All they are saying…
Is the local version of Camp Casey evidence of a galvanized peace movement in this country?
On a mid-August Saturday in a small patch of shade on the southern edge of Chico’s Children’s Park, Bob Trausch sits on a short lawn chair and talks about the prospects of peace while traffic passes behind him along First Avenue.
The temperature is above 100 degrees. Besides the vehicles passing by, there is little movement. The drifters and homeless gathered on the cement island bus stop where The Esplanade merges onto First sit quietly in the oppressive heat.
Every once in a while, someone on a Saturday errand slips into or out of Collier’s Hardware on the other side of First Street.
The camp consists of a blue tent, signs proclaiming the advantages of peace over war or criticisms of the president, an American flag at half-staff, a dry-erase board with a schedule of activities and a table of fliers, documents and other peace-related information.
Halfway across the world, America is bogged down in military action that increasingly resembles Vietnam—even some Republicans are making the comparison, almost defiantly saying the word “quagmire.”
A couple of thousand miles southeast of Chico, Camp Casey [see page 18] and its attendant pack of media hounds and counter protestors are rooted outside George Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch, where the president is enjoying the third week of his latest vacation.
Back in Chico, Trausch and his fellow war protestors are marking the 15th day of their local version of Camp Casey; the first camp in the nation, they say, that popped up in support of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Casey Sheehan, the dead soldier for whom the original camp is named.
Camp Casey in Crawford seems to have coalesced into a national peace movement. In cities and towns across the country camps like the one in Chico sprung up just as the president’s approval ratings reached all-time lows.
Support for the war among Middle America is crumbling, and once that happens, history says, there is no rebuilding it.
The Catholic Church has come out strongly against the war.
“I’m against it,” said Father Mike Newman, who leads the congregation at Chico’s Newman Center.
“I lived in Washington during the Vietnam War and did protest. I walked around the Washington Monument hundreds of times. This war is based on false pretenses and I’m pretty much in line with those who are protesting it.
“I just think we should be against the war, but support the men and women over there with our prayers.”
Still, support for Sheehan among the left is not unanimous. Cartoonist Ted Rall recently penned a cartoon critical of Sheehan’s crusade. [See page 19.]
Locally, Iraqi war vet Garth Talbott, whose frontline report questioning the purpose of the war was printed in this paper two years ago, recently sent us the following letter, grounded in a soldier’s loyalty to his brother warrior:
“Poor, poor Casey Sheehan. He knew what he was doing. He knew what could happen. I told some of my buddies about Cindy … all men from my old unit in Iraq, and every one of them said the same thing. ‘He’s lucky he’s dead. If my mom pulled some shit like that, I’d kill myself.’ Funny, the differences in thought process between the ones who actually do it and the ones who don’t have a clue, don’t you think?”
Today the Chico camp is gone. It was dismantled Aug. 31 after 21 days of 24-hour occupation by volunteers hoping to keep those of us numbed by the repeated reports of roadside bombs and dead soldiers, well aware of the of the fact the United States is at war.
Sheehan, in the meantime, has packed up her camp and begun with her fellow protestors a three-week “Bring Them Home Now Tour,” which will make stops in 25 states, ending in Washington, D.C., for a Sept. 24 anti-war march.
Trausch, 61, is former director of the Chico Peace and Justice Center. A native of Illinois, he wears his hair in a long, graying ponytail and sports a gray beard. Though he’s devoted much of his adult life to the quest for peace, he is not your typical peacenik.
He served in the Marine Corps in the early 1960s, before the Vietnam War began to escalate. He was stationed in Japan and ended his service just before his unit was shipped off to the jungles of South Vietnam for a “police action” that would turn into a 10-year participation in an un-winnable civil war.
Though he missed the Vietnam War, it was a conflict that would in time shape his views on war and peace.
Trausch is self-employed; he owns and maintains a couple of rentals in town. He has a tendency, at least in the summertime, to wear sleeveless shirts, which reveal wiry, muscular arms. Trausch looks to be in great shape. Indeed, a few years back he walked across America to make a stand for peace.
He speaks with passion and an urgency to his message, which is delivered with just a hint of a blunt Midwest accent.
“In the evening what happens is we have a signup of people looking to stay the night,” Trausch explained on the Saturday we visited him at the camp.
“All kinds of people come here. As we’ve discovered at night there is a need for food, for water, for conversation. Ex-military, families, night people, people with other problems.”
As he is talking a man in a vehicle passing by yells, “Fuck you.” Either Trausch doesn’t hear or he’s learned to tune out such unsolicited advice from disagreeable passersby. Other drivers beep in support as they pass. Supporters, Trausch say, outnumber detractors by at least 20-to-1.
The police, he said, have given them a lot of respect and trust that people promoting peace will not cause trouble.
He said at least 50 people were coming out in support of the camp itself, helping to keep it going.
“There are people who come by who are unsure how they can support he troops so we dialogue about these things.
“And I have moms and dads [of soldiers] coming saying, ‘We don’t know what to do. We have to live in fear.’ They are waiting for the phone call to come every day. You want to support your son or daughter but you don’t know what to do.”
He said he’s been in touch with the Peace Institute on the Chico State University campus hoping to set up a “safe place” where these people can go to talk about their fears and angers.
“We hope to bridge the understanding that the most powerful thing we can do to support the troops is the truth. The truth will bring those people home because they were sent there on a lie.
“They joined out of a feeling of patriotism and democracy and were sold a false bill of goods. Everyone knows that in America, but now we hear the rhetoric that now that we are there we need to stay.”
He doesn’t buy the argument, like the one used during the Vietnam War, that pulling out now would be a dishonor to those who have already given their lives.
“We’re in a war that is an invasion and occupation—that is what we did—of a sovereign nation under the premise that we could be attacked by this country. Now we know that was a lie. These are our elected officials. The expectation is that we should be told the truth and that we are big enough and smart enough to be told the truth. That includes our own congressperson, Rep. Wally Herger.”
Trausch said his group has been in contact with Sheehan on almost a daily basis. Casey Sheehan had a bit of a Chico connection, according to Rob Sheridan, director of the youth ministry at St. John the Babtist Church. Casey belonged to the youth ministry at St. Mary’s Church in Vacaville, which occassionally held dual retreats with St. John’s youth ministry.
“We did not know that until I talked to Cindy a few weeks ago,” Trausch said. “We had this connection we didn’t know about.”
He is convinced the peace movement is gathering momentum and will hasten the war’s end.
“We have truth on our side,” he said simply. “They have their media dogs attacking Cindy. We get a very biased picture.”
Ron Hirschbein is a member of the Peace Institute. He’s taught a Chico State class on the philosophy of war and peace for 20 years. He is not so confident that the peace movement will be successful or even sustained.
Hirschbein’s comments are measured. He has the attitude of a guy who’s spent hours trying to coax opinions out of classroom of college students who for the most part don’t seem to care about the world beyond their immediate horizons.
One of the big differences between this war and the one fought 40 years ago in Southeast Asia, is the absence of a military draft.
“There is something very peculiar about the whole thing,” he said of the current peace movement. “When it was almost certain that the war was going to occur there were massive demonstration throughout the world. And then it turns out the administration lied.
“We were told that the Iraqis would welcome the American soldiers and the main problem would be picking up the flower petals that they showered on our troops.
“Now we are in the third year with no end in sight.”
Hirschbein has a 21-year-old son and he thinks about the prospects of returning to a military draft.
That, he said, “would make things seem up-close and personal, really fast.”
He admits he’s at a loss for why the American public has remained so docile to this point, though he has his suspicions.
“If you had to list the conditions that you think would discredit the present administration and even cause a massive cry for impeachment, it would be hard to do better than this.”
But in fact, Hirschbein points out, we are nowhere near that. He points to Bush himself making jokes about not finding the infamous weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the original excuse for going to war.
Part of the problem, he suggested, is the utter lack of outrage among the American people for a government that based a war on lies.
“Clinton lied about a blowjob and that led to an impeachment. I know that is terribly, terribly clichàd to say. But it is a hard one to figure.”
Hirschbein blames the public. There is, he said, not just a lack of truth, but almost a disdain for it.
“Americans,” he said, “just want to be entertained.”
On the last night of Chico’s Camp Casey, Wednesday, Aug. 31, about 120 people showed for a vigil and potluck dinner. People held hands in a circle and sang. Those gathered ranged from young girls with spiked punk hairdos to older gentlemen wearing “Impeach Bush” T-Shirts. Five Vietnam veterans spoke about their experiences.
This marked the end of the camp’s 20th day. Attendees were encouraged to take away the 90 tiny white crosses arranged to represent each of the soldiers who’d died since Bush went on vacation on Aug. 1. Take them home and put them in your yards, they were told.
Toward the end of the evening, as people ate food off of paper plates, the gathering had the feeling of a family reunion.
“You can’t imagine how much we’ve learned out here,” Truasch said. “We’ve learned how people feel about the war. There has been a transition, a shifting. You can feel it.”
The effort will continue with regular meetings at both the park and offices of the Peace and Justice Center, Trausch said.
But for now, the regular schedule of everyday life in Chico was knocking on the door.
“I’ve gotta get some work done,” Trausch said as he spooned salad onto his plate. “But it’s not over.”