On Feb. 15, 2003, as millions of people worldwide took to the streets to protest the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq, Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Hoffman was in Kuwait, awaiting deployment to Baghdad.
Two years later, Hoffman, 25, is a civilian on the lecture circuit, introducing himself as an Iraq Veteran Against the War. On March 19, when war opponents plan to converge near Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., to mark the date of the invasion, Hoffman, who co-founded the Iraq veterans group, will be one of the lead speakers.
"I disagreed with the war before I went over," said Hoffman, the son of a steelworker from Allentown, Pa. "But now, I can talk about the reality of war -- what it's really like, the lack of support the troops have, the civilians being killed. The biggest problem with Iraq right now is the occupation."
Along with Gold Star Families for Peace, which is made up of people who have lost loved ones in Iraq, Iraq Veterans Against the War holds a powerful claim among peace groups as ones who can speak from experience about the consequences of the war. Together, they will be front and center among the scores of peace groups that are hoping to keep the war -- and its repercussions -- in the public consciousness.
Two veterans of military service in Iraq, Rob Sarra, left, and Michael Hoffman, both members of Iraq Veterans Against War, meet at a memorial service at Union Square Park in New York last fall. Peace groups plan to meet in St. Louis this weekend. (AP Photo/Jennifer Szymaszek)
Peace groups have been relatively quiet in recent months, especially after President Bush's reelection. But antiwar leaders say they are on the verge of reemerging. Leaders of dozens of peace groups plan to meet in St. Louis this weekend to plot strategies for a new push against the war, from ad campaigns to long-term, grass-roots organizing. They plan to use March 19 and 20, the anniversary weekend of the war's start, as the beginning of an all-out effort to convince the public that the best course for Americans and Iraqis is for the war to end and the troops to come home.
"We're just in the beginning of this process; until recently, there hasn't been any conversation about ending the war," said Andrea Buffa, a spokeswoman for United for Peace and Justice, an umbrella group of more than 800 antiwar organizations.
In a way, the antiwar groups' task is easier than it was before the U.S. invasion, when the idea of then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attacking the United States with weapons of mass destruction convinced many people that a preemptive strike was necessary. Polls show that support for the war has eroded as its cost in lives, the economy and the social fabric of communities throughout the nation has climbed.
Politicians from both major parties want to know if there is an exit strategy. The Jan. 30 elections in Iraq bolstered support for the war, but Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Foreign Relations and intelligence committees, said the elections, while significant, did not change the fact that the war is forcing great sacrifices for the United States and Iraq.
"Americans need to see more tangible, meaningful developments to answer whether the sacrifice is worth it," Hagel told the Associated Press after Iraqis voted. "Over 1,400 Americans are dead, 11,000 are wounded, and we've spent over $100 billion. Is that sacrifice worth what we're getting?"
Antiwar organizers say that as dialogue about an exit strategy builds, part of their task is to keep reminding the public that the administration's rationale for invading Iraq was wrong -- that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction or working relationship with al Qaeda.
"The fact that we're now seeing in Congress resolutions calling for the first steps towards bringing the troops home is an indication that that's no longer a sideline extreme position," said Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies here.
The institute, a progressive think tank, had sponsored a "cities for peace" campaign in which 165 cities nationwide adopted resolutions opposing the U.S. invasion. Now it is sponsoring a similar campaign for cities to pass resolutions to bring the U.S. troops back.
But while a majority of Americans say that the invasion of Iraq was not worth it, the public is divided over whether pulling U.S. troops out while Iraq is in turmoil is the right thing to do.
"In terms of withdrawing, we see a lot of tension between those who feel that pulling out is right and those who don't," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, which became one of the most prominent antiwar groups leading up to the invasion. While MoveOn.org is a member of one of the largest antiwar coalitions, Win Without War, it is now focusing its energies on the Social Security debate and other domestic concerns, Pariser said.
Leaders of the largest antiwar groups say that garnering massive support for the withdrawal of troops will require a massive education effort. While groups will still organize rallies marking important benchmarks, they say, the large public protests seen before the war are giving way to a more focused energy. The new strategy might be called think nationally, act locally.
"It's not enough for us to say, 'Come to us'; we have to go to the people," Bennis said. "We have to convince people that the U.S. troops are the problem, not the solution. As long as they're there, they're providing the largest direct target and the largest indirect target. But it doesn't mean that pulling out the troops is the end of our obligation. We owe a huge debt to Iraq. We owe reparations."
Many groups are planning teach-ins and forums in colleges, churches and community centers. Win Without War, with members such as the NAACP and the National Council of Churches, is planning to lobby Congress intensively to encourage an examination of the costs of the war. Again, that involves organizing public support. "Politicians act when they see a groundswell," said Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War and a former Democratic representative from Maine.
Military Families Speak Out, an antiwar group launched in November 2002 for families whose loved ones were being deployed to Iraq, is planning a campaign that asks elected officials to look at the impact of the war on communities.
"We would like to have state legislators begin to have hearings on the impact of the war," said Charley Richardson, who founded Military Families Speak Out with his wife, Nancy Lessin.
"We think that the war is an issue for politicians on all levels. . . . One thing we know is that the National Guard is disproportionately composed of police officers, EMTs, firefighters and other first responders," Richardson added. "Family and community structures are not set up for the kind of deployment that these people in the Guard are enduring. The idea of 18-month deployments, and now they're talking about two-year deployments, is devastating. . . . This is an underground impact of this war that is incredibly significant and needs to be discussed."
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