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Young Peace Activists Hone Their Strategy

The Iraq War often seems to be one of numbers: $320-billion spent, more than 2500 US troops killed and over 18,000 wounded. Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated from 5000 to well over 10,000. And the mounting cost of the war has energized the peace movement in the United States. As with an earlier conflict - Vietnam - it's led by young people and veterans of the war.

For decades, labor and civil rights leaders have come to the Highlander Center, in the foothills of Tennessee's Smokey Mountains, to hone their strategies for social change. This month, the historic complex hosted 27 young men and women, who came to learn how to spread their anti-war message more effectively.

Many of the activists at the weekend workshop have personal experience with the fighting in Iraq. They are members of Military Families Speak Out and Iraq Veterans Against the War. After serving eight months in Iraq as an Army interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison, Joshua Casteel joined the peace movement. “I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War to be an advocate,” he explains, “both for soldier's rights for those who are still serving and to be a part of the momentum to stop the war. But that has to happen constructively and collaboratively, both with people who are in the military and are out of the military.”

One of the first members of the military who spoke out against the Iraq War is 20-year-old Stephen Funk. He joined the Marine Reserves in 2003. But once he finished basic training, he became a Conscientious Objector and began a campaign against the Iraq War. He was court-marshaled for speaking out and jailed for five months. Funk told the workshop participants his jail time was a minor impediment to his anti-war work. “I continued to receive a lot of support while I was there, which really helped me make it through. It really isn't that bad. As far as serving in Iraq or serving in regular military service; it was much better.” Funk now travels around the country, speaking against US involvement in Iraq. He says the Internet is the greatest weapon the modern peace movement has at its disposal.

Doyle Canning was at the Highlander Center retreat to help activists exploit the Internet's possibilities. She works with the smartMeme STORY Program, a Vermont-based youth training group that teaches grassroots organizations how to use all electronic media for social change. Canning says the Internet is a very effective way to reach teens and people in their 20s because they're already tuned in, creating on-line journals and virtual communities. “The participants here and others can [create] blogs and commentary about their experience, about their perspective, about their ideas for bringing the troops home from Iraq and strategies to do so; and use different mediums to do that: video, pod-casting, etc.” She says the movement even has a page on the MySpace website.

Other generations are also speaking their minds, even if it's not on-line. At the Knoxville Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, Gulf War veteran Boyd Dixon says US peace activists encourage the Iraq insurgency. “The answer is stay the course,” he says. “George Bush has a plan. He knows what he's doing. When you show a lack of discipline and you show a lack of, you know, when you back off, they seem to come on.”

Vietnam-era veteran Jeffrey Thompson says anti-war protesters lack the proper perspective. “A lot of those people have never seen what that is like. To have bombs bursting in your front yard and bullets flying. They just don't have any clue.”

But Dave Adams saw plenty of action as a military policeman in Iraq. He stays in touch through e-mail with many of the soldiers he knows who are still in the field. He lets them know what's happening on the home front with the anti-war movement. But Adams says he's seen some unexpected opposition since returning home. “The only time I've actually heard people say some really hurtful things to some Iraq veterans, was actually - and I never thought this would happen- actually being spat on, is the Pro-war crowd.”

After three days of intense discussions and exercises, the young activists returned to their home states across the country, with new ideas and a more focused passion to build both virtual and physical alliances to halt the Iraq war.