Saturday, May 24, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

The following accounts are interviews I had with Vietnam War veterans, men of my generation. They reveal examples about the meaning of war and military service to veterans who have risked and who are risking their lives for our country.

Roger – USMC 1969-71

“Being a Marine is like being a member of a brotherhood,” said Roger, who works at the VA hospital in Battle Creek, Mich. Among the many tattoos on his arm is the Marine motto: “Retreat is not an option.”

“If you join the Marines you know it’s the toughest group in the military and that a lot of responsibility is heaped on to Marines, more than in the other services. You honor the flag, the president and never dishonor yourself or your mother. You know that the fellow next to you will take a bullet for you.”

“In the Marines you carry its values with you for the rest of your life, values like honesty, helping others, always being faithful to other Marines, taking care of your own….It’s a brotherhood.”

“Nobody wants to take a life but if the enemy shoots at you and you refuse to shoot back, what do you think is going to happen?”

“You won’t find veterans that believe in war, but you’ll never find a vet who doesn’t believe in his country.”

Roger suddenly realized at the beginning of the Iraq War that “our babies were fighting in a war.” He suddenly started to tear up. When he enlisted in the Marines in 1969, he was a baby, too.

“I guess my mother was really worried. She had four sons in the service at that time.”

Although he stayed in the United States during his service, when he returned from duty his reception was less than what he expected.

“I got spit at and had drinks thrown at me in bars because I was a military man.”

Nevertheless, throughout all these years Roger has remained firm of purpose regarding the Vietnam War: he and his fellow Marines did their duty. Yet, he showed some sympathy and understanding for those who treated him and his comrades so badly:

“They were just taking it out on us because we were in the military.”

Art – USMC 1968-70

“When you’re 18 you think war is a big adventure,” said Art who enlisted in the Corps right out of high school because he had no other direction in life and “didn’t know any better.” After he finished his tour, he got a job at the U.S. Post Office where he’s worked ever since.

“When you get there [in Vietnam], you find out they are shooting real bullets.”

Art said he started questioning the idea of war in the spring of 1969 when he first went into combat. His life was forever changed.

He arrived in Vietnam just after the Tet Offensive and was assigned to a clean-up maneuver in the northern-most province of South Vietnam near Da Nang. He encountered many small skirmishes, but the happy-go-lucky extrovert said he soon adopted a cynical outlook on life.

“A certain feeling overcame me when people started shooting at me. It put me in a reflective mode. I began to lose my life and ask about the nature of our existence in this world.

Art doesn’t claim to be a spiritual or religious man, at least not in organized religion, but when he was in intense combat he had a “out-of-body experience.” As he found himself elevated above the battle below, he realized he could have died there.

“I came to appreciate the gift of life that God gives us and realize that it’s a shame that we squander it in conflicts.”

Art is especially concerned about the psychological damage done to young men in war and how it affects everyone around them: their family, spouse, kids and co-workers. He knows Vietnam vets who have struggled with lifetime repercussions because of that war.

“Why should we send the young in harm’s way? They have no sense of risk and they’re not old enough to reflect on the value of the life they have been given. They think they will either be heroes or dead men, but then there’s a gray area they don’t think about: what if they get wounded?”

Vietnam War statistics show that 58,226 soldiers were killed or classified as missing in action and 153,303 were wounded.

“I’m not sure about the spiritual existence after this life, so I appreciate the life I have here and now. I savor the moments. It makes war and killing so senseless.”

George – U.S. Navy 1967-69

George had never visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. so before the January 2003 peace march began, he and I decided to spend some time there.

On that cold, 20-degree day, we walked in silence to the memorial. As we neared the deep gouge in the earth, I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach. This was our generation’s war. It was George’s war.

We walked a few yards into the memorial and looked at the names engraved on the shiny, black granite wall. Even in his silence it was obvious George was deeply touched.

We continued about a quarter into the walkway until George stopped. He had a “peace on earth” sign with him and we took photos of each other holding it. Then he wanted to leave.

As we left the walkway a solitary security guard suddenly appeared near the entrance and told us that signs were prohibited at the memorial.

“Peace on earth,” the guard said as he read our sign out loud. “What an idea.”

As George rolled up the sign and put it under his arm, the guard saw us fumbling to capture the meaning of his words.

“You don’t think I’m for war, do you?” he snapped.

The guard probably saw hundreds of people a day at the memorial. As the prospect of a new war loomed, just 30 years after this one, he had pulled duty at the stark, black wall with the 58,000 names etched on it.

George and I walked on to the huge white “temple” nearby, the Lincoln Memorial. We climbed the smooth marble steps and gazed at the towering sculpture of the somber president who oversaw a divided nation, which resulted in the deaths of 620,000 soldiers, according to some estimates. Now, nearly 150 years later, we were a divided nation once again on the brink of war, only this time the war would be fought in a faraway land.

George and I walked a short distance to the Korean War Memorial. It commemorated our fathers’ war. (The memorial of their other war that had occurred seven years earlier was in the process of being built further down the mall.)

The memorial’s triangular shape and its position on the mall opposite the Vietnam and Lincoln Memorials, called to mind the demands that war makes on our young. The faces of the immobile metal figures are grim. Their hunched stance caused by the weight of their equipment and the weariness of war contradicts the men’s otherwise youthful strength and presumed optimism in the future.

On this Memorial Day, let us honor our dead by asking why we are willing to sacrifice our young for the “just” causes of the old? Let us likewise seek to devise alternative ways of settling our conflicts without going to war.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Architect for Alternative Futures

David Macleod is a tall, lanky, graying red-haired man, who walks with a slight hunch and talks with a gentle, low resonant voice. He has spent a lifetime assiduously informing himself about the technical aspects of how wars are waged and how peace can solve conflict.

While some people regard David a hopeless idealist, others find him a steadfast advocate for peace. One of David’s proudest achievements was his suggestion that the government institute an international peace program. This idea turned out to be the Peace Corps, which John F. Kennedy announced in his 1960 presidential bid on the steps of the Student Union at the University of Michigan where David was a student.

The 71-year-old former professor turned handyman is currently studying how the Bush administration distorts scientific data in order to promote its agenda. He is also writing a book about the history of peace activism in Kalamazoo.

I first met David in 1985 at Nazareth College, a small, private, liberal arts college located in southwestern Michigan. He taught geography there as a part-time professor, one of many jobs he had stitched together to make a full-time living. He seemed reserved and a little eccentric to me at the time, but I didn’t really know him or understand his projects. Talking with him today about his tireless efforts for peace over the past 58 years sheds new light on him and the way an individual’s call to be a peacemaker is often a lonely, yet enduring, vocation.

In 1950 at age 13 David attended the Boy Scout Jamboree held in Washington, D.C. On the night before the event, he and a group of boys saw the movie, “Forgotten Men.” The film featured a history of World War I and how it led to World War II.

“I was so appalled, horrified and upset that night, I couldn’t sleep,” said David. When he finally got some sleep he awoke from a nightmare quite shaken with the sun shining in his eyes. It took him awhile to adjust to reality. He had just dreamed that the atomic bomb hit Washington and that he was trying to escape his hotel that was in flames.

After breakfast, David attended the Jamboree with 40,000 other boys from around the world. The event proved to be a moving and influential experience for him as well. “We all got along with one another,” recalled David. “Somehow, I thought back then, that we should all be able to avoid what the world was coming up against with war and nuclear weapons.” Ironically, on the same day, North Korea invaded South Korea (June 24, 1950). “It was only five years after World War II and we were right back into war again,” said David mournfully. It was on that day, however, that he made a lifelong commitment to peace.

During the late 1970s David and his wife, Mary, returned to Kalamazoo. On the day after they arrived, the Fetzer Institute held a peace conference that featured Anwar Saddat, prime minister of Egypt; Norman Cousins, editor of the Atlantic Monthly; and Robert Mueller, former U.N. undersecretary general and president emeritus of the University for Peace in Costa Rica. At the conference Mueller encouraged the audience to consider Kalamazoo an ideal place to establish a world center for peace that would offer conferences and serve as a think tank toward specific actions for peace. Besides, Mueller said, Kalamazoo’s odd name would attract the necessary attention for the cause.

“I was delighted to hear others reflect what I thought,” said David who never forgot what Mueller said. Ever since David has worked hard to make that vision a reality. For example, David taught a course in peace education at Western Michigan University and wrote a pamphlet to accompany the class entitled “World Peace: A Positive Approach.” Other professors across the country adopted it for their curriculum. In the pamphlet he advocates a five-point positive approach to peace that includes the establishment of idealistic but necessary beginnings:
· a code of world law
· a democratic world government
· a program of peace education and world citizenship
· a way for people to become world citizens
· a military conversion program, which adapts systems, hardware and
personnel to peaceful uses.

But David doesn’t just think up ideas, he works to implement them. For example, he developed a plan for a military-base conversion program in Michigan and, in 1976, came close to convincing the state to convert Kinchloe Air Force Base near Sault Ste. Marie into a global disaster relief project. The state seriously considered his plan until then-Governor William Milliken suddenly changed course and transformed the base into a state prison instead.

David also wanted to see the Fort Custer Army Base in Battle Creek converted into a world agricultural center. He submitted a proposal but this one, too, fell short of adoption. Part of the base did become an industrial park that welcomed several international manufacturing companies including Japan’s giant auto supplier, Denso.

In 1990 when Nazareth College announced it would close its doors, David proposed that the campus become a world peace education center, but authorities nixed that idea, too. Despite these setbacks, David has never given up on his vision for world peace. Actually, even today especially since 9/11, David still can’t fathom any reason why the world can’t be peaceful any more than he could when he was a boy scout at age 13.

“We have computer networks that allow us to speak to each other. We have an awareness that the violence of modern weapons could have untold destruction of the whole world,” said David. As an emergency preparedness coordinator for Kalamazoo Township, David also knows the tandem effects of nuclear weapons, that is, if one goes off, a whole system trips off a response for several other bombs to go off as well. “The first thing we should do about this nuclear weapons system is shut it all down,” said David.

Still, despite his efforts and his optimism that peace is possible, David said he is quite discouraged with what the Bush administration has done with Iraq. He has even become a full-fledged pacifist as a result, which surprises even him.

“I’ve found that various methods of violence are degrading to the human spirit and counter-productive,” said David who defines the scope of violence as anything from interpersonal relationships to global military conflicts.

“The Bush administration seems determined to make Iraq a U.S. colony, when the country has the potential of being an example of what can be done globally,” David said referring to the Iraqi Governing Council that wrote a democratic constitution. However, he maintains that Iraq presented no credible threat to the United States in the first place, at least, not enough to warrant going to war. He also questions why the administration saw such an immediacy to war with Iraq when it didn’t see one with the more volatile North Korea—which has nuclear weapons.

“The rule is that if we threaten them with the bomb, they’ll break down. However, North Korea’s one weapon is enough to create a credible threat to us,” said David. Consequently, David has made a stand for peace at the community peace vigils since fall 2002 and shows no signs of quitting.

To David, today’s geopolitical situation is as dangerous as it was in 1950. Back then he thought we were on the verge of World War III when he heard General Douglas MacArthur declare he wanted to use nuclear weapons to stave off the North Koreans.

“I felt an urgency then and I still do now,” said David. “I feel an urgency to do something.”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Five Years Later and Still No Mission Accomplished

Five years ago today George W. Bush, in flight suit regalia, flew onto the deck of the U.S.S. Lincoln to let America know that we won the war in Iraq.

His speech with the Navy’s accompanying pomp and circumstance made the peace activists look like wimpy losers once again. The dangers of the war they feared weren’t realized—not even close. The call for cooler heads and world peace as a strategy has been shelved once again.

And boy, didn’t Bush look great in that flight suit!

The jubilation, however, wouldn’t last—either for the Americans or the Iraqis. Soon we saw terrible images of destruction. Fire. Burning jeeps. Black, black smoke. Rubble everywhere. Iraqi men in the streets pounding their chests. Iraqi women and children sitting on the ground crying.

However, it was that eerie pattern of death that developed where an American Marine or a soldier was killed every day. People suspected an organized effort, and Al Queda was the likely culprit. After all, Americans had been trained to the shuttering reminder that terrorism could strike at any time in any place in any way on anyone.

That meant that we were all at risk at home and abroad—and one billion Muslims and Arabs from 22 countries in the Middle East were deemed responsible. Nevertheless, that drip, drip, drip effect of death was unsettling.

“Peace protestors,” as they were called, complained that the declarations of victory had been premature. War supporters countered that war requires sacrifices: some people get hurt; some people get killed. They questioned the peace activists’ patriotism and even accused them of treason.

Fallen troops’ photos appeared in the newspaper with rather lengthy obituaries. The PBS Newshour ended each broadcast with a silent display of photos and names of the dead. Each day Yahoo News announced a new death and tallied the total number of deaths. Now the news from Iraq is buried deep within the paper.

Oddly enough, our military commanders who had feared urban warfare saw it come to pass—and in the stifling heat of the desert. Our troops were exposed to extreme danger every time they patrolled the neighborhoods or drove their trucks on the IED-littered highways. When the killings increased, our troops had to be less trusting of the people they were presumably protecting, which included every man, woman and child.

Then there were the troop rotations and the stop-loss system that would beckon soldiers and Marines to return to Iraq to fight two, three and four tours of duty. New traumas cropped up: PTSD soldiers, wounded soldiers, divorced soldiers, suicidal soldiers.

And those poor National Guard reservists who thought they had signed up to be stateside “weekend warriors.” Suddenly they found themselves stuck in the desert far from home and under fire.

Commander-in-Chief Bush was accused of never attending a soldier’s funeral. He still hasn’t.

As the months rolled into years and the death tolls accumulated, some terrible things happened at home. Some people turned off the war by going into denial and avoiding the news.

Others went into depression because they feared a Bush re-election in 2004 and/or an escalation to more war.

A few Bush supporters got ugly and blamed peace activists for inhibiting progress on the war.

Arabs and Muslims became the source of America’s problems.

Conspiracy theorists surfaced with stories about government subversion during 9/11. (In 2006, polls would show that six out of 10 Americans believed Bush didn’t take the necessary precautions to avoid 9/11. Nine out of 10 soldiers believed Saddam was involved with 9/11.) Worst of all, Democrats who took the majority in both houses on the promise to end the war, are failing on their promise.

Almost immediately people started comparing this war to the Vietnam “quagmire” and some fretted that “We’ll never get out.” Others dreaded a return of the “draft.”

That’s when it became clear that many people were still haunted by the ghosts of 30 years before. Presidential candidate Kerry in 2006 and now McCain in 2008 are recalling their war days in Vietnam as proof that they should be elected commander-in-chief.

Other people, young people, those most at risk at being drafted, tried to deal with the war by ignoring it. Their parents silently held their breaths at the prospect of turning over their son or daughter to the harsh and never-ending conflicts of the Middle East.

Now, five years later our troops are still in Iraq and the death and destruction continues, often in more grisly ways like Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, the displacement of four million and the deaths of one million Iraqis. The great hope that our soldiers would return home after a civilian government took over Iraq on June 30, 2004 vanished.

Now, five years later, it doesn’t look as though the United States will ever get out of Iraq. Worse yet, the Bush administration seems to want to pick a fight with Iran.

Will the next president learn anything from this war?

Will the next president be as insensitive to those hurt in the war as Bush has been?