Congressmen leap out of cabs along Independence Avenue, some preparing to conduct business for the first time as the people’s representatives. But before they even get in the door, there is a message waiting for them—and it is being delivered by a Marine.
Even out of uniform, Sgt. Liam Madden looks every bit the dutiful jarhead. His dark hair is cut short, his posture stiff and composed, his square jaw barely moves when he speaks. Even in the blistering cold, while reporters look for shelter from the wind, Sgt. Madden’s arms stay at his sides. Dozens of microphones form a media bouquet on the podium, leaving no place for him to rest his notes before he speaks. Facing the television cameras that frame his stern face against the Capitol dome, Madden’s bearing says that he is on a mission. In his hands he holds a message for Congress. The communication reads
As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.
Simple, devoid of radicalism, and most important to Madden, legal. This Appeal for Redress to End the War in Iraq has been signed by over 1,100 members of the Armed Forces, including 100 officers. Delivering it to Congress after the Martin Luther King holiday, Sergeant Madden isn’t nervous. But he never expected to be doing this.
Out of high school in Bellows Falls, Vermont, Madden could not see himself succeeding in college. Like many young men he longed for “structure and direction.” He wanted to challenge himself. The military could provide him a way into maturity and, when he was ready, the means for a college education. Enlisting in the fall of 2002, he thought he would serve in Afghanistan. He wasn’t afraid: “I was willing to take the risk. … I wanted to go.” Despite his aversion to working with computers, he specialized in communications. “I signed an open contract. Whatever the Corps needs, I’ll do.”
Madden’s journey from dutiful Marine to citizen protestor wasn’t typical. His skepticism about the war in Iraq was immediate, but his sense of duty overwhelmed his doubts. He arrived in Al Anbar province in the fall of 2004. He kept telling himself, “I am not doing this for the war, I’m doing it for my fellow Marines. It’s not fair to them if I don’t do my utmost and do it with pride.” His sympathy for the overworked infantry moved him to volunteer his free time filling in for exhausted Marines on patrol. Except when speaking with peers in his rank, Madden kept his doubts quiet. His seven-month tour helped confirm his belief that America’s presence was not making Iraq safer.
On leave from Quantico in June 2006, Sergeant Madden went to Norfolk, Virginia to visit friends. It was a summer Friday night, and the plan was to find a bar and forget the troubles of military life. Instead, his friends dragged him to a screening of the antiwar documentary “Sir! No Sir!” at the YMCA, hosted by Professor David Cortright and Navy Seaman Jonathan Hutto. It was the tense encounter of these three men that set the appeal into motion.
Cortright looks like an Irish priest from the movies, his white hair parted to the side over a bright red face and an easy smile. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968 and completed his service in 1971. He now teaches Peace Studies at Notre Dame, and when he isn’t in class or writing, he is a leading peace activist. It was Cortright’s 1975 book Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War that inspired Hutto to invite him to Norfolk. In it, Cortright documents the widespread dissent within the U.S. military that led to combat refusals and open mutiny. He argues that this resistance, accompanied by the protests of Vietnam veterans, was crucial to changing public opinion about the war and ending U.S. involvement in Indochina.
Many active-duty military who went to the Norfolk event were “electrified” by Cortright, Madden would later report. He was not. Ever the skeptic, he protested during the question-and-answer period: “Vietnam had a conscripted force. We volunteered for this.” He reasoned that there is now no huge movement in the streets and college campuses like the 60s, and besides, most personnel love the service.
Unsatisfied by the answers he received, Madden began to leave, but Hutto buttonholed him: “We have to talk about this.” There was only one argument Madden found convincing after all: “We can’t just do nothing.”
Although they felt some affinity for the Vietnam veterans Cortright touted as models of resistance, Hutto and Madden wanted a legal outlet for their dissent. It would be impossible to appeal to a broad part of the military otherwise.
Hutto began studying “the regs.” He found that under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, service members are free to make protected communication to a member of Congress. Military personnel can even demonstrate against a war as long as they are off base, off duty, and out of uniform.
Madden still had concerns. Even if soldiers and Marines are protected from reprisals under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, what about informal punishments—tough assignments and denial of simple requests? “To be honest, that’s exactly what I expected,” he admits. But it hasn’t come yet. Madden has ascended to the highest rank possible in his four years of service, a fact he relates with evident pride. Madden even speculates that, though his immediate superiors may not appreciate his activism, there are people above them protecting him.
Some antiwar groups, even those helping the appeal, have more sweeping goals. Kelly Dougherty, a spunky veteran of Colorado’s National Guard, participated in the invasion of Iraq, patrolling Nasiriyah as a military police officer. She now heads Iraq Veterans Against War, which speaks with the strident voice of its Vietnam era predecessors, denouncing “the corporate pillaging” of Iraq, heroizing “war resisters,” disseminating information about going AWOL, and calling for reparations for Iraq. The IVAW spirit is one of righteous anger, but it is cluttered with radicalism. Madden approached the Capitol in a blue suit and tie. Dougherty wore a black sweatshirt and bandana around her hair.
The simple patriotism expressed in the appeal and by its spokesman may make it more attractive to civilians and military alike than more conventional protests. “The system” is not the enemy this time—the policy is. The signatories are not looking to reform all of American society but instead challenge an already unpopular war. There is no ideological content to the appeal’s language, and Madden’s statements to the media have highlighted his gratitude for living in a country that affords him the right to speak, to seek redress, and to openly call for an end to the war.
Hutto announced the appeal in an editorial in the Navy Times on Oct. 29 last year. By word of mouth, it gathered nearly 1,000 signatures within eight weeks. For an all-volunteer force, this was unprecedented.
Receiving the appeal, Rep. Dennis Kucinich dared his fellow congressman to be brave and to begin defunding the war, “The American people voted for a change, and now Congress must respond.” But when asked whether the appeal will have an important effect on their votes, Madden turns distinctly cold: “I’m a realist. I know that a thousand, or several thousand signatures isn’t going to make votes for withdrawal appear from nowhere.”
Then why risk it? According to Madden, Congress can receive his message or they can choose to ignore it. The appeal enters his name and his convictions into the Congressional Record. It’s a chance to give other service members a voice they didn’t know they had. It is also a chance to say to the public that the troops feel as they do. “I have faith in the American people. Congress has an approval rating of 30 percent, the president has an approval rating of 30 percent, “ he notes. “The American people will end this war.”
For now, Madden is waiting to hear about his college applications to Northeastern and Emerson. He expects to receive his honorable discharge from the Marines later this year. His disappointment with the media in the run up to the war in Iraq may have shaped his plan to major in journalism. But just as he volunteered for extra patrols in Al Anbar, he cannot put his life ahead of his comrades in arms. He joined the Marines to give his life direction before he went to college. Now he finds himself asked to visit university campuses as an antiwar speaker. The feeling these invitations inspire is familiar: he’s reluctant but always proud to serve.