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In 1775, George Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to take charge of a ragtag band of brothers who went on to liberate the colonies from the British. On Tuesday, the US Army was back on Cambridge Common to try and recapture some of that lost glory.
The gathering -- featuring a brass band, a color guard and military re-enactors -- was ostensibly the main event in a nationwide 230th birthday celebration to honor Army veterans. To several hundred protesters who arrived to crash the party, however, it looked like a thinly veiled attempt to recruit more bodies during a time when the Army has missed its recruiting goals for four months straight and Americans are increasingly viewing the Iraq war as a mistake.
"The Army has a right to celebrate its birthday," said Vietnam veteran and Veterans for Peace member Winston Warfield, "but this is a military circus."
Most of the displaysÂ were clearly calculated to appeal to a younger audience. The event began with four members of a parachute team jumping from a Blackhawk helicopter 4,000 feet above the crowd. Around the common, kids in baseball caps and teens in basketball jerseys gawked at grenade launchers and military vehicles, including a brightly painted "Super Hum-Vee" and an Army truck filled with video games.
Holding a pro-war rally in Cambridge signals a new level of aggression -- or desperation -- for the Army, akin to staging an peace march on the parade ground at West Point. Nicknamed the "People's Republic" for its left-leaning politics, Cambridge ranks with Berkeley and Madison in its anti-war fervor. Many of those who came out to demonstrate decried the Army's use of the city's image for an event they did not find out about until a week before it happened.
"It's interesting that there was no attempt to hold a birthday celebration for the 225th or 220th anniversary," said resident Phyllis Gately, "but now that we are in the midst of a war they come into the People's Republic and flex their muscles."
Many students also came out to protest in an area known for its academic institutions. "Not only is this area strongly against the war," said Alison Ramer, a 19-year-old student from nearby Lesley College, "but this is an area for students and young people who are directly being targeted by recruiters." Ramer came with the youth group Boston Mobilization, which fielded white T-shirts hand-lettered in red with the words "You Can't Bribe Us To Die" on the front and "You Can't Bribe Us To Kill" on the back. (The army recently inked a $100 million advertising contract and upped its signing bonuses to a maximum of $20,000.)
The speakers on the stage, which included Acting Undersecretary of the Army Raymond DuBois, lost no opportunity to sweeten the pot with patriotic comparisons. "We stand at the very spot where the United States all-volunteer army gathered to march and expel the British from Boston in 1775," said DuBois. "There are modern-day enemies of freedom who did not want Afghanistan and Iraq to have the same ideals that were begun right here."
Whenever the microphone fell silent, however, the crowd was treated to chants seeking to remind them that Washington's army of liberation has become Bush's army of torture and occupation. As the parachute team landed on a baseball field, the backstop was lined with protesters chanting, "Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, U.S. torture has got to go."
During DuBois' remarks, protesters standing within a cordon of black uniformed police officers near the stage chanted "No blood for oil, U.S. off Iraqi soil." As Cambridge Mayor Michael Sullivan laid a wreath at the base of a military monument, they completely drowned out the sound of a lone trumpeter playing "Taps" with chants of "Bush is still lying, soldiers are still dying."
Most of the speakers did their best to ignore the chants, though some were clearly rattled. DuBois, however,Â directly addressed the protesters by bizarrely comparing them with the soldiers -- as if trying out a new recruitment message more suited to the environment. "We are gathered here as the spiritual descendants of the raggedy band who gathered here to do what? To protest -- and to pledge themselves to honor and liberty. That band of protesters, that first all-volunteer formation is today's US Army."
DuBois used the term "all-volunteer" to describe the army at least four times during his brief remarks. That may have been an attempt to head off persistent rumors that the military is considering a reintroduction of the draft (including a hoax email going around saying the draft would begin on Wednesday). Asked after the ceremony whether he could promise that there would be no draft, DuBois said, "I personally promise it for myself, but then again I think that decision is above my pay grade." (Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has also gone on record opposing a draft.)
The undersecretary made no bones about the fact that the birthday celebration was, at least in part, a recruitment effort. "We recruit 365 days a year. If my message has a resonance about the importance of national service, so be it." As for the demonstrators, DuBois dismissed them out of hand. "I came back from Vietnam and saw protesters," he said, "and this is chump change."
The several hundred protesters present at the hastily organized demonstration was a far cry from the hundreds of thousands who mobilized for peace demonstrations before Bush's re-election and the parliamentary elections in Iraq. However, those who crashed the military's birthday may now actually represent a solid majority of Americans. A Gallup poll this week showed that almost 6 in 10 of respondents favored a withdrawal of some or all of the troops form Iraq, with almost 3 in 10 favoring a total withdrawal. Another poll by ABC News and the Washington Post this week found that 58% of respondents said the Iraq war was not worth fighting.
"Around here there was a downturn in numbers [at protests] after the election, but Kerry's defeat didn't disorganize activists, it energized them," says Mike Prokosch, spokesman for the local coalition, United for Justice with Peace. His group recently met in a regional conference with other activists to plan their strategy for upcoming months, which includes a "counter-recruiting" effort to warn students of recruiters' false promises and tell them how to take their names off of call lists. Another campaign targets members of Congress, he says, noting that several Republican Congressmen have recently come out against the war.
"The numbers may be down, but the focus is up, and the support is way up," says Prokosch. "It's really a matter of mobilizing the majority and making their will felt rather than swimming upstream."
If that is true, the the "raggedy band" of protesters, not the slick military circus, may be the true heir to Washington's army of freedom.
Michael Blanding is a freelance writer living in Boston.