Protesting the War
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KWAME HOLMAN: Hundreds of antiwar demonstrators rallied today just outside the gates of the White House. Dozens were arrested, including Cindy Sheehan, the California mother whose son Casey died in Iraq last year, and who staged her own 26-day vigil outside the president’s ranch in Texas last month in protest.
Today’s demonstrations were a continuation of the massive protest that formed in the nation’s capital over the weekend.
Police estimated the size of the crowd at 100,000 or more. Organizers argued there were three times as many. Whatever the number, Saturday’s march and rally against the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq was the largest such demonstration since the war began.
KWAME HOLMAN: Buses brought them to Washington from all 48 contiguous states. This family traveled from New Mexico.
WOMAN IN CROWD: I think it is important for them to know that when something is wrong with your government, you have to stand up for it.
KWAME HOLMAN: And for the first time in ten years, demonstrators were granted a permit to stage their protest directly in front of the White House. President Bush was not in Washington this weekend, but that did not stop the crowd from making the president the target of their anger.
DEMONSTRATORS: Hey, Bush, what do you say? How many kids have you killed today?
KWAME HOLMAN: Supporters of the president’s policies in Iraq were vastly outnumbered this weekend. Although several thousand turned out for a Pentagon-sponsored march in support of the troops two weeks ago, a rally yesterday drew only four to five hundred.
Yet some challenged the antiwar demonstrators during Saturday’s march with police barricades keeping the two sides apart.
WOMAN: If troops come home now, then all of the sons that are dead are dead for nothing and nothing is going to be finished.
KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, before her arrest outside of the White House, we talked with Cindy Sheehan about the opposing positions Americans have taken on the war.
CINDY SHEEHAN: Every American has a right to stand up for what they believe in. You know, if I don’t agree with them, they still have that right. And if they don’t agree with us, we still have the right to stand up as Americans, and we believe what we are doing is patriotic.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sheehan was on Capitol Hill, where she joined a group of antiwar demonstrators from Indiana who had arranged a meeting with their home state senator, Richard Lugar.
KWAME HOLMAN: Lugar is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and these constituents know he is among a small group of senior senators to whom the Bush administration pays particular attention.
MAN: We’re here to clearly ask for the U.S. military to be withdrawn from Iraq.
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: My own view is one of attempting to support the Iraqi constitutional process with recognition that as that succeeds, we had the president of Iraq here in the Senate last week, that they will request our departure in sequence as they are able to take hold of their affairs, and that seems to me that that’s appropriate.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Lugar promised the group he would review legislation in the Senate that would set a specific date for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but he said he would not commit to support it.
GWEN IFILL: Now, taking it to the streets, the war in Iraq and the American tradition of protest. Nancy Lessin is co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, an organization of families with relatives in the military. Her stepson is in the Marine reserves. Carol Phillips is a Vietnam veteran. Yesterday, she took part in a Washington demonstration in support of the troops and the war. Her son is in the Navy. And they are joined by Alexander Bloom, a professor of history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. His upcoming book is “The End of the Tunnel: The Vietnam Experience and the Shape of Contemporary American Life.”
Nancy Lessin, the CNN/USA Today Poll that came out saying 63 percent of Americans favor immediate withdrawal from Iraq. I will ask and you then I will ask Carol Phillips: why are they right and why are they wrong?
NANCY LESSIN: Well, we said it was wrong for the U.S. to be invading Iraq; it’s wrong for the U.S. to be occupying Iraq. There’s no right way to do a wrong thing. So we are saying the best way to support our troops is to bring them home now and take care of them when they get here and never send our loved ones, our troops off to a war based on lies.
GWEN IFILL: Carol Phillips, why are they right; why are they wrong?
CAROL PHILLIPS: Well, I disagree with what she said because I truly believe our president, the commander in chief of the troops that are over there right now did not go into this war based on lies. He went into this war as the other presidents, President Clinton and Kerry, the, you know, candidate, everybody had the same information. I just thank God that we have a president now that’s willing to take a stand instead of letting our men and women in uniform continue to be battered, to be blown up, to be shot at and nothing to be done about it.
GWEN IFILL: Do you feel like the antiwar sentiment is growing as these polls suggest?
CAROL PHILLIPS: You know, no, I don’t. I believe the news media is blowing it up again. You can get your numbers however you want to get your numbers. You can talk to a lot of people and get the numbers that you want to get. I truly do not believe that most of Americans do not support our president and our troops, and so I — as I said, I met one of the antiwar protesters and I told them, you’re not going to have an easy time of it this go-around.
I remember the Vietnam War. I was in the Army during the Vietnam era. I remember how they treated our men and women when they came back, and I see that starting to happen again.
GWEN IFILL: What did that person say back to you when you said that?
CAROL PHILLIPS: Nothing.
GWEN IFILL: Nothing.
What do you say back to her when she says that?
NANCY LESSIN: We marched on Saturday in a contingent with 300 military families from 42 states. There were about 25 Gold Star families whose loved ones have died as a result of this war. We were with about 40 returned Iraq war veterans and in a contingent with hundreds and hundreds of veteran’s from other eras, and we were all saying “support our troops, bring them home now.”
And what we feel is that the hundreds of thousands who marched with us were supporting our troops, were listening to us as families who have loved ones in harm’s way, or about to go into harm’s way.
GWEN IFILL: Why isn’t withdrawal right now at this time as you would like to see the administration doing, why isn’t that cutting and running?
NANCY LESSIN: We don’t see it as cutting and running at all. We see it getting out of where we should never have been. This is the 922nd day of a war that shouldn’t have started. There are 1,918 of our troops who have been killed and tens of thousands of Iraqis. And we do not think that the presence of 135,000 troops with guns is a solution in Iraq. It is, in fact, the problem. And we do believe that there is a lot that this country needs to do for the people of Iraq, and that is in terms of assistance, helping rebuilding and helping clean up the depleted uranium.
GWEN IFILL: And the flip side of that question for you, Carol Phillips.
CAROL PHILLIPS: Isn’t it nice?
GWEN IFILL: I would like to get it all in. What is the argument for staying in an open-ended conflict?
CAROL PHILLIPS: Well, because the job isn’t done. We left Vietnam before the job was done. We should not leave the Iraqi people hanging. Oh, it is wonderful to say we should help them and build and that’s what we are doing, by the way. You don’t hear that on the TV, on the major news networks and stuff. They are helping to build.
Unfortunately, people like this group and others are feeding into the insurgency and giving them hope that they can do, and they can beat down the American people. And we are here to say no, you can’t.
Yesterday, we were a small contingency. I am a small person. But we have very loud voices, and we’re going to let people know that we are not going to give into them. We will let the insurgency know, the American people are not going to give up on the Iraqi people. I was with, I believe his name was Mr. Quayle, the one that took the cross from Cindy Sheehan’s group. And I don’t want to see those people that have already died, die in vain. And those people have fought hard for, and they died, and the one thing that’s different in this war is that not one of these people are draftees; they have all joined on their own free will.
GWEN IFILL: Let me bring Professor Bloom into this. You heard us talk about the loud and competing voices on this issue. How significant are these kinds of protests, these fundamental disagreements in a time of war over the years?
ALEXANDER BLOOM: Well, I think they have changed in recent years. In fact, the Vietnam War and antiwar movement in Vietnam have changed the way Americans look at war. There’s not the unanimity that there was in World War II, and we have had this debate going on since even before the war began. In the run up to the war there were big demonstrations in the streets of America, and so I think it’s been a continuing pattern all the way through.
One of the things I think that’s striking is the degree to which Americans are increasingly thinking of the Iraq War as a mistake, that it’s been much sooner in this process than it was in the Vietnam War time when it took actually many more years, almost three times as long to get to the same point where the significant number of, almost 60 percent, of the American people are now saying the war is a mistake.
GWEN IFILL: Is that a reflection of people changing their minds more quickly or that a reflection of the fact that people just communicate differently now than they did 40 years ago?
ALEXANDER BLOOM: I think it’s both. I think the more that challenges that were raised of the Bush administration’s argument for war came more quickly than the ones that came to the Johnson administration’s about a Vietnam and I think that we do communicate more quickly. I think we have a new way of sort of spreading the word for all aspects, for the demonstrations, for the information. People go to the Web. People are connected in different kinds of ways.
GWEN IFILL: Marching on Washington is a tried and true tradition whether it’s for civil rights or antiwar protests or about jobs or about anything. The question, I guess, becomes what’s the point? Does it have an effect? Has it had an effect? Can you think of examples where it’s changed policy?
ALEXANDER BLOOM: I think it is. I think it certainly changed in the Vietnam War era. It was pretty clear that in retrospect we know that both President Johnson and President Nixon were very aware of what was going on. There’s that famous moment when Nixon goes to the Lincoln Memorial to talk to the demonstrators; Johnson was very intent on this.
It is not so clear that the Bush administration is concerned on a day-to-day basis but they can’t be pleased by the poll numbers. Just to dispute a second something that was said before, I mean these are survey numbers done by representative organizations of a nonpartisan way. I think those numbers are accurate and they can’t be pleased by that.
GWEN IFILL: If I can just follow up on that point also I wonder if e-mail and Web logs and this whole technological way of people have of giving up support for one point or view or the other might tip opinions.
ALEXANDER BLOOM: In some way. But I think most of those things tend to, maybe e-mail to the converted or e-mail to the choir. I think the people who are on the antiwar Web sites and the e-mail list-serves get their information, people who support the troops are getting their information. I’m not sure the Web is being used for a lot of crossover in that sense. I think it is more of an organizational and informational tool to people of your own side of the movement.
GWEN IFILL: Nancy Lessin, is there room for honest disagreement on an issue like this?
NANCY LESSIN: Absolutely. I do want to say military families no matter where we stand share an awful lot in common when our loved ones are in harm’s way. We wait for the e-mails. We are afraid about the knock that may come on the door. We, you know, send cookies and brownies. You know, a lot of the media have really tried to separate us. But there’s much we share in common.
I think that there’s an important dialogue and debate that has to happen in this country. And I will say that because 1,918 service men and women have died, that it doesn’t make any sense to have more die. And we are seeing two service men and women die on average every day. Next month 60 more dying — how is that making anything better? In fact, it is time to end this war and bring them home now and take care of them when they get here.
GWEN IFILL: Is there commonality in this argument?
CAROL PHILLIPS: Not in my opinion. Yes — well, okay. We do have the common that we love our family members and we don’t want that knock on the door and that’s why these people that are doing the anti-protest — yes, the protesting, are making it to where I might have that knock on my door because they are feeding into the insurgency. I don’t want that. I don’t want that knock on that door. I don’t want my son to be in harm’s way. I don’t want to be in war.
GWEN IFILL: But you think this will put your son in more harm –
CAROL PHILLIPS: I think it is putting my son in harm’s way. And people that say they speak for the military families or that they are veterans and stuff, shame on them for putting their fellow family members, their fellow service, airmen, Marines, Coast Guard, whatever, in harm’s way by doing what they are doing — of all people, they should know better.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Bloom, in the years past there have been protests; there have been these objections. Yet if the protesters, no matter how many show up and get arrested, fundamentally disagree with policies of the administration in power, who is listening?
ALEXANDER BLOOM: Well, I think we are all listening. I think there’s something in a democracy about the numbers of people taking to the streets speaking in a way that does have an impact. It may not immediate and people saying oh, the president or Sen. Lugar saying I am wrong. But there’s a kind of incremental growth. We saw it in Vietnam and I think we are seeing it here. It sort of moves incrementally forward to a critical mass.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Alex Bloom, Nancy Lessin, Carol Phillips, thank you for joining us.