The war over the war is coming to Washington next month, with an event sponsored by the Pentagon one weekend, a peace rally organized by antiwar groups another and rancor swelling on both sides.
The Pentagon's Freedom Walk on Sept. 11 is billed as a memorial to victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks and a show of support for those serving in the military. Some have welcomed the event as a counter to the antiwar movement. The antiwar groups say it's an attempt to boost the war effort that is orchestrated to preempt their peace rally.
That rally, planned for Sept. 24, is being organized by the ANSWER Coalition and other groups as a major protest against the Iraq war, but other causes have been tossed into the mix, including support for Palestinians and opposition to U.S. policy in Haiti and the Philippines.
Some who support the rally say it is gaining momentum and supporters, motivated by the recent protests outside President Bush's ranch near Crawford, Tex., and the Freedom Walk.
Planning for the Freedom Walk began in July, when folks at the Department of Defense said they wanted to create a national movement on Sept. 11 that would begin in Washington and spread across the country in years to come, said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for communications.
In the past few years, she said, "people rang bells, lit candles and held vigils to remember lives lost on that tragic day. . . . But as a nation, we didn't have a unified way to commemorate September 11th."
So officials at the Pentagon, where 184 people died in the attack, decided to open the attack site and memorial chapel to the general public for the first time Sept. 10. Then, for the next day, they planned the America Supports You Freedom Walk, which will wend its way from the site to the Mall.
Some critics weren't originally against the commemoration. "I thought it would've been a nice gesture if that's all it was. But I don't believe in tying September 11th to anything else," said Craig Sincock, whose wife died in the Pentagon attack. "Now it's too big and there's too much. I'll go and support the troops any day, but I won't support the troops on the back of my wife's death."
What soured Sincock and raised the hackles of antiwar groups was the Freedom Walk's tie-in to the military's "America Supports You" campaign -- a Department of Defense effort to bolster support for all U.S. troops, but primarily those in Iraq.
"This is yet another attempt to link the war to September 11th," said Patrick Resta, who served in Iraq last year as a combat medic and a member of the Army National Guard. "My aunt and uncle were killed in the World Trade Center, so I have strong feelings about this, and it's not right."
Sincock and some other family members of Pentagon victims will participate in the less controversial Unity Walk, which will take mourners along Embassy Row, stopping at churches, temples, mosques and other places of worship on the afternoon of Sept. 11.
The Department of Defense has tried to be careful in shaping its walk, using such words as "freedom" and avoiding any specific mention of the war on terrorism.
The Washington Post and other corporate entities signed up as co-sponsors. But critics from within the paper and from the antiwar movement said partnering with the Pentagon raised questions about objectivity, and two weeks ago, The Post pulled its co-sponsorship.
Other media co-sponsors -- WTOP radio, WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8 -- plan to continue their support.
"I don't know what people can be critical of when you look at the purpose of the Freedom Walk. It's to commemorate the victims of September 11th and their families and veterans, past and present," Barber said. "It's unfortunate when things get misconstrued."
The other side sees plenty to criticize.
"There has been this perpetual linking of September 11th to the war in Iraq by the Bush administration, and this is another example of it," said David Portori, who organized a group that advocates for a peaceful U.S. policy after his brother died in the World Trade Center attacks. "There are 364 other days in the year that the Pentagon can ask America to support the troops. September 11th should be a day for honoring the dead, the innocents."
Organizers of the antiwar rally said they were very conscious about avoiding that date. "We have steered clear of September 11th," said Brian Becker, national director of ANSWER, an antiwar collective that demands a hands-off U.S. foreign policy worldwide.
Opponents of the Freedom Walk see a pro-war side even in how the Department of Defense is staging its event. When the walk was first publicized, each participant was required to submit his or her name, age, e-mail address and home address. After some groups accused the Pentagon of using the registration as a recruiting tool for the military, the requirements were changed.
Barber said the government now asks for a full name, age group, T-shirt size and e-mail address (each registered walker will get a T-shirt). Walkers have until Sept. 9 to register, which can be done online. Several thousand have registered, Barber said, saying that the process is like that for a 10K run.
The entertainment planned for the event has hit another nerve among critics. A headliner, Clint Black, is to many an all-American country singer. "There will be no speeches, no demonstrations," Barber said. "A guy like Clint Black, he cares about our victims, our families."
But one of Black's signature songs, "I Raq and Roll" -- with lyrics about "a high-tech GI Joe" with "infrared," "GPS" and "good, old-fashioned lead" -- makes others cringe. "That's just a very pro-war song and not right for this kind of thing," Portori said.
Supporters of the walk say that all the complaints are pointless and that there are no hidden motives.
"I know the Pentagon is trying to do the right thing," said Marcus Flagg, a former Navy fighter pilot who lost both parents in the Pentagon attack. "I hope this doesn't turn into a pro-war rally. I support the troops, sure, but that's not what this is about."
The military overtones are inevitable, given that most of the victims in the Pentagon attack worked for the armed services, Flagg said.
He added: "Yes, the Pentagon is putting it together. But the Pentagon was attacked that day."