Antiwar sentiment gets champion
Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside Bush's Texas ranch brings focus to a protest movement that's been largely unseen and ineffective.
ASHLAND, ORE., AND CRAWFORD, TEXAS — In her high-profile vigil outside President Bush's Texas ranch, Cindy Sheehan has brought the face and the heart of the antiwar movement to the world.
The plain-spoken words and image of a mother carrying a wooden cross to commemorate the son she lost in Iraq have suddenly brought focus to what has been largely an unseen and ineffective protest movement in the US.
To be sure, this is still not Kent State in 1970. For a variety of political and practical reasons, today's antiwar movement may never approach the ardor of a generation ago. Moreover, many conservatives criticize Ms. Sheehan for being co-opted by the broader political left - itself a reflection of the crosscurrents of the time.
Yet the mother, hoisting her plaintive signs and vowing to stay in Crawford until she gets a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Bush, has become a potent personal symbol of opposition to a war now stretching into its third year. More important, her crusade comes at a time when doubts about US engagement there are clearly growing.
"One keeps hearing that the number of queries coming into conscientious objector advisory groups are on the upswing," says retired US Army Colonel Dan Smith, a Vietnam veteran now working for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group. "College campuses are stirring. Facts suggest a rising antiwar sentiment is in the making."
The depth of America's ambivalence is reflected in the polls. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll this month, echoing other surveys, shows that Americans by a 55-44 majority now believe the US "made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq." Some 56 percent say some or all US troops should be withdrawn now.
The hardening sentiment hasn't gone unnoticed in Washington. Many Democrats have become more vocal about the need for a definitive timetable for the withdrawal of troops, and they have been joined of late by some Republicans. The recent special congressional election in Ohio - where the Democrat was an Iraq war vet who nearly won in a heavily Republican district - has added to concerns about the war in some GOP circles.
Within the military, some senior commanders have talked about a timeframe for starting to bring home troops. But late last week, Bush tamped down any expectations of a quick withdrawal, saying it was too soon to say when the number of troops might be reduced.
Still, for all the concern about Iraq, the antiwar movement today isn't likely to reach the levels of Vietnam. For one thing, there are fundamental reasons why this war is distinctly different: the lack of military conscription, a relatively low level of American casualties (at least compared to Vietnam, where more than 30 times as many US soldiers were killed), and the absence of a self-conscious youth culture.
"What made the antiwar movement so powerful during the Vietnam War was its close connection to the movement of millions of baby-boomers through college," says national security analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "Away from home for the first time and insulated from military service by student deferments, many of these adolescents were acutely aware of their susceptibility to the draft once they completed college. Opposition to the war became part of a generational identity, particularly among middle-class students in universities."
Today, some of the not-so-silent minority worried about the war includes military veterans and their families. Jan Barry, a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, says that when his group posted a statement of opposition to the Iraq war on a website shortly before the conflict started, it was signed by some 4,000 vets and family members, many of whom were retired. What surprised him, though, was the number of second and third generation military who signed up - including many World War II vets.
Activists say the grumbling about the war extends to some in the active-duty ranks. Even though there is no draft today, they note that the war has stretched on long enough, and has involved enough multiple deployments of many older National Guard and Reserve troops with family and work responsibilities back home, that misgivings are surfacing.
"We don't have a 'conscription draft,' as we say, but we have an economic draft [recruiters increasingly targeting poorer high school students], a backdoor draft with the National Guard and Reserves [who now make up more than 40 percent of US troops in Iraq], with the stop-loss program and the calling up of the Individual Ready Reserves," says Steve Morse of the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, which offers counseling on a "GI Hotline" at 13 locations around the country.
The group Iraq Veterans Against the War was launched a year ago. Yet like its Vietnam counterpart in the 1960s and 70s, it remains a minority voice.
In a survey of service members earlier this year, readers of Military Times publications agreed that the US should have gone to war in Iraq by a 60-21 percent margin. The University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey last fall found that 64 percent of military personnel sampled (compared to 45 percent of the general population) said the situation in Iraq had been worth going to war over. Among those who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, however, that dropped to 55 percent.
In any case, GI's seem to take a realistically sober view of the war. The Military Times survey found that about half thought it would take 5-10 years for the US to achieve its goals in Iraq. A plurality (47 percent) thought the media should publish or broadcast news stories "that suggest the war is not going well," and 65 percent said "it should be OK to publish photographs of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base from Iraq."
On the road outside Bush's ranch, the view is even more sober - and the anger more prevalent.
"I have a feeling that a lot of people have found their voice in her [Cindy Sheehan]," says Hadi Jawad, an activist in Dallas who helped found "Peace House" in Crawford near the Bush ranch. "She is articulating what is in their hearts."
About a dozen military families have arrived to lend a hand in the Sheehan protest. They come from Alabama, California, Georgia, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas - and most have lost a loved one.
"We are here for all the soldiers who don't have a voice anymore," says Sergio Torres, whose son Army Sgt. Daniel Torres was killed in February when a roadside bomb hit his unarmored Humvee.
At what's called "Camp Casey," after her son who was killed, Sheehan is shepherded from interview to interview, sometimes using a protester's van to take media calls on a cell phone. Outside her tent, supporters have placed flowers and signs.
Since arriving Aug. 6, she has endured Texas thunderstorms, jalapeño heat, and unfriendly stares from some local people. "Last night I had fire ants crawling all over me," Sheehan says. "Physically it's very uncomfortable, but I think of all the soldiers in Iraq who, when it's too hot or too stormy, can't go into town for refuge. As bad as we have it here, it's nothing compared to how bad they have it over there."
The president's motorcade passed by for the first time on Friday, on its way to a Republican fundraiser down Prairie Chapel Road. But even if she doesn't get to meet with him, Sheehan says, "I've accomplished a lot by putting this war back on the front page where it should be."
At that moment, a counter-protester appeared with a sign that read, "Your son is a hero, not a victim!" Sheehan was whisked away before the two could meet.