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Where Britons gather to grieve

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The hearses roll through with grim regularity now, bearing the heavy weight of flag-shrouded caskets and a nation's accumulating grief.

When the jet-black cars reach Wootton Bassett's modest monument honoring the dead of wars past, the cortege stops. Bystanders bow their heads. A church bell tolls into the aching stillness.

This small town, inhabited since Saxon times, is now the epicenter of national mourning over the fallen of a 21st century war. Over the weekend, the number of British service personnel killed in Afghanistan passed 200, a tally that has risen sharply over the last several months amid intensified fighting.

The bodies of the slain travel through Wootton Bassett, about 75 miles west of London, en route to their final resting places. The remains of three more soldiers passed through town Tuesday. With each new death, the grief over so many young lives cut short is steadily building up in this country, like sediment in a stream.

So, too, are anger and skepticism about the rationale for the British mission. Why are British soldiers still there, nearly eight years after having thrust into Afghanistan alongside the Americans? Is this war winnable? At what cost?

The battle of public opinion over the Afghan conflict is at a crucial stage in Britain, the nation that, after the United States, has committed the most troops -- about 9,000 -- to fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

To Washington's gratitude, the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown has vowed to hold firm, despite the war's mounting unpopularity. Officials say the tide in Afghanistan is turning and emphasize the importance of Thursday's presidential election to the Central Asian nation's struggle to become a viable democratic state.

"We have to back our troops, and we have to stay with it," British Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth said this week.

But convincing his fellow Britons is harder than ever as anger grows over a faraway conflict for which success may be difficult to measure but the body count is not. On the day of Ainsworth's comment, his ministry released figures showing that British forces had already suffered more casualties in 2009 than in all of 2008.

Such bleak statistics help explain why 57% of Britons, in a poll released last week, said their troops should not be fighting in Afghanistan. Almost as many agreed that it wasn't even clear what the fighting was for.

They scoff at the official rationale of protecting "our way of life" from the threat of Islamic terrorism, arguing that the war has instead become the way of death for too many of their compatriots.

"It's like America's Vietnam," said Sandra Fisher, 63, who lives in the village of Wroughton, near Wootton Bassett. "All these young men are getting blown up, and for what reason?"

Most of Britain's forces in Afghanistan are posted in Helmand province, in the south, scene of some of the heaviest combat. A recently concluded British offensive succeeded in clearing part of the province of Taliban fighters, the government says.

But its cost in the lives of British soldiers was steep, especially from the roadside bombs that have become the Taliban's weapon of choice.

The nation was stunned last month when eight servicemen were killed within a single 24-hour period, among them Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, the highest-ranked British officer to die in combat in nearly 30 years.

The sidewalks of Wootton Bassett were packed 10 deep with mourners when the eight coffins somberly made their way through town. Veterans saluted, regimental flags were lowered and, at the head of the cortege, a lone escort in top hat and tails turned at the war memorial, doffed his hat in respect, then led the slow-moving hearses onward on foot. A few sobs rent the air.

In some ways, the market street here, home to the usual assortment of pubs and banks and shops, can be read as an index of the growing public concern over the war in Afghanistan.

Remains of fallen soldiers from both Afghanistan and Iraq started coming through the town in April 2007, when the British military decided to fly the dead home to the nearby air base at Lyneham. Wootton Bassett is the first town on the road to Oxfordshire, where the bodies must go for postmortems.

In the beginning, there was no ceremony, no crowds. But one day, members of the Royal British Legion, a veterans group, happened to be out on the main street as a hearse rolled past.

"They realized what was going on. They stopped and saluted and . . . other people joined by paying a moment of silence," said Steve Bucknell, the town's mayor. "After that, they said, 'Why don't we try to do this every time?' It just grew from there."

Shopkeepers would emerge from their stores when the processions passed by. More residents joined in, and soon visitors began showing up whenever there was a "repatriation."

What began as a solemn, relatively intimate observance has evolved into a ritual that attracts hundreds of Britons to this little corner of Wiltshire County. That happened Tuesday, as crowds started to gather by noon in the hot summer sunshine for the return of the bodies of three servicemen.

On Thursday, there were four caskets containing victims of roadside bombs. None of the dead was older than 26. Three belonged to a parachute regiment -- as does Libby Bricknell's son, who has served twice in Afghanistan.

"It's kind of 'there but for the grace of God,' " said Bricknell, who was momentarily too overcome to continue as she thought of the other mothers, her hand tightly clutching a spray of white roses.

She had driven in that morning from Oxford. Across the street, a knot of young people dressed in mourning clothes waited for the coffin that carried the body of one of their friends. A young man with a black armband cradled a placard with his fallen buddy's photo.

Bricknell, 54, does not take kindly to doubters of Britain's commitment in Afghanistan.

"Somebody who's got a bit of clout should give the nation an explanation, somebody from the forces and from politics. That would shut everyone up," she said. "A lot of people who don't have contact with the armed forces don't understand why we're there."

Gen. Richard Dannatt, the outgoing head of the British army, said Monday that troops probably would have to remain for several more years to help stabilize Afghanistan and train its security forces.

The war is also likely to be an issue in the British election that is due by spring, though how it will play out is unclear. Both of the major political parties, Labor and Conservative, favor keeping troops in Afghanistan.

No one knows how many more casualties lie ahead. Fisher, of Wroughton, has come to Wootton Bassett with her husband, Raymond, about two dozen times to honor the newly fallen. They plan to keep on doing so, despite their opposition to the war.

"Once you start, you feel you have to. We do it because we respect what the soldiers are doing," Fisher said. "They've got no choice. They're doing their duty."


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