The summer of 2005 was significant for two reasons: it not only marked the third year of the Iraq War, but it was also the season when the parents and family members of US troops serving in Iraq helped the peace movement find its voice once again. A slumbering giant has been awakened, emboldened in part by the courage of Cindy Sheehan's vigil at President Bush's home in honor of her slain son, and by the moving press conference by Rosemary Palmer, a Cleveland mother whose son was also killed in Iraq.
During the weekend of August 19-21, there were over 1,600 separate candlelight vigils across the country in solidarity with military family members like Sheehan. While many seem surprised at the recent anti-war groundswell, it is only because they have been encouraged to forget very recent history.
As George W. Bush continued his single-minded march to war against Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003, millions of others had other ideas, and they acted upon them. The largest political demonstrations in the history of the world occurred the weekend of February 15, 2003. More than 800 coordinated protests for peaceful alternatives to war brought well over 10 million people out into the streets worldwide, with many cities setting records for numbers of protesters. In the US that weekend, over 700,000 demonstrated in 140 locales
Once the invasion of Iraq formally began, however, many in the US closed ranks behind the troops and the president. But not everyone did so. While the peace movement shrunk in size and significance during the first two years of the war, our research indicates that it led the way in testing and refining many of the arguments now being made so compellingly by military families.
As part of our National Science Foundation-funded research project on the US peace movement from 1990-2005, we've collected and analyzed 314 official statements and press releases issued by fifteen major US peace movement organizations about the Iraq War. Aware of the many ways the peace movement was accused (often unfairly) of being anti-soldier during the Vietnam War and Gulf War, 73% of the statements express concern for US troops, with all fifteen peace groups doing so. Often the organizations use the simple "we support the troops" language while coupling it with an exhortation to "bring them home now."
In addition, over half of the groups developed a "discourse of betrayal" where President Bush's policy choices are characterized as a betrayal of the special kind of trust that the commander in chief owes those serving under him.
The peace movement groups assert that this is a multi-faceted betrayal of the troops by the Bush Administration. They say the troops aren't given proper training, the bungled occupation leaves them vulnerable, the wounded aren't properly cared for, the soldiers' plight is kept out of the news and presented in a sanitized way, tours of duty are arbitrarily extended, equipment is insufficient, veterans benefits are reduced, there aren't enough Arabic translators, troop levels are too low, and they depend on war profiteering corporations for supplies. The peace movement also argues that US troops are fighting in an illegal, unnecessary war, where they are dying for "cheap oil."
Military families apparently understand and agree with much of this betrayal rhetoric; they are using very similar terms while protesting the President whose policies have endangered their loved ones. In addition, the peace movement is planning a massive march on Washington for September 24, 2005, and returned veterans and military families will be featured there.
Following the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Vietnam War peace movement was deeply emboldened by returning veterans opposed to the war and by the family members who supported them. It marked the beginning of the end of public support for that war. We are once again seeing the peace movement both supporting and benefiting from those who know and love the troops best. This is a potent mixture and it means that a tipping point may have been reached in the third year of this latest war.
This article also appears in the Ravenna-Kent Record-Courier, Kent, OH.
Patrick G. Coy is Associate Professor of Political Science at Kent State University, Gregory M. Maney is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hofstra University, and Lynne M. Woehrle is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mount Mary College.