The New Face of Protest?
Editor's Note: This essay, first published in the March 28 edition, shed early light on Cindy Sheehan and protesters like her.
On a Sunday afternoon in February a young man made a plea to a room full of 400 antiwar activists who had gathered in St. Louis for three days of strategizing on how to end the war in Iraq. "I'm probably the most experienced activist in my organization and I've been an activist for one year," 25-year-old Michael Hoffman said, "so we need your help with logistics." In return, he promised that his group would serve as a shield. "When there are massive protests, we will be out front. We will say that you are doing everything you can to support the troops by demanding that this war is ended, and ended now, so that the troops are brought home and cared for when they return."
His speech was short, but it was one of the few that brought whoops, cheers and a standing ovation from the crowd of United for Peace and Justice delegates, a national coalition of more than 1,000 antiwar groups. As he left the dais and made his way through the crowd, he seemed surprised by the reaction he got--indeed, surprised to find himself in this role of war resister.
Until the summer of 2003, Michael Hoffman was a US Marine with the Tenth Regiment. Hoffman, who says he believed from the beginning that this was a war for oil, had been slated to get out of the service before his unit shipped out to Kuwait in February 2003. But two days before Hoffman's time was up, his sergeant called him to let him know that the Secretary of the Navy had instituted "stop loss," which meant that those soldiers deemed necessary to the war could not get out of the service when promised; Hoffman would be going to Iraq instead of home to Allentown, Pennsylvania. What Hoffman saw when his unit went into Iraq on March 20 only hardened his opposition to the war. "Seeing the civilian casualties and the horrible things that were done and the destruction we laid on that country, it seemed pretty clear to me that we never had the Iraqis' best interests in mind," he says.
Today, Hoffman is a co-founder of the fledgling organization Iraq Veterans Against the War and also a centerpiece of the peace movement's emerging strategy. Antiwar activists are determined to make the military a major pillar of the movement, both by homing in on one of the war effort's weak spots--the military's faltering campaign to recruit new soldiers--and by embracing antiwar troops. Perhaps recalling the late but powerful entrance of the voices of Vietnam vets in the protests of that era--like, say, the youthful Lieut. John Kerry, who once spoke eloquently about what he saw in Vietnam--today's 1960s-activist-stacked peace movement hopes to be more strategic about the military's role.
It is an alliance rich with promise. Part of the challenge for this peace movement is persuading Americans that attacking the war is not the same thing as attacking the troops. The Vietnam-era mythology of antiwar activists spitting on soldiers is still alive and well in the American psyche (no matter how many times its veracity has been called into question). Putting veterans on the front lines of the peace movement subverts this image. At the same time, this tactic has drawbacks--among them is that it risks reinforcing the notion that civilian opposition to war is somehow less legitimate.
For now, buoyed by news reports of dissent in the ranks, antiwar leaders are convinced that soldiers make valuable allies. "They have a credibility in this conversation that allows them to reach more people and to take on some of the arguments of the conservatives in a more persuasive way," says Charley Richardson, one of the co-founders of Military Families Speak Out and the father of a soldier who served in Iraq. Richardson and his wife, Nancy Lessin, have seen MFSO grow from 200 families in 2003 to more than 2,000 families today. "More soldiers and spouses are speaking out today," says Lessin, who believes that even more harbor antiwar sentiment but stay quiet. Noting that the organization has seen a membership shift--it used to be predominantly parents of soldiers; now more wives of soldiers have joined--Lessin is encouraged: "That is significant because that's where the code of silence is greatest, on military bases, and that's where breaking the code is more difficult."
Huge numbers? No. But a symbolic presence can be powerful--letting others who feel similarly know that it's OK to speak out. And putting military families and soldiers up front can shift public opinion, organizers say.