The New Face of Protest?

The New Face of Protest?

Antiwar activists cultivate military allies.


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.

“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.

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!”

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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