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COLUMN LEFT : A Grass-Roots War Resistance Is Blossoming : Military buildup hits a nerve where those most affected live.

December 13, 1990|RUTH ROSEN | Ruth Rosen is a professor of history at UC Davis and author of "The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America" (Johns Hopkins University Press). She is now writing a history of contemporary feminism. and

The national media keep looking in the wrong places for the anti-war movement. They wander around quiet Ivy League campuses, talk to five leftish white men who own opinion journals and conclude that anti-war sentiment is soft. The hidden, underreported story is that there is an anti-war movement: A decentralized, grass-roots, spontaneous and improvised effort is being waged by tens of thousands of ordinary Americans seeking to make their voices heard in opposition to U.S. involvement in a war in the Middle East.

Much of the early action and leadership came from places like the University of Montana, Juniata College in Pennsylvania and Manchester in Indiana, James Madison University in Virginia--less-prestigious institutions whose students identify with those young men and women who went into military service as a means of upward mobility. When President Bush doubled the troop deployment in the Persian Gulf, student response escalated. Within weeks, students organized hunger strikes, teach-ins, marches and vigils all across the country. At my own campus, the University of California, Davis, no hotbed of student radicalism, there have been two teach-ins and continuing forums about the gulf crisis. All this, and without a draft.

Spontaneous activity also is erupting off-campus. Without benefit of centralized leadership, people are improvising protests reminiscent of the imaginative, peaceful actions waged by East European students and dissidents last winter. Communities across the country have held town meetings. In Salt Lake City, right-wing anti-war sentiment crowds the radio talk shows. Alex Molnar, the Wisconsin father whose op-ed piece in the New York Times touched a national nerve, has created an organization for parents similarly anguished about the prospects of war.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, to cite but one regional example, Oakland mothers of draft-age children meet weekly at a commuter train station. They carry signs urging "Honk if you want negotiation, not war." The noise that greets them tells them they are not alone.

Thirty East Bay women spontaneously created a group called Working Women Against the War. They call into radio talk shows and tape special public announcements for television broadcast. They also developed a phone chain in which each woman called her senator, representative and the White House, and then called five friends around the country who did the same: Those five friends called five more friends. A White House operator told me that in just one week she was deluged by calls from this national effort.

The anti-war movement is strong on individual action. One outraged woman in San Francisco wrote a petition against the war buildup and set herself up at a prominent intersection. Within hours, she had gathered hundreds of names. Two young black women called to active duty in the reserves decided to refuse, arguing that minorities pay a disproportionately higher cost in war. Within days they were offered assistance by a legion of lawyers, therapists, public-speaking experts, clergy and feminists.

The urgency of imminent war is partly responsible for the rapid upsurge of spontaneous anti-war activity. This time, the protest is also fueled by the availability of truth, which the American people were denied during the Vietnam era. Two former chiefs of staff and four former secretaries of defense have publicly testified before Congress, counseling caution and patience in the gulf crisis, rather than a military solution. Only one day after the President raised the nuclear issue to scare Americans into supporting an offensive war, experts who had seen the same classified data about Iraq's nuclear capability rushed to declare that he was "misleading the country." Only one day after the U.N. Security Council voted to permit force against Iraq, Americans could read about the bribes, promises and threats used to secure this putative international consensus. Only one day after Defense Secretary Dick Cheney expounded on the need for force, CIA Director William H. Webster predicted that economic sanctions would weaken Iraq within the year.

Congress is relinquishing its duty to debate a military solution or declare war; an imperial President is mortgaging the nation's future and playing high-stakes poker with Saddam Hussein. But Americans are justly famous for their entrepreneurial imagination and industry; with astonishing speed and ingenuity, they are giving their elected officials a glimpse of the grass-roots resistance that will greet a shooting war in the Persian Gulf.

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