In Vermont: libraries, street repairs, 'no' to Iraq war
Pat Morrison, NCR contributor
Vermonters have a well-deserved reputation for being fiercely independent and liberal. One tradition that validates that opinion is the annual winter exercise of civic duty known as Town Meeting, Vermont's almost universal form of government. In the local patois, it's not referred to as "the town meeting," but simply "Town Meeting," the uppercase letters proclaiming the event's importance. Everybody who's a registered resident even minimally concerned about local and state government turns out for Town Meeting, and not even a nasty Nor'easter dumping double-digit snowfall can deter the hardy locals. This, after all, is Vermont.
Town Meeting is an all-day affair and ever-practical Vermonters come prepared: Women bring their knitting and crocheting; moms tote babies in car seats and bags of toys to keep older siblings occupied during the hours of discussion and voting. Participants take a break at noon for potlucks, where almost everyone brings something, from stew or soup that's been simmering in a crock pot since the school or town hall opened, to home-baked pies.
Much of Vermont's feistiness can be traced to the state's scrappy father figure, Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero who commanded the highly irregular forces called "the Green Mountain Boys." Less well known outside New England is that Allen spent a significant chunk of his life trying to achieve independence for Vermont from the young United States of America! In fact, for a short but storied 14 years there was an actual Independent Republic of Vermont (Jan. 15, 1777-March 4, 1791). Testimony to some citizens' quest for such renewed autonomy is the Web site www.vermontrepublic.org and a great local beer, "Mother Lager," its logo touting the brew's origins in "the People's Republic of Vermont."
Against such a backdrop of independence, it's not surprising that Vermonters believe in solving their own problems, distrust big government and are determined to keep their lovely, isolated state as self-reliant as possible. Town Meeting is the forum where the things that matter for 619,000 Vermonters make it onto the agenda. And in 52 Vermont communities -- a full 20 percent of the state's municipalities -- one agenda item in 2005 was the Iraq war. Amid the communities' pressing practical concerns -- digging new wells, increasing library funding, improving sidewalks on Main Street, environmentally friendly disposal of farm waste -- the resolutions calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq were largely symbolic. The towns, after all, have no power to legislate who goes to war, nor to bring their citizens home. But that didn't deter Vermonters from speaking out against the war and passing resolutions to put their strong sentiments on the record.
The topic of U.S. involvement in Iraq has become intensely personal here. Tiny Vermont has sustained the highest per capita number of deaths in Iraq; the state is second in the per capita number of National Guard and reserve units deployed in the region. Of the state's 251 towns, 200 have citizens who have gone to war, most of them in the Guard and Marines.
That has taken a significant toll on everyday life here. Benson Scotch of Montpelier, who set up the Web site www.iraqresolution.org to promote the measure, notes that Vermont's small towns have experienced a severe loss of key personnel, as police officers, firefighters and other vital service providers have gone off to fight in Iraq. Even that rural Vermont staple of commerce, the country store, has suffered: Many owners have shipped out with Guard units, leaving their communities with no place to buy basic supplies.
Across the state, as the Town Meeting discussions around the resolution stirred passions, citizens were quick to point out that their opposition to the war was in no way a criticism of the troops who are serving or have served. Many a town square is bedecked in yellow ribbons, and almost every third vehicle sports a yellow "Support Our Troops" magnet. And for some ever-utilitarian New Englanders, introducing a foreign policy item on Town Meeting time was eminently impractical. "We got things to fix right here, that need fixing," said one Bradford business owner. "Put the energy there. Cain't do nothing about the war."
But that sentiment was outnumbered by the dozens of anti-war resolutions that were passed around the state. The resolution promoters are convinced they must oppose not only U.S. intervention in Iraq, but the misappropriation and misuse of National Guard troops (whose primary purpose is safeguarding the states at home) and the repeated deployment of those same troops. When Town Meeting was over, several communities that did pass the anti-war resolution stripped down the language to bare-bones opposition to National Guard deployment; some felt it unpatriotic to criticize a war where their neighbors and husbands, sons and daughters were serving.
There's little likelihood the Green Mountain State will secede from the union today. But the former independent republic is making its voice heard. Symbolic and non-binding though they may be, Vermont's Town Meeting resolutions were an important first step to re-assessing the morality of the quagmire that is Iraq. Resolution promoter Scotch described the debate in Thetford (population 2,617) for the Valley News newspaper. "It was a really good, American discussion. … That's how you get down to the basic issues and talk about changes that need to be made."
Pat Morrison, former NCR managing editor, writes from Bradford, Vt.
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