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Will Middle America Board the Peace Train?

When men and women in uniform speak out against the war, C-SPAN listens -- and so might mainstream America.
 
 
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Consider the difference between two anti-war demonstrations that took place last week in Washington:

On Wednesday, March 19, the night the war began, a half-dozen women in pink wearing gruesome war-victim makeup and mock bandages led a crowd of 200 protesters from DuPont Circle to the Kalorama home of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about a mile away. They managed to stop rush-hour traffic en route, had a brief skirmish with police in which a young man was arrested, and presented a child-sized coffin made of Styrofoam to a two-story brick house across from the French ambassador's palatial residence.

"Donald Rumsfeld!" shouted Medea Benjamin. "Shame on you! You've got the blood of Iraqi civilians on your hands!"

A cry went up from the demonstrators. Some were already lying down, staging a die-in on the street. "Donald, come get this casket! How are you going to sleep at night knowing this war is immoral, unjust and illegal?" When the group turned to leave 45 minutes later, Benjamin propped up the Styrofoam coffin on the roof of a silver Impala parked in front of the house. It was Code Pink at its best -- vocal, theatrical and radical.

The following Saturday, after U.S. forces had shocked and awed Baghdad and the rest of the world with a brutal all-night pummeling, a more august group of speakers took turns at the podium in the chapel at American University to denounce Bush's doctrine of preemptive war and the imperialist posture implied therein. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, retired military officers, Vietnam veterans, former intelligence agents, scholars, celebrated leakers of Pentagon Papers -- one by one they laid out their arguments in the language and environment of the academy.

The audience of 250 or so, composed mostly of students, erupted into rowdy applause, especially when John Brown, the diplomat who tendered his resignation to the State Department last week over objections to the war, took the stage. But this time the C-SPAN cameras were rolling. And while protesters by the hundreds get arrested in San Francisco, and Code Pink keeps beating its drum, it is this movement, the one gaining momentum among the middleweights of the political and military establishment, that might finally get mainstream America on board the anti-war wagon.

It helps that this particular part of the antiwar movement has as its unofficial centerpiece a very official document: the National Security Strategy, released by the White House in September 2002.

Middle America -- indeed, Western civilization -- loves documents. Documents bear the stamp of legitimacy. They can be examined, referred to, brandished. They literally put issues in black and white. The National Security Strategy lays out the doctrine for preemptive war. Its summary contains this paragraph:

"We will cooperate with other nations to deny, contain, and curtail our enemies' efforts to acquire dangerous technologies. And, as a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed. We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. So we must be prepared to defeat our enemies' plans, using the best intelligence and proceeding with deliberation. History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act. In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action."

It was the emergence of this manifesto prescribing preemptive military action, one year after 9/11, that spurred Gulf War veterans Charles Sheehan-Miles, Erik Gustafson, Erin Cole and Dan Fahey to form Veterans For Common Sense ( www.veteransforcommonsense.org), a primary organizer of the teach-in at American University. Two weeks ago VCS sent a letter to President Bush objecting to the war. It was signed by more than 1,000 veterans, among them two vice-admirals, a brigadier general and a handful of colonels.

"The White House policy is frightening, and it basically spells out empire for the U.S. I don't know what else to call it," says Sheehan-Miles. "This is such a dramatic change in what American foreign policy is all about that we should be having a huge public debate about it. And we're not -- all we're having a debate about are these other things: Saddam Hussein, regime change -- something does need to be done about Saddam Hussein, but this isn't it."

Coming from a combat veteran, Sheehan-Miles' words might carry extra weight for the 76 percent of Americans who now support the war. But if Sheehan-Miles, who left the Army as a conscientious objector after his unit's killing of undefended Iraqis left him badly shaken, isn't convincing enough for Middle America, there's always Ret. Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque.

LaRocque survived the destruction of his ship at Pearl Harbor to fight in World War II and command a nuclear-armed carrier task force during the Cold War. Later he was a planner in the Pentagon. No squishy-minded peacenik, he.

On Saturday, LaRocque stood at the microphone in full Navy regalia and in mild, avuncular tones excoriated those who would cast aspersions on the right to dissent in wartime, the burgeoning militarism taking root here and the nation's "pride and joy" in its precision weapons. And he criticized one of the main principles enshrined in the Bush doctrine: That it is America's "responsibility to lead" the rest of the world to freedom.

"Is it the sole responsibility of the U.S. to decide which nations' form of government will stand and which will fall?" he asked. "Is it the responsibility of the U.S. to kill or destroy to bring about a change of government? I think not. I don't believe George Bush has the right to kill one person to bring about a change in government."

LaRocque was inspiringly set up by Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. A Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, Muller took a bullet that severed his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the chest down. He has since campaigned unceasingly for veterans' rights, for reconciliation with the people of Vietnam and for the international banning of land mines.

The parallels with Iraq and Vietnam are obvious. But Iraq is not the problem, said Muller. "This is only the beginning. Iraq will be over in a few days. The problem is an ideology that is controlling this administration. It has to do with how you look at the world and America's role in the world. It's called the Bush doctrine."

Muller laid out the doctrine's history. In 1992, Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense for President George Bush, and Paul Wolfowitz, then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, leaked a draft of a plan for the aggressive establishment of American dominance in the post-Cold War era under the aegis of the Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf. It sparked a firestorm, and Bush, worried about a reelection campaign he was about to lose, repudiated it. It resurfaced in 1997 when the Project for a New American Century formed. This time the doctrine was signed onto by Project founder William Kristol, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, among others. In September 2002 their creation finally found a home in the National Security Strategy.

"At its heart is the notion of exceptionalism -- that America is in a unique position, it has the responsibility of leadership. It must maintain absolute military supremacy -- no other group of countries is to get to the point where they can compete," said Muller.

"It takes us not only to preemption -- which implies an imminent threat -- but to prevention, before the point of imminent threat is reached. Iraq is preventive, not preemptive. I tell you this so you will know we are more than a decade behind and understand the magnitude of what we are up against, and the head start these guys have on us," Muller said.

The civilians were there, too. John Brown, who joined John Brady Kiesling and Mary Wright in leaving the State Department because of their objections to the war, slammed Bush for employing "the crudest propaganda to make us believe his positions are justifiable" and skewered the use of slogans and the demonization of critics in place of coherent arguments.

Ray McGovern, a former intelligence officer and founder of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, debunked the alleged connection between Hussein and al-Qaeda and drew perhaps the harshest conclusion of all about the historical moment at which America finds itself as its soldiers invade a country that poses no imminent threat:

"I was born in August, 1939, one week before Hitler sent troops into Poland," McGovern said. "I have been thinking March 2003 is our August 1939."

It has taken time, but the middleweights of the establishment -- and some of the heavyweights -- have found a point around which to rally. The comparisons to World War II keep coming. In a March 23 Los Angeles Times commentary, special assistant to President Kennedy Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. added his voice to the chorus of dissent. His subject: the Bush doctrine.

"The choice reflects a fatal turn in U.S. foreign policy," Schlesinger wrote. "The president has adopted a policy of 'anticipatory self-defense' that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor on a date which, as an earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy. Franklin D. Roosevelt was right, but today it is we Americans who live in infamy."

This is what the anti-war movement has needed in order to reach the living rooms between the coasts: the mantle of respectability. Criticism of the administration by civic and military leaders has been mighty scarce around Washington, and Saturday's teach-in was a first.

In the end there was one denizen of the establishment -- okay, a former denizen of the establishment -- who bridged the gap between this faction of the peace movement and the Code Pink crowd.

Daniel Ellsberg, who stood trial in 1973 on 12 felony counts for leaking the Pentagon Papers and exposing the Nixon administration's willful deceit of the American public in order to drum up support for the Vietnam War, arrived at the teach-in rather reluctantly. He had decided to spend the weekend in jail to register his displeasure -- "I just didn't want to watch television this weekend," he deadpanned -- and had been sprung by the event's organizers, to his visible annoyance. He was intending to go back later that day and still wore the plastic bracelet of the District of Columbia's hospitality.

Ellsberg spoke about another unjust war, the Mexican-American War. The wresting of Texas from Mexico was condemned by none other than General Ulysses Grant as "one of the most unjust wars ever waged by a stronger power against a weaker," a cynical attempt to acquire territory out of which a slave state could be formed.

"I believe that a consequence of this wrongful war will be wrongful terrorism," Ellsberg concluded. "The question is: what do you do about it?"

He answered himself with a quote by Henry David Thoreau. "Cast your whole vote," he said, showing his bracelet. "I voted. As they used to say in Boston, vote early and vote often. Thank you."

Traci Hukill is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.