In some towns it was brief. In others it went on for nearly an hour. Some endorsed it unanimously. Others turned thumbs down. The point, organizers say, was that America's conversation on war has begun.
And for a moment this week, attention shifted in part from the roiling streets of Baghdad and Mosul to town halls in Weathersfield and Randolph, where residents of a state noted for leading the discourse on controversial issues again let their voices be heard.
From Tokyo to Milan to New York, the world tuned in.
“I would say there is a growing concern about the way this war is going on,” said Shingo Egi, a New York-based correspondent for the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, as he leaned against a Formica table in Dummerston’s school cafeteria, waiting for residents to wrap up discussion on where the town should buy sand and salt next year.
“In Japan, there is no such system,” he said, nodding at the small sea of fleece and Sorels before him.
Meanwhile, a New York Times photog worked the crowd, moving in tight for a shot of a knitter and rocking back on his haunches for a ground-level view of an older man with a graying ponytail as he rose to speak.
It was vintage town meeting.
Vermonters are accustomed to shifting with equal zeal between school budgets and civil liberties at town meeting. Two years ago, residents in more than a dozen towns rebuffed the USA PATRIOT Act. And two decades years before that, activists found grassroots support in 161 of 185 towns for a U.S.-Soviet freeze on nuclear weapons — discussions that some say helped move more than a quarter-million protesters into the streets in a march on UN headquarters three months later.
This week, 53 towns took up an intensely personal resolution on the deployment of National Guard troops in Iraq. Vermont, which leads the nation with the highest per-capita death rate in the Iraq war, is also the first to hold a popular referendum on the war.
Reporters from major media in Israel, Italy and Japan covered the story. So did The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor and other major U.S. papers. NBC Nightline sent a crew to Vermont, MSNBC had a Brattleboro organizer on tap for a primetime Town Meeting Day live feed until the story was pre-empted by the Supreme Court’s death-penalty ruling, and Fox News had her lined up for a March 2 interview.
“I don’t think it’s the quaintness of Vermont, I think that’s been done,” said organizer Ben Scotch, a former director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Despite all of the recent propaganda — columnists like (The New York Times’ Thomas) Friedman saying the whole Middle East is looking at Iraq and becoming democratic — I'd be really careful about looking at the credits of a war that should not have been,” said Scotch. “I would urge people to let the world take a spin or two before drawing any conclusions. I certainly hope there is stability in Iraq, but whether democracy should take place at the end of a barrel is a very different conversation. Part of that conversation took place in Vermont today.”
Although resolutions varied from town to town, most called on Vermont's congressional delegation to urge Congress to limit federal control over state National Guard units. The measures also asked the Legislature to investigate the deployment of Vermont troops, and to examine the impact of their deployment on the ability of the Guard to safeguard Vermont.
Some versions called on the president and Congress to “take steps to withdraw American troops from Iraq, consistently with the mandate of international humanitarian law.”
In Dummerston, Victor Burdo supported an amendment, which ultimately failed, to delete that clause. “Our administration right now is probably racking its brains trying to figure out how to get out of Iraq,” he said.
Ed Anthes backed a specific reference to the withdrawal of Vermont’s troops. “The essence of our concern is that people from Vermont have been sent to Iraq and are being called upon to do things they would not chose to do; things we would not have them do in our name. And when they come home, we’re the ones who are going to care for them,” Anthes said. But that amendment, too, did not survive.
Charles Ranney was one of only a handful of “nays” when the crowd voted overwhelmingly in favor of the original measure. His opposition was dignified and dispassionate. Afterward, he said he disagreed with the troop withdrawal clause because “things have already happened and we can’t get out of it. The administration is trying, but we’ve been refused by our allies and we’re left to it.”
Ranney also foresaw a slippery slope. If Vermont successfully challenged federal control of the National Guard, he predicted, “the military establishment will recognize that they can’t use the Guard, so they will beef up the Army reserves, which they have full control of.”
Without the National Guard’s heft, which constitutes some 40 percent of the U.S. force in Iraq, Ranney worried Washington could revert to a draft.
Dialogue seen as key
That’s exactly the kind of thinking organizers said they hoped the resolutions would spark.
“It’s a level that we haven’t gotten to in a way that matters,” said Brattleboro organizer Ellen Kaye said of the town meeting discussions. “People talk to each other over dinner tables, in the street … but this required a deeper level of discussion and thinking. That absolutely has to happen when a nation commits war in everybody’s name.”
In Underhill, in Chittenden County, one of six towns that defeated the resolution, organizer Nat Michael said the discussion was “lively, and that was the goal.”
Opposition was galvanized, she said, by comments from an Afghan war veteran who saw the resolution as “a kick in the pants to anybody that was serving in Iraq, which is exactly the opposite of the goal of the resolution.”
“We’re American citizens,” Michael said later. “This is being done in our name; this is our families, our money. Just to have that on the floor is a wonderful thing — whichever way it goes — just to be able to discuss it.”
Skotch said the conversations gave Vermonters the chance to air closely guarded feelings about the war on either side of the issue, proving that “there could be an important civil conversation and the community is not destroyed. I sensed big sighs of relief that we can talk about this.”
The conversation began with the National Guard, he said, “because the Guard is close. It’s local. The conversations went to how we could protect the Guard, and then they went to this larger point about the war.”
Kaye said the results are a mandate for the Legislature. “Fifty-three towns is great but it’s not the whole state. We want to hear from the whole state what the effect of these deployments are.”
State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said the referendum was “largely symbolic, because once the Guard is called up they’re under the jurisdiction of the local government.” Still, she said of the voting, the Legislature must “pay attention to it, and appoint a committee to study it.”
Rep. Steve Darrow, D-Putney, cites Vermont’s constitution, which states that “as standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not to be kept up, and the military should be kept under strict subordination to and governed by the civil power.”
“This resolution is more about the federal government pre-empting our constitution,” Darrow said. Referring to efforts on the national level to prolong the length of National Guard deployment — a move opposed by Vermont Adjutant Gen. Martha Rainville and Vermont’s Republican administration — Darrow said, “Gov. Douglas says extending the terms of the National Guard alters the mission of the Guard. I say sending the Guard overseas alters the mission of the Guard.”
Meanwhile, Kaye and Scotch say activists in other states are using the Vermont resolutions as a template. Two weeks ago, 400 members of a coalition of peace activists meeting in St. Louis unanimously endorsed a proposal to spread the campaign nationwide.
As it did with the nuclear freeze movement a quarter century ago, and the PATRIOT Act in 2002, according to Scotch, “Vermont is providing an example about how to take back the power that belongs to citizens in a democracy.”
The following Vermont towns voted to support Iraq war resolutions: Bethel, Brattleboro, Burlington, Cabot, Calais, Cavendish, Dummerston, East Montpelier, Fayston, Greensboro, Guilford, Hinesburg, Huntington, Jamaica, Jericho, Johnson, Marlboro, Marshfield, Middlebury, Middletown Springs, Monkton, Montgomery, Montpelier, Moretown, Newfane, New Haven, Norwich, Plainfield, Putney, Randolph, Rochester, Rockingham, Roxbury, Salisbury, Sharon, Strafford, Thetford, Tinmouth, Waitsfield, Warren, Weathersfield, Westford, Westminster, Weybridge, Wheelock, Windham, Worcester, Woodbury
The resolution was defeated in the following towns: Athens, Craftsbury (tie vote resulted in defeat), Lincoln (passed over),
Starksboro (passed over), Underhill (voted no), Wardsboro (passed over), Waterville (voted no)
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