I've been thinking a lot lately about war.
Back on September 14, 2005 I was blessed with the opportunity to be of service to the wonderful folks in the Bring Them Home Now Bus Tour when they made a stop in Albany, NY. Several local groups joined together to host the tour at what became Camp David Fisher in the park on the west side of the State Capital building.
One of my roles was to help drive tour participants around to various events that had been staged. Along with another local organizer, Maureen Aumand, I participated in a meeting between tour members and Rep. Michael McNulty (D-NY-21). Late that afternoon I drove three veterans to speak with a class at the College of St. Rose. As I'm sure is no suprise the entire day was a moving experience for me.
You see... this is my second anti-war movement. I was very young during Vietnam but it was the dominant news feature during my childhood. My political awareness began in 1968. For those of you older than me I need say no more. For those my age and younger... it was the assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was my older brother putting a Bobby Kennedy sticker up on our bedroom window. It was Kennedy's subsequent assasination. It was the Democratic Convention. I remember my father ordering us all to stay home the morning after King was murdered. He was scared for our safety. I remember him similarly ordering my brother not to go downtown to the convention.
I also remember the 2 guys in the black sedan parked on the corner watching me play in the front yard. I asked Mom who those guys were. She looked out the window and with disgust said, "Oh, that's just the FBI." And sarcastically, "Maybe I should have you go offer them some coffee and cake." I also remember Mom having all us kids wave at them as we drove past in the family station wagon on our way to church Sunday mornings. You see my father had been involved in the civil rights movement... but that is a different story... to be told in a separate post(s).
Our trip to the classroom was particularly interesting and thought provoking. I was not one of the speakers but the teacher asked a question that has left a speech unspoken within me and solving that problem is what this post is about.
Mike Hoffman, Iraq Veteran, Eliot Abrams, Vietnam Veteran, and Mike Ferner, Vietnam Era Veteran, were the three men I took to the college. The class was mostly freshman. Young. Very young. Military age. Kids. But there was also an older young man. A military veteran himself. Bosnia and Iraq. There was a very good exchange between him and the three tour veterans. The young man was struggling between the reality of a war he knew was wrong and the need for something meaningful in the sacrifices of he and his comrades. It was clear in that discussion how our government has failed these men. How it has broken the contract between the people... through our government... with our military men and women. A contract that has them agreeing to put their lives and spiritual well being on the line and has us comitting to only asking them to do that when there is no other choice left to us. This administration not only broke that contract... it ignored it completely.
But that too is not the starting point of this post. The teacher asked the Vietnam Veterans what it was like having to be engaged in an anti-war movement like this all over again. Mike Hoffman, Iraq War Veteran, talked about how invaluable it was to him and the other Iraq veterans to have the Vietnam Veterans around to help them. He said that when he came home from Iraq he thought he was the only one to have ever felt like he did. Mike Ferner, who worked stateside at a hospital helping injured soldiers on their return from Vietnam, and Eliot Abrams talked about their experiences while active during the war and subsequently protesting Vietnam and the frustrations and feelings of failure having to do it all over again.
I wanted to step in and add my two cents as a civilian anti-war activist but I didn't. This was a venue for the veterans to speak about the realities of war not for me and my opinions. But I don't know if that is right or not.
When Mike and Eliot mentioned that feeling of failure all sorts of emotional response boiled up in me. We failed. Those of us that are old enough to remember and to have participated in protesting Vietnam... failed. We failed Mike Hoffman. We failed Cody Camacho. We failed Casey Sheehan. We failed David Fisher. We failed on our promise to ourselves and our nation to never let it happen again. We failed.
Not just the veterans... but all of us. We failed to ensure that our nation would never again send young men and women to die needlessly. We failed to make sure that war mongers and imperialists never held the reins of government again. We failed... and the young men and women of this generation are paying the price for our failure. Later that evening at the final speaking event Cody Camacho, another Iraq Veteran, asked our forgiveness for what he had done in Iraq. I said to him later that it was not his fault. Eliot corrected me by asking if I didn't think that each of us had to accept responsibility for what we have done. He was right. I know from my own life that each of us does need to honestly accept responsibility for our own actions regardless of mitigating factors. What I was really trying to say to Cody is that it was no more his fault then mine.
And it's not.
My first political involvement was the McGovern campaign in '72. I was about 11 and I was on my way to the grocery store. There were some people tabling for McGovern and I asked if I could help. At first they said no but I insisted that I wanted to help so they gave me a box of buttons and sent me to the other side of the shopping center were I offerred them to whoever came along. This lasted until some old guy took offense and knocked me on my 11 year old butt. Nobody came to my rescue or helped me out. I decided this was a little rougher business then I was ready for, picked up the scattered buttons and handed them back in. The guy at the table was ready to help but it was too late then.
But I also remember sometime before that walking from school to my Mom's office at the Seminary. Right across the street was the park in front of Rockefellar Chapel at the University of Chicago. The park was full of college kids digging trenchs, making speeches, carrying signs and all that typical protest stuff. Crowds of people standing around watching. I walked up to where they were digging and asked if I could help. The college kid wanted to turn me down but I was insistent so I jumped in the already deep trench and he handed me one of this army issue fold-up shovels. I began digging. That was kinda fun but it was also serious business and I knew it. It felt good to be able to participate. I didn't like the nightly list of names of the dead that scrolled across the TV screen on the evening news following the days footage of Vietnam. I didn't like the dinner table conversations about whether my eldest brother should take his chances in Canada or in Vietnam if his number came up. I particularly didn't like the idea that the answer seemed to be leaning towards Vietnam.
So I dug a trench. At some point they started passing out gas masks. The little kid in me thought "Cool. Another level in playing soldier." So I asked for a gas mask. The college kid said, "No, it's time for you to go now." I insisted but he insisted angrily that I had to leave. So I did... but I was pissed. Typical little kid stuff that the older kids wouldn't let me be a part of what they were doing.
The little kid in me saw but didn't understand what the adult in me later did. The gas masks were not part of playing soldier. They had to do with the line of Chicago police that was approaching the park. The college kid was being responsible and getting the little kid out of there before it got ugly. I don't believe that particular event turned violent. My Mom's office overlooked the park and I think I would have remembered if that happened.
I am angry. I am angry that we have to do this all over again. I am deeply saddened by the unnecessary loss of life but I am also very angry that we who should know better, we who should have learned from Vietnam, are here once again. It is good to be able to participate in the anti-war movement... this time as an adult. It is sad that it is necessary. The emotions go back and forth through the range. They did the day I read that David Fisher died. My wife and I used to run a youth center in the town his mother lives in. I was afraid it was one of "our boys." As it turns out I didn't know David Fisher but I realized that they are all my sons and daughters. I am an American citizen. This is my country, that is my government, they are my military, and it is my responsibility as a citizen to ensure that we hold up our end of the contract. We owe them that much.
The emotions went the whole range the day the bus tour stopped in Albany too. I got there early and helped set up. One of the tasks I took on was placing the crosses in the ground representing Arlington Cemetary. I'd had my coffee and was in set-up-camp, take-care-of-business mode. I started hammering in the crosses... there were a lot of them to do. I guess I'd put up about 5 or 6 when I realized what I was doing. It slowed me right down and I began to pray as I placed each cross in the ground. Eventually the prayer became a very simple one... please forgive us.