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Soldiers, activists speak on the war's anniversary

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Chip Smith's house in Fayetteville is four short turns from Bragg Boulevard, the front door of Fort Bragg. With his close-cropped, gray hair and lean build, I'm thinking he's a military veteran. "Not a veteran," he says, smiling. "I am a veteran of efforts to end this war."

As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion approached, on a Friday in mid-March I visited with Smith, a retired labor organizer whose political views date from the '60s and his service in Laos with an international aid organization, and a half-dozen of his friends on the Fayetteville Peace and Justice Committee.

On past anniversaries of the war, the committee helped stage large protest demonstrations, including one in 2005 that drew upwards of 3,000 people to Bragg's gates. This year, however, the committee's plans were modest: an upcoming vigil, some community-service programs and this gathering at Smith's house to view the "Winter Soldier" testimony, a two-day event in Maryland, sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War, streaming online to his TV.

As we enter the sixth year of the war, Smith concedes there is a muted response in Fayetteville's anti-war movement. Committee meetings draw 15 people tops. The public is focused on the elections. "We've hit a plateau," he says, adding, "the momentum and leadership has shifted" to more broad-based social justice campaigns like the NAACP's legislative agenda at the General Assembly—dubbed its "HK on J" campaign, for Historic Thousands on Jones Street.

"It's a little bit of exhaustion," agrees John Ashford, Smith's fellow committee member. Their group has held street-corner vigils every month or two since March 2003. Initially, Ashford says, the reaction from military-friendly Fayetteville was "all jeers and middle fingers." But as the war has worn on, he says, "we get mostly thumbs-up and peace signs."

"Well, there's still some negative reactions," Ashford's wife, Ann, injects. But the real problem, she says, is that while most people finally agree with the committee's message to "bring the troops home now," they're still afraid to speak out in a town where anti-war protests are easily misinterpreted as anti-soldier.

Andrew Bryant, the sole African American in the room, agrees. He says that especially for blacks in Fayetteville, protesting the war is viewed as "going against your own interests, or your own family," since the military has welcomed minorities and opened leadership positions to them. Elsewhere, he adds, and other heads nod when he says it, "whenever blacks and whites get together, the white folks want to be in charge."

The Winter Soldier testimony was ending. the name refers to Thomas Paine's term for Revolutionary War heroes who fought the toughest battles. In Maryland, Iraq veterans were the featured speakers. But while we watched, all the witnesses were white scholars who described the American occupation of Iraq as modern-day colonialism.

"Classic divide-and-rule tactics," said Anthony Arnove, author of the 2006 book Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal. The United States overthrew the Sunni regime, installed Shiite leaders in Baghdad, and is now arming Sunni and Shia militias while presenting our troops as their only hope for avoiding a civil war, Arnove said. The U.S. objective: It's to control the oil-rich Middle East for at least another generation.

Nothing the scholars said was news to the Fayetteville committee members. They listened intently, but when the testimony ended, their focus turned immediately to local issues: homelessness, race relations, their work at a local soup kitchen. They agreed the fundamental racism that allows Americans to ignore Iraqi deaths is the same type that permits citizens to ignore inequality at home.

It is a sign of maturation that anti-war activists are "broadening the focus" in an attempt to attract more supporters, and more minorities, to their cause, Smith says.

"That, and frustration, because the other way didn't work," he says, shrugging.

And the occupation goes on.

The missing element in the anti-war movement is veterans. They are conspicuously absent in North Carolina, where Iraq Veterans Against the War have little presence and just two groups of Veterans for Peace exist, in Charlotte and Asheville. Joe Gill is trying to make it three. Gill is only five years removed from his Cary High School graduation, but when I met him at a small anti-war demonstration Saturday at the State Capitol in Raleigh, I took him to be much older. A couple of years in the Army, including six months in Iraq, will do that, I guess. What threw me, too, was the way he skillfully defused an ugly confrontation between a peace activist and an active-duty Marine who, with his girlfriend, was looking at the monuments.

I didn't see most of it, but suddenly the Marine was shouting at the peace activist that she didn't know what she was talking about. She shouted back and stuck her finger at his chest. Gill stepped in with a quiet word, and it was clear that he and the Marine shared some bond that caused the Marine to back away while the woman kept at it.

Click for larger image • Joe Gill, an Iraq war veteran and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, served two years in the Army, including six months in Iraq. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

"What happened was, there was an escalation," Gill said later.

All vets have a story to tell when they come back. Often, they tell it by picking a fight. "I did," Gill said. "I picked a lot of fights.

"The blood of your friends is still fresh in your mind," he went on. "And nobody understands it as well as you do—or, that's the state of mind you come back with. Even if somebody agrees with you, you don't want to hear it, because they have no idea what's going on [over there]."

Gill was pro-war when he enlisted, "following along with the hype," he said. But gradually he changed his mind. "I wish I could say there was some grand moment. It was just something I came to over time as I learned more."

Gill recently returned to Cary from Boston, where he was a member of both Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War, but not very active in either. Here, he's made it his business—in addition to his community college classes and restaurant job—to seek out vets, hear their stories and tell them his. Vietnam vet Wally Myers, a Raleigh elementary school teacher, and John Heuer, a UNC-Chapel Hill manager, who's not a vet but is eligible to be an associate member, are working with him. (See meeting details in Act Now on page 15.)

Some vets agree with him about the war, he says, and some don't. But most recognize that he is as pro-troops as they are, whatever their viewpoint. "Once I explain to them my motivation to protest against the occupation, that it comes from the same seat of emotion that makes them want to stay with their friends in the military, it's seen as nothing more than a different outlook, a different perspective. It doesn't get heated, normally."

Gill and the Marine had talked like that. They didn't agree, but they finished on respectful terms. So after a quiet word from Gill when the argument between the soldier and the peace activist escalated, the Marine said thank you to Gill, see you again, and walked away.

The exchange impressed Myers, who had heard the Marine say he was due for a second tour in Iraq next year. "When you're in the service," Myers said, recalling his own attitude in Vietnam, "you've made a commitment and you do your duty. You don't question it."

What frosts Myers is politicians—and the media—who use the troops as a justification for the invasion and the occupation, as if to oppose either is a failure to back our soldiers. That's why a Veterans for Peace chapter in the Triangle is critical, he adds, "so veterans, and the stories they relate—maybe that will be a way to counterbalance the deception that's going on" with the so-called surge.

"I think, right now, that hitting the streets in protest just doesn't work," he adds. "Protest is a way to raise awareness. People are aware already; what's needed is an educational effort."

Wednesday morning, March 19, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke in Fayetteville and promised, if elected, to remove most of our troops from Iraq within 16 months, or try, anyway. That afternoon, I met Nathan Lewis, a 20-year-old Marine private from Moline, Ill., at the USO center at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Lewis was headed to Orlando on leave after finishing his training at Camp Lejeune. He expects to be deployed to Iraq in a few months. He doesn't yet know when.

Lewis was watching the news about Obama on TV when I approached him. A nicer, more polite kid, I couldn't imagine—or one who's more politically innocent. He likes Obama, he said, and thinks he might vote for him. Yet, he didn't know that Obama opposed the war.

"I'm in support of it," Lewis said. "But I know we've been there a long time, so we'll see what happens."

We chatted awhile about his plans. He joined the Marines thinking it might be a good career for him—better than his job as a furniture mover he'd had since high school. Also, veterans benefits will give him a chance to go to college, which he thinks was not possible otherwise.

I asked him if he was scared at the prospect of combat duty. "Oh, yeah, a little," he answered. He said he was steeling himself to be "in a different environment on the other side of the world," but his training had prepared him for it. "It helped me out a lot."

Lewis wasn't the youngest soldier I met Wednesday. That would be Daniel Cota, an 18-year-old enlistee who lives in Orlando and was headed home after his training. Cota, too, said he thinks what the U.S. is doing in Iraq "is great." He's excited at the idea of going there, but in the same breath added, "I think it needs to be done quicker; we've been there awhile."

Cota signed up for the military right out of high school. He had been dreaming of a military career since childhood; his grandfather, who was in the Spanish army, was his model. Maybe he'll try to be an officer, but probably, he said, life as an E-8—a master sergeant—would be better.

And his choice for president? Either Obama or Hillary Clinton. "Both of the candidates I'm going for I think would be great."

The USO center at RDU is a franchise, one of just three in North Carolina; the others are in Jacksonville and at the Charlotte airport. At one time, according to Lola Lawson, director of marketing for the state USO organization, there were 300 centers in the state. They exist as "homes away from home" for our troops. They receive no government funding, relying on volunteer contributions of time and money.

Some days, as many as 300 soldiers move through RDU on their way somewhere. Wednesday afternoon, there were just a half-dozen on hand, watching television or peering at the computer screens, and all but one were fresh-faced recruits who hadn't yet seen any action.

I couldn't help thinking how young they all were, and that they looked so sweet, and anything but lethal. If this is a war, we're fighting it primarily with young men and women who were children just yesterday.

The exception that day was Jason Baskin, who, at 29, had been discharged from the Army and Iraq, though his wife is still in. Baskin was headed home to St. Louis after visiting her at Fort Jackson, S.C.; he is in college and hopes to go to law school.

Iraq, Baskin said, is hard to describe to people who haven't been there. It's horrible, but his training prepared him for horrible, he said. Most people can't conceive of it, which is good, he added. They couldn't fathom life in a place where there are no freedoms.

"We have a good blindness to that," he said. We, meaning our media and political leaders, "provide a good blindness."

"We have a lot of freedom here," Baskin added, "that we don't understand."

There was a protest Thursday afternoon at N.C. State University attended by about 50 kids, the majority of whom either skipped school at Enloe High in Raleigh or arrived by bus on a sanctioned field trip from the Carolina Friends School in Durham. "The fact that more people are not speaking out against the war is really ridiculous," one Enloe student said to the group. She didn't want her named used in print.

Without a draft, college campuses are weirdly quiescent these days, despite polls showing that students are overwhelmingly opposed to our Iraq occupation.

Meanwhile, it's the high school kids whose friends are enlisting—and maybe dying over there. In fact, Sunday night, the Pentagon announced that four more soldiers were killed in Iraq, pushing the death toll in five years to 4,000.

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