As 2002 came to a close, I was getting ready to go on Christmas break and start a new year at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. The hot issue of the day was the impending war with Iraq. Everyone knew it was coming, but no one knew when. UN weapons inspectors had been combing Iraq for several weeks, with no results. That December, a group of protestors would meet at Old Main on Lincoln Avenue to lend their voices to peace.
Having followed events in Iraq for quite some time, I was skeptical of the threat it posed or the utility of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Despite Bush Administration horror stories about weapons of mass destruction, I always suspected something worse might replace Saddam, and that starting another war in the Middle East wouldn’t help stamp out Islamic extremism. In 2002, however, the antiwar crowd seemed to be in the minority. A January 2003 CBS poll found 64% of Americans approved of military action against Iraq after all diplomatic options had been exhausted.
On the sixty-first anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 2002, a number of small campus groups, including the Green Party, junior art major Ryan McClure, and Newman Center director Roy Lanham, organized an antiwar protest to coincide with similar marches around the country. I showed up with my video camera to document the event and interview the participants.
Roy Lanham told me what we were doing there was important because, “we need to come out here and lend our voice to peace, our feet to peace, lend our actions to peace to say ‘not in our name.’ We don’t want war. Everyone can say that they don’t want war, but are we willing to say that there are other solutions to war? We have to stand up and say it’s wrong… wherever we find aggression.”
The marchers, around one hundred in all, students, professors, and local residents alike, marched up Seventh Street on a quiet, sunny Saturday afternoon chanting slogans and pounding drums. The temperature was in the high thirties, and no onlookers gathered to watch what was going on. I remember a peaceful, unremarkable walk to the town square. The square was pretty much deserted when we arrived.
On the steps of the Coles County Courthouse, a short, middle-aged woman in purple mittens proclaimed, “we don’t spend our lives raising our sons and daughters to be yanked out by the elite, greedy―whatever they are―to increase their finances. Nobody… deserves to be in a war. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years and we never seem to learn the lesson that it doesn’t solve anything.”
She went on to describe a visit to the air force base where her son-in-law was stationed. Upon seeing a B-2 bomber fly overhead, she said, “this was our plane, but let me tell you I was chilled to the bone. It was absolutely terrifying. It was evil, that B-2 plane… shame on us, shame on us for even doing this.”
In their December 9, 2002 article concerning our antiwar march, the Daily Eastern News, our campus newspaper, quoted a participant as saying, “war is wrong and killing is wrong.” Another remarked: “I know people in this community think I’m naïve and that we’re naïve, but if this is being naïve against war and dropping bombs, then let us be naïve.”
The debate over the increasingly inevitable Iraq War continued into 2003. On February 10th, Daily Eastern News opinion page editor Karen Kirr wrote an editorial expressing her disbelief that men and women she grew up with were being placed in harms way during the military buildup that preceded the war. She spoke of the shock of being called up for overseas duty and the emotional ramifications of war. “It doesn’t matter if you belong to an organized religion or you are an atheist: this is about peace and human lives at stake,” she concluded.
Back on campus, students at Eastern Illinois University staged a second antiwar march on March 1, 2003, as the country awaited the next diplomatic turn. I did not attend this protest, but the Mattoon Journal Gazette reported that hand painted signs read, “War is Failure,” “Dialog to Disarm,” and “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease.” This time, counter-protestors did show up. They yielded signs reading, “Besides ending fascism, slavery and Nazism, war never solved anything,” and “The last time France waited… the Nazis marched on them.”
A day after the war in Iraq began with shock and awe, a sophomore athletic training major typed a scathing letter to the editor. “Are you really citizens?” he asked. “You become a citizen when you faithfully serve your country. All that you anti-war people have probably sacrificed is the time it took you to make those clever posters.”
He continued, “deep down I think that almost all of you anti-war protesters are concerned with is that there could be a draft and poor little Suzy and Timmy are going to be shipped off to war. Well I’m concerned too because I wouldn’t want even one of you anti-war protesters next to me on the battlefield watching my back.”
I hoped we could all agree that war is terrible but sometimes necessary. We should never be enthusiastic about going to war. However, if I was forced to choose in the face of imminent danger, I admit I’d rather stand next to the person who would fight alongside me than one who would refuse to pick up a weapon. As George Orwell once wrote, “we sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.”
In the end, what did these protests accomplish? No policymaker in Washington, DC was looking to students at Eastern Illinois University for guidance. But student activist Chris Lempa later told me this group of protestors showed there were people, even in this small community, willing to speak out against the war. This core group of activists went on to become journalists, work on political campaigns, run for public office, write blogs, and organize community groups like Coles County Buy Local. It all started there in the shadow of Old Main.