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Antiwar support at different drummer: veterans organize GI coffeehouse outside military base cafe.

For Phillip Aliff, the seeds of doubt over the Iraq war were present prior to his enlistment in the Army. On Feb. 15, 2003, he marched with millions of others around the world not convinced by President Bush's justifications for a war with Iraq.

A year and a half later he joined the military tasked with fighting that war.

"I joined skeptical, but I pretty much needed money for college, you know, like every other working-class story," Aliff said.

His skepticism turned to complete disgust with the war after he served his first tour as an infantryman in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.

"We were told the mission was essentially to win the hearts and minds," he said. "So once you get over there and you realize that you are suppressing these people through violence and every day in the middle of the night searching their houses, breaking their stuff, treating them like second-class human beings just day after day after day, it kind of solidified [in me] that what we're doing is wrong and that being a part of that is something that we should all try and fight against."

But how to do that when one's job is to go to war was the question Aliff and other like-minded friends in the service asked themselves upon returning from Iraq last year.

In May, in a coffeehouse in the small military town of Watertown, N.Y., located outside the Fort Drum military base where Aliff is stationed, he and other soldiers met with civilian antiwar allies to answer that question.

The upshot of their meetings was a plan for the first active-duty chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War--a milestone in the Iraq antiwar movement.

Modeled after the highly influential Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which at its height had over 20,000 members, the much smaller Iraq Veterans Against the War has long known that its success at derailing Bush administration war plans depends heavily on the willingness of active-duty soldiers to join the Iraq veterans' organization in dissenting from their mission.

"The role we have is a very special one," said Liam Madden, a Marine from 2003 to 2007 and a national leader of Iraq Veterans Against the War who addressed service members gathered at the chapter formation meetings in Watertown. "We're the soldiers and veterans and the who have access to soldiers and veterans in the active duty [forces] and this is extremely important. ... We can't be written off."

During the Vietnam era, soldier dissent took many forms and played a critical, but sometimes forgotten, role in bringing to a halt U.S. aggression in Southeast Asia, writes historian of the GI resistance movement David Cortright in his book Soldiers in Revolt. In addition to iconic protests staged in Washington by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, there were numerous actions on military bases involving enlisted service people. Resistance ranged from soldier leafleting and participation in demonstrations to insubordination, desertion and outright mutinies. An internal study commissioned by the Army during the height of the war found such resistance to be pervasive among troops, with 47 percent of low-ranking soldiers surveyed involved in some form of dissent or disobedience.

One important catalyst to that era's GI movement, Cortright writes, was the presence of organized civilian support networks for soldiers opposing the war. Starting in 1967, civilian antiwar activists, many of them former soldiers, began opening "GI coffeehouses" in military base towns. The coffeehouses served up counterculture music and entertainment, functioned as places "independent of military influence where [soldiers] could meet and freely exchange ideas about the war and the Army," Cortright writes. Numbering about 20 throughout the country, they quickly became hubs of soldier dissent and civilian-soldier interchange within the antiwar movement, serving as organizing spaces for GI-led demonstrations, newspapers and soldier strikes that undermined the government's ability to wage war.

Now, some four decades later, civilian anti-war activists once again are using the GI coffeehouse model to encourage a new soldier antiwar movement, with recent Iraq Veterans Against the War developments at Fort Drum at the epicenter of these efforts.

The Different Drummer Cafe--promoted by organizers as the first GI coffeehouse of the Iraq war era--opened in November 2006 in Watertown as a project of the national GI rights group Citizen Soldier and local civilian activists. A coffeehouse in spirit more than an actual cup and saucer establishment, The Different Drummer is a sparsely furnished but spacious lounge-cum-Internet cafe located in the center of downtown Watertown, just miles from the Fort Drum military base.

Cindi Mercante is the project's lone paid staffer. A former soldier herself from a military family, Mercante took an interest in the coffeehouse in part because she wanted to challenge the conservative mindset of fellow residents living near Fort Drum.

"People would walk by [the coffeehouse]," Mercante said of the opening months in its existence, "and say, 'Are you antiwar or are you for the soldier?' and I'd say, 'Well stop and think about it. Why can't you be both? Where is the quandary?'"

For those soldiers who make use of the facility and identify with its explicit antiwar message, there is no contradiction. They credit the bare-bones operation with "being for them" byproviding a space in which they can find their activist footing.

"[The Different Drummer] gives us a place to go, if nothing else. It helps," said the secretary of the Fort Drum Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter, who asked to go only by his first name, Andy, for fear of negative repercussions from superiors.

Military regulations on soldier speech are such that political activism is punished if engaged in on base, in uniform or on duty. This has given the Different Drummer an indispensable role for antiwar soldiers who turn to it as a site for off-duty meetings and organizing sessions.

The coffeehouse has served as a critical link between national leaders of Iraq Veterans Against the War and soldiers at Fort Drum interested in war resistance but lacking ties to a broader movement. The group's organizers have repeatedly been brought into Watertown by the the Different Drummer, which hosted the late April meetings at which the Fort Drum chapter was established.

That chapter, not yet two months old, is significant for its existence and location if not yet for its size. With 10 registered members, it is small by the standard of organized GI antiwar activity in the Vietnam era. But as the first registered on-base group of Iraq veterans who oppose the war, organizers recognize its potentially historic importance and hope that the Fort Drum chapter is just the start of things to come.

"This is the most important time right now to build a GI movement," said Aliff, the president of the Fort Drum chapter, "because we need to show, especially [as] active-duty soldiers, that it's OK to resist the war, to say that the war is illegal. It's OK to demand reparations for the Iraqi people for the damage done to their country. It's OK to ask for better benefits when you get out as a veteran."

In a follow-up interview held three weeks after the chapter formation meetings, Aliff told NCR that in initial conversations with other soldiers about Iraq Veterans Against the War, many have expressed support for such antiwar sentiments, especially as anger toward superiors has festered following the extension of tours of duty in Iraq for all Fort Drum brigades.

One woman personally affected by those extensions is Angela Mendoza, whose husband is based at Fort Drum but currently fighting in Iraq. She found her way to the Different Drummer coffeehouse for a chapter meeting after seeing an ad for it on the Internet. Though her toddler constantly made demands of her, Mendoza stayed for close to two hours, engrossed in the discussion among soldiers, veterans and civilians unified in their opposition to the war. Her response suggests that antiwar soldiers at Fort Drum could gain much greater influence in the months to come.

"It's really refreshing to find people here who feel the same way I'm feeling," she said, indicating a desire to organize soldier families against the war after attending to the personally inspirational meeting. "I've been waiting for this for a long time."

[Emiliano Huet-Vaughn is a freelance writer living in the Kansas City area.]
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Title Annotation:NATION; The Different Drummer Cafe
Author:Huet-Vaughn, Emiliano
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 8, 2007
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