Impact of War: Rutland demonstrators take sides

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(Host) With casualties rising, Vermonters continue to be divided over the war in Iraq. This split is given voice every Friday in Rutland during two separate demonstrations just a few blocks apart.

In the second part of our series on the war, VPR’s Susan Keese visits both rallies and finds that the issues are not black and white.

(Sound of demonstrators gathering on the street.)

(Keese) Graeme Rockefeller is the first to arrive at this week’s support-the-troops rally in downtown Rutland. He’s a Vietnam vet with a grey beard, denim jacket and a large U.S. flag. Soon he’s joined by others carrying banners and signs.

(Sound of demonstrators, horns honking) “Who’s got a horn for the troops?!”
(Keese) “Are you here to support the war?”
(Rockefeller) “No. I’m here to support the troops.”

(Keese) Rockefeller got into a skirmish last week with the peace demonstrators a few blocks away. An American flag with the peace sign instead of stars made him mad. Some things are just sacred, he says.

Rockefeller says participating in war doesn’t mean you like war.

(Rockefeller) “War is an affront to our morality. It’s an affront to our way of life. It is something unfortunately politicians feel is necessary. Politicians start wars, soldiers end them. To participate in a war is to do your duty to your country.”

(Keese) Standing nearby is Dave Nelson, who also fought in Vietnam. Nelson helps organize the weekly support-the-troops rallies. He says they’re not about politics.

In fact, Nelson has his doubts about the wisdom of the current war, although he supported the war in Afghanistan.

(Nelson) “I think in the beginning people I knew were very, very supportive. But I think I hear more and more people questioning what we’re doing in Iraq.”

(Keese) But that doesn’t change his feelings about the men and women risking their lives there. Just about every week, he says, newly returned soldiers stop to thank him and his fellow demonstrators for their support.

Bernie McCullough, who’s also at the downtown rally, blames the media for turning Americans against the war.

(McCullough) “It’s so un-American. When a war starts, and some of these people start dying, you’re supposed to unite.”

(Keese) McCullough says he’s tired of hearing about U.S. abuses of Iraqi prisoners.

(Mc Cullough) “It’s nothing to do with the abuses, this is war. And if you gotta strip somebody down and make them lose their dignity so that they’ll give you information that will save one soldier, I’m all for it.”

(Keese) A few blocks up the hill at the park, a dozen or more anti-war protestors are holding forth. Their signs say, “Honk for Peace.” One woman holds a sign blaming Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for the prison abuse scandal.

Anti-war demonstrator Emerson Frost, a veteran of both World War II and Korea, also thinks the administration is to blame.

(Frost) “You get some of these people running the Defense Department who have never had what I call the “GI experience,” who are saying the troubles in the prison in Iraq are due to a few rotten apples – and we’ll get those privates and sergeants. And it’s pretty clear what the problem is.”

(Keese) Frost also faults the Bush administration for entering Iraq without enough people and without an exit strategy. Peace activist Don Gray doesn’t believe the invasion of Iraq was really about spreading democracy.

(Gray) “If we were into creating a democracy there, we never would have shut down Mukhta Al Sadr’s newspaper. I mean, democracy means democracy – there’s freedom of the press. And that’s one of the first things we shut down, which really kind of precipitated that whole escalation of violence in April.”

(Judith Armento) “People are dying, terrorism is increasing, people in Iraq are no better off. Something isn’t working and everybody knows it – except the government in charge, it seems.”

(Keese) Judith Armento, a teacher, has a sign that says “Fire Bush.” A sign at the support-the-troops rally expresses a similar thought. Standing a little behind his fellow veterans, Michael Stimpfel holds a sign that says, “Support the troops, vote Bush out.”

(Stimpfel) “This is the way I want to let people know that veterans can support the troops and not back this administration.”

(Keese) Stimpfel’s position highlights the complexity of the situation for demonstrators on both sides. Organizers of the support-the-troops rally worry that Iraq will become as divisive as Vietnam. On the peace side, they hope that opposition to this was will eventually bring everyone together.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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