Thursday 8 July 2004

The lie that killed my son

Lila Lipscomb believed in Bush's case for war in Iraq. But when her son died in action, her faith in the American way was shattered.

Two years ago, if you had asked Lila Lipscomb what she stood for, she would have referred you to the flag in her garden and her four grown-up children. Her priorities were, in descending order of importance, family, faith, country and a place where all three met, what she might have called "service": two of her children were in the military and she worked in the public sector, at an employment agency designed to get people off welfare. She is, as she puts it, "an extremely strong woman. And I've raised my daughters to understand that they come from a long line of strong, independent women. So the men in our lives have to be very unique. Hence Pops."

Pops is her husband, Howard, a car-factory worker. He has accompanied Lipscomb to London today by way of moral support and sits across from her in the hotel suite, eyes brimming. What she is saying is not easy for either of them. Lipscomb describes an event that changed their lives and forced a seismic shift in their political perceptions; a shift that she hopes millions of her fellow Americans will be making between now and election time in November. To her surprise, and the surprise of all who know her, Lipscomb is becoming a figurehead in the fight to oust George Bush.

It is two weeks since Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's polemic on the war in Iraq, was released in America, and in that time Lipscomb's voice has emerged as the film's most powerful. As with any project generated by Moore, the film will be loved and loathed in equal measure, but whatever one thinks of him, it is hard to resist the testimony of 50-year-old Lipscomb, a mother from Flint, Michigan, who still flies a flag in her garden, but is down to three children and a handful of ruptured assumptions where other certainties used to be.

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The scenes in which she recounts the story of her son Michael's death have had cinema-goers sniffing into their sleeves. "For many years," says Lipscomb, "I thought I had to control everything. I had a real controlling spirit. But, boy, when the army stands in your house and tells you that your oldest son is killed, all that flies out the window. Over this last year and a half, I've been known to cry a bit."

The power of Lipscomb's story lies in the sharpness of the U-turn she made and her eloquence in speaking about it. Initially, she supported the war, on the assumption that the government knew best. But just two weeks into the conflict her 26-year-old son, a sergeant in the US army, was shot down while serving as a door gunner in a Black Hawk helicopter. Five other soldiers died with him. A week or so later she received his last letter, in which he told her he thought Bush had lost the plot and that they shouldn't be in Iraq, that the whole thing was folly. Moore got wind of it when Lipscomb and her family were featured in Newsweek magazine and he flew to Flint, his hometown, for a meeting.

"Michael Moore said he'd already been around America interviewing all different types of people [for the film]. It was the most incredible experience; he was sitting in our living room and all of a sudden, during the talking and sharing, a tear fell from his eye. His producer said afterwards, 'Michael found it, he found it, he found what the movie was going to be about!'"

Lipscomb should by rights have been suspicious of Moore. She is a Democrat, but a conservative one. She is, or at least was, deeply conformist and even now if the draft was enforced, wouldn't urge desertion, because that would be breaking the law. "I instilled in my children, as it was instilled in me that, regardless of who is elected the president of the United States of America, it is the position that you honour. It doesn't matter if they are Republican or Democrat. Boy, what an awakening."

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