by Ann Wright Commondreams 3/14/08

As a 29 year US Army/Army Reserves Colonel and a U.S. diplomat who resigned in March 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq, I am very proud of the city of Berkeley, California. Berkeley and her citizenry have had the courage to stand on their peace convictions and declare that it does not want its youth recruited into the illegal Iraq war. Neither the action of Berkeley City council, nor the actions of the anti-war groups that oppose the location of the office in Berkeley, mean they are anti-military, or that they are “traitors” to their country. Rather, the actions reflect the sentiment of the people of Berkeley that they can “Support the Troops,” but also acknowledge publicly that one of the most effective strategies to resisting the war in Iraq is to make it harder for the military to find young people to send as cannon fodder.

It is not news that Berkeley has a long history of peace activism. In the 60’s the Berkeley Free Speech Movement challenged the University of California’s restrictions on student political activity and the right to speak and organize on the campus. The Berkeley campus was a center of civil rights and anti-war agitation.

Almost forty years later, on February 11, 2003, the Berkeley City Council adopted a resolution that expressed its opposition to “pre-emptive” military action against Iraq. Five years later, in February, 2008, the City Council of Berkeley, reflecting the continuing mood of her citizenry, declared its opposition to the occupation of Iraq by asking the US Marine Corps to remove its officer recruiting station from just off University Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, where it is 2 short blocks from the University of California and four blocks from Berkeley High School. Today, concerned and engaged Berkeleyans remain outside of the recruiting station getting more creative with their peaceful resistance to the attempted militarization of their youth and ready to put a measure on the ballot that would further limit the reach of recruiters into their community.

With a recruiting budget ranging into the billions, the military services tempt young high school students with large signing bonuses up to $20,000, home loan opportunities for enlistees, and citizenship for non-citizens. Military recruiters make daily forays into high schools throughout our country, with video games, military paraphernalia and promises of college money and non-combat positions to teens of color and from low-income communities. In many schools recruiters are so integrated into the schools that they have reserved parking spaces.

The request by one city council that one recruiting station be removed from its community does not pose a threat to the national security of the United States. Yet, the Bush administration has created a firestorm over the actions of the City council and anti-war groups by giving “hate” talking points to conservative radio and TV talk show hosts and ordering right-wing street organizations to descend on Berkeley. The anger and virulence of right-wing rhetoric indicates the depth of concern the administration has about its ability to recruit for the war in Iraq and for other potential conflicts. These right-wing groups are even going so far as to launch a new study about the supposed violence perpetrated on Recruiting Stations around the country- with direct reference to the peaceful Berkeley campaign.

Berkeley may be the only city to make a request for the recruiters to close shop, but each week counter-recruitment groups in cities all over our country stage peaceful protests in front of US military recruitment centers. The protestors hope to focus public attention on the unprofessional recruiting practices employed by over-worked and stressed out recruiters who are trying to sell a highly unpopular war to an increasingly hostile public. Many peace organizations greet potential recruits outside military recruiting stations with literature that points out information on military service that recruiters never disclose to recruits and with questions to ask recruiters.

As anti-war sentiment has increased in our country, recruiters are having a harder time filling their quotas. Educational standards for recruitment have been reduced. People with criminal records are allowed to join. Potential recruits are told that there is no war. Recruiters bend the rules, and among other illegal practices, let persons with known drug addictions join the military. Other recruiters sexually assault potential recruits. A 2006 Associated Press investigation revealed that across all military services, one out of 200 frontline recruiters-those who deal directly with young people-was disciplined for sexual misconduct in 2005.

The Berkeley City Council’s original language that the Marine recruiting office “is not welcome in the city, and if recruiters choose to stay, they do so as uninvited and unwelcome intruders” has been removed from the Council’s February 13 statement, but the sentiment remains that the Council and the people of Berkeley do not want the youth of their city recruited into this war.

Free speech is the right of our citizens, even when the speech criticizes our government and its actions. The people of Berkeley have stated their adamant opposition to the war in Iraq. This should not be misconstrued as hostility to the young people in our armed forces or as a lack of loyalty to our country. Dissent is a form of patriotism, and the government should listen to its citizens clamoring for an end to this disastrous war.

Ann Wright served 29 years in the US Army and US Army Reserves and retired as a colonel. She served 16 years in the US diplomatic corps in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Micronesia and Mongolia. She resigned from the US Department of State in March, 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq.