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Bringing Home the Guard

With a proposed ballot initiative to prevent the deployment of Massachusetts National Guard troops to Iraq, a new coalition hopes to hold a national referendum on the war.
 
 
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More than 2,000 US soldiers have now died in the Iraq war. Polls show more than half of Americans are in favor of withdrawal of at least some troops from Iraq. Yet, Congress has done little to make that a reality.

A bipartisan bill demanding an exit strategy remains stalled in committee. Last week, former presidential candidate John Kerry -- whose position on troops has shifted more than the desert sands -- issued only a tepid call for a withdrawal of 20,000 troops by Christmas. At least that's better than most of the Democrats' so-called leaders: Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Harry Reid and Howard Dean have been silent on the issue. It is little wonder, then, that the Pentagon recently "temporarily" increased the number of troops in Iraq from 138,000 to 160,000.

Fed up by the inaction of politicians on both sides of the aisle, a new group is bypassing Congress to take the issue directly to the voters. Calling itself HomeFromIraqNow.org, it is sponsoring a binding initiative in Massachusetts to stop future deployment of National Guard troops overseas. If passed, it will prevent the governor from allowing troops to be called up without a specific law passed by the state legislature -- at the same time urging the governor to use all possible means to bring home those troops already outside the country. If successful in Massachusetts, HomeFromIraqNow.org hopes to repeat the feat in some of the other 23 states that allow citizen petitions, creating nothing short of a national referendum on the war itself.

"There is no popular support for the war," says Harold Hubschman, the group's cofounder and chairman. "There needs to be a way for people to vote on the issue." The initiative focuses on the National Guard because it is one of the few areas of the military that state government can exercise control over. While in the U.S., National Guard troops are under the command of the governor; only when they are federalized do they come under control of the president.

Staying at Home

The basis for the initiative is a Supreme Court decision from 1990, when the governor of Minnesota refused to allow National Guard members to be sent to Central America for a training mission. In its ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of the federal government to call up National Guard troops. But it also said that governors could refuse a federal request if a deployment would impair its ability to serve or train for emergencies at home, a loophole that governors could use to keep troops on the home front.

"Nobody can dispute that there are public safety and security issues today being hampered by National Guard deployment to Iraq," says Hubschman. "There are weather-related crises. We are under threat from terrorism. We need the National Guard to help us with those issues."

The best argument for recalling the National Guard, of course, is the recent botched response to Katrina, in which more than a third of Louisiana Guard's troops and equipment were overseas while victims waited days for troops to be mobilized from other states. Last week, a Congressional report slammed the Army's use of the Guard to fight foreign wars, saying that such "heavy reliance on National Guard forces" is simply "not sustainable over time."

More than 70,000 Guard members are now deployed overseas -- the largest use of those forces since World War II. Yet the report found that because of years of under-funding and abandonment of equipment in Iraq, Guard units now have an average of only 34% of the equipment they need to respond to an emergency or terrorist attack at home. Some items -- such as radios, night-vision goggles, and trucks -- have been completely depleted by the war.

The lack of equipment and training puts troops called to active duty in particular jeopardy. "It's just insanity when the government determines you should be called to active duty, but you have been laboring for years under outdated equipment," says Staff Sergeant Andrew Sapp, a member of the Massachusetts National Guard who just returned from an 18-month deployment north of Tikrit. In addition to ailing equipment, he says troops in his chemical hazmat unit received inadequate training for their duties protecting a base from sniper fire and mortar attacks.

The 48-year-old high school teacher was not naive about the possibility he might be called up to active duty some day. But seeing the buildup to Iraq was like "watching a train wreck happen and not being able to stop it." "I always thought if I were called up for active duty, the circumstances would be dire enough that we would really be talking about the national defense," he said. "We are not imperiled by Iraq. At some point, the citizens have to ask themselves if they are willing to sacrifice the people in their community."

Since returning to Massachusetts this month, Sapp has broken ranks by joining Military Families Speak Out, an organization of soldiers and family members that has been helping HomeFromIraqNow.org gather signatures to put the National Guard petition on the ballot for next November. The coalition faces a daunting task, needing to submit some 66,000 signatures to city clerks by November 23 in order to certify the initiative.

"It's going to be a challenge," admits Hubschman, who has run past ballot on such issues as universal healthcare, representational voting, and cable company deregulation. Unlike other petitions he's worked on, however, this one is being staffed completely by volunteers.

Real Goals

On a recent rainy Saturday, one of those volunteers, Dan Nolan, shivered in a flannel coat outside a subway station in the Boston suburb of Somerville. A longtime antiwar activist, he was drawn to the campaign for its concrete set of goals. "Rather than continuing to do the same protest methods that have lost their effectiveness, this is a pointed initiative that focuses on the National Guard," says Nolan. "It allows us to have a continuity of dissent between the massive 100,000 person demonstrations."

In an afternoon of gathering signatures, Nolan and a partner get about 100 names -- not bad considering the weather, but a far cry from the thousands they'll need if they hope to get this on the ballot within the next few weeks. The coalition has made use of the recent vigils and a large antiwar rally featuring Cindy Sheehan on Boston Common this past weekend to troll for more signatures.

Their best hope, however, may be the Internet. As its name suggests, HomeFromIraqNow.org has posted its petition form online and is urging supporters to print out copies, circulate them among friends, and send them in by the deadline. "Nobody has ever done this kind of campaign before," says Hubschman, "It's sort of the Howard Dean strategy without a candidate."

Because of their reliance on the Web, the campaign doesn't have a count on the number of signatures they have collected so far -- and won't until supporters start mailing in forms (for which the campaign has set a deadline of November 15). If they do get the number of signatures required to put it on the ballot, then widespread discontent with the war among Massachusetts' liberal electorate may make passing the initiative into law a comparatively easier task. "There is not going to be any nuance to this," says Hubschman. "There are some issues that just can't be spun."

Rule of Romney

If the law gets passed next November, it would no doubt set up a legal challenge -- either between the federal government and a governor who refuses to let troops be federalized, or between citizens of the state and a governor who authorizes troops to be sent. With the current Massachusetts governor, the latter possibility is more likely. Republican Mitt Romney has been a staunch supporter of Bush's adventures in Iraq, and has recently given a spate of "get-tough-on-terrorism" speeches around the country. In fact, when a group of six families from Military Families Speak Out recently met with him to urge him to use his ties to the Bush administration to call for a pullout of National Guard troops, they found an unsympathetic ear.

"I was disappointed by his lack of compassion," says Rose Gonzalez, a member of the delegation whose mother who was stationed in Iraq as part of Sapp's unit. "'It was this air of 'It's not my responsibility.' I'm sick of hearing 'It's not my responsibility.'" At the meeting, Romney acknowledged that the war was launched on the basis of faulty intelligence, but he said he had no authority to bring the state's 1,100 troops overseas back home.

That's true, says Hubschman; a governor doesn't have the authority to bring home troops once they are federalized. But the ballot initiative also includes a nonbinding clause urging the governor to use "all legal means" to advocate for withdrawal of troops already overseas. "The governor has a fairly powerful bully pulpit," he says. "The purpose of a ballot initiative is not just to force an unwilling governor to do something; it's also to endorse an affirmative position."

Hubschman also notes that if the vote does get on the ballot for next year's election, it is unlikely that Romney will be the one charged with enforcing it. The year 2006 is an election year for governor in Massachusetts, and Romney has been relentlessly touring the country in preparation for what many see as his inevitable run for president in 2008. At the same time, even if he does run for governor, he faces two strong challengers on the Democratic side in State Attorney General Tom Reilly and dark horse candidate Deval Patrick, Bill Clinton's former assistant attorney general, who might be more willing to use the bully pulpit to advocate for troop withdrawal. In one past interview, Patrick called the Iraq war a "terrible, terrible mistake" and advocated withdrawal "as early as possible."

No matter what the eventual governor ends up doing, supporters of the initiative argue that its passage would itself send a powerful antiwar message. The campaign is already gearing up to help put similar initiatives on the ballot in states including Maine, California, and Michigan.

"No one in American history has ever had the opportunity to vote on a war," says Hubschman. "The other side can ignore a protest, and they can ignore a debate in Congress, but the one thing politicians can't ignore is a vote. If our elected leaders won't vote against the war, the people will."

Michael Blanding is a freelance writer living in Boston. Read more of his writing at MichaelBlanding.com.