Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Cafe Opens to Serve a Mission to End the War


November 19, 2006
The New York Times

On Veterans Day, John Hartlaub wandered into the newest cafe in Watertown, N.Y.

It was sparsely furnished, with three Internet stations, a black sofa and an offering of hot or cold cider. A customer who actually wanted coffee would have to buy it a few doors away.

Mr. Hartlaub stayed most of the afternoon anyway. He browsed a few dozen military books for sale, then pulled up a folding chair to watch “Poison Dust,” a documentary about the health effects of depleted uranium weapons on soldiers returning from Iraq.

He left with mostly positive feelings. “It could end up being very informative and helpful,” said Mr. Hartlaub, 41, who has served in the military on and off since 1985.

The organizers of the cafe were hoping for such a reaction. But, being not far from the largest military installation in the Northeast, they are prepared for backlash, too.

They say theirs is the country’s first G.I. coffeehouse for the war in Iraq. It is a project of the peace movement that is focused on changing opinions within the military, with an ultimate goal of ending the war.

During the Vietnam War, about 20 G.I. coffeehouses, as they were known, operated around the country. Each was close to a large military base and was intended to support the efforts of soldiers who were against the war. The coffeehouses were incubators for war resistance and part of the counterculture. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were on the jukebox. A decent cup of coffee was on the menu.

“It was extremely important,” said David Zeiger, the writer and director of “Sir! No Sir!” a 2005 documentary about the G.I. movement to end the Vietnam War. “One thing coffeehouses will do is link civilians and soldiers.”

The idea is that the two can meet, learn about movements against the war and talk about the contradictions of what the public hears versus what soldiers have witnessed, he said. In the past, coffeehouse patrons were sometimes subjected to arrests and intimidation. A cafe in Mountain Home, Idaho, was firebombed, and another near Camp Pendleton, Calif., was shot up.

But the main organizer of Watertown’s new coffeehouse, called Different Drummer Internet Cafe, said he did not expect such confrontations this time around. “The military today is very different, and we have to adapt to that,” said Tod Ensign, the organizer, who is also a lawyer and director of Citizen Soldier, a veterans advocacy group in New York City. “The soldiers are all volunteers. The Vietnam protests were driven very much by the draft.”

After Mr. Ensign decided this year to open the coffeehouse, he sent out a few dozen letters asking for financing, including one to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. “They talk a lot about peace,” he said.

The appeals went unanswered. Undeterred, he used small donations from activists, farm workers and war resistance leagues to start the project, which he estimates will cost $50,000 a year. He chose Watertown, a city of 27,000 people near the Canadian border and Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division. The division has deployed more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other in the Army.

Mr. Ensign has three goals for the cafe. They are to allow the free exchange of ideas, to provide accurate information and to be an enjoyable gathering place, with live bands and karaoke. He and his supporters have not decided whether they will serve coffee.

Most in the community do not seem to know what to make of the cafe, several people said. Watertown’s mayor, Jeffrey E. Graham, said he did not attend its ribbon cutting on Oct. 27. In part, because it was inconvenient and in part because he was not sure of the cafe’s purpose. “I don’t think people want to be openly antiwar for fear of dissing the families that make that sacrifice,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t see any harm.”

In the cafe’s first three weeks, foot traffic has been minimal. Its manager, Cinthia Mercante, who served for eight years in the military before the Persian Gulf war started, recently found herself calling out to a few soldiers hovering near the entrance: “Folks, you can come in. We won’t bite.”

Paul Foley, a volunteer who works in highway design, said he hoped the community would warm up to the cafe. “There’s been a little talk,” he said. “But the people who come will see that we’re not dangerous rabble-rousers. We’re just giving people a place to talk.

This was orginally published byThe New York Times on November 19, 2006
November 19, 2006