AMHERST, Mass. — The idea was hatched on a bright day in August, when Daphne Reed was celebrating her daughter’s and granddaughter’s birthdays, and the talk around the living room sofa turned to war.
Reed began worrying that her 25-year-old grandson, who spent four years in the Coast Guard, might be called to serve if the United States were to invade Iraq. Her family also wondered why the United States was threatening to invade Iraq even before United Nations weapons inspections began. And Reed fretted over the particular suffering that would befall Iraqi women; their sons and husbands would be killed, she said, and the women would be left in the rubble to fend off contaminated water and starvation.
“I said that all mothers should automatically be against war,” Reed said. “It was against their nature to be violent instead of nurturing.” Maybe, she said, it was time to start a movement — Mothers Against War.
Reed’s response is just a tiny part of a growing peace movement that has been gaining momentum and raises the possibility that there could be much more dissent if U.S. bombs begin falling on Baghdad.
The retired Hampshire College drama teacher e-mailed about 15 parents in her address book. Reed reached people such as Elaine Kenseth, whose five children include a son she adopted from the killing fields of Cambodia. Aileen O’Donnell, a veteran of the women’s movement. Joanne and Roger Lind, whose son was a Vietnam War conscientious objector. And Elizabeth Verrill, who had never been involved in political causes. Before long, Mothers Against War had 50 core members, and thousands of supporters around the country and the world.
Most members of Mothers Against War are grandmothers in their seventies whose lives are already full. Yet they spend hours a day on the Internet, reading and spreading information on Iraq and the United States and planning for marches, e-mail campaigns and teach-ins. Having lived through the Vietnam antiwar movement, which took years to build, the Mothers Against War are buoyed to find themselves part of a fast-growing movement of people from every walk of life, from every political stripe.
The extraordinary array of groups questioning the Bush administration’s rationale for an invasion of Iraq includes longtime radical groups such as the Workers World Party, but also groups not known for taking stands against the government. There is a labor movement against war, led by organizers of the largest unions in the country; a religious movement against the war, which includes leaders of virtually every mainstream denomination; a veterans movement against the war, led by those who fought Iraq in the Persian Gulf a decade ago; business leaders against the war, led by corporate leaders; an antiwar movement led by relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; and immigrant groups against the war.
There are also black and Latino organizations, hundreds of campus antiwar groups and scores of groups of ordinary citizens meeting in community centers and church basements from Baltimore to Seattle.
It has reached a point where United for Peace, a Web site started by the San Francisco-based human rights organization Global Exchange for groups to list events commemorating the Sept. 11 anniversary, has morphed into a national network coordinating events for more than 70 peace groups nationwide.
“We’re taking the . . . Web site and rebuilding it as a one-stop shopping for the antiwar movement,” said Andrea Buffa, who co-chairs the new network. “It’s a campaign of all different kinds of groups, from the National Council of Churches to the International Socialists organization; I just got a call from the Raging Grannies of Palo Alto, who want to join. We’re bringing groups together to develop a consensus statement and a calendar of coordinated antiwar events.”
After large rallies in Washington and San Francisco on Oct. 26, the next big day to test the antiwar movement’s might is Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day. Hundreds of groups plan events, rallies and civil disobedience to capture the nation’s attention, including demonstrations in Lafayette Park across from the White House and at a military recruitment center in downtown Washington.
Otherwise, antiwar groups, which tend to rely on the Internet to receive and spread information, operate largely without the attention of the media or Capitol Hill. Yet many of those speaking out against an attack on Iraq represent large numbers of Americans, including John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO (with 13 million members); the National Council of Churches (which represents 36 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, with 50 million members); and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (the leadership arm of 65 million Roman Catholics).
Among themselves, the groups are quietly organizing their ranks. A letter Sweeney sent to Congress in early October expressing deep reservations about the justifications for an invasion has begun to resonate among the rank and file, said Bob Muehlenkamp, a labor consultant and former organizing director for the Teamsters union. Several hundred thousand union members, he said, have signed up against the war, with more joining every week. He expects the numbers to balloon when leaders hold an organizational breakfast meeting for all unions in New York on Dec. 18.
“Union people are the most patriotic of Americans,” Muehlenkamp said, “yet you can’t find all-out aggressive support for a Bush war.” Union members have the same concerns as others opposed to the proposed war, including a belief that the Bush administration has not weighed the economic consequences or made the case for an unprecedented attack, he said. But they have their own concerns as well. “For unions,” he said, “it’s their kids that are going to be doing the fighting. It’s our sons and daughters who could die.”
The National Council of Churches, which includes Lutherans, Episcopalians and President Bush’s denomination, Methodists, is facilitating antiwar events for traditionally liberal institutions and conservative churches, said the Rev. Robert Edgar, its general secretary.
“Average, ordinary people,” Edgar said, “who come from evangelical Christian conservative roots are organizing against the war.” Edgar, who served in Congress as a Democrat from suburban Philadelphia from 1975 to 1987, recalled that he was a freshman Democrat during the last days of the Vietnam War. Even then, he said, he and other lawmakers had to fight to end U.S. involvement. He also remembered that it took the church — meaning most mainstream religious institutions — 12 years to start opposing that war. “Whereas, the threat of war now has even middle churches, not just liberal churches, involved in antiwar activities,” he said.
During its annual meeting last month, the National Council of Churches issued a statement praising the National Conference of Catholic Bishops for reiterating its position against a U.S. invasion. “We thought it was important to acknowledge their important work,” Edgar said.
Now, he said, the National Council of Churches — fresh from its “What Would Jesus Drive?” television ad campaign to promote fuel efficiency — is launching a “Seasons of Peacemaking” campaign, “moving beyond statements to actions. On December 8 through 15, there will be a series of actions across the country.” The biggest day, he said, is Dec. 10, which is significant not only because it is Human Rights Day but also because it is the day that former president Jimmy Carter is to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. “Carter, as an evangelical Christian, represents a great number of people in the antiwar effort,” Edgar said.
Indeed, on that day, religious groups across the country plan to stage mass acts of civil disobedience. Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, founder of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, plans to join church groups in New York and get arrested, he said, for the first time.
“I’ve never engaged in civil disobedience before,” he said. “But if some country was going to do this to us — have a little preemptive war with the U.S., bomb our people, kill or maim people because they thought that at some time we might bomb them, we’d say that’s a war crime. I feel that getting arrested is the biggest statement that I could make to say that what the Bush administration is doing is wrong.”
That day, as well as the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Jan. 18-19, is important for the smaller groups across the country as well. Damu Smith, founder of the Washington-based Black Voices for Peace, said his group plans to begin a poor people’s peace movement similar to the one King was organizing before his murder in 1968. Black Voices is planning its own rallies and forums in Washington, as well as participating in planning national events as a member of the steering committee for United for Peace, he said.
“Before Doctor King died,” Smith said, “he was speaking out forcefully against the United States involvement in Vietnam. He made the point that the money being spent on bombs was money that could never be spent on addressing poverty. We are taking up Doctor King’s legacy.”
While African Americans and other minorities have been underrepresented in some national campaigns, such as the environmental movement, Smith, executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, said that he has had no trouble recruiting against the proposed war. The group, which he began a few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, in response to a lack of African American voices in the policy debates and newscasts surrounding the attacks, has more than 3,000 members, he said.
Not all are African American. “We get calls from people who say, ‘I’m white, but I want to join your group,’ just as in the civil rights movement. It’s such a shame that the media has not focused on what is happening because there are so many voices working together.”
Remembering Another War
Those who still remember the horrors of the Vietnam War, like the members of Mothers Against War, find themselves connected to this new antiwar movement on a personal as well as ideological level. The other day, as half a dozen core members sat in Daphne Reed’s living room, they remembered friends who had fled to Canada to shield their sons from the military draft, friends who died in the war, and lives forever changed by the war.
Joanne and Roger Lind, 77 and 78, respectively, are retired professors of sociology and social work, whose son received his draft card as soon as he turned 18 in 1965. As Quakers, the Linds were actively working toward peaceful solutions to the crisis, including organizing teach-ins. Their son became a conscientious objector, and did community work, known then as alternative service. “But sons of our friends were not so lucky,” Joanne Lind said. “They served two years in prison.”
Elaine Kenseth, at 59 the youngest of the group, remembered that her friends started getting married in 1964 before finishing school so that their men could be exempt from the draft. “Others left for Canada. They lived there until President Carter created the amnesty for them.”
She became active in helping refugees of the war resettle in Western Massachusetts, and adopted her Cambodian son, when he was 16. “When we say we’re mothers against war,” she said, “we’re also saying we’re mothers seeking peace. We are activists for spreading peace in the world.”
Reed, recalling the four wars she has seen this country involved in during her lifetime, said she is often motivated by a single memory decades old.
She was visiting the nation’s capital, she said, when she saw a man without a face.
“Yes,” she said, “without a face. He had nothing but a plastic mask with two holes for eyes and one for mouth. It still swims before my inner vision, provoking an agony of grief that no one had been able to stop the war that took away that man’s face.”