My friend Gene is not the kind to gloat. A Korean War vet who has been active for years in Veterans for Peace, he has never been afraid to wear his political views on his sleeve.
I ran into him not too long ago at the funeral of a local icon, an old friend of his whom I had known through my work with the local newspaper.
Like nearly all of the men in attendance, Gene was dressed in a dark suit. On his lapel was a button that read simply, "Impeach."
"I've been wearing this since the war began," he told me. The working-class guys behind the counter at the post office, which he'd visit every day, used to be dismissive.
"Very patriotic, pro-military," he told me, "but now when I go in there, they tell me 'you know, you were right.' Now they want the troops to come home."
How times have changed.
Three years ago, as the Bush administration was preparing to send American troops into combat in Iraq, the president and his planned invasion had broad public support. The president's approval rating was hovering in the 60%-to-70% range, while polls pegged American support at about the same level.
Now, however, support for the war has plummeted -- as low as 39% in some polls -- while the president's approval rating in mid-June -- depending on the poll -- was anywhere from about 33% to 40%, with just 35% of those polled by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press approving of his handling of Iraq.
It's hard not to see why, with more than 2,500 Americans dead and the news carrying stories of bombings and beheadings, of an insurgency picking up steam even as its supposed leader is killed in a US bomb attack.
The Washington political class, however, seems to be working from an old script. Republicans remain committed to the administration's plan, using the same tired language. In June, the party pushed through a resolution that linked the war to the "global war on terror" and declared that setting an "arbitrary date" to pull out American troops was not in the nation's interest.
Americans, as the polls show, may have a different take.
That would seem to give the Democrats a leg up, but few seem willing to take the baton and run. There is agreement that the war is going badly, but none on what to do. And aside from a handful of Democrats -- notably Sens. Russ Feingold and John Kerry, and Reps. John Murtha and Nancy Pelosi -- there is little support for a pullout.
The Washington Post reported on June 20 that Senate Democrats were unable to act on two competing proposals, one to "direct Bush to bring nearly all the troops home within 13 months," the other to "urge him to begin an unspecified withdrawal by the end of this year."
The debate is typical of the party, showcasing its inability to take bold positions or commit to being a true opposition party. The majority seem ready to support a rather tepid proposal sponsored by Sens. Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Jack Reed (R.I.). It would be an (a) nonbinding resolution that (b) urges, not demands, that the president (c) begin redeployment of American troops by the end of the year, but (d) sets no deadline for a full withdrawal.
The flaccid language says it all.
That's why groups like Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War and others are so important. Political protest keeps unpleasant truths front and center, forcing questions into the spotlight that the political classes would rather not address.
Vigils like those in the central New Jersey communities of Princeton, Highland Park and Somerville -- and across the country -- help create a moral imperative for action.
Ellen Norman, a resident of a central New Jersey senior community whom I interviewed for a column for my weekly newspaper, told me she had been opposed to the war from the beginning, but had not been active until a New York rally earlier this year. She was particularly struck by a line of marchers holding photos of dead servicemen. As a result, she helped form a chapter of the Coalition for Peace Action at her retirement community.
"(The rally) furthered my determination that we have to do something in this country to get out of this war," she told me. "We have to put pressure on our government to end it and bring our boys home."
The hope is that more Ellen Normans will get involved and that the movement to end this war will grow, creating momentum and forcing high-profile but fence-sitting Democrats like Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to take a bold stand.
It's happened before. It can happen again.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See his blog at www.kaletblog.com.
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