Fort Drum, New York
It is morning on March 20, 2003, the first day of the war against Iraq. And on this Army post in upstate New York, it is raining. Hard.
As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s early-morning radio address reminds waking Americans that there is sacrifice involved in patriotism, two dozen soldiers with forty-pound rucks on their back practice urban warfare techniques in a march across Fort Drum’s main road. Machine guns in hand, the soldiers approach an intersection and pan the horizon. Two of them dart into the center of the street to stop traffic. Then, one by one, the mostly very young soldiers file past, their camouflaged uniforms caked with mud, their grim and grimy faces fractured by rivulets of rain.
Three minivans with moms on the way to the commissary or the office or to drop the kids at school pause on one side of the intersection. Two soldiers in a Humvee pause on the other side. As traffic backs up, no one honks with irritation, as they might in New York City. The drivers sit patiently, respectfully, at the intersection, as if waiting for the passage of a funeral procession. They have seen this a hundred times.
Later that afternoon, in Clark Hall, Frederick Calladine, chief of casualty and mortuary affairs at Fort Drum, briefs a group of forty soldiers. These men and women have the dubious distinction of being the newly appointed “casualty notification officers” for their units. As such, they are getting the PowerPoint ABCs of military mortuary protocol. “Wear your dress uniform,” Calladine reminds them, and remember that some wives want to kill the messenger. “Give them the news, then get the hell out of Dodge,” he advises.
Meanwhile, outside the post’s gates, on a narrow median of grass a few miles away in the center of Watertown, a small gaggle of six peace activists stands in the dusk, in the pouring rain, trying desperately to keep the requisite candles lit in this candlelight peace vigil. Two cardboard posters, the Magic Marker beginning to run, are taped to sticks that have been jabbed into the soft ground. Writ large: We Support Our Troops. Writ small: Bring Them Home!
On this first day of the war, the sole military wife at the peace vigil, Christiane Langer, is understandably emotional. Her soldier husband has not been deployed–yet–but she knows the possibility exists. She also knows she is on dangerous ground. For Langer, coming out against the war in this very conservative community, home of one of the country’s largest Army bases, has meant wrestling with her conscience: Will it jeopardize her husband’s career if she speaks out? Will she jeopardize her own values if she doesn’t? Does silence equal complicity?
Growing up as a child in Germany, Langer was weaned on horror stories about World War II. “I grew up with knowledge about the Holocaust, and the message that I took away from that was, we have a responsibility to speak up when we see the government doing wrong,” she says. She is sympathetic with her friends, the many, many military wives who she says are against the war in Iraq but are afraid to voice their opinions. Still, she made a conscious decision to make her opinion known.