Last Saturday morning I was flummoxed. I was going to the big peace demonstration downtown, organized by the Burlington Anti-War Coalition, and I didn't know what to put on my sign. I thought for a long time and simply could not reduce my chaotic feelings to a slogan on a placard -- even a double-sided one.
For starters, the war in Iraq had already begun, and there obviously wouldn't be any pulling out "before the job was done," even if the president gave a damn what we-the-people said. Still, "Give peace a chance next time" didn't cut it.
Then there was the matter of supporting the troops. The people risking their lives. This invasion is not their fault, and they don't need me to tell them "War is hell." Like thousands of other young Vietnam War protestors three decades ago, I reviled the soldiers for being there -- a logic akin to shooting the messenger. Unthinkingly, we helped create a generation of broken, embittered vets who were robbed of their honor along with, sometimes, limbs or brain cells. That is, if they didn't come home in a body bag. I was determined not to show such disrespect again. But "Love the troops, hate the war"? Not quite right.
My thoughts turned to my father, a decorated war hero who saw combat in Europe and Korea, and who spent the rest of his life Stateside trying to drown those memories in alcohol. I'll never forget the look on his face when he would watch old World War II movies on television, eyes burning. He felt guilty for being alive. I recalled the day he saw me wearing an Iron Cross, which, inexplicably, was briefly fashionable as jewelry in the early '70s. He nearly ripped it off my neck, enraged and appalled that I didn't even know its association with the German military. More than anything, his emotion taught me the power of symbols -- and the weight of history. All the more reason to choose my message carefully.
How to express, on the equivalent of a bumper sticker, that I: honor the troops; acknowledge that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant but question his ties to terrorists; have compassion for the Iraqi people; think the military budget is obscene and Bush's domestic policies deplorable; love my country; believe that dissent is patriotic; revere civil liberties; value diplomacy; choose peace; and dislike the knee-jerk dehumanization of, well, anyone who disagrees? Oh, and I still like France. That's a tall order for a placard. I needed a Bread-and-Puppet-sized laundry list.
In the end, I decided to not bring a sign at all. Instead, I roamed the rally at City Hall Park writing down other people's slogans in my reporter's notebook. My favorite was held by an angelic-looking, towheaded 6-year-old from Waterville, Sabin Bonnet: "Bush should be in time-out." Though it was probably penned by Sabin's mom, the simple declarative sentence had that out-of-the-mouths-of-babes clarity and freshness the cynical messages of grownups so often lack.
Case in point: "BAWC Says Suck Our Cock" was mystifying, more pornographic than peaceful. Another equally tasteless slogan caused one nearby grade-schooler to ask, "Mommy, what's a motherfucker?" I didn't hear the explanation.
"War Leaves Every Child Behind" and "Let's Make War Obsolete" were more to the point. Some demonstrators, of course, wrapped their barbs in humor: "Bush League Diplomacy," "I Asked for Universal Health Care and All I Got Was This Lousy Stealth Bomber." Others settled for no-nonsense buttons: "Vermonters for Peace," "Patriots for Peace" and the trusty old peace symbol itself.
Marching to Battery Park, I was positioned between a group of chanters and an exuberant, ragtag band that made me wish I hadn't given up the tuba. I scribbled indecipherable notes and sorted through my thoughts along the way. A twentysomething friend, attending his first-ever peace demonstration, asked me how it compared to those of the Vietnam era. That war was longer, the body count far higher, I told him. We were angrier, more desperate, more violent. This war is different politically and tactically, but it also has provoked outrage from America's friends and enemies alike. Along with everyone else, I prayed it wouldn't escalate.
At the intersection of Battery and Pearl, a woman with a megaphone was barking out an unexpected choice: Go to the park for the second, scheduled rally, or turn left and keep marching. In confusion, some demonstrators splintered away. I'm certain some of them didn't even know this comprised the civil disobedience part of the program -- Battery Street was not on the permitted parade route. That surprise cleft diffused the energy of the march, which had otherwise been well orchestrated. To me, it was an almost laughably literal illustration of how the Left always gets divided.
Suddenly I didn't care to hear any more speakers. I turned back toward Church Street to find a cup of tea. That's when I saw the sign that succinctly resolved my earlier dilemma: "I support the troops and peace." Eschewing clever wordplay, the message was straightforward -- and straight from the heart.