The genius of the Appeal resides not only in its simplicity but also in its nonconfrontational tone. "This is not about resistance. This is about working inside the democratic process," says lawyer J.E. McNeil, who helps run the GI Rights Hotline and who has helped advise the Appeal organizers. "This is about being proud of being a soldier, an airman or a marine, about being proud of your duty without giving up your rights as a citizen."
This was certainly the attraction for Dearden and for many other signers interviewed. "I love the military," Dearden says. "I was thrilled to find this legal outlet for what I felt. If more active duty knew there were legal and respectful ways to make their opinion known, they would eagerly join."
The inspiration to create the Appeal came to 29-year-old Seaman Jonathan Hutto earlier this year while he was floating off Iraq on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. Born into an Atlanta family of civil rights activists, a former student body president at Howard University, and someone who had worked with Amnesty International and the ACLU, Hutto was not the most typical of Navy enlistees when he joined up in 2003. But with $48,000 in student loans to pay off and with a young child to support, he thought the Navy would be a "good transition."
As the war in Iraq worsened, Hutto felt he could no longer maintain his silence. He had an impeccable service record, having been named "sailor of the quarter" among his junior enlisted shipmates. But he had to do something to come out against a war he thought immoral and unnecessary. That's when one of his former professors sent him a thirty-year anniversary copy of Soldiers in Revolt by David Cortright. Now a Notre Dame professor and one of America's leading peace activists, Cortright wrote his book as a chronicle of the 1960s GI movement he helped to found. "The title alone just hit me," says Hutto, as we talk in a Washington-area coffeehouse, on a day he's off duty from his Norfolk base. "This was all new to me. And I got to thinking, What's to prevent active-duty folks from doing the same sort of thing right now?"
Hutto immediately contacted Cortright and started talking over the idea of the Appeal with a few close friends. Last June Hutto organized a Friday night screening of the antiwar documentary Sir! No Sir! at the local YMCA just off the Norfolk naval base. Filmmaker David Zeiger's documentary reconstructs the GI movement of the Vietnam era. Cortright came as guest speaker and found a receptive crowd of about seventy-five.
One of those who attended the talk was 22-year-old Liam Madden, who had joined the Marines in 2002. "I was visiting a friend in Norfolk and thought we were going to a bar," he remembers. Instead, his buddy took him to the YMCA event and they caught the last half of Cortright's speech. Madden had already completed an Iraq tour in Anbar province with an all-reserve unit and had come back disillusioned with the war. "If anything, it convinced me that no tangible results could be achieved in Iraq," he says. "No one was safer. No one was happier because we were there."
Hutto, Madden, Cortright and a few others moved ahead with the idea of the Appeal. On October 29 Hutto published an op-ed piece announcing it in the Navy Times. Three days earlier the Appeal had appeared on the Web.
"Amazing," is how Cortright describes the chain of events that grew out of that YMCA meeting. "That encounter alone was one of the most fascinating moments of my last thirty-five years," he says over lunch in Washington. "Even I wasn't prepared for the depth and intensity of feeling against this war by so many active-duty members. I'm stunned. It's been moving so fast we can barely think it through."
Cortright sees an enhanced if not central political role for the rising active-duty movement. "They have been there and seen it, seen the disaster," he says. "It's much more real for them than for others in the peace movement. MoveOn and other groups got focused on the election while vets, families and active-duty folks are still suffering the burdens of the war." He adds, "Some of our liberal friends will again soon start focusing on the '08 election. So these active-duty folks over the next two years could become a key force in pushing for withdrawal."