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Giving Peace a Chance

5 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

Americans are notoriously impatient with foreign adventures, so perhaps it was just a matter of time before doubts about going to war with Iraq spread from the coffee shops and op-ed pages into the mainstream. In the past few weeks a spattering of antiwar vigils and thinly manned marches has grown in size and fervor. There is still a long way to go before a million people march on Washington — but the voices of dissent can now be heard, and often from unlikely sources.

For all the sentimental reveries and tie-dyed rhetoric employed by such veteran protesters as Ramsey Clark and Daniel Ellsberg, the peace movement of 1990 only faintly resembles that of the Vietnam era. More than anything, its members seem to want to support the President’s policy of standing up to Saddam Hussein and defending Saudi Arabia. But Bush’s sudden switch two weeks ago from a defensive to an offensive strategy has raised all sorts of questions. Have sanctions been given enough time to work? Is the U.S. shouldering too much of the burden? Should the President proceed without approval from Congress? “It’s not an antiwar movement so much as it is a process question, a sense that we should be debating the issues more before we act,” says the Rev. William Phillippe of the Presbyterian Church’s committee on social-witness policy.

On the front line of that debate are those whose sons and daughters are on the front line in the gulf. The Military Families Support Network, for example, grew out of an open letter to President Bush from Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee, whose son Christopher is a Marine corporal in Saudi Arabia. “If, as I expect, you eventually order American soldiers to attack Iraq,” he wrote, “then it is God who will have to forgive you. I will not.” After the New York Times published his letter, Molnar received thousands of calls from people wanting to join forces. “We’re not joining coalitions; we’re not conscientious objectors,” says Molnar. “We’re inventing ourselves as we go along.”

Many parents of soldiers have no experience with grass-roots protest — but they are learning quickly. What is most wrenching for them is the fear that their dissent might somehow suggest a betrayal of their children. “It scares me to think my son might be very angry if he thought I was not totally in support, in admiration and love for all the men and women in the service over there,” says Leona Murray, who attends weekly vigils in Hyannis, Mass., while her 19-year-old son, infantryman Jay Coull, patrols in Saudi Arabia. “I certainly am not protesting their actions. I’m protesting a government that would take such drastic steps for very cloudy reasons.”

Despite the high profile of some recycled radicals, the current crop of dissenters is not limited to the usual suspects. It embraces the National Coalition of American Nuns, the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee and the Unitarian Universalists Against Apartheid. “You don’t normally see students marching with welfare recipients and trade unionists and veterans,” says Stevan Kirschbaum, a Boston bus driver and vice president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 8751. “But it’s a reflection of both how broad the movement is now and the lessons that everyone’s learned from Vietnam.”

Each constituency has its own motive. Civil rights groups are questioning the justice of going to war when perhaps one-third of the armed forces in the gulf are minorities. Religious groups are condemning the failure to place more faith in peaceful means of resolving conflict. Veterans groups are challenging the wisdom of threatening a war without explaining its goals — a sharp departure from 20 years ago, when the very idea of large numbers of veterans questioning America’s defense policy was virtually unimaginable.

Largely absent from the movement so far are college students, who formed the nucleus of protest against the Vietnam War. “Students are the natural constituency of protest because they have the time and energy,” says Gerald Marwell, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin — Madison. But so far he hasn’t seen much concern: “For one thing, there is no draft, so people are not so personally at risk.”

In one sense the gulf crisis has turned everyone into a student. The public response resembles a massive cram session, as earnest people try to understand the complex forces at work and calculate the potential costs, human and material, of going to war. Until the Administration makes clear whether its goal is to defend Saudi Arabia, or protect the flow of oil, or free Kuwait, or crush Saddam, or punish aggression, or all of these, the public may not be able to find much justice in the cause — or judge whether it is a goal worth dying for.


CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 500 adult Americans taked for TIME/CNN on Nov.14 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling is plus or minus 4.4%. ‘Not sures’ omitted.

CAPTION: Has the likelihood of war with Iraq increased during the past few weeks?

Has Bush done a good or poor job telling the American people why our troops are in the Middle East?

How long should the U.S. and its allies continue economic sanctions before looking for another solution?

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