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No to war

Pacifists converge on 'belly of the beast'



If the War Resisters League were looking for confirmation that its work is succeeding, perhaps it wouldn't come to Colorado Springs.

With its five major military installations and numerous military contractors, and as a hub of the Pentagon's budding "Star Wars" program, the Springs is a stark reminder that the world has hardly become a more peaceful place since the League was formed 80 years ago.

Nonetheless, the venerable pacifist organization has picked the city as host for its first national conference in five years, taking place at Colorado College this weekend.

"We are in the belly of the beast," said Rick Bickhart, a local League member who is helping organize the event. "It seemed an appropriate place to have a pacifist conference."

Between 100 and 150 League members will gather at CC's Armstrong Hall Friday through Sunday for panel discussions, seminars, entertainment and even a socialist-vs.-anarchist softball game.

The recent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is likely to be a hot topic. Among the event's keynote speakers is Kathy Kelly of the organization Voices in the Wilderness, who campaigned against the U.S.-backed economic embargo that killed an estimated half million Iraqis over the past decade. Kelly was also in Baghdad during the U.S.-led attack this spring.

The other keynote speakers are Amy Goodman, host of Pacifica radio's award-winning news show "Democracy Now!", and Taos-based author John Nichols.

The event will conclude with a protest at Peterson Air Force Base on Sunday. "What's a conference without some action?" asked Melissa Jameson, a spokeswoman for the League.

All war is wrong

The War Resisters League was formed in 1923 by men and women who had opposed World War I -- many of whom had been arrested for refusing to serve in the conflict -- and who shared the belief that all war is wrong, under all circumstances.

It's a philosophy the group has stuck with, uncompromisingly. While some on the political left believe certain wars can be justified, "we in the WRL don't believe that," Bickhart said. "War is a crime against humanity -- all war."

Many of the League's estimated 9,000 members practice "war tax resistance," refusing to pay federal taxes because, they argue, almost half of the national budget is spent on current and past wars, when obligations such as veterans' benefits and interest on military-related debt are accounted for. Some simply don't pay the taxes they owe; others deliberately keep their income below taxable levels.

The group was heavily involved in the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s and played a central role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. It was also a major organizer of protests against the Vietnam War, and a key player in the nuclear-disarmament campaign of the early 1980s.

Today, the League works on "counter-recruitment," seeking to dissuade young people from enlisting in programs such as the junior ROTC, which predominantly targets poor minority youths. The group is also engaged in organizing against corporate globalization and participated in the Feb. 15 worldwide protests against war on Iraq.

The League's past involvement in the civil-rights movement reflects a belief that war and social justice are intimately connected, says Jameson. Every dollar spent on defense is money that could have been spent on education, youth centers, job training or meal programs. At the same time, poverty, crime and discrimination are all factors that can fuel wars, and they are in themselves forms of violence, the League holds.

Hard time for peace

Considering world events, it may seem as though the League has been fighting a losing battle for the past eight decades.

The United States is perhaps more militarized than ever, with the defense budget skyrocketing to record levels under the George W. Bush administration, thousands of nuclear missiles still on alert, and the Pentagon aiming to take the arms race into space. The United States has waged three wars in the past four years, and many more conflicts are raging around the world, fought to a large extent with U.S.-made weapons.

Still, the League's members aren't discouraged. If anything, the world situation makes the organization's work more needed than ever, Bickhart says.

"It's a hard time to be in the peace movement," he conceded. "But there's no more important time to be working than now."

Jameson, meanwhile, cites the Feb. 15 worldwide protests -- which drew more than 3,000 participants in Colorado Springs alone -- as a cause for optimism.

"The opposition to this most recent war on Iraq was so quickly brought together and so widespread," she said. "I think that was unprecedented, and I think it was a hopeful sign."

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