One barometer of discontent is the sheer number of calls and inquiries that keep pouring in to the GI Rights Hotline, holding steady for the past year at about 3,000 a month. From the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force comes a similar report. "There's no let-up, we're swamped all the time," says San Francisco-based co-chair Marti Hiken. "And whenever a reserve unit is activated, our phones begin ringing off the hook. We hear from people who didn't even know they were still in the reserves and can't understand what's happening to them."
That so-called backdoor draft, the mobilizing not only of National Guard and Army reserves but even of the Individual Ready Reserve (the IRR was called up for the first time since the Gulf War) has been a major catalyst for the military antiwar movement. It helped fuel the founding of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) four years ago and has since helped it grow to include more than 3,000 families.
Two years before the media focused the spotlight on Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mother who camped out for weeks at a time near Crawford, Texas, trying to confront George W. Bush on the reasons for her son Casey's death in Iraq, Nancy Lessin and her husband, Charley Richardson--with a son in the Marines--began publicly campaigning against the war. One of the organizations sponsoring the Appeal, MFSO brought a few dozen military families to the Washington Mall on Veterans Day weekend to lobby for a meeting with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. By the time their plane touched the ground, however, Rumsfeld had been dumped and instead they met with a representative of incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Lessin, who works as a safety and health coordinator for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, describes that meeting as cordial but unsatisfying. She expresses fear that even with an incoming Democratic Congress, or maybe as a result of it, there will be too much room for distraction. Whether it moves toward impeachment or the convening of protracted hearings or endless debate over the Baker-Hamilton report, Lessin argues it's all beside the central point. "What we are looking for from Congress is action, not words," says Lessin. "We're worried the Democrats will focus the headlines on hearings, on how bad the management of the war has been--but we know that already. To the politicians who say we need two or three months to consider this or that plan, we ask: What do you say looking in the eye of one of those whose child is killed in those two or three months?"
Soon, some of those Congress members will have the opportunity to look in the eyes of not only the parents but also the troops. Appeal organizers, working on the Martin Luther King Day appearance on the Hill, are hoping to help galvanize Democratic support for a more explicit pro-withdrawal position. So far, only veteran antiwar Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has explicitly endorsed the Appeal. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has made some complimentary remarks. How much support the Appeal can muster on the Hill in the coming weeks could be a watershed test for Democrats.
Phil Waste, a 67-year-old retired elevator repairman turned activist with MFSO, with three sons and two grandchildren who have served or are currently deployed in Iraq, thinks the window of opportunity for Democrats to take up the call of organized active-duty dissidents is narrow. If the new Congressional majority dawdles over the war, the Democrats will become targets of the antiwar protesters. "I think those who say they oppose this war have to act now, not months from now," he says. "And I am most definitely talking about the Democrats. This past election was a referendum on the war, and that mandate better be heeded. If not, two years from now they will be out on their butts. And I along with everyone else I know will work my ass off to see that happen."