Wisconsin Voters Prepare to Weigh In On the War in Iraq

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006

WATERTOWN, Wis. -- In an exercise that one side calls democracy and the other considers a disservice, voters in 30 Wisconsin towns will cast ballots next month on whether the Bush administration should withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

From Baraboo and Monona to Madison and La Crosse, antiwar activists invoked a 1911 state law to schedule a bring-the-troops-home referendum designed to send a message to Congress and the White House that the war is costing too many lives and too much money.

Watertown, a conservative city of 23,000 on the Rock River, voted strongly for President Bush in the past two elections, yet war opponents had no trouble gathering nearly 1,000 signatures to put the referendum on the April 4 ballot. The City Council objected, but it was overruled by a local court.

Letters from readers flew into the popular "Voice of the People" section of the Watertown Daily Times. Posters began popping up. Veterans groups, including the American Legion, have been discussing how to turn a referendum they oppose into a victory for U.S. forces.

Meaning and motivation are discussed as heatedly as the referendum itself.

"We got accused of splitting the community," said Penny Eiler, 59, an organizer of the ballot question. "We weren't the ones who split the community. It was split already. All we did was give the people who didn't have a voice a voice."

Nationally, three years after the U.S. invasion, 76 cities have passed resolutions calling for troops to come home, most recently Corvallis, Ore., and Lansdowne, Pa. Among them are Chicago; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Gary, Ind., as well as dozens of towns in Vermont.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month found that 57 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war has not been worth fighting, with 52 percent saying U.S. troop levels should be decreased. Among that group, one-third said withdrawal should be immediate.

Peace groups have waged counter-recruitment drives at high schools and colleges across the country, pressing to provide information tables or teach-ins about alternatives to military service. Antiwar organizations have scheduled hundreds of protests and other events to mark the war's third anniversary this weekend, yet the national effort to end the war has proved fitful.

"Attitudes are a little more complicated than thumbs up or thumbs down," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "Americans do care about Iraq, but it doesn't have the personal impact that the war in Vietnam had. Secondly, this is a more patriotic time. Even though the public is disillusioned with the war in Iraq, it tends to support the concept of preemptive war at a time when most people feel we're at risk."

Objections to the war in Wisconsin, which has long had twin streaks of activism and iconoclasm, have been growing steadily, to the dismay of Watertown residents such as Steve Gillis, who wears a green T-shirt that says "Army tradition."

The father of a soldier who served recently in Iraq, Gillis spent more than 20 years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, and he does not like what the referendum is doing to his town or the troops he admires.

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