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.
Fast-forward six months, and Langer is less alone. Today, the murmurs of discontent among military families are growing louder.
Deployments are stretching out past the originally anticipated six months, with more than 50 percent of the Army’s combat brigades now stationed overseas. More than 1,600 soldiers have been injured since the start of the Iraq war, and “peacekeeping” deaths climbed to more than 200 by late October, exceeding the number of soldiers killed during major combat.
In an August survey of soldiers deployed in Iraq conducted by the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper, half of the respondents said their unit’s morale was low and their training inadequate, and they planned not to re-enlist. Struggling to hold on to an overworked force, the Pentagon was temporarily forced to institute “stop loss,” which forbids soldiers in select jobs from getting out–even if they’ve served their time. The rush to serve predicted in the aftermath of September 11 has not materialized, and some recruitment requirements have been lowered to make it easier for the services to meet their quotas.
Meanwhile, dozens of interviews with military families in the Fort Drum area and beyond show that there is a growing unease with Bush’s Iraq policy. Some is direct. “This is just not a war I believe in,” says Tammy Schmitt, wife of an Air Force officer who was stationed at Fort Drum. And some is oblique. “You have to support the troops, what are you going to do?” another Fort Drum military wife tells me, then goes on to voice indignation at Bush’s after-the-fact plea for United Nations support and the troubling fact that no weapons of mass destruction have surfaced in postwar Iraq. “I’m surprised the CIA hasn’t planted some. I’m like, please, just plant something and let me believe.”
Clearly there are serious challenges facing any peace movement among military families–not least the reluctance of many military wives to buck tradition. And there are many unanswered questions. Will these conversations in kitchens and commissaries ever translate into organized opposition? And what happens if they do? If military families are outspoken in their discontent, will complaints about the frequent and extended deployments make any difference at all to military brass? Will it help pressure the United States to withdraw from Iraq? Or will military leaders and their supporters in Congress respond to these complaints by asking for more money, to increase military manpower, so that the burden is shared among a larger pool of soldiers, thus fueling an even greater military buildup?
For women like Langer, these questions are troubling–but shouldn’t preclude speaking out. Others are not so sure.
At the moment, opposition to the war among military families is mostly bubbling beneath the surface. Those with the loudest voices are parents. But parents of soldiers have a long tradition of speaking out to protect their kids; they are largely immune from the repercussions. (Uncle Sam isn’t likely to blame GI Joe for the sins of his father–or his hippie mom.) What is new are the rumblings of discontent among wives, for whom the stakes are much higher. (And I say wives, rather than spouses, because every one of the male spouses I’ve encountered comes from inside the establishment, ex-soldiers themselves, and thus has a distinct perspective.)
While the numbers of those willing to go public with their critical views are small, the symbolism is powerful. After all, military families can personally attest to the waste of manpower, the unnecessarily harsh conditions soldiers endure and the inadequate compensation families receive. And they’re an irresistible photo-op–typically patriotic in get-up with fatherless (temporarily, hopefully) kids in tow.
Candance Robison, a 28-year-old Texan with a 1-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, recently organized a protest in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush was spending his vacation. Though she has “zero experience” as a political activist, Robison’s learned fast. Since her husband, an engineer in the Army Reserve, was deployed to Iraq in February, she has written letters to the President, organized protests and most recently traveled to Washington to testify at a Congressional briefing. She tells me she addressed her remarks there to the Defense Secretary. “Donald Rumsfeld, get the spare room ready because me and the kids are coming to stay,” Robison said, with her cocky Texas drawl. She explained that the Army pay was far less than what her husband had been making as a sales manager at his civilian job. Though his employer had been making up the difference since her husband’s deployment, the company can’t be expected to continue, now that the deployment has been extended a year. “‘Hope you and the missis can put us up!’ I told them.”
From the beginning, Robison questioned the necessity of this war–“I needed more evidence that there were weapons of mass destruction before I was ready to accept that my husband might come home in a body bag”–but her husband was excited and eager to go. “He believed in what we were going over there to do,” she says. “He felt that there were weapons of mass destruction and was very anxious to try and do what he had been training to do for twenty years.” But that’s changed: “‘I would be here and be proud to do my job, but I’m not even sure what my mission is,’ he says now.”
While Robison’s husband supports what she’s doing, many in his stateside military community don’t. “One of the wives who heads up the family support group read me this supposedly official memo over the phone,” Robison said. “She said I am essentially aiding terrorism by speaking out. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘That wouldn’t be me, that would be our President–the one who is leaving our soldiers there as sitting ducks.’ Then she said that I am never to speak out on behalf of the family support group or the US military. Well, I never have. Because I’m not a member of either one!”
Robison is unusual among military wives in that she didn’t grow up a military brat (as many have), she has never lived on an Army post and she currently lives an hour from the nearest military facility. But most wives live their lives deeply immersed in the military community. For them, the gap between holding certain political beliefs and speaking out publicly about these beliefs looms like a canyon. Crossing over it carries tremendous risk.
Just imagine: Your extended family and friends live hundreds of miles away, so your entire social support network consists of other military families. It extends from your neighbor, who picks up your kids after school because you’re in a pinch, to your commander’s wife, who makes a call because your parents need an extended pass to be on-post and help you care for your newborn, to a fellow spouse, who shares with you a glass of wine and a kvetch, to the chain of command, which provides information about your husband’s safety and date of return. In this world, silence can equal self-preservation.
“The wives are afraid. In fact, everybody told me, ‘Do not come here and talk to a journalist,'” Langer says, explaining that she had intended to bring along other antiwar wives to speak with me when we met for our second interview at Watertown’s Salmon Run Mall. “I thought I would find some to talk to you because we are all of the same opinion about the war–and most of them I would consider quite outspoken…but they are too nervous.” Langer says they had almost convinced her to cancel the interview. “Several told me stories about their husbands getting in trouble because of their wives being outspoken. ‘If you find your name in the paper, your husband’s career is ruined,’ they said.”
Whether this is true or not is almost irrelevant. As long as the fear of repercussion exists, vocal opposition will be stifled. Indeed, the rules regarding a soldier’s political activism are so filled with legalistic minutiae–ranging from a straight-out ban on any partisan activism and on the use of “contemptuous words against officeholders,” to specifying that “large” political signs may not be displayed on soldiers’ cars, but standard bumper stickers may–as to make most of them afraid to exercise any of their free-speech rights. As one Fort Drum soldier quipped: “Ironically, we’re out there defending all these rights that are then denied to us as soldiers.” And though that outdated adage that “a soldier who can’t control his family, can’t control his troops” has been formally repudiated by military brass, the generally harsh climate toward dissent makes many wives reluctant to speak out for fear of implicating their husbands.
Of course, some are active participants in creating that climate. “I take these antiwar protesters personally,” 28-year-old Amy Wortham, a Fort Drum Army wife, told me as her husband fought in Afghanistan last winter. She sees them as unpatriotic and antimilitary. “By definition I support my husband, therefore I support the military and the war.” Referring to Operation Anaconda, a March 2002 engagement in Afghanistan where soldiers from Fort Drum’s 1-87 Infantry Battalion were pinned down during an eighteen-hour firefight and two helicopters came under fire, resulting in eight American casualties, Wortham chides the protesters. “My husband puts his life in jeopardy so they could have the freedom to protest.”
That they’ve chosen to exercise that right is not consolation, but ingratitude.
Clearly, a soldier’s wife who questions the necessity of American intervention in Iraq steps into a hornet’s nest of military values. When husbands spend all day doing what they’re told, even when they might think it’s stupid, there is a way in which blind faith becomes virtuous. Following orders on the double may be practical in wartime, but it also seeps into almost all aspects of military work and life. Doubt is for the lazy and faint of heart; questioning equals complaining. Within that culture, military wives typically preface any criticism–or political analysis, for that matter–by pointing out that the President of the United States is their husband’s boss. What they mean by this is that it’s not nice to call their husband’s boss a jackass. But what they also mean is that it’s hard to accept the sacrifices the military requires of them without believing that it is for some greater good, that their husband missed the birth of their daughter because our national security was at stake. So they believe.
But doubt creeps in around the edges. “I understand the wives, and especially the soldiers, who feel they have no choice but to support the war because otherwise you go insane because you can’t live with it, with that contradiction,” says Langer. “You can’t go into a war and say, I’m totally against it but I’m going to shoot somebody anyway. That doesn’t work. And the wives are in the same shoes. In your mind…” Langer struggles to find the right words. “It is possible to train your mind to support something that maybe, in your true heart, that’s not what you believe in. I see that in this community.”
In these circumstances, counting on any organized opposition from inside the military might be unrealistic. But perhaps being a peace activist, by nature, requires some determined optimism. Nancy Lessin and Charley Richardson, co-founders of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), became so persuaded that there were thousands of military families privately fuming about Iraq that they created an organization to represent them in November 2002.
Richardson and Lessin, veterans of the 1960s peace movement and parents of a soldier son who’s been deployed to Iraq, were quick to recognize the unique power military families could bring to the larger antiwar effort. “We were very concerned about media coverage that tried to characterize the antiwar movement as those who supported the troops and those who didn’t,” says Lessin. With that in mind, she and Richardson, who were invited to speak at rallies and demos and even at Congressional briefings, tried to erase that distinction. For example: “We’re glad to be here at the biggest pro-troop rally in the country,” Lessin told half a million New Yorkers when she spoke at the February 15 antiwar rally there.
While MFSO’s membership is still only about 1,000, Richardson says the group is attracting increasing interest. “When President Bush made his reckless ‘bring ’em on’ comment from the safety of his briefing room, surrounded by armed guards, military families were incensed,” he says. Banding together with Veterans for Peace, MFSO began a “Bring Them Home Now” campaign, which has been flooded with thousands of e-mails. The letters prove revealing. One wife, who is a soldier herself and had been deployed to Iraq, now fumes about her husband, a reservist who remains there. “It sickens me every time I see news articles quoting dignitaries coming from [Iraq] saying, ‘the soldiers are in good spirits,’ ‘morale is high,'” she wrote. “I’m here to tell you, it’s all lies. Morale is at an all-time low. Soldiers are hating life there, so much so that some are taking their own lives rather than deal with the situation. It has become that drastic.” In the short term, there is nothing she can do; in the long term she has plans: “As much as I love the military, when this enlistment is up, I’m running so fast for the civilian border, as is my husband. At this point, when it is time for re-election, I would vote for anyone whose last name wasn’t Bush.”
The letters are a mix of the conventional, though always compelling, personal trials of families (i.e., the soldier husband who has a 6-month-old child he’s never met, the wife who struggled while the Army took three months to straighten out a pay snafu, the soldier whose father died while he was away) with detailed descriptions of the danger and deprivations their soldier husbands face. (“They are rationed 2 bottles of water a day. They spent nearly the whole summer without a/c in temperatures that reached 147 degrees Fahrenheit at one point.”) Interestingly, they consistently place blame at the top of the military hierarchy. “I do not blame my husband’s battalion commander,” one wife writes. “I realize this does not come from him. I blame the Department of the Army and more importantly, I blame President Bush and his Administration.”
While conventional wisdom would warn us about seeing these “disgruntled employees” as representative, Lessin and Richardson claim that the sentiment runs broad and deep and, given the profound barriers to speaking out, the fact that any military families are going public is significant–especially wives. They note that military wives like Robison, who organized the Texas protest at Bush’s ranch, mark a welcome shift in the makeup of their membership. “In the beginning our organization had more parents of soldiers, with many, though not all, coming out of the Vietnam antiwar movement,” says Lessin. “Recently, though, we have had an influx of military spouses, mostly wives.”
What makes spouses a potentially more powerful ally for peace activists is that they hold more sway over their husbands’ re-enlistment decisions–and that can be a mighty tool. It’s certainly a vulnerable spot for the military. For example, in its 2003 statement to Congress the Air Force expresses concern about the fact that 77 percent of its enlisted force is eligible to re-enlist–or not!–in the next two years.
But teasing out the implications of military antiwar sentiment can be tricky. If military wives base their opposition to the war on the grounds that the troops have been there too long, and are overworked and constantly deployed, it can backfire–witness the ongoing debate about whether more troops will solve the Iraq crisis. (In September, Senator John McCain was on Face the Nation goading the President to send more troops to Iraq. He expanded from there: “We have to have a bigger Army. We have to have a bigger military and we have to go about understanding what’s necessary in order to do that.”)
Further, calls to “Bring Them Home Now” by a wide spectrum of groups do not necessarily indicate a broad consensus about the perils of US military aggression. While some who oppose the war do so on principle, others object because they worry that the personal price–the potential death of a loved one–is just too high.
Perhaps the most tireless activists have both reasons in mind, like Langer, who protested week after week on the Watertown square. “We think that our husbands–when they signed up for the service and also us, when we co-signed by marrying them–were well aware that the ultimate sacrifice might be their lives,” she says. “But we want to be sure, as wives, that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this sacrifice was necessary.” When asked whether that means she is against this particular engagement or whether she identifies herself as a pacifist, Langer laughs. “I identify myself as a hypocrite,” she says. “I’m a pacifist who married a soldier.”