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The New Face of Protest? | The Nation

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The New Face of Protest?

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Meanwhile, college students are protesting the presence of recruiters on their campuses, and parents of young people are beginning to speak out against the military's hunt for high schoolers. Cindy Sheehan, a California resident whose 24-year-old son, Casey, was killed two weeks after he arrived in Iraq in April 2004, says she gets furious when recruiters call the house asking to speak to her three younger kids. "They get the list from the schools," she says, referring to a little-known clause of the No Child Left Behind Act that requires public schools to provide recruiters with students' names, addresses and home phone numbers--or lose federal funds. "I tell the recruiters that sacrificing my oldest son for a lie is already way too much and they're not getting any of my other kids!"

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Karen Houppert
Karen Houppert is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist. Her book on indigent defense will be published by the New...

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Sheehan is a perfect example of the kind of folks peace activists insist are part of a silent majority: She opposed the war but was disinclined to speak out. "I was stunned and dismayed when the United States invaded Iraq," Sheehan says. "I didn't agree with it. I didn't think it was right, but I never protested until after Casey was killed." She pauses and steels herself for what feels like the hundredth brutal mea culpa: "And I am very sorry I didn't." Taking to heart the old union slogan "Don't mourn, organize," Sheehan is clearly deeply immersed in both. Along with dozens of other families who lost soldiers in the war, she formed a new organization, Gold Star Families for Peace, and has made it her penance to share the details of her own experience. "Now I am doing anything I can to shorten this war and save other families the pain we're going through," she says.

Her voice and those of other military families are being welcomed in the peace movement. And more soldiers themselves are slowly creeping out of the woodwork. But getting huge numbers of troops involved may be a long shot. There is tremendous peer pressure in the military community--the Defense Department calls it "bonding" and considers it the cornerstone of military training--and soldiers who are vocal about their opposition to the war face considerable obstacles. Not only may their peers shun them, but the Army may go after them.

The Civic Soldier Forum runs ads in various military publications. One that is forthcoming in The Stars and Stripes raises a provocative question: "Who says that those who defend democracy cannot practice it?" Eloquently posed, the question is not merely rhetorical. There are so many rules governing soldiers' political lives that most seem to shy away from all activism for fear of breaking one. (Regulations even specify the size of bumper stickers allowed on their cars.) Officially, members of the armed services can participate in protests as long as they are not in uniform, don't divulge military secrets and don't appear to be speaking for the military. "Unofficially, your supervisors can give you every single horrible detail they can find," says Hoffman, the Iraq veteran who spoke at the St. Louis antiwar event. "In Iraq, they can put you on every dangerous mission they need to staff."

Lou Plummer, an Army veteran whose son Drew was home on leave from the Navy the day the Iraq War started, says his son paid a big price for speaking his mind. Lou brought Drew to a peace vigil that day in Fayetteville. When an AP reporter interviewed Lou and then turned to Drew and asked what he thought, the young man told him he thought the war was about oil. "He didn't speak to any other reporters. He is not an activist. He just answered the question from his heart," Lou recalls. Days after Drew's comments ran in the press, when he reported for duty at the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was charged with violating Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The charge was disloyalty. When Drew was hauled before his superiors, his father explains, he "was asked if he sympathized with the enemy and said 'No.' He was asked if he planned to sabotage the ship and said 'No.' He was asked if he was sorry for what he said to that reporter and he said 'No.' So he was convicted of disloyalty and demoted."

Hoffman insists this isn't uncommon. "Lots of guys who speak out then get railroaded into an Article 15 hearing because they're offered a choice between that and a court-martial," says Hoffman. Under an Article 15 hearing, soldiers forgo legal representation and a trial, instead agreeing to let their commander make the call through a less formal administrative hearing. "And basically, you're guilty until proven innocent," says Hoffman.

While the antiwar movement embraces soldiers who brave such hostility to express their qualms about the war, dissenting military voices do not always share all of the peace movement's goals and priorities. As a result, these alliances have the potential to backfire. For example, Specialist Wilson's comment to Rumsfeld about the lack of armored vehicles was the complaint heard round the world. But if it gets invoked as justification for increased military spending, the cheers may fade. Or if the complaints of military families who lament the current operational tempo that has their spouses deployed more than they're home spur a military buildup, they may find themselves at odds with the larger peace movement. Indeed, progressives may be putting the military out front for the same reasons that the Democrats are now determined to put religion out front--and both "projects" raise the same serious questions: Is this capitulating to the political climate rather than contesting the very premise that says the God-fearing make the best leaders, or the khaki-clad soldiers the truest patriots? And when some of those "true patriots" are the perpetrators of crimes, like those committed at Abu Ghraib, will the peace movement's promilitary stance inhibit strong criticism?

Ultimately, there is a danger that the soldier's perspective, so crucial to the peace movement now, may prove problematic to the larger progressive movement that activists hope this will spawn. After all, for many soldiers this is a one-platform plank, making their immediate asset their long-term flaw. "So many of the other activists at this United for Peace and Justice convention can be written off by Americans as crazy pinko commie lefties," Hoffman told me privately, after he had addressed the larger assembly of peace activists in the St. Louis convention hall. "But we're the vets who've been there and fought, and it seems it's hard for us to be dismissed. We've been to Iraq. We've seen it. We know it's wrong. We have to end it." He shrugs and raises his hands, palms up, as if he holds a tidy package. "It's very simple. There's not a lot of other issues we're talking about."

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