War protesters never die, they just keep on protesting

  • F. R. Pamp


The third anniversary of America's invasion of Iraq was March 19, so I joined a small group of people who met in Riverside Park in Salida, Colo., to state our disagreement with the war.

It was a cold and cloudy day, appropriate for the occasion. There were the usual homemade signs. I wore my Army field jacket, with the colorful Americal Division patch on my right shoulder, and my rack of ribbons from fighting the war in Vietnam for 12 months, because they are my personal protest sign. The mood was relaxed and friendly, and people greeted each other warmly. One man led a dog wearing a sign: "Doggone war."

After some milling around, the protesters distributed themselves along the sidewalk and then walked off, chanting "Out of Iraq Now." I sat on a stump instead because it seemed futile to walk in circles and chant. There was no one in the park to witness the event other than fellow demonstrators.

Riverside Park is small, so the marchers soon came back past me and then did another lap before stopping at the band shell to make statements. Some speakers were impassioned, including a disabled vet, but most were calm and soft-spoken. They carefully differentiated between bad policy and the military people who were required to carry out bad policy, and several spoke of supporting our troops. I left when they started reading poetry.

I attended my first anti-war rally in 1966, back East. I wonder if there were any such rallies in Salida, 40 years ago, and whether a peace rally then would have caused so little public comment? I thought then that I was doing something useful in protesting the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson may have actually listened to the protesters, but times change, as does the willingness of an administration to admit or even consider the chance that its policy might be unwise. Bush refuses to listen, and Cheney doesn't seem to care about the people who protest the war — or fight in it.

So why attend this quixotic rally? I was there for my children, for the 20-somethings under fire, for the friends who had died in Vietnam, and not because it would make a difference to anyone but me. Doing the right thing is worth doing, whether or not anyone notices the act. I can't do much for the kids being shot at in Iraq, or to honor my old comrades in arms, other than spend an hour standing in the wind on a cold Sunday.

On my way home, I realized that I was probably not alone in this view — that making a statement is worth the effort even if no one in power is listening. Marching and chanting without any witnesses, many of the demonstrators seemed to be part of a stylized exercise, like a Japanese Noh play. Instead of traditional masks, we had standard signs and chants, performed in a ritual way by longtime veterans of many anti-war demonstrations. The signs we carried seemed solidly constructed, bolted to thick strips of well-painted wood, suitable for frequent use. The signs may have even been stored in garages for years.

Now we are again sending brave young people to be killed and wounded and maimed — never mind the civilian casualties, or the violence done to the Constitution. Unlike the first Iraq War, this war was started for reasons that have changed frequently but always seem wrongheaded. We are fighting it almost alone, and we are fully bogged down.

But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Congress dithers, just as it did during the Vietnam War, while its constitutional powers dribble away like water through a hole in a bucket. Just like President Nixon, this president mouths platitudes, when he is not speaking what seems like a foreign language, or when his press secretary speaks English but has strange new meanings for familiar words. Young men and women come home in body bags while some ?patriots? accuse those who exercise the right to free speech of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. We may have learned not to blame the troops we send to fight a bad war, and in Salida we may have learned to tolerate war protests, but what else have we learned?

Here?s one thing I learned: Make an anti-war sign strong enough to withstand repeated use.

F. R. Pamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a lawyer in Salida, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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