Vietnam veteran Bill Homans chained himself to a lamppost near the White House fence. (Photo: Linda Pershing)
On Thursday, December 16, the term "winter soldier" took on special meaning. Blanketed by snow flurries and enduring freezing temperatures, several hundred military veterans and peace activists gathered in the nation's capital to stage a dramatic political protest. As they have done many times since George W. Bush announced the military attack of Afghanistan in 2001, concerned citizens from across the country traveled to Washington, calling for an end to US military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as drone attacks on Pakistan and Yemen.
Since 2001, I have joined thousands of Americans to raise our voices against the wars at peace actions in Washington, DC, including marches from the White House to the Capitol, vigils at the White House and civil disobedience in the streets and in the halls of Congress. This event felt different. Responding to a call from the leaders of Stop These Wars(1) - a new coalition of Veterans for Peace and other activists - participants came together in a large-scale performance of civil resistance. A group of veterans under the leadership of Veterans for Peace members Tarak Kauff, Will Covert and Elaine Brower, mother of a Marine who has served three tours of duty in Iraq, sponsored the event with the explicit purpose of putting their bodies on the line. Many participants were Vietnam War veterans; others ranged from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in their 20s and 30s to World War II vets in their 80s and older. They were predominately white; men outnumbered women by at least three to one. After a short rally in Lafayette Park, they formed a single-file procession, walking across Pennsylvania Avenue to the solemn beat of a drum. As they reached the police barricade (erected to prevent them from chaining themselves to the gate, a plan they announced on their web site), the activists stood shoulder to shoulder, their bodies forming a human link across the "picture postcard" tableau in front of the White House.
Veterans for Peace activist and event organizer Will Covert, reading the Veterans for Peace Statement of Purpose and Pledge of Nonviolence at the rally in Lafayette Park, Dec. 16, 2010. (Photo: Linda Pershing)
The powerful symbolism of the event focused on reclaiming public space, dissenters lining the fence that separates the presidency from the populace. For several minutes, activists, sang and chanted the customary peace songs and slogans; all the while, the park police seemed calm and relatively unconcerned. Then, suddenly, one of the veterans breached the waist-high barricade, lurching toward the White House fence and calling others to join him. Within moments, all 131 activists jumped over or maneuvered around the barricade, staking their claim to the fence. The visual effect was stunning and eerie, particularly in the falling snow. Some activists secured their wrists to the fence with metal handcuffs. Former Veterans for Peace President Elliott Adams affixed a metal, u-shaped, bicycle lock around his neck and fastened it to a post. He explained, "We're trying to stop these stupid wars. We've (Veterans have) been in the wars, we fought the wars and now know they're stupid. They're bad for the nation, they're bad for the people, they're bad for the economy and they are only good for the filthy rich. And, it's time we quit killing people of other nations and killing our own children just to make a few people rich."(2) Veteran Bill Homans (aka Watermelon Slim) echoed an action he took in 1972, when he chained himself to the captain's cabin of the USS Constitution to protest the Vietnam War. With the help of a fellow veteran, Homans fastened himself to a lamppost near the White House fence with a thick metal chain.
Linda Pershing is a women's studies professor at California State University San Marcos.
Lauren Rains is a recent graduate of Cal State San Marcos, with a major in women's studies.