Local Calls for an End to the War




M

any of the citizens in the audience were
restless at a city commission meeting in Kalamazoo, Michigan this
Spring. They wanted to speak in favor of a resolution that urged
the president and the Michigan congressional representatives to
end the war in Iraq and bring the troops home. 


The resolution had been proposed by peace activists organized through
the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents to War (KNOW). It was the group’s
latest action over the past three-and-a-half years. KNOW had been
to the commission before and won approval for resolutions to prevent
the war (October 2002) and for assurances over non-cooperation with
the USA PATRIOT Act (October 2003). 


The impetus for the resolution came from Cities for Progress (www.citiesforprogress.org)
that advocates an end to the war by “unit[ing] cities and people
of many political ideologies, all of which are adversely affected
in some way.” CFP is a project of the Institute for Policy
Studies in Washington, DC that has been building a network of locallyelected
officials and communitybased activists working together for social
change at the local, national, and global levels on issues that
affect people in their communities. In 2003 CFP managed to get 165
cities to oppose the impending war in Iraq.  


The pro-war response to the peace activists’ latest effort
was to question the local government’s role in national policymaking.
What is most revealing in these pro-war responses is the way political
loyalty and self-interest supercedes any recognition of the reasons
for going to war, the cost of the war, or America’s declining
reputation in the world. 


“The city matters, not national politics,” said one person
at the city commission meeting. “Do the job you were hired
to do,” said a defeated commission hopeful who questioned the
commissioners’ expertise “to make policy decisions on
foreign affairs” and then complained that citizens had not
been polled on this issue. Voting for the resolution would only
advance commissioners’ personal opinions about the war, he
argued, and this would set a dangerous precedent if other groups
approach the commission on other national issues like gay marriage,
immigration, and abortion. 


A few other people objected to the resolution through letters to
the local newspaper. One suburban reader said that officials elected
for the nonpartisan city commission had campaigned for office “on
local issue platforms and their views on national issues are not
part of voters’ decision-making process.” 


The newspaper also editorialized that, like previous resolutions
proposed by local peace groups, these anti-war, anti-Administration
resolutions were a “waste of the city’s time,” especially
when commissioners were only able to pass “tepid resolutions
that stood for very little.” Instead, the editorial advised
commissioners to “buttonhole their congressperson” and
speak for themselves and not for the city on “what should be
done in the Middle East.” 



F

or their part, dozens of
peace activists showed up at all three commission meetings to plead
their case for the resolution. They talked about the cost of the
war taking money away from local governments that were already strapped
with budget cuts for reduced service and infrastructure programs.
They cited CostofWar.com estimates that $44 million was lost to
the city of Kalamazoo alone out of the nearly $300 billion already
spent on the war. 








A
Veterans Administration chaplain compared the adverse effects of
war on the soldiers who fight it. He cited the death statistics
of the Vietnam War where 55,000 were killed with 50,000 more dead
through suicide in the aftermath. Post-traumatic stress disorder
(PTSD) is still surfacing among vets after 35 years. “These
are things yet to come from this war,” he said. “And when
it’s all over, who is going to apologize to the families for
these losses? They still haven’t apologized for Vietnam.” 


“Everyone has a part in what happens in the United States and
we must speak to the federal government,” said one pacifist.
“We have a collective voice as a city commission to speak about
our serious local needs like housing, recreation, youth development.”
Local citizens have died as soldiers, said another person. That
makes the war a local issue. 


A Vietnam vet spoke about how difficult it is for military people
to speak out against the war. Even generals, like four-star General
Shinseki, lost his job for speaking out against plans for war. “It’s
hard for politicians to say they are wrong,” said the vet,
“and it’s hard to call for troops to return because they
are afraid of ‘cutting and running’ and being blamed for
what’s going on. So it behooves citizens to give politicians
some backbone by telling them what we think. What would have happened
in Vietnam in 1968 if [Secretary of Defense] McNamara had admitted
the war was unwinnable? We had already lost 25,000. He said nothing
and 30,000 more lives were lost and three million Vietnamese were
killed.” 


“Children need good examples,” said a parent. “Through
this war we are teaching them violence, hate, and lies. We need
to teach them the right thing. [Commissioners] are responsible to
the children of the city.” Another person said, “The easiest
thing in the world is to pass the buck. Democracy begins at the
bottom, from the grassroots.” 


When it came time for the commissioners’ response, one said
he objected to peace activists taking a “You’re either
with us or against us” position—a curious charge since
that was the same argument President Bush used to set the tone for
the post-9/11 era. Another stated that the city had precedents for
making resolutions on state and national issues and that maybe the
resolution could be supported with more compromising wording. Still
another said that while she opposed the war, “it’s not
our place” to influence national issues. 


The vice mayor, who has a brother in Baghdad, admitted to being
torn by his role as a commissioner and a family member. “We
need to encourage our government to have an exit strategy,”
he said. “We also need to address how we’re going to redirect
federal funds into communities to help communities be successful.” 


Another commissioner, who is a peace and social justice advocate
remonstrated against the commissioners’ objections, saying,
“Kalamazoo doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” He pointed
out that just that night the commission had recognized the efforts
of Earth Day organizers who contend that human activity at all levels
is destroying the environment and affecting all of the world’s
people. Furthermore, the global marketplace has caused thousands
of people in the Kalamazoo community to lose their jobs after five
paper plants, a national bank, a pharmaceutical company, and one
auto plant either closed or moved away. 


“Iraq deeply affects people in this community,” he continued,
“and we must take a stand on it—and the financial burden
it puts on us…. All that is required for the triumph of evil
is silence. Our house is on fire and we need to speak out.” 



K

aren Dolan, of Cities for
Progress, says that the Kalamazoo city commission experience is
typical of the grassroots debate that has been going on since before
the war began. Yet, she was excited about the result. “I think
it is a very productive and healthy approach to civic participation,”
said Dolan. “Typically, citizens feel there is no civic avenue
receptive to them other than their city council. The U.S. generally
has a very well educated citizenry that understands that we live
in a global society in which a war ‘over there’ has direct
impacts—in both human and monetary costs—on our own communities
and that democracy demands our participation. I think the courage
and civic engagement of the citizens and commissioners of Kalamazoo
are to be applauded as the kind of patriotism that makes Kalamazoo,
the U.S., and the world more decent.” 


On June 6, 2006, Kalamazoo joined 100 other U.S. cities by signing
the resolution.


 





Olga
Bonfiglio is a professor of education at Kalamazoo College and the
author of



Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One
Town Responded to the War in Iraq.