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The war and town meeting

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The war and town meeting

In 57 towns across the state residents discussed a resolution during town meeting concerning the use of National Guard troops in the Iraqi war, their role within the state,   and a request for the president and Congress to take steps "to withdraw American troops from Iraq, consistently with the mandate of international humanitarian law."

In 48 towns, the resolution (in one form or another) passed. In three towns it was defeated, and in four it was effectively tabled. In Craftsbury, the resolution ended in a tie. In Addison County the measure was approved in Middlebury, Monkton, New Haven, Salisbury and Weybridge, while it was tabled or passed over in Bristol, Lincoln and Starksboro.

While the resolution was a dominating aspect of some town meetings and insignificant in others, several interesting questions arose from the discussion. First, was it appropriate to hold such a national debate at a venue dedicated to local issues? Second, did the discussion somehow discredit American troops? Third, did the use of Vermont Guard troops in the Iraqi War leave the state unprotected in any way?

The questions are worth quick reflection simply because simi­lar questions are bound to arise at future town meetings.

First, yes; resolutions on non-local issues should be within the purview of town meeting. What, after all, is or is not local? Should Vermonters be able to send a message to Montpelier, Albany or Washington about air pollution from neighboring industrial plants? Does global warming not have a local impact? If Vermonters wanted to champion another version of the Northeast Dairy Compact, would that not be local even though most Vermonters don't farm and the resolutions would be aimed at policies in Washington? And how could anyone think that sending local men and women abroad to fight a war has no impact on any single community? Moreover, how does the conversation do anything but enlighten? Talking about issues is good. Even though conversations can spark heated exchanges, the majority leaves the conversation having heard differing perspectives and feeling more understanding of the broader issue. That's the goal, and usually the result.

Second, does the conversation discredit the troops? It should not. The primary lesson American citizens learned from the Vietnam experience was that protests should be directed at the policy, not the soldiers carrying out that policy. And Americans of all political perspectives have honored that lesson in this war and the conflicts fought since Vietnam. That active soldiers might perceive an affront to their service is to misunderstand America -- a nation founded on the principles of free speech, of questioning national policy openly and without fear of retribution, of challenging authority and -- in this day and age -- questioning the veracity of the information provided by the government. We know now that President Bush committed troops into battle even though Saddam Hussein posed no threat to our national security.

American citizens have a right to question whether the wars we fight are necessary, honestly represented, and in the best interest of the nation. Our troops should respect that civic responsibility, just as citizens should respect the soldiers' duty to fulfill their commitment with honor.

Third, the resolution asks for a study of the role of the National Guard in serving the state. If nothing else, this simple request, if carried out, would teach many Vermonters about the role of the Vermont National Guard. Certainly, there is no harm in that.

Finally, the request to withdrawal troops was, undeniably, the political aim of the petition. A few towns omitted that part of the resolution and passed the remainder. A few towns voted it down because of its political overtones. Most looked at this part of the resolution as a statement of political sentiment and expressed their viewpoint.

What's interesting is that by considering the resolution communities were engaged in thoughtful discussion about a fundamental issue in our daily lives. And war, when the president and Congress are waging it in America's name, should be our daily concern and a matter of deliberate consideration.

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