The Working Waterfront

Remembering conflict on the home front

War’s misery ripples out far and wide

By Tom Groening
Posted 2023-05-31
Last Modified 2023-05-31

Memories of long-ago events are cemented into our hearts and minds when they are baptized in emotion. Where were you when…? Without a visceral response at the “what,” the exact “where” gets fuzzy.

With other big news events in recent weeks—another school shooting, the legal woes of an ex-president—an important anniversary may have been overlooked, but it’s been 20 years since the U.S. under President Bush invaded Iraq.

I have a powerful memory of the day Congress voted to authorize that invasion, and it’s marked by an odd trio of images—bicycle locks, an elevator, and the Marx Brothers.

The protestors refused to leave. Police were summoned. Officers were gracious and professional…

The Bangor Daily News sent me to cover a protest at then-Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office in Bangor as the drum beats built toward the invasion. I think a half-dozen folks had entered Snowe’s office, without being unduly disruptive, and demanded to speak to the senator before she voted. The long-time office manager—a woman I knew slightly—said she would pass on the message to Snowe’s Washington D.C. office, but suggested a phone conversation was unlikely.

The protestors sat on the floor in the small office, and after a couple of hours, three of them—all in their 20s, as I remember it—took those long U-shaped bicycle locks, put them around their necks, connected them to each other, and locked them. The protest had suddenly ratcheted up a notch.

I sometimes wish I could be a more dispassionate observer, but that’s not my make-up. At one point, as the group lay about on the floor of the small office, the manager didn’t lift her leg quite high enough to step over someone, and inadvertently kicked a protestor, though ever so slightly.

The protestors, well, protested, somewhat angrily.

I knew that the office manager had a degenerative nerve disease that no doubt made stepping over them difficult. I quietly told one of the protestors that fact about 15 minutes after the incident.

I could feel the emotions rising in me. I dreaded what the invasion would bring. Nothing happens in a vacuum; the Bush war had philosophical ties to the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks had their genesis in U.S. dealings with the fighters driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, effectively abandoning them after the Soviet withdrawal.

Back in Bangor, the office was preparing to close at 5 p.m. The protestors refused to leave. Police were summoned. Officers were gracious and professional, giving the protestors time to consider leaving before arrests would be made. Most accepted that offer.

The three young adults linked by the locks quietly conferred with each other and agreed to not produce the keys. A locksmith was called. As he gestured and touched the upper chest of one of the women, showing where he would cut the lock, a woman officer scolded him, warning him to keep his hands clear.

Finally, the locks were cut, the three were handcuffed—if memory serves, zip ties were used—and refusing to walk, they were dragged to the elevator door. It was time for me to leave to write my story. As I walked out, the youngest of the three—a woman— was lying on her back, alone, by the elevator, handcuffed.

Her eyes met mine, and I saw fear and the beginning of tears. My tears were on their way, but I held them until I was in my car.

At home that night, I asked the family to join me in watching Duck Soup (1933), the brilliant Marx Brothers satiric comedy about war (“To war! To war! Freedonia’s going to war!”). I wanted my teenaged kids to have a good film education, and of course the Marx Brothers were an essential part.

But it is a satiric film. Groucho and his brothers were in their 30s and 40s when the film was made, and they would have known men who had died or were maimed in the Great War that ended 15 years earlier. The cause of that war still is barely understood, which would not have been lost on those seeing the film and Groucho’s insincere outrage over the perceived slight that triggers the movie war.

My anguish, and the plight of the protestors, pale in comparison to the young men and women in Iraq who were killed, or who walk around today missing a limb or an eye, as well as the young Americans asked to serve in the conflict. We need to count the cost. War is no laughing matter.

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront. He may be reached at