The New York Times

September 16, 2006
Political Memo

A Distant War Draws Closer to Home


NOBODY asked for the timing.

But there it was last week, in this state called the land of steady habits. There was a remarkable confluence of life, death and politics, events that are indeed becoming steady these days.

First came the fifth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11. Nearly 70 Connecticut residents died in the attacks, and memorial ceremonies were held around the state. Less than 24 hours later, there was the funeral of a 19-year-old man who died near Baqubah, the 22nd soldier from Connecticut killed in Iraq. It would be the first of two military funerals in the state in four days.

For many Connecticut residents, the war in Iraq has been something distant, with few neighbors serving and even fewer not coming home. As in other small Northeast states, but unlike larger states to the West and South, the list of casualties here has been relatively short. In Ohio, 120 soldiers have been killed; in Pennsylvania, 126; in Virginia, 80.

Of course, it is as not as though the war has been forgotten here. It has fueled political angst for months and was a major reason Ned Lamont defeated Senator Joseph I. Lieberman in the Democratic primary on Aug. 8. The war is also shaping the race in the Fourth Congressional District between Christopher R. Shays, the Republican incumbent, and Diane Farrell, the Democratic challenger.

And while the candidates debated terms like “exit strategy,” “troop withdrawal” and the “war on terrorism” during the last few weeks, the war came home in a rush. Marine Cpl. Jordan C. Pierson, 21, of Milford, was killed Aug. 25 in Fallujah. Marine Lance Cpl. Philip Johnson, 19, of Enfield, was killed Sept. 2 near Ramadi. Army Pfc. Nicholas Madaras, 19, of Wilton, died Sept. 3 in Baqubah.

Their families spoke proudly of the young men as “focused” and “caring,” and as they were memorialized, politics and policy plodded along.

Observing Sept. 11 has been tricky for politicians in election years, with any public appearance seeming akin to a campaign stop. Mr. Lamont chose to stay out of the public eye on the anniversary, releasing a statement honoring the victims instead. Mr. Lieberman attended a 9/11 memorial ceremony in Hartford, telling the several dozen people at the event that the country should be unified against terrorists who want to attack the United States.

“We must not allow ourselves, on questions of security and the war on terrorism, to be divided by any artificial divider,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Reporters asked him to respond to a Senate Intelligence Committee report that said there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Iraq. Mr. Lieberman made it clear that he was not interested in defending the invasion that day, saying that while the report had “historical interest,” it was more important to move forward.

“It will be part of the historic judgment on what happened before, but as a policy maker and elected leader, I am focused on the fact that Al Qaeda is there now.”

On Sept. 12, hundreds of people packed the Our Lady of Fatima Church in Wilton for Mr. Madaras’s funeral. His parents, William and Shalini Madaras, sat in the front row along with his siblings, Marie, 17, and Chris, 10, according to news reports.

Among the crowd of neighbors, classmates, friends and family was Mr. Shays, who has attended each of the funerals of the four soldiers from the fourth district who have been killed in Iraq since the war began.

Speaking from his Washington office the day after the funeral, Mr. Shays said it was particularly painful to watch the young man’s girlfriend cry.

“I just cannot imagine what it is like for her. Maybe she thought someday that they would be sharing a life together,” said Mr. Shays, who married his high school sweetheart. “For everyone, it is mostly pure unadulterated grief.”

Mr. Shays, who has been a strong supporter of the war and is holding hearings about a possible timeline for troop withdrawal, was also blunt about his own feelings.

“I know I sent this young man to Iraq,” Mr. Shays said Wednesday. “I know that the parents know that.”

That was a powerful statement from a man who told reporters at a fund-raiser later that day that the war was not a mistake. Whether history will judge him correct will not be answered for years, of course.

Connecticut residents, though, will provide their own answer much sooner, when they vote in November.

Jennifer Medina is Hartford bureau chief of The New York Times.