In Vermont, a Town-Meeting revolt over Iraq war

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This is a town with no diners, one church, two general stores, and 1,800 people. When the kindergarten teacher's son returned from Iraq after 10 months, the potluck church dinner in his honor was so packed no one had room to sit.

Only a handful of the more than 200,000 men and women who have been deployed to Iraq come from this sleepy whistle-stop. But everyone seems to know someone who has served, even died, there: a friend's husband, a neighbor, the son of the town clerk's best friend.

Here, at the foot of Camel's Hump peak, the war is palpable, not just something piped in over the nightly news. National Guardsmen from 200 of Vermont's 251 towns and cities have been shipped to Iraq, and recent statistics have shown that Vermont active service members have died there at a per capita rate higher than in any other state.

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The closeness of the war, coupled with the state's penchant for taking on social causes, helps explain why a group of activists has gotten enough signatures here and in some 50 other Vermont communities to place resolutions about Iraq on the agendas of their Town Meetings, a New England ritual as local as tapped maple trees and as old as the American Revolution.

On Tuesday, one-fifth of Vermont towns will consider what role the Vermont National Guard should play in the war, and whether American troops should be withdrawn.

Foes call the resolution so much "poppycock," and complain activists have hijacked an annual event they say is better suited to debate on snowplows and school roof repairs. But to supporters, the war in Iraq is the essence of town business: It's about the men and women who live, work, and raise families in the community.

Even as debate continues over whether the resolution is antiwar propaganda or a legitimate community concern, many say the state's Town Meeting resolutions - the most widespread referendums about Iraq to date - foreshadow grass-roots initiatives emerging around the country.

The Vermont model "brings into discussion the very people who should be discussing the impact of this war: National Guard families, local politicians, police departments, school officials," says Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, an antiwar organization. The group is planning a state-based campaign that urges local officials to study the effects that the war, especially the deployment of National Guard units, is having on communities from Oregon to Maine.

The Vermont resolutions grew out of a peace rally in late 2004. A few activists now working as the Vermont Network on Iraq War Resolutions decided Town Meeting Day was an ideal venue for debate, says Montpelier attorney Ben Scotch. He crafted the resolution template, discarding 19 drafts before settling on the wording, though each town can modify its own resolution.

His proposal has three parts. It calls on the Vermont state legislature to establish a commission to examine how National Guard deployments are affecting state readiness. It asks the state's congressional delegation to work to restore a proper federal and state balance over Guard units. And it implores both the president and Congress to take steps to withdraw American troops from Iraq.

Since the state does not control National Guard deployments, and because the resolutions are legally nonbinding, they have no real teeth. But they have symbolic potential. Five percent of the voters in towns had to sign a petition to put it on the agenda.

To Mr. Scotch, who makes buttons reading "Only Resolution Can Stop War" in his dining room, it's the best approach available. To many others, it is nothing short of antiwar propaganda. "If you call a meeting in Town Square to denounce [President] Bush, that is fine," says John McClaughry, moderator of the Kirby Town Meeting since 1967. "But they are hijacking Town Meeting ... to protest a completely different agenda."

Scotch has received e-mail calling him foxy, guileful, insidious, sly, and devious, among other things. But he maintains that the movement is not easily defined along political lines.

The reaction of Lt. Veronica Saffo, a state National Guard spokeswoman, seems to bear that out. She says that the views of Guard members run the gamut, but there is no widespread distress about the resolutions. "Vermont is a small state. There are [guardsmen] coming from the flower shop, it's the mechanic, or someone's babysitter. It's not just a conflict, or American international policy. It's Vermonters."

This is not the first time that a national issue has found itself on the agenda. Town Meeting has fueled debate on the USA Patriot Act and the nuclear weapons freeze movement of the 1980s.

"There's a legitimate debate that goes on about what is appropriate for discussion at Town Meeting," says Deb Markowitz, Vermont's secretary of state. "To the extent we get sidetracked with national and international issues, we lose energy for doing the real work of Town Meeting. Yet [such issues] do affect our towns."

That debate is playing out in Huntington. Last week, in a vacant 19th century church soon to house an expanded town library, Heidi Racht mulled over what she would say Tuesday.

Ms. Racht, who helped shepherd Huntington's petition, says she doesn't want to cause more hardship for families with loved ones in Iraq. "But I feel we have a state National Guard that's in Iraq and shouldn't be there. People who went into the Guard thought they would be doing things like floods. They weren't expecting to go and be part of an army fighting a war."

Across the street at Beaudry's general store, where locals talk over coffee and still run up tabs, former selectman and grain salesman Grant Lewis says the debate neither belongs at Town Meeting nor anywhere else. "It isn't going to do any good; you can't just stop something if you start something," he says. "You've got to support [the war], because people have gotten killed."

Yet if their opinions are separated by the one main road in town, no one expects views Tuesday to be as neatly divided. Becky Cozzens, who teaches kindergarten, says she's already changed her mind. Had Town Meeting Day been three months ago, when her son, Josh, was still in Iraq, when she and her husband refused to turn on their television set, she'd have voted for anything that might get him home sooner.

But at the meeting Tuesday, she will vote "no." "I'm unsure about the way it started," she says of the war. But Josh has convinced her that a no vote is the right thing to do. "A year ago," she says, "it would have been different."

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