The New Anti-War Protesters

SANDWICH, N.H. -- By the end of last week, Maggie Porter's brick collection totaled 1,099 -- and counting.

The bricks are meant to depict the coffins that the United States has been transporting to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware since the Iraq War began. Each brick is wrapped in a miniature American flag and labeled with the name of a serviceman or woman who has died in the war.

Over Columbus Day weekend this month, there was a popular local harvest fair a mile or so down the road from Porter's large white house in the rural town of Sandwich, New Hampshire. Porter and her husband, Boone, hauled her bricks out of their cavernous barn and stacked them on a plywood pedestal in their front yard. A blue-and-white sign explained the bricks' intended message: “The True Cost of War.”

The cost of the war in Iraq as measured by returning coffins haunts Porter and her husband. Their 24-year-old son, Charles, is an Army paratrooper who is completing a hitch in South Korea and, more to the point, will soon be subject to redeployment to Iraq.

“I am totally opposed to what my government is doing over there,” Porter told me on a crisp autumn day last week. A tall, slender woman, she was wearing a red-and-gray-check flannel shirt and faded jeans. Her hands were speckled with paint. She had been painting plywood sheets to prepare her exhibit, which she calls an “anti-war installation,” for a redeployment of its own.

“Some of them cried, and some came and knelt, and some brought flowers,” she said, describing the reactions of the people who stopped by her house on Columbus Day weekend. “A few people drove by and shouted, ‘What about 9-11?' But they were in the minority.”

On Friday, the bricks are to be trucked to Concord for display at an anti-war rally on the lawn of New Hampshire's Statehouse.

Porter, 51, didn't set out to be an anti-war activist. She and her husband are lawyers who had a joint practice in Kansas City representing corporate clients until they relocated to New Hampshire three years ago. Boone Porter, 54, now works as a corporate lawyer out of a home office. In the last presidential election, he voted for George W. Bush. Recently, though, they've joined a small but seemingly growing and increasingly organized community of military relatives who are going public with grievances about the Iraq War.

To be sure, many military families support the government's war policy, as a recent poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center suggests. The survey of military families found that 63 percent, compared with only 41 percent of the public generally, approve of Bush's handling of Iraq.

During other wars involving the United States, even ones that divided the nation, members of military families rarely spoke out publicly against the government's policy, according to Lawrence Wittner, a professor of history at the State University of New York at Albany and an expert on U.S. anti-war movements. When military families have taken a public stand during a war, they generally have sought to bolster the government's position. Mothers of children serving in the armed forces, for example, have joined Blue Star Mothers of America Inc., which has supported the troops and promoted patriotism since World War II.

“Military families tend to put the best face on the sacrifice that their relatives have made,” Wittner says. “Therefore, there's a tendency to support the government's position on the war rather than the position of the critics.”

But the Iraq War appears to have galvanized critics among military families to speak out to an unprecedented degree. The most conspicuous example is Lila Lipscomb, the grief-stricken mother featured in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. In the film she sobs as she reads the last letter home from her son, Army Sergeant Michael Patterson, before he was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq. A flurry of recent TV spots sponsored by groups supporting John Kerry for president have been providing a national platform for several military relatives who object to how the Bush administration has been conducting the war.

Brooke Campbell, the sister of a soldier killed in Iraq, appears in an ad that's political action committee says it is broadcasting this week in at least seven battleground states at a cost of more than $1 million. The ad opens with footage of President Bush joking about the futile search for weapons of mass destruction. “My brother died looking for weapons of mass destruction,” Campbell interjects.

Campbell is affiliated with the Band of Sisters, which has about 20 members, all of whom are mothers, wives, or sisters of American soldiers. Organized by Win Back Respect, a pro-Kerry “527” committee, members of the Band of Sisters have taken part in two other TV advertisements and, along with Wesley Clark, have appeared at pro-Kerry rallies in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Columbus, Ohio.

Band of Sisters' backers say that the military families' perspective on the war is especially persuasive in shaping public opinion. “They're explaining to people what the real costs are in terms of families, and that it's real important that the leaders be held accountable,” says Megan Ceronsky, a first-year student at Yale Law School who coordinates the Band of Sisters' appearances.

A similar group, Real Voices, was formed in September by Deane Little, a liberal activist in California. In video clips posted on a Real Voices Web site, two mothers, a brother, and a sister of soldiers who died in Iraq charge that the administration, among other things, misled the nation, rushed to war, and failed to supply U.S. troops with enough body armor. At least one Band of Sisters ad, a mother's lament about her son on a mission in Baghdad, had $200,000 worth of TV airtime, according to the Web site.

The Band of Sisters and Real Voices fault President Bush for how he is handling the war. They differ from Military Families Speak Out, a loose-knit, nonpartisan group launched almost two years ago in the run-up to the war. Military Families Speak Out holds that “the occupation of Iraq by the U.S. military is the problem, not the solution,” said Charley Richardson, who co-founded the group in November 2002 along with his wife, Nancy Lessin, and one other person.

“Regardless of the outcome of the election, we will continue fighting to end this war and bring the troops home now,” said Richardson, a labor educator at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. His son, Joe, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, has already come home. He did a nine-month stint in Iraq and its environs, returning to the United States in May, but could be called back to active duty if the war continues.

The membership of Military Families Speak Out is on the upswing and now numbers more than 1,800, according to Richardson. The group has had a contingent, often including Richardson and Lessin, at every major demonstration against the Iraq War. On October 2 of this year, to take a recent example, a delegation of 50 to 60 people from Military Families Speak Out joined other anti-war groups in a memorial procession from Arlington National Cemetery to the White House, Richardson said.

Observers offer varying reasons why military families, unlike their counterparts during previous wars, have emerged as high-profile critics of the Iraq War. One theory has to do with the Pentagon's heavy deployment to Iraq of the National Guard and reservists, whose families are less well-prepared for the long absences of their loved ones than are the relatives of active-duty personnel.

For Maggie Porter, who signed up as a member of Military Families Speak Out in September, the explanation for her activism is simple. She believes the case that President Bush has made for waging war in Iraq is woefully lacking. “Iraq doesn't have the wherewithal to be any kind of threat to the United States,” she said.

But the war goes on, and Porter said that she shudders to think how many more bricks she might have to wrap with flags. “What I'm worried about,” she said, “is that I'll be written off, 30,000 bricks from now, as a total flake.”

Joseph Rosenbloom is a Prospect senior correspondent.