Saturday, March 05, 2005

Iraq War Lands in the Midst of Vermont's Town Hall Meetings

Iraq War Lands in the Midst of Vermont's Town Hall Meetings

By Elizabeth Mehren
The Los Angeles Times

Wednesday 02 March 2005

The fighting's burden falls particularly hard on the state, say backers of an antiwar resolution.

BETHEL, Vt. - In a high school gymnasium festooned with athletic banners, residents of this working-class town decided Tuesday to allot more money for ambulance services, increase funds for the visually impaired - and ask President Bush to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq.

The vote in Bethel was 80-58 in favor of the resolution. The central Vermont town was one of 52 communities in this famously liberal state to add a vote on a nonbinding antiwar resolution to the agenda of annual town meetings held Tuesday. Since Colonial days, the gatherings have been the primary form of local government in much of New England.

This year, a cluster of Vermont peace and civil liberties organizations joined to introduce the measure about the war in Iraq. The group's resolution asked Vermont's state legislators and congressional delegation to investigate the use of the Vermont National Guard in Iraq. It also called on the president and Congress to "take steps to withdraw American troops from Iraq."

But mostly, said Rosalind Andreas, who helped place the initiative on the agenda in Westford, north of Burlington, "we saw the resolution as a way to start a very important conversation at the local level about the social consequences of this war."

In towns around Vermont, Andreas said, the question of U.S. involvement in Iraq has become intensely personal. National Guard members from 200 of the state's 251 towns and cities have gone to Iraq, making tiny Vermont second to Hawaii in the per capita number of Guard and reserve units sent to the war. At least 11 people from Vermont have died serving in Iraq, giving the state the highest per capita number of deaths.

"It has touched us very deeply," said state Sen. Mark MacDonald, a Democrat who spoke at the town meeting in the central village of Strafford.

"When I campaigned last fall," he said, "there was not a day that I stopped at a house where a son or a daughter, or a brother or a sister, or a husband or a wife was not in Iraq."

Towns have lost police officers, firefighters, teachers and other vital employees, said Benson Scotch of Montpelier, who set up a website, , to promote the measure. Country stores - often the only places to buy supplies in some rural villages - have shut down when their owners shipped off with the Guard, Scotch said.

"That's what this resolution is saying: The war has local impact. It affects people," Scotch said.

"We are not in any way opposing the troops who are in Iraq now," he said.

"We have never had in this country a conversation at the grass-roots level as to what are and what should be our policies in the use of this kind of war," Scotch said. "We need to have that conversation. And the best place for that to begin is in the schools and town halls and libraries, not only in Vermont, but elsewhere."

With votes in more than half of the towns counted late Tuesday, at least 37 towns voted to accept the resolution, three declined to consider it, three voted it down, and in one town, the vote was tied. In addition, two took up the resolution and passed it even though it was not officially on the agendas.

In some towns, the Iraq resolution generated little debate and passed resoundingly. At Tracy Hall in Norwich, a comfortable village of 3,500 that straddles the Connecticut River, women at the meeting knitted or did needlepoint as only John Lamperti rose to speak about the Iraq initiative.

"It is right and admirable that town meetings in Vermont should speak out on this war," said Lamperti, 72, a retired professor from nearby Dartmouth College.

In Strafford, the town meeting was also an occasion for elementary school students planning class trips to hold a raffle to raise money. A long table in the Town House - a hilltop wooden building with an angel on its weather vane - was laden with pies and pasta salads for sale to benefit the PTA.

A wood-burning stove warmed the meeting hall in the affluent town of 1,000, where not one person spoke against the Iraq initiative, and the measure passed handily.

"People here are very serious about the use of National Guard troops in this war," said Edmund Coffin, 83, a retired international businessman. "It simply has not been discussed, whether the Guard can be used to fight wars of choice."

But here in Bethel - where many of the 1,979 residents work in granite quarries or at the town's one large industry, a plastics factory - the debate of a measure about international policy at a local meeting struck some as the height of folly.

"We've got bridges here that need to be repaired," said Henry Holmes, 65, an insurance salesman. "Iraq is not our problem. I think the measure is waste of time."

Ray Forrest, a toolmaker who wore a T-shirt with an eagle perched atop an American flag, voiced equal disdain. "I don't like it, because we are all part of the United States. We should not be a separate government," he said.

As to whether this state of 619,000 has been disproportionately affected by the call-up of National Guard troops, Forrest said: "That's bad luck, that's all. It's not something to go out and change the world for."

Although she did not particularly like the resolution, Janet Burnham, 68, said it belonged on Bethel's meeting agenda.

"I think you should be able to discuss whatever you want to discuss," said Burnham, who runs a small book-publishing company. "But I have to say that if I was president, I probably would have done the same thing, by using the Guard, because I think the rules of war have changed."

Laura Rubenis, 40, a history professor at several local colleges, said the initiative had already served its purpose - sparking a discussion that could move beyond Vermont.

truthout-Vermont's Town Hall Meetings

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President George W. Bush's statement in March 2006 after 3 yrs of war "a future President will have to resolve war in Iraq"


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