Congress may not be prepared to hold an honest debate on when and how the United States should exit the Iraq imbroglio, but the town meetings of rural Vermont are not so constrained. Declaring that "The War in Iraq is a Local Issue," citizens in communities across the state voted of Tuesday for resolutions urging President Bush and Congress to take steps to withdraw American troops from Iraq and calling on their state legislature to investigate the use and abuse of the Vermont National Guard in the conflcit.
Spearheaded by the Vermont Network on Iraq War Resolutions, Green Mountain Veterans for Peace and the Vermont Chapter of Military Families Speak Out, the campaign to get antiwar resolutions on town meeting agendas succeeded in more than 50 communities statewide. That meant that the issue was raised in more than one fifth of the 251 Vermont towns where the annual celebrations of grassroots democracy take place. Forty-nine towns voted for the resolutions. Only three voted "no," while one saw a tie vote. In the state's largest city, Burlington, the antiwar initiative received the support of 65 percent of electors.
"Many have wondered how a town meeting could direct something on a national scale," admitted Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger. "But it does send a message that hopefully people are listening to."
Ned Coffin, an 83-year-old retired poultry farmer in the town of Bethel agreed. "I can't think of another forum in which people can express their views on any subject, even ones of national importance," explained Coffin. "The war was a mistake and this is a way for that message to be heard."
There is no question that the message was heard by Vermont's Congressional representatives. US Rep. Bernie Sander, I-Vermont, announced his support for the resolution being considered at the town meeting in Burlington. US Senator Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, endorsed the resolution campaign, as did US Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. ''This resolution has prompted the kind of constructive debate that should be happening not only in Washington but in every community in the country, and Vermonters again are setting a good example of civic responsibility and participation,'' said Leahy.
Activists hope the Vermont resolution campaign will go national. Already, Amherst, Massachusetts -- which begins city council meetings by reading aloud the names of Iraqis and US soldiers who have died in the war -- has passed a "Bring the Troops Home" resolution, as has Arcata, California.
In November, San Francisco voters endorsed Proposition N, an antiwar statement that ended with the declaration, "The Federal government should take immediate steps to end the US occupation of Iraq and bring our troops safely home now."
One of the strengths of the Vermont resolution campaign was the focus on the status of the Vermont National Guard. That brought the issue home, as 200 of the state's 251 towns have residents who have been called up to serve in Iraq. A rural state where wages are low in many regions, Vermont has traditionally had a high level of participation in the National Guard. With Guard units being so heavily used in the Iraq, several studies show that Vermont has suffered the highest per capita death toll of any state since the war began a two years ago.
"There is nothing more quintessentially local than war, and the local connection is the National Guard," explains Ben Scotch, a former director of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union who helped draft the model resolution for the town meetings. "The guard members and their families are our first concern. Discussions over the appropriateness of their use in the war need to start in our own communities."
Nancy Lessin, a co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, a national antiwar network that includes more than 2,000 military families, agreed. The Vermont approach, Lessin says, "brings into discussion the very people who should be discussing the impact of this war: National Guard families, local politicians, police departments, school officials."
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30
© 2005 The Nation