Anatomy of a peace movement: Military families increasingly raising voices against war

Miriam Raftery

Back in the 1960s, anti-war protesters became archetypes of the countercultural revolution -- hippies and college students clad in love beads, sandals and tie-dyed clothing. The image of actress Jane Fonda standing atop a gun barrel in North Vietnam came to symbolize the era, branding all who opposed the war as communist sympathizers.

Now, as then, the administration and its supporters have tried to characterize the anti-war movement as unpatriotic and its leaders as traitors. But those criticisms ring hollow. Unlike Vietnam, the Iraq war has galvanized opposition across a broad cross-section of America. Today’s peace activists include people of all ages, races, genders, geographic origins and socioeconomic backgrounds, including many military families and veterans.

Cindy Sheehan, the small-town mother of a slain American soldier, is no Jane Fonda. When 300,000 or more anti-war marchers gathered in Washington D.C. Sept. 24, the Rev. Jesse Jackson thanked Sheehan for bearing witness in the tradition of Rosa Parks, Helen Keller and Harriet Tubman.

“Your light is being seen around the world,” he said.

Recent polls indicate that two-thirds of Americans now oppose the Iraq war, which has killed more than 1,950 U.S. soldiers and seriously wounded upwards of 16,000.

Sheehan’s messages, coupled with mounting carnage and growing doubts over the rationale for going to war in Iraq, have compelled mainstream Americans to take to the streets in protest -- many for the first time in their lives.

In a three-part series, RAW STORY examines the multiple facets of today’s anti-war movement. Part I focuses on the increasing number of military families and veterans now speaking out against the Iraq war.

Serving their country: Military families, veterans raise voices against war
“To hit the bricks and protest my country’s government was a difficult decision to make,” said Barney Scott, 71, a retired elementary school teacher and U.S. Air Force veteran from Spring Valley, California. “During the turbulent ‘60s, I saw protesters like Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda as disloyal.”

Scott supported the Vietnam War, but later came to doubt the wisdom of American involvement. “The final blow to me was to recently hear former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara say `I think we were wrong,’” he recalled. “After 58,000 young Americans died in battle and thousands more were disabled for life, now he admits this?”

“This time around, we know much more about why the current administration involved the U.S. in war,” he observed. “Their justification has proven false--no WMDs. No imminent danger of nuclear attack. No link between the destruction of the World Trade Center and Iraq. Bush was clearly just out to get Saddam. Will Rumsfeld someday in the future be heard to say `I think we were wrong?’”

Scott now believes that far from making America safer, the Iraq war is generating hatred of America around the globe.

“I went to Washington to stand up with an estimated 300,000 American patriots from all across this land,” he said. “We came not to storm police barriers, not to yell profanities, not to scribble slogans on the walls of our nation’s proud monuments. We came to get the attention of those chicken hawks peeping out at us from behind the curtains of the White House, as well as to get the attention of our fellow Americans who have put their trust in the executive branch to keep us safe.”

Many veterans share Scott’s opposition to the war.

Veterans for Peace, founded twenty years ago, had 600 to 700 members before Sept. 11, 2001. “We’ve seen a big growth since 9/11,” said executive director Michael T. McPhearson, who attributed the increase to concerns over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We have about 4,000 members now. We had 157 join last month.”

The group hopes to end war by exposing the true costs in human and financial terms. Its main goal is to bring the troops home. Veterans for Peace has also called for the impeachment of President Bush.

“We believe this war is illegal,” said McPhearson, a veteran whose son has just been deployed to Iraq. “Our government is supposed to follow international law and the treaties that we have signed.”

“There is no doubt that the president has lied to us on several occasions,” he added. “That’s what it boils down to: accountability.”

A veteran of the first Gulf War, McPhearson sees the current Iraq conflict as an extension of the same campaign.

“There is something wrong when I fought in a theater and my son is going to fight in it, too,” he said. “We didn’t solve any problems there. We really need to look more closely at why we go to war and what we do.” He supports immediate withdrawal of troops, but also believes the U.S. has a responsibility to help Iraq rebuild with materials, money, and expertise in areas that don’t take jobs from Iraqis.

Asked how he would respond to critics who maintain that pulling troops out could result in civil war, McPhearson replied, “There are Iraqis and foreign fighters there killing Iraqis right now, so what constitutes a civil war? Surely they would continue to fight each other, but with us out of the way, they can move toward a resolution that has nothing to do with us…Our country fought a bloody civil war in order to find a more perfect union. Why do we think we have the answers for everyone?”

The Sept. 24 march also included over 300 members of Military Families Speak Out. Formed in 2002, the group now represents about 2,500 military families nationwide. An offshoot, Gold Star Families for Peace, now includes 65 family members of soldiers killed in Iraq.

“We don’t think there’s ever been as large and organized a voice of military families who opposed a war,” said Military Families Speak Out co-founder Charlie Richardson. In the march on Washington, the group met many other military family members who were not yet members, he added.

Francine, who asked that her last name not be published, is married to a National Guardsman called back to active duty under the stop-loss program. “Bring My Husband Home Now!” her sign implored.

Douglas Drake of New York joined the march to urge that his 19-year-old niece be brought home from Iraq.

“She was just out of high school,” Drake recalled. “The recruiters promised her a $35,000 scholarship and promised she would never be deployed. A week later, she was shipped off to Iraq.”

Lance Corporal Jesus A. Suarez del Solar was the fifth soldier killed in the Iraq War.

“He was my only son,” said Fernando Suarez de Solar of Escondido, California, a Mexican immigrant who has since become a leader in the peace movement.

Solar founded Guerrero de Azteca Project for Peace. “The principal goal is to visit the high schools, talk with the young people and make information about the alternatives to military service available,” Solar explained. Next year, the group will offer ten $500 scholarships to help disadvantaged students afford college.

In Washington, Solar and other activists met with members of Congress to present petitions urging a halt to military recruitment in high schools and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. If security concerns can be met, he hopes to travel to Iraq in December to bring medical supplies for the Iraqi children.

“We are working with the Venezuelan government,” he said.

A fellow activist recalls Solar's courage in a local peace march, shortly after his son's death. When heckled by pro-war demonstrators, he confronted them. "How dare you question my patriotism? My son, he died in this war," he reportedly said. "I have a right to be here. You don't belong. Get out."

They did.

Military Families' Richardson said activists returned home from D.C. filled with determination.

“They are going to continue to build the movement in local areas. That includes education and putting pressure on decision makers—not only Congressmen and Senators, but state legislators and governors who have responsibility to care for the National Guard,” Richardson said. “The hurricane certainly underscored the impact that the deployment of the National Guard in Iraq is having on our nation.”

None has galvanized the modern anti-war movement more than Cindy Sheehan, the mother of slain soldier Casey Sheehan. After camping outside President George W. Bush’s ranch for a month in Crawford Texas, Sheehan came to Washington D.C.

At the September 24th rally, she told listeners, “We’re going to Congress and we’re going to ask, `How many other people’s children are you going to sacrifice?’”

In response, the crowd chanted “Not one more!”

Two days later, Sheehan was arrested outside the White House in an act of civil disobedience, refusing to move after trying in vain to deliver a list of names of slain soldiers to the President. She continues to inspire activists around the country.

“I admire Cindy Sheehan for her lady-like composure through all of these recent events,” said Scott, who marched in D.C. with the After Downing Street Coalition. “The president has no comprehension of the tragedy he has wrought, nor of her sense of loss. He is clueless.”