They started turning out before daybreak in the bitter cold. The antiwar demonstrators amassed on the north side of the Lincoln Memorial chanting demands for peace now. The counterprotesters, fewer in number but no less vocal, gathered on the east side of the Vietnam Wall and shouted political taunts -- many laced with obscenities.
“I got called a commie. A lot of middle fingers are going up. I try to respond with a peace sign,” said Bethany Louisos, 19, who had caravaned from the University of Massachusetts with 10 friends in three cars through a snowstorm to join Saturday’s march at the Pentagon.
“The last thing our troops need to see is the silliness going on here,” Bob Chaney, 57, said, emotion in his voice. An ex-Marine who served in Vietnam, he had flown from Indianapolis to join the counterprotest.
On the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as many as 20,000 people spilled into the heart of the nation’s capital in a sometimes tense demonstration.
The most dramatic moment came when about 200 protesters, some calling themselves anarchists, tried to make their way up to the Pentagon, where security has been fortified since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
They pushed past the boundaries and were held back by police officers in gas masks and riot gear. Many of the protesters, most college age, seemed prepared for a confrontation. Some carried homemade plastic shields, and others wore gas masks or bandannas to protect their faces.
Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, a Pentagon spokesman, said five protesters were arrested, cited and released.
The mile-and-a-half march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon was organized by a coalition of civil rights and peace groups called ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). It was patterned after a demonstration 40 years ago that marked a turning point in the anti-Vietnam War movement, with hippies stuffing flowers into rifles and protesters clashing with police.
Recent polls show that about three in five Americans believe the war was a mistake and do not support President Bush’s push for increasing troop levels.
Saturday’s was the second protest in Washington in six weeks. It drew fewer than the 100,000 who turned out in late January and lacked that rally’s celebrity speakers.
This one was notable for its angrier tone as protesters and counterprotesters faced off around noon amid an odd mix of chants for peace and shouts of profanity. One man held a sign that read: “Peace Sucks.”
The antiwar demonstrators started across the landmark Memorial Bridge toward Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon. They were greeted at the far end with a homemade banner that said: “Go to hell traitors.”
Many of the participants were students and working people who traveled long distances to make their views known.
Some counterprotesters were concerned by rumors of plans to deface the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with spray paint and urine-filled balloons.
Sgt. Robert Lachance of the U.S. Park Police said no memorials were defaced. His department made no arrests.
Angie Frederick, 43, drove from Angola, Ind., with her husband and her son’s fiancee in their 9-year-old Dodge. Her two sons are soldiers; one’s just back from Iraq, and the other is still there.
“There was a lot of cussing,” she said, acknowledging somewhat sheepishly that she had joined in a little, then adding, “But we also sang the national anthem.”
Lisa Olson, 37, a researcher at Columbia University in New York, shared a bus ride with some college students. She had never participated in a peace march before. “I always feel a little silly about these sorts of things, but it seems it really is a way to show we need a different course.”
Maggie Johnson, a 35-year-old homemaker, drove from Detroit with her husband in their hybrid Toyota Prius.
“It’s worth it. We’ve been in Iraq longer than we were in World War II and we’ve accomplished a heck of a lot less. It’s time we wrap it up,” she said.
The airfare from Seattle to Washington was a birthday present from Anne Mosness, 62, to her daughter Jacklyn Wardlow, 41. They wore Code Pink: Women for Peace buttons.
Tim Hill, an ex-Marine sergeant who did two tours in Iraq, called through a megaphone: “Your march is based on lies, and all of you are terrorists.” Other former Marines spent a frigid night guarding the Vietnam wall.
But other veterans, equally passionate, lined up on the other side.
Larry Yepez, 58, took the train from Stockton, Calif., to meet Jack Fitzgerald, 58, who came in from Pittston, Maine. They were part of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines in Vietnam. The last time they saw each other was 40 years ago, when Yepez was wounded and Fitzgerald, a medic, helped save him.
They made contact recently through a squad leader and decided the peace march was as good a place as any for a reunion.
After the crowd had moved on, they stood in the icy wind on Memorial Bridge, each with an arm slung around the other’s shoulder. The back of Yepez’s jacket was embroidered with the phrase “Support Our Troops -- Bring Them Home.”
A loose sign, imploring “Support Our President,” tumbled past.