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Of Empire, War, Propaganda, and Courage
September 14, 2002
By punpriate

A little over thirty-five years ago, I celebrated my impending 20th birthday in a riotous blow-out in a rented apartment on Cape Cod. The night was both a celebration and forlorn good-bye to freedom, for I was to be drafted into the army two days later. My roommates had invited lots of people, many of whom I did not know. At one point, late in the evening, two people I did not know and had not met had apparently heard of my fate, approached me, and said, "we know people in the Quakers who can get you to Canada, if you want." They wrote down a name and phone number. I shoved the slip of paper in my shirt pocket and thanked them.

I was too blitzed to remember until the next day. On the ride home, I found the piece of paper. I was twenty years old, on my way home for a last birthday before going into the army. This little slip of paper disturbed my thoughts almost as much as my draft notice had. I could abandon my family and virtually all of the past twenty years for the prospect of a future, and I could be true to my own beliefs about the war in Viet Nam. Unlike so many people my age who ended up in Viet Nam, I'd read about the conflict there, knew something of the history of the country, knew something about the geopolitics of the region. I knew in my heart and my mind that the war was wrong, but, in the end, I could not reconcile the damage going to Canada would create in my family with winding up in the military. I told myself, perhaps with some self-deception, that I would simply go with the flow, do what I was told, and never volunteer.

Six months later, I found myself in Hawaii, in a separate infantry brigade (we occupied the same barracks recently vacated by the 11th Brigade), supposedly training for Viet Nam (the training consisted of calisthenics, a two-mile run every morning and a full-dress inspection afterwards and any number of hours picking up loose trash on post--in the five months in that unit, I never even saw an M-16, let alone trained with one). But, Lyndon Johnson changed his mind, turned down Westmoreland's demand for an additional 266,000 troops. After an unnerving month getting a series of orders for Viet Nam after the unit was disbanded, only to have each cancelled, I was transferred to the local garrison, and spent the rest of my time away from Viet Nam.

In my case, reasonable caution nearly failed, but ultimately did not. But, for the couple of million men who volunteered, or whom the draft picked for destruction, and were killed or maimed, many did not know that caution was required. They did not know that they were being dropped into the hopper of a meat grinder. If every one of them had been counseled on the history of Viet Nam, of our involvement there, and on their prospective role as cannon fodder in an absurd political exercise, there would likely have been a great many more conscientious objectors, more escapees to Canada, more people participating in the civil strife which ultimately affected the course of America's involvement in that war, and a lot fewer volunteers for war duty in Viet Nam.

What made so many ordinarily sensible young men submit to danger? Nothing more than the same concerted propaganda campaign which has called young men to war then, and now. Not to respond to that call, no matter the reason, was considered cowardly. And, believe me, there's nothing surer to injure a young man's sense of self than to be labelled as a coward. It's a powerful inducement for young men to submit to war, as is the prospect of prison for failing to offer one's self up to the Selective Service Board.

Today, the country is in the same grip of propaganda no different than that promoted during the Viet Nam war. Very lately, the hawks are even describing any disagreement with the current administration regarding Iraq as "appeasement." Those in the administration who never had to consider service, or actively avoided service, by legal means, are singularly the most strident and vocal proponents of war in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in any place where the United States believes force will influence a foreign government to agree to our views and our demands.

This imperial, almost Roman, inclination to use force indiscriminately is one of the current administration, not of the nation as a whole. Convincing Americans of the need for war, these days, is a simple desire on the part of the administration for consensus to prop up their own desires for empire, and that requires the use of propaganda. There's no need to convince the average dogface, to use an antiquated term, of the need for war. They are already in the hopper. Only their civilian citizen counterparts can raise enough of a ruckus to make the adminstration believe that war is not the wisest political course of action. In that sense, if we value the lives of those now in the military, even if they are all volunteers, we should be raising a ruckus.

Intelligent people everywhere, therefore, have both the right and the obligation to express doubt when doubt arises. We have the right to demand honest answers from government (yes, I know, I know the futility of that exercise with the Bush administration). Had more of us, and more of our legislators, expressed doubt about the evidence regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, we might have prevented millions of unnecessary deaths and disabilities, American and Vietnamese alike, might have resolved a difficult problem with diplomacy instead of militancy, and might have engendered in many parts of the world a respect for the United States, instead of affirming fear and suspicion of our country.

Today, that same fear and suspicion of us is rising in the Arab and Islamic world because an administration purportedly representing the people of the United States has consciously chosen militancy over diplomacy and common sense. This current administration has chosen to do so, without adequately informing the American public of all the consequences, because of a very narrow view held by the most extreme and conservative elements of our society about America's determinist role as an empire. The prospect of eternal war has been posited by George W. Bush. Thus far, a majority of the American public has succumbed to this imperial view of the United States. If history, ancient and recent, holds true, it will only be after great suffering that the American public will examine the roots of our current conflicts worldwide and will eventually demand the answers that they could demand today.

The history of empires is that, inevitably, their reach exceeded their grasp. At perhaps no other time in our relatively brief history is it more important to review the history of empires. Rome fell, the great city of Alexandria was burned by religious fanatics, the Saracens, Great Britain fell, the Ottoman empire fell, the Third Reich (intended by Hitler to last a thousand years) fell in little more than a decade, the Soviet Union, with all its desperate attempts to preserve Mother Russia by empire-building, fell. That we have, at this moment in history, found ourselves without economic and military peer, does not mean that we cannot fail. To believe so is little more than to confirm in ourselves the same self-deception in which previous empires engaged.

Every once in a while, in recent months, I get a reminder of what modern war and empire-building actually accomplishes. There is in my town a man wheeling himself down sidewalks on a cart. He's approximately my age. I suppose he could have been in an auto accident, except that he's been the recipient of an operation which is much more common in time of war than in peacetime. He's the recipient of a hemispherectomy. Perhaps, thirty-five years ago, he was a healthy six-footer, maybe played football in high school. Now, he's a little over two feet tall, amputated above the hips. After seeing the look in his eyes in a local grocery store one evening, I am loathe to intrude on him, to ask any question of him for fear that even an innocent question might turn out to be a painful one for him. I cannot reassure him by lying, by saying to him that his sacrifice was for a good cause. I suspect that the look in his eyes is, in part, due to his understanding of the lies he'd been told and the propaganda he believed in that time years ago.

I have other friends and acquaintances who are war amputees, but they have lost arms, and their lives have been relatively unimpeded. They have jobs, families, children, hobbies and aspirations. They are very strong people to have left parts of themselves in a country ten thousand miles away and still can find delight and pleasure in life.

But, I do not know how to understand the deep hollowness in the eyes of the man in my home town who wheels himself along our sidewalks on a cart. If I could, I would know, fully, the deep hollowness which is war, and would know exactly what to say to George W. Bush and his administration of chickenhawks, and to those of the American public who, succumbing to this ancient drumbeat of war propaganda, wish that our young men of today rush headlong into eternal war.

Not being certain of what to say, I can only advise of the desirability of preventing war, which in these times is prudent and sensible. The opposition of war should not be perceived as the occupation of cowards. It should, rather, be seen as a sanctified respect for human beings and their rights.

Courage comes in many forms. There is the courage of public servants trying to save the lives trapped in the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers. There is the courage of the soldier who, despite private concerns, believes his service to be in the best interest of his country. There is also the courage of the private citizen who, knowing right from wrong, attempts to dissuade his government from the unnecessary sacrifice of lives in the pursuit of empire.

 
punpirate is a writer in New Mexico who finds himself surrounded by people of courage, none of whom are in our current administration.

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