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Many Candles, but Few Answers

Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at latimes.com/lopez.

On a bloody day in which 43 Iraqi citizens were blown to bits in a series of bombings in Baghdad, a day in which the toll of dead American soldiers stood at 59 for the month of August, a day in which the president of the United States continued his vacation at his Texas ranch, Aaron Vogel drove to Woodland Hills for a vigil, wearing the desert fatigues he had worn in Iraq.

While I waited for Vogel in a park near Warner Center, I bumped into Jane Bright. In July 2003, I visited Bright just hours after she got the news that her son -- Army Sgt. Evan Ashcraft, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley -- had been killed in Iraq. He was 24.

Two years and many funerals later, Iraq is even more unstable. The leaders of various factions are attempting to build a constitution, but it will mean little on the streets, where hatred reaches back centuries and recognizes no rule.

“How have you been?” I asked Bright, immediately wishing I could pull back the question. There don’t seem to be words appropriate to such an occasion.

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“I’m doing OK,” she said. “Still as angry as ever.”

When Vogel, who lives in Agoura Hills, arrived, I pointed him out to Bright as he walked toward us. A tall young man of 25 who made it home unscathed after a year in Iraq, he was wearing a T-shirt that read, “Iraq Veterans Against the War.” Someone introduced him to Bright, calling her a Gold Star mom, meaning she had lost a son to war.

“I’m sorry,” Vogel said softly as he reached for her hand.

Vogel, who had reservations about the war when his Army Reserve unit was called up in early 2003, developed even more doubts during and after his tour northeast of Baghdad. He, Bright and about 300 others had come to the park to light candles in support of Cindy Sheehan, the Vacaville, Calif., mother who was camped outside President Bush’s ranch demanding to know what her son Casey had died for.

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I spoke to Sheehan in January when she was in Washington protesting Bush’s lavish inauguration party. She found the festivities inappropriate at a time when soldiers were dying in a war with no clear purpose.

Now she’s asking for something the president will never admit.

She wants him to say the war was a mistake.

I don’t believe the Iraq invasion was primarily about oil, as Sheehan has suggested, or about lining the pockets of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney’s pals at Halliburton and elsewhere. Those were among the reasons, but oversimplification sabotages the cause of Sheehan and others eager for a reckoning.

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More than anything, the war was about the naive notion that complex problems thousands of years in the making could be solved by American military might. And Bush was not alone in thinking that. Democrats in Congress bought in. Learned pundits bought in. The American public bought in.

Sure, they were influenced by bogus claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links to terrorists, but still, they swallowed the absurd claim that in response to an attack by Osama bin Laden it made sense to demolish a secular Arab state. Saddam Hussein had long been working Washington neocons into a lather. But how did they convince a free-thinking nation that smoking out a feeble despot would put an end to terrorism?

And now here we were Wednesday night on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, 300 people lighting candles and forming a circle, standing in for the 54% of Americans who now agree the invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

In the twilight, Aaron Vogel held a candle that brought a glow to his face. Four soldiers from his 652nd Engineer Company, an engineering and bomb-disposal unit out of Wisconsin, were killed on his tour.

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Vogel is not anti-military. There are times when there’s no other way, he says.

“But all the reasons they gave us for going there turned out to be false, then the reasons changed,” Vogel says. “That was a problem for me and others in the unit -- not all of them, because some were still gung-ho. But a lot of people in the unit talked about the lack of a real mission, an endpoint, a goal we could work toward.

“We failed the mission [of] winning hearts and minds. We failed the peacekeeping mission.

“I’m tired of seeing the number of deaths go up every day. I was tired of it when I was there, and I don’t want to see any more soldiers hit when they’re sitting there with no mission whatsoever aside from self-protection.”

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He recalls an Iraqi boy of 5 or 6 who came to the gate of the 652nd’s base camp with his father and chatted with soldiers. “I just remember how happy he was, and how similar to kids back home. Just an innocent kid.”

The father’s friendliness toward the Americans didn’t sit well with the insurgents, though, Vogel said. One day, the father and his son were killed.

The idea of delivering democracy to Iraq was noble, Vogel believes. But the abandonment of diplomacy, the alienation of allies and the failure to foresee the chaos that developed are unforgivable.

“I really think we shot ourselves in the foot,” says Vogel, who returned home in March 2004. “If they had taken the time to study the history of the people there, they might have come up with a better plan.”

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So what to do now?

Start the withdrawal of troops, Vogel says, because the American presence makes peace impossible. Install a hard-core international force for as long as necessary, gradually reducing the U.S. role.

Not easy, as the president has found, but what else can be done with this mess he’s created?

If his unit gets called up again, Vogel said, he doesn’t know if he’ll go. He’s studying photography and would be willing to return to Iraq in that capacity, so he can show the nation what war looks like.

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“Why Are They Dying?” asked one sign at the vigil.

“Stop This Insanity,” read another.

Jane Bright stood with her husband, Jim. Aaron Vogel stood next to another vet.

There were no speeches. As night fell, there was only silence, ghostly shadows and flickering candles.

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