I sit in one of the dives on 44th Street, uncertain how to approach Sue Niederer and Celeste Zappala, afraid that their stories can be too easily turned into tears, their message lost after the Veteransâ€™ Day march. They were put at the back of the New York parade, humiliated, with their little crowd of anti-war veterans and their memories of boys who left young wives for Iraq and came back in coffins.
Later I sit between the two women and remember the blood splashed across the road at Khan Dari and the 82nd Airborne washing away the brains from the highway in central Fallujah and the body lying beneath a tarp in north Baghdad. Iâ€™ve seen the American corpses. Now here are the American mothers.
Sue lost her son Seth on 3 February last year. He was looking for “improvised explosive devices” near Iskanderiya, south of Baghdad – the infamous IEDs, roadside bombs which have taken hundreds of American lives – when a booby trap blew up next to him.
Dates are important to Sue. She goes back over them repeatedly, as if this will somehow straighten things out, make sense of the immorality of her sonâ€™s death, perhaps – I sense this powerfully, though I am not certain – bring him, however briefly, back to life. Seth married on 26 August 2003, just five days before he was first deployed to Iraq; his young wife, Kelly, scarcely had time to know her husband. He came home on leave on 1 January 2004, left on 17 January and was killed just three weeks later.
Sueâ€™s voice rises in indignation above the noise of the New York diner, angry and brave and drowning out the joshing of two vets at the other end of the table. “I remember very clearly my sonâ€™s last words before he went back after his two weeksâ€™ vacation. â€™I donâ€™t know who my enemy is,â€™ he said. â€™Itâ€™s a worthless, senseless war, a war of religion. Weâ€™ll never win it.â€™ He wasnâ€™t killed. He was murdered. He was murdered by the US administration. He was out looking for IEDs. He found one, stopped his convoy and was blown up. I regard it as a suicide mission.”
I know Iskanderiya, the place where Seth died. Itâ€™s a flyblown Sunni Muslim town south of Baghdad, throat-cutting country where insurgents man their own checkpoints beside the palm groves and canals. Vietnam comes to mind. The other voices round the table are lowered now. The waiter turns up with pizzas and Pepsis and red wine. Thereâ€™s an American flag in the centre of the table. These mothers and ex-soldiers all talk of their patriotism, although these days they might agree with Nurse Edith Cavell: that patriotism is not enough.
Celesteâ€™s son Sherwood was killed on 26 April last year, his end as tragic as it was unnecessary. He was protecting a group of military inspectors hunting for President Bushâ€™s mythical weapons of mass destruction when a perfume factory they were searching in Baghdad suddenly exploded.
“He was getting out of the cab of his truck to help the wounded when some debris came crashing out of the sky and hit him,” Celeste says. “When they left on their mission, they were supposed to have a lorry with them with equipment that would explode bombs by radio before they reached the scene. But that day, the lorry broke down and a British officer told them to set off on the mission without it. I will always remember that my son died just a month after George W Bush made that videotape in front of the press – the one where he made a joke about looking for weapons of mass destruction and pretended to search under his desk for the weapons. He was making fun of the fact he hadnâ€™t found them – but my son died looking for them and they didnâ€™t exist.”
Sherwood and his 28-year-old wife, Deborah, had a young son. “We always tell him that his father was a hero,” Celeste says. “We think of him that way. He was a noble man.” Sherwood had joined the National Guard in 1997, believing – like thousands of other American servicemen in Iraq – that he could use the money to pay off his college loans. “Heâ€™d told us he would go and do the job and that he would bring all his men home safely. There were 15 of them, all from Pennsylvania, and he kept his word. They all came home safely – except for Sherwood.”
At the other end of our table, Alex Ryabov, who served in R Battery, 5th Battalion, 10th Marines, in the original 2003 invasion force, says he was against the war from the start, refusing to believe there were any weapons of mass destruction.
“When I got into Iraq, I saw what our artillery rounds did to people. I had to go up front to see where the rounds were falling and I saw whole Iraqi cities engulfed in flames. There were Iraqi dead on the sides of the roads – I couldnâ€™t tell if they were men or women.”
Is it therefore so surprising that this little group of mothers and ex-soldiers should have trailed along behind the Veteransâ€™ Parade in New York or that they should now represent Military Families Speak Out and Iraq Veterans Against the War, and should have joined older men who belonged to Vietnam Veterans Against the War? These are not the men and women whom George Bush wants to have at hand when he denounces congressmen for claiming he fiddled the intelligence files before the war, when he tells yet more enthusiastic young soldiers that America will “prevail” in its “war on terror” and I can see why.
“My husband, Greg, was an absolute Republican, even after my son was killed,” Sue says. “But then we went to see Michael Mooreâ€™s film Fahrenheit 9/11. And as we walked out, my husband apologised to me. I said: â€™What are you apologising for?â€™ And he said: â€™Iâ€™m sorry – everything youâ€™ve said about the war is correct. Iâ€™ll back you 100 per cent in everything you say and everything you do.â€™”
I say goodbye to this little group of brave American men and women – the ex-soldiers have no jobs, no future save their enthusiasm for their own campaign against the Iraq war – and leave their table with its sad, gold-fringed American flag and head off into the fumes and noise of Times Square. Up on a giant television screen, Vice-President Cheney – he who went on lying about the non-existent links between Saddam and 9/11 long after the invasion – is solemnly bowing his head in the Arlington cemetery. Ah yes, he is honouring the fallen. And I wonder if he will ever understand his betrayal of the men and women back on 44th Street.