The Odyssey of Lila Lipscomb
by Matt Tieger
Three years ago, Lila Lipscomb supported the Iraq war, believed Americans should respect their president and had no idea she would become a national icon of the peace movement. The Flint, Mich. mother of four, whose son was killed in Iraq and whose grief humanized Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9-11,” will speak in the Twin Cities this weekend.
Lipscomb has lived in Flint for years, raising four children and working in
an employment agency designed to help people leave welfare. She has many family
members in the military, and when her son, Michael, enlisted, she supported
Michael was deployed, however, Lipscomb began questioning why the government
was invading Iraq, and what the connection was between the invasion and the
9-11 attacks. Her son confided on his last visit home that he had doubts about
the government’s course. His last letter, which Lipscomb received just
before word of his death, expressed jaded skepticism of Bush’s motives.
These events began what would be a tectonic shift in her worldview, a journey
she hopes millions more Americans will make. To her surprise, and the surprise
of all who know her, Lipscomb became a leader of the opposition.
Flint is Michael Moore’s blue-collar hometown, and his favorite subject
for documentaries. His first hit, “Roger and Me,” documented the
city’s economic downturn after General Motors moved many of its factories
to the Third World, and in his 2002 film, “Bowling for Columbine,”
interviewed many Flint residents. When Moore read Lipscomb’s story, he
arranged to meet her. Lipscomb has told reporters that Moore made sure she would
not be offended by her scenes in his film, and offered to remove anything she
The film by blue-collar journalist Michael Moore was not only the highest-grossing
documentary of all time, but one of the most ambitious, distilling decades of
corporate shenanigans and government corruption into the film’s first
hour. But after the independent journalist sweeps across Bush, Halliburton,
Unocal, the Carlyle Group and other players, he brings the film back home, to
show the effects of war on an ordinary family. Lipscomb is the heart and conscience
of the film, and her palpable pain at reading her son’s farewell letter
grounds the documentary in human terms.
Since the release of Moore’s runaway hit, Lipscomb has used her fame to
speak against the war around the world, and will speak Saturday and Sunday at
the Black Dog Café in St. Paul, a talk titled “The Courage to Change.”
Pulse of the Twin Cities interviewed Lipscomb last week.
PULSE: Why the title “The Courage to Change?”
Because that has been the story of my journey for the last two years. One of
the things I have found is that, as human beings, we have a comfort zone, and
that we need to move out of that comfort zone to find the courage to change.
By speaking I hope to help other people have the courage to change—without
losing a son.
PULSE: Did your journey to oppose the war begin even before your son’s
death in Karbala?
LIPSCOMB: At Christmas of 2002, before his death, my son shared with
me something and asked me not to tell anyone—that he didn’t understand
why we were going to Iraq. That started me questioning, too, but because my
son was over there I was reluctant to say anything that would raise any discomfort
Then, after he died, every day now I have to wake up and know that I didn’t
do anything when I had the chance, and that if I had known all that things I
know now about the war, that maybe he would be alive today. [The grief] is still
PULSE: Since your son’s death, have you become involved with any
political groups or candidates?
LIPSCOMB: I have been trying to figure out all the times I have spoken
out against the war, and there are more than 300 appearances around the world.
I have worked with a lot of groups—The Americans Friends Service Committee,
Peace Action, Move On, Military Families Speak Out. All these groups are all
dear to me, but Military Families Speak Out has a special place in my heart—they
were the first ones to wrap their arms around me after my son’s death.
I co-founded an organization called Gold Star Families for Peace, and we are
about 30 families strong now. I understand you have a group locally called Mothers
against Military Madness?
Yes, Women Against Military Madness.
LIPSCOMB: Yes, I look forward to meeting some of them when I come to
Minnesota. It will be nice to be home; my mother’s family all live in
PULSE: What kinds of reactions have you gotten from your appearance
in Fahrenheit 9-11 and your subsequent speeches? Do you find that most people
agree with you, and have your received a lot of hate mail?
LIPSCOMB: Not at all—I was just sharing with someone that I feel
that I have been protected and blessed. I have received only one hate letter.
I can’t let that bother me—this is America, and they have the right
to voice their opinions, just like I do.
When I speak, of course, most people in the audience agree with me, but even
when they don’t, they can’t have too much hatred for me. I find
that when people see me personally, they can argue about the war, but they can’t
argue with my grief.
PULSE: What do you think are people’s most common misconceptions
about the war?
LIPSCOMB: That it’s because of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Not so much in my audience, but in the United States in general. That is what
people have been told, and that goes hand in hand with how we have been raised,
that you have a certain trust in the commander-in-chief, that you do not disrespect
the president. So a lot of people lose the idea of what America was built on,
that we should debate issues and be a democracy.
don’t need to trust someone who doesn’t deserve my trust. But for
a long time we have let elected officials do and say what they want. I feel
that the government is run by the lobbyists, and America was not founded for
them. It was not founded for the people who are getting rich off my son’s
I have a real problem going in and destroying people’s homes when there
are so many people here who don’t have homes. I work with social services,
and there are about 135,000 young people in Michigan with no school, no home
and no work. How is that possible in this country?
Such young people are prime candidates for the recruiters. Those kids don’t
have a good home, and you are spending billions putting them in the military
and sending them to destroy other people’s countries.
PULSE: You have described yourself as a conservative, with many family
members in the Armed Forces—you’re not the kind of anti-war speaker
portrayed in the media. How do you think opponents of the war should reach out
to the apolitical majority? What groups in the population do you think we need
to reach out to more?
LIPSCOMB: I think it has to start with an individual. One individual
can touch another individual, who can touch two more, who can touch two more.
Sometimes I find myself with people who really support the president, with others
sitting on the fence. I talk to the ones sitting on the fence, who might be
open to talking more, not the people who have their minds made up; I find many
times the ones who support the current administration really are not willing
to come to the table at all, so I don’t spend any energy on it.
And if you are one of the people sitting on the fence, you need to find your
own information, not the kind of thing the American media are focusing on. I
get my news from BBC, truthout.org, Moveon.org and other sources, and I do a
lot of research myself.
Do you think Americans are doing the right thing tactically by marching
in the streets, or are there other approaches you think would be more effective?
LIPSCOMB: I think that’s a good thing to do, because there is
power in numbers. Martin Luther King proved this when he led the March on Washington.
But we have to look at the decision makers. They are used to protests, they
are used to having lots of people turn out to oppose them, and they have gotten
good at managing that, with special protest areas and such.
But we have to go where they are. We have to go into Senate meetings and make
ourselves seen and heard. We have to go to House meetings. We have to go to
state legislature meetings. We have to go to city council meetings. We have
to have good people run for office so we can have balance and hold them accountable,
not just sit and let them make the decisions. We have to find out who the lobbyists
are and who pays them, and to influence them.
PULSE: I’m always amazed how few people are aware that most major
religions have condemned the war—Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian—and
how few people make a connection between the peace movement and religion.
LIPSCOMB: Right. I know a lot of my religious friends might be upset
that I’m saying this, but churches in this country have failed us for
a very long time. They help us spiritually on Sunday, but they don’t always
give us the tools we need to get through life Monday through Saturday. A lot
of them want to be in the pulpit, coaching us and shouting encouragement. But
Jesus didn’t stay in the pulpit. Churches are responsible for a lot of
the problems we have in this country.
PULSE: What would you like to see churches do?
LIPSCOMB: Meet with people. Go to where they are. You have to live and
be where the people are, not come into town and preach and then go home. Jesus
did not live that way. I do spiritual meetings with people, and I try to love
as Jesus loved. It sickens me to think of all the veterans in the vet hospitals
that have been just thrown away by their country. A lot of good groups are doing
a lot of good things in vet hospitals, but not enough.
starting a program called Sweet Rewards, and you are the first media to hear
about it. I was wondering what I could do for people injured in hospitals, and
I thought, “If my son was alive, who better to comfort him than me? And
if I can’t be there, what would be the next best thing?”
The program will organize moms or people who want to help—we all have
some mom in us—and visit returning veterans in the hospital, bring them
cookies, and listen. That’s something all returning veterans need to help
to get the crap out of them.
I can’t even imagine what my son’s soul would have had to live with
if he had survived this war, after seeing so many terrible things. I don’t
want another generation of young people to have to live with that silently.
And I absolutely refuse to have veterans come back and be abused the way so
many were from Vietnam.
PULSE: Will you try to return to the White House?
LIPSCOMB: I don’t spend any energy on that. When people ask about
the movie, everyone wants to know about that scene on the White House lawn,
when that woman came up to me and said this was all staged.
I think my life was transformed at that moment. I literally saw myself shredding
her to pieces, my anger was so great at that point. But I realized the anger
inside me was not directed at her, and that it was not right to attack her.
I realized I had to be careful with my anger. If I allowed that anger to stay
inside me it would destroy me. If I am destroyed, they win. I can’t be
out here and be effective. So, as Scripture teaches, I have to forgive.
lesson was put to the test when I woke up the morning of November 3, which was
the hardest day of my life. My son was still dead, Bush was still at the White
House, and nothing had changed. I spent two hours crying and screaming at my
son’s grave that morning.
But things change quickly—I know from experience. Many others are changing
the way they see the country, and the war. But no change will happen unless
we work for it, so there’s no point giving up. ||
Lila Lipscomb will speak on “Courage to Change” at 7 p.m. Sat.,
July 30 and at 1 p.m. Sun., July 31 at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar, 308
Prince St. (4th and Broadway in Lowertown), St. Paul. Attendees are encouraged
to donate to the anti-war group Flour Power Rising. For more information call
651-228-9274. Lipscomb will be interviewed on Wendy Wilde’s radio program
on 950 AM (Air America) at 10 a.m. Friday, and will help Flour Power sell baked
goods outside the Black Dog Café from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. Sunday.