of the outcome. Where would our country be if it wouldn’t have been for soldiers in World War I and World War II? And Korea, and Vietnam? Where would our country be? They gave the ultimate.”
Those are words to ponder. We won World Wars I and II. Korea was a stalemate, with almost 30,000 U.S. troops still stationed there. Vietnam was a defeat that led to the communist conquest of Southeast Asia and the murder of millions. Can we afford to lose in Iraq? What would happen to the Iraqis who are risking their lives for freedom and democracy? Wouldn’t a U.S. military defeat undermine the sacrifices that have been made and bring even more tears to the eyes of those Gold Star mothers?
These are the questions that we raise in response to the Nightline program, which is now into its post-Ted Koppel phase. It now has three anchors, not one. Tom Shales, the Style section columnist for the Washington Post, has ridiculed the arrangement, calling it “irritating.”
We disagree. Nightline has tended to be a “talking heads” show but this program featured some very important talking heads who must be heard. This show about the Gold Star mothers put the war into its proper context. McFadden did a good job. The talk was about human lives and the fate of nations. This was real journalism.
Ted Koppel was a good journalist and he did a good job. But Nightline doesn’t need him to survive and prosper. We could use more programs like the one on the Gold Star mothers.