Other demonstrations against the war in Iraq have been larger, but the one that happened in Washington, D.C. this past Saturday was significant in another way because of a very different feel about it.

Contingents of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW ) www.ivaw.org and Veterans for Peace www.veteransforpeace.org  lined up at the front of the march, sponsored by the International A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, stepping off on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House.  Hundreds of mostly youthful "marshalls" formed a long line on either side of the route, holding hands and placing themselves between the crowds filling the sidewalks and the marchers, later estimated by wire services at 100,000 people.

One sign visible in enormous block letters invited everyone to, "Stand with Maine.  End this War," another proclaimed "Funding the War is Killing the Troops."  An updated version of a chant not heard since Richard Nixon occupied the White House echoed, "Bush.  Pull Out.  Like Your Father Should Have."  Not far behind the veterans stood Santa Claus in full regalia on 10-foot stilts holding a sign that read, "Troops Home Before Christmas."

One sight, never before seen in a protest march nor certainly any parade in the nation, was the IVAW "color guard."  Geoff Millard, President D.C. Chapter of IVAW, dressed in full desert camouflage barked, "IVAW.  Fall in.  Columns of four."  Immediately, to the front of the rows of veterans marched seven of their number, each holding erect a different flag. 

Following tradition, the U.S. flag was in the lead, except this time it was upside-down.  In a straight line followed six more flags, all black, each with a different corporate logo -- one for Halliburton Corp., Bechtel Corp., Lockheed-Martin Corp., Blackwatch Corp., CACI Corp., and Dyncorp Corp -- all on the very short list of winners in this conflict.  Making the color guard stand out even more prominently in grim relief, Carlos Arrendondo solemnly pulled a small, flag-draped casket on a carriage.  On the casket stood the oversized photograph of his son that accompanies him everywhere, and a pair of empty, desert combat boots that belonged to him before he was killed in Iraq.

The words spoken by the solemn-faced IVAW members were even more arresting than the visuals they carried.  A young vet led a sing-song, call-and-response cadence familiar to soldiers everywhere.  The answers echoed off the houses of power and back to him.  "Who Are We?"  "IRAQ VETERANS."  "Whatta We Say?"  "WAR IS NOT A GAME!"  A platoon of America's finest young men and women, raised in a society that idolizes all things martial, indoctrinated during months of basic training, highly skilled as riflemen, tank operators, police, satellite communications operators and medics -- proficient in every skill needed to run the world's most powerful military, marched confidently down the main street of their nation's capital, chanting "Troops Out Now. Iraq for Iraqis" and "No Justice, No Peace.  U.S. Out of the Middle East!"

In between such chants, individual vets took their turns at a bullhorn for longer, more thoughtful comments. 

Eli Israel, a native Kentuckian who had already completed a hitch in the Marines and then enlisted in the Army after September 11, 2001, repeated the Enlistment Oath taken by every person joining the military, that swears them to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution against "all enemies, foreign and domestic."  He asked the crowds on the sidewalks to consider what they would do "when your leaders tell you to fight an unjust war based on lies.  The occupation of Iraq is a form of terrorism and we refuse to support it!" 

With his comrades falling quiet and raising their fists high in the air in salute, the former Military Secret Security sergeant who guarded General Petraeus "and all those other bastards," said "We walk in silence for our brothers and sisters who died for a lie.  We didn't join the military to become slaves to the military-industrial complex.  We joined to serve our country."

Minutes later, the IVAW's confident message came under attack as their front rank approached a thousand or so angry, screaming people calling themselves "A Gathering of Eagles," occupying three blocks of sidewalk reserved for them by police.  Their snarled taunts and invective were quickly drowned when the vets bellowed in unison, "Support the Troops.  WE ARE THE TROOPS!"  Then in one of the most memorable moments of the day, IVAW Board of Directors member,  Adam Kokesh, marching in command alongside the color guard, ordered, "Column, HALT!  Left FACE!" whereupon he spun on his heel, faced the angry crowd, and held for several long seconds his best USMC salute.  The surprise maneuver left the gathered eagles momentarily taken aback and the crowd cheering.

En route, the marchers were treated to a vista possible only in Washington, D.C., as the Capitol Building, backed by a perfectly blue sky, appeared to almost float on moorings.  Its looming presence foretold dramatic events soon to happen on its steps. 

The march concluded at the base of several flights of stairs leading to the front entrance of the Capitol Building.  When an air raid siren blew the signal, about a thousand people, led by the IVAW and VFP, "died" and fell to the ground.   They remained in repose for a half hour or more as kevlar-vested Capitol Hill Police officers lined a low barricade blocking entrance to the stairs, and a recording played, of former President Eisenhower reading his farewell address warning the nation of a "military-industrial complex." 

As Ike droned on, photographers snapped pictures of uniformed U.S. soldiers lying "dead" on the steps of their Capitol Building.  One of the most popular of the day was the image of an upside-down U.S. flag standing in stark contrast to the white, stately Capitol.  Tension could be felt in the air.

The final action began to move when Kokesh stood to read a letter he had sent to members of Congress.
    Dear Congress,

    We have come before you today with a simple message: as a representation of the people you have failed us and you have blood on your hands. This is blood that the American people will not allow to continue to be spilled in our name any longer. Today we are marching in solidarity with the Iraqi people who want the occupation to end. It is fully within your power to stop this tragedy.

    You have just heard the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. General Casey was replaced by General Petraeus because he would not support the President’s agenda of keeping as many troops deployed as long as possible, keeping our military teetering at the breaking point. General Petraeus was selected for this position not only because of his abilities as a soldier, but also for political purposes. When he testified before you he was acting in his role as a political appointee. He told you the surge was working. This is the same absurd optimism that we have been hearing since the beginning of this occupation from its proponents: the insurgency is in its last throes; we are turning the corner. Why do you still believe these people?

    We have come before you to ask that you consider the cost in human life of this conflict so far. We are also here to tell you that we will not stand for this corruption of our democracy any longer. We the people are in the streets. We the people are fed up. We the people are ready to rise up and take back our democracy.


    The Empowered Patriots
With that, Kokesh and the color guard attempted to go over the police barricade, only to be quickly arrested.  More IVAW member followed his steps, meeting the same fate.  Then, VFP members and people all along the length of the barricade began climbing over it and some were able to begin walking up the main stairs before the increasingly busy police caught up with them.  Some of the arrestees refused to walk after being handcuffed so police carried them bodily up many marble steps to a portico off the main entrance.    

Before long the number of those arrested reached 200.  Every one was cuffed and instructed to sit or kneel down.  As an indication of the spirit that would be frequently displayed while they were held 14 hours for "processing," several veterans joined by others,  rose to their feet, chanting, "Stand Against the War.  Stand Against the War."

The long wait in line alongside the Capitol Building to get "processed" was exceeded several times over by the seemingly-interminable time spent sitting on buses, then waiting expectantly for the processing to get underway in a serious fashion so people could regain their liberty.  Conditions, in addition to the pain of being handcuffed behind one's back, were difficult in the holding area.  This, together with the time dragging on, prompted several activists to chafe at their detention and lead a number of well-supported chants and jeers loudly directed at the police -- none of which prevented several serious conversations between detainees and police about the war and occupation in Iraq. 

Three o'clock in the morning and then five o'clock came and went.  Eventually the police, as some more experienced activists contended, decided to break the logjam and assigned more of their number to move people through the "processing" at a reasonable speed.  "They want to make us as uncomfortable as possible, to discourage us from doing anything like this again," he said. 

As the number waiting to be processed slowly dwindled,  Keen Bahtt, a recent college grad from New York, said the lack of water for most of the detention period, and the lack of food for nearly all of it, caused him to become anxious for the health of two elderly detainees.  "Nurse Ratched," as he called the matronly female police captain in charge, claimed the delays were caused primarily by the NCIC computer being overwhelmed, and an overly complex booking procedure. 

Tentative dawn sunlight marked a new day.  Eventually, it became strong enough to warm the last few demonstraters walking out the door to their freedom.  And the bold tactics of the previous day gave reason for some of them to think that perhaps a new day was dawning for the peace movement as well.

A first-time participant in Washington demonstrations, Rick Rusch, from Fremont, Ohio captured that hope as well as anyone.  The Army veteran said, "This is what I was hoping to do.  I'm glad to see us heat things up."


Mike Ferner is a member of Veterans For Peace and a writer from Toledo, Ohio.