BURLINGTON, Vt. — The will of the people to speak their mind at Vermont’s Town Meeting Day overpowered the snowfall that pounded the Green Mountain State, March 1. In more than 50 towns voters took a day usually reserved for decisions on school budgets and new snow plows to debate an issue of international significance — the war in Iraq. At press time, 49 towns had passed a resolution calling for the troops to come home and only three had voted against it.
Town Meeting Day is an annual exercise in New England-style direct democracy that dates back to the American Revolution.
In a state with a population of only 619,000, over 1,200 members of the National Guard have been sent to Iraq. Towns across the state have suffered from these deployments. Milton, a small town north of Burlington, has lost a quarter of its police force. Jonesville, near Camels Hump State Park, saw its town store close last year because its owner was deployed. Firefighters are gone and employees are absent from factories and farms in over 200 of the state’s 254 towns.
Ben Scotch, a Montpelier attorney and leader of the Vermont Network on Iraq Resolutions, said part of the reason for the success of the resolution was the impact the deployment has had in communities across the state. “Practically every community has someone in the Guard — somebody’s son, daughter, husband, wife, cousin, or neighbor is in the Guard,” he said.
Joseph Gainza, executive director of the Vermont American Friends Service Committee, said the resolution provided a much-needed opportunity. “When people had a chance to discuss the issue of the war, they were opposed,” Gainza told the World.
The resolution calls on the Vermont Legislature to assess the true impact of the Guard deployment. On a per-capita basis, Vermont has the highest death toll of troops serving in Iraq and is second in percentage of population deployed.
The resolution also asks the state’s three-member congressional delegation to urge Congress to re-examine the use of the National Guard in Iraq. “We used to have checks and balances. Now, it’s been really hard for members of Congress to go against the executive on this issue,” Scotch said. “We’re asking Congress to be candid and have a real discussion of the issue.”
The resolution also calls on the president and Congress to “take steps to withdraw American troops form Iraq, consistently with the mandate of international humanitarian law.” Organizers and supporters of the resolution have said that they aren’t pushing for any set timeline, but that troops need to be withdrawn as soon as possible. They are also quick to add that the U.S. must be held responsible for its international financial obligations under the Geneva Conventions.
In response to some criticism that the resolution was anti-soldier, both Scotch and Gainza pointed out that the resolution begins with a statement in support of the troops. “The resolution shows great respect for the troops and really honors the soldiers,” Gainza said.
“The resolution separates the Guard and other soldiers from their commander in chief,” Scotch said. “It undersells the intelligence of Guard members to say they don’t understand what’s going on. It isn’t we that’s demoralizing the troops, it’s the improper use that’s demoralizing them.”
The center of the debate for many was the circumstances of the Iraq war. “We’re talking about a war of choice. We aren’t discussing a situation where the U.S. is attacked — there’s no question of the Guard’s use in those circumstances. But they did not sign up to be used in a war of policy,” Scotch said.
Vermonters are aware that they are in a situation faced by other states. Nationwide, the number of Guard members deployed overseas has skyrocketed over the past three years — from 5,000 in 2002 to 120,000 at the beginning of 2005. This portion of the 456,000 Guard members constitutes nearly 40 percent of all those deployed in Iraq. To date, over 14,000 troops have been killed or injured in Iraq, according to the Defense Department.
Recruitment numbers have dropped recently, but there is continued concern about recruiting tactics. Gainza, who brought the Vermont resolution to United for Peace and Justice’s recent national meeting in St. Louis, where it was unanimously accepted, said town resolutions go hand-in-hand with counter-recruitment measures.
Yvonne Lewis, organizer of UFPJ’s counter-recruitment program, said the Vermont resolution serves as a flagship model for other places. “We’re working with high school students to pass resolutions to keep military recruiters out of high schools. Recruiters aren’t telling young people the whole truth, and in some cases they’re telling them outright lies.”
Antiwar groups nationwide are looking at the success of the town meeting resolutions as a sign that discussions of the war need to happen across the country.
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