The New Face of Protest?
"Part of the problem is that no one, from the next-door neighbor to the politicians in Congress, wants to be seen as not supporting the troops," says Lessin. "Our role is to change that construct, to say that real support of the troops right now--when they have been sent off to fight and die in a war based on lies--is to fight against a war that never had to happen. We say, 'We need you to support the troops this way.'" Getting vets and military family members involved is thus critical. "This group of people gives us permission to speak out against the war."
Helping this effort along are some recent, highly visible signs of disgruntled troops. There is Specialist Thomas Wilson, the soldier who, during a feel-good town meeting in Kuwait, got so much press when he dared to question Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as to why soldiers were being forced to "dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal" to up-armor their vehicles instead of getting proper protective equipment from the Army. Then there were the twenty-three members of the 343rd Quartermaster Company in Iraq who mutinied, refusing to drive their trucks on what they clearly considered a suicide mission. Further, peace activists have been encouraged by a spate of well-publicized lawsuits from both enlisted soldiers and officers.
The suits draw attention to what John Kerry dubbed a "back-door draft," in which tens of thousands of veterans who had gotten out of the service, active-duty soldiers who believed they had completed their tours in Iraq, and officers who put in for separation or retirement have been told to think again. (One 56-year-old Californian, who served three tours in Vietnam before getting out of the service decades ago, was among those recently ordered to report for duty.) While the Pentagon has reminded the public that we are at war, lawyers for some reluctant soldiers contend otherwise. In cases filed in the past few months, they argue that the United States is engaged in "nation building" and "putting down the Iraqi insurgency"--two activities not covered under President Bush's declaration of a "state of emergency" on September 14, 2001. Since Congress never formally declared war against Iraq, they claim, Bush does not have the power to ignore the contractual agreements soldiers sign upon enlisting. (And indeed, Bush reassured the nation on May 2, 2003, from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, that the war in Iraq was over and had been won by US forces: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.")
In addition to fighting in the courts, war opponents have also tried to build bridges with progressives inside the military community. "We affirm that defending your country and supporting your troops does not mean suppressing your conscience," the Civic Soldier Forum announces in a soon-to-be-released ad for military publications. The forum, a national organization of self-described "progressives who are also patriots," comprises military analysts, active-duty troops, civilians and veterans.
At the grassroots level, progressives are also working to involve soldiers. For example, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of one of the Army's largest posts (Fort Bragg) as well as an Air Force base (Pope AFB), the Quakers are joining up with Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), Veterans for Peace, Gold Star Families for Peace and September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows to organize a large antiwar demonstration on March 19. They are expecting anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 protesters.
Meanwhile, in Vermont, activists are taking a completely different tack. Here, in a state with no active-duty military bases but a number of National Guard soldiers, fifty towns passed a resolution on March 1 to end the war. "This war is being perpetrated in our names with our tax dollars," says Sherry Prindall, mother of a National Guard soldier deployed to Iraq. Speaking in radio commercials broadcast across the state, she has been urging Vermonters to consider the war a local issue. Though organizers admit their resolutions are unlikely to end the war, they see this as a significant educational effort. "The basic goal of the whole exercise is to initiate a conversation in Vermont," says Ben Scotch, one of those spearheading the campaign. "We want to bring the discussion outside of the peace movement to engage people in the fire departments and schools and the veterans of foreign wars groups--the whole community."
The effort dovetails nicely with the rest of the peace movement's counterrecruiting efforts, which are newly focused on the National Guard. "This is just one part of the larger struggle to deny the government the troops it needs to fight the war," explains MFSO's Richardson. Banding together with the American Friends Service Committee, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans for Peace and United for Peace and Justice, MFSO intends to bring the war home by exposing the local impact of the war on soldiers, families, communities and states through a focus on the National Guard. Because as many as 50 percent of some states' National Guard troops are deployed at any given time, residents are left without the state-based emergency response teams they may need. "This is an issue that state legislatures can and must take on," insists Richardson. Not only do antiwar activists hope to expose this vulnerability and propel more states to adopt resolutions like Vermont's; they are ultimately going for a trickle-up effect. If grassroots activists can persuade a city councilor to support their cause, and then a state legislator, eventually members of Congress might feel they have a supportive base for taking a stand. To that end, peace activists are tying the cost of the war to local issues. Libraries and schools are underfunded, the argument goes, because money is going instead to fund military adventures. "We have to say that Bush's budgets are immoral and we are looking for moral ways to use our money," says Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, an organization of women for peace.