When a U.S. Marine company used downtown Toledo for "urban warfare" training Jan. 7-8, it provided an opportunity for activists to think and act beyond normal limits.
With barely a week’s notice, an article in the local paper announced that a weapons company of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Reserves would spend a weekend running around our downtown, honing combat skills by firing blanks at imaginary enemies. The Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition (NWOPC) and local Veterans for Peace (VFP) designed a response, different from what many in the peace movement had seen or were even comfortable with:
For two hours late Friday night, as the Marines set up their weekend command post in (believe it or not) an abandoned center for selling plasma, 30 peace activists stood with banners, signs, photos, and "War," Goff’s message and cadence chants alternating over the P.A. Negotiations with the Toledo police got us only as close as the opposite side of the street, so an artificial gulf kept us from reading soldiers’ expressions or hearing their responses, which could have only been whispered under likely orders against "fraternizing" with us. One of our band, chafed by the order not to use a public sidewalk on a public street, crossed the thoroughfare to make a point and was promptly arrested.
The next day, a dozen activists returned with signs, photos, banners, "War," and a bullhorn for Goff’s letter, ready to peacefully engage squads of Marines who had come to engage "enemies" in parking garages and alleys.
With the mobile "War" unit circling the blocks, broadcasting the song to the Marines, the activists on foot followed one detachment past the main library, singing out a whole list of VFP cadences.
The most familiar chant was: "Hey, hey Uncle Sam/We remember Vietnam/We don’t want your I-raq war/Peace is what we’re marchin’ for. Am I right or wrong (You’re right!). Am I right or wrong? (You’re right!)" But the most popular was: "Dubya’s lies should make him choke/He must still be snortin’ coke/Saddam’s secret poison gas/Must be something Rumsfeld passed."
In front of the Family Courts building, the Marines regrouped and rested momentarily, presenting a perfect opportunity to read Goff’s message again. As the Reserves began to move out in pairs, guns pointed in all directions, the words of the Special Forces veteran echoed off the court building, clear as a bell:
"Vietnam was a war that was not possible to win. You will find that Iraq is the same. Winning is not measured by who can cause the most death and pain. And winning is not measured by tactical victories over locations you have no intention of holding. The ultimate outcome of any war is political, and that war has already been lost. So your commander-in-chief is now sending you out to kill others, to wound others, to destroy the homes and livelihoods of others, or to be killed or wounded by others, to pursue a goal that was never just and is now lost."
Back at the plasma/command post, the peace activists gathered to say goodbye with an impromptu addition from one of the group, a high school English teacher, interested in delivering a message of Christian love.
Describing Christ as an outspoken critic of the occupying Roman Army, he referred to the command to "love your enemies" as ultimately an act of self-protection, one that could interrupt the cycle of violence. He ended with the Golden Rule and an exhortation to the Marines to "think for yourself."
The next day, two e-mail messages stood out against the usual inbox clutter.
One was from a local VFP member who, as a 15-year-old, was drafted into the German Army in the closing days of WWII, then emigrated to the U.S. just in time to be drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Korea. He wrote: "Our troops are in Iraq engaged in an illegal war and they are there to kill Iraqis. At the Nuremberg war-crimes trial, the Nazi war criminals who perpetrated the kind of illegal aggression that we are now guilty of against Iraq were found guilty and hanged. The soldiers who carried out these crimes against the civilian population were also found guilty. The fact that they followed orders was not then an admissible defense, nor should it be now. Some of us think if we just pay lip service to the idea of supporting our troops in time of war, we will be less severely criticized by the super patriots as being unpatriotic. It won’t work, and it distorts our purpose of calling an end to an illegal, murderous invasion of another country."
Another was from a University of Toledo student, a veteran of picket lines and civil disobedience arrests, who asked, "Why exactly do we support the troops? Activists have said the troops are fighting willingly in an unjust war the likelihood of us changing the minds of the Republican troops is about the same as Karl Rove convincing us to become neoconservative."
Added to those critiques is the following anecdote. Walking downtown the day after the protest, a city streets worker dashed across the road to shake my hand and say, "Thanks for what you’re doing to get our troops home."
That comment represented the kind of response I had hoped our message would elicit from the "persuadable middle" of public opinion. The response I hoped for from young soldiers was based on what I remembered as a teenager during the Vietnam war.
In those volatile days, I alternated between being a conscientious objector and following John Wayne’s example of serving my country joining the Marines to fight the commies. Remembering those days, it was easy to put myself in the place of young reservists, quite possibly bound for Iraq, and wonder if any of them were similarly conflicted. My hope was that a compassionate message, delivered in familiar language, might be heard by one of the Marines beginning to ask "what the hell am I doing here?" Falling on fertile ground, the message might grow into a decision by one of the reservists, or a local GI who saw us on the 6 o’clock news last weekend, to join the growing number of soldiers refusing to fight in Iraq.
This leads to the larger question of whether the peace movement can ethically construct a message and deliver it at appropriate times that is not about how we feel about the war, but how soldiers and our neighbors in the persuadable middle feel about it? It’s high time we undertook this discussion.