All across the northeastern state of Vermont, residents have voted against the use of the National Guard for the war in Iraq. The action came Tuesday, during the state's annual town meetings, in which the hot topics are usually school budgets or the purchase of a new dump truck. But this year, the Iraq War was a local issue too.
In Calais, Town Moderator Gus Seelig asked the 200 or so residents gathered in the historic town hall to remember National Guard Sergeant Jamie Gray, whose family traces its roots in the community back seven generations. "I would just like to ask if we might take a moment to reflect on him and the other folks we've lost," he said, as his neighbors observed a moment of silence.
Residents of Vermont communities have been meeting each March 1st for more than 200 years, forming - for one day - a town-wide legislature. It's a direct and intensely local form of democracy. This year, the big budget item in Calais was 45-thousand dollars to buy machinery for the road department.
But Vermont town meetings have tackled national and even international issues as well. In the early 1980s, dozens of communities voted for a freeze on nuclear weapons. Two years ago, many towns used their meeting to condemn the USA Patriot Act.
So for many Vermont voters, debating the U.S. action in Iraq wasn't all that unusual. And in Calais, the discussion segued seamlessly from town business to foreign policy. Moderator Seelig read from the resolution, asking state lawmakers to "investigate and discuss whether members of the Vermont National Guard have been called to active service and assigned to duties relating to the war in Iraq in conformity with the US Constitution and federal laws." Organizers of the resolution are concerned that sending so many National Guard units to Iraq has hurt its ability to respond to emergencies at home.
Vermont has paid a heavy toll in the Iraq war; it has lost more soldiers per capita than any other state, and almost half its Army National Guard force of 3000 has been mobilized. Resident Eric Oberg spoke in favor of reconsidering their deployment. He told the crowd, "This is a way that we as a community can have ourselves heard. I feel we have not been heard." He urged his neighbors to make the most of the opportunity.
But John Russell, who fought in Vietnam more than 30 years ago, told the assembly the resolution would undermine the morale of the troops in Iraq today. Recalling the controversy surrounding America's involvement in Southeast Asia, he said he knew what it felt like not to feel supported. "I can tell you the complete desperation of total loneliness," he continued, "like being in a tomb, when people say, 'We support you,' but they don't really."
In Calais, the resolution passed, as it did in 46 other communities. Three towns voted against it. The resolution's organizer, Ben Scotch, says other states are looking to Vermont as an example of how to work locally against the war. "Where should that discussion be in formulating a policy about the use of this kind of war?" he asked rhetorically, and answered, "It should be in the grassroots. It has begun in the grassroots today. And we hope it spreads."
Organizers hope grassroots support for the resolution will push the state legislature to take up the issue of the Iraq war and its impact on the National Guard.