Last Friday evening, at Missoula’s Memorial Rose Garden, a crowd of over 300 stood quietly, mournfully, under a gently stirring American flag as the names of American soldiers killed in Iraq were read.
The event, organized by members of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, took place in conjunction with worldwide activities commemorating the one-year anniversary of the start of the war on March 19, 2003. It was Missoula’s way of remembering the fallen American soldiers and Iraqi lives ended early by the violence of the war.
Moments earlier, largely the same crowd had gathered along the Wilma side of the Higgins Ave. bridge holding 551 paper gravestones, each with the name and photo of a dead American soldier (by press time the number of dead U.S. soldiers had risen to, 583). The faces staring back from the gravestones were mostly of young soldiers, some older, some smiling, others somber, some hopeful, others seemingly eager, some serious, all—regardless—now dead. Cars passed by honking in support and flashing peace signs, while one driver, less supportive, yelled obscenities out his window. One driver in particular flaunted his middle finger at the many holding paper gravestones in hand. Bicyclists taking part in a Critical Mass rally whizzed by while Missoula police cars followed in close pursuit.
Anita Doyle, director of the peace center, wearing black hat and black coat, made her way through the crowd on the bridge grasping several of the gravestones in her hands. Behind her, the crowd began to move south on Higgins and then south on Brooks in a funeral-like procession that eventually congregated at Rose Memorial Park.
Two weeks before the rally, Doyle, one of the founders of the peace center in 1987, announced her retirement effective May 1 in a letter addressed to the Missoula peace community. Doyle volunteered for the then-empty director’s position in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, 2001, fearing that the lack of a director at that critical moment “would severely hinder [the peace center’s] ability to meet the challenges provided by the times to organize a new movement for peace in Montana,” she wrote in the letter. “Recently, though, I have been able to carve out one day a week from my duties at JRPC to return to my [counseling] practice, which I also love. Now I am finding myself drawn to return to that work full-time.”
Prior to the rally, Doyle told the Independent that it had been a privilege to help shape the peace movement in Missoula, and although she is leaving the position of director, she will remain on the board as one of 13 coordinating council members.
“My intent is to stay very active in the peace center,” she says, adding that she wants to be free from her administrative responsibilities to help with the more creative side of the peace movement and tap into the revolutionary spirit upon which the center was founded.
“We as a country are in a very critical phase in our history,” she says. “I consider democracy to be at more risk now than it ever has been in our republic.” The idea that the U.S may come to resemble a third world country where a handful of the rich control the masses of poor would not have occurred to people 20 years ago, she says. But now, it’s not hard to imagine.
While Doyle believes the country is being led in the wrong direction by its leaders, she also believes there is a growing core of people seeking to be better informed, and that’s a big reason to be hopeful.
One of the objectives of Friday’s memorial at the Rose Garden was to inform people about the realities of war. After the names of the dead soldiers were read—and as the crowd stood motionless beneath the partly cloudy sky—Colin Holtz, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, informed the gathered crowd about some of those realities, not only for soldiers and citizens in the line of fire, but also for those who remain behind.
“With the money we spend on a single minute of the war in Iraq we could pay the annual salary, with benefits, of 15 registered nurses,” Holtz says. “The money spent on one hour of the war in Iraq could be used to improve, repair, and modernize 20 schools. With the money spent on one Stealth bomber we could pay the annual salaries, with benefits, for 38,000 teachers. The money spent on seven unmanned Predator Drones could fund WIC program nutrition for 200,000 families. This is obscene. This is a true war story.”
For Holtz, the story gets more complicated as it becomes clearer that the U.S. has no exit strategy for the conflict, and that many more people will die before it is all over. The possibility that further anniversaries will be commemorated is not far-fetched.
“We’re going to be an occupying force in Iraq for some time to come,” Holtz said after the memorial. “I’m not really sure how we’re going to get out of there. I don’t think any of our politicians are strong enough to just pull us out. I think they would lose too much face…I have no difficulty seeing this turning into a Vietnam that goes on for years.”