Now slogging through its sixth bloody year, America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq is much on my mind this Saturday afternoon. On the television in the next room, the Democratic Party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee ponders the Florida and Michigan delegations, just now reaching its compromise.
Ten days ago, Sharon and I attended an unsettling veterans’ issues session at our Northeast Democratic Club led by April Fitzsimmons, an actress, writer, and Air Force veteran, who reported in part on the alarming levels of sexual abuse America’s service women are suffering at the hands of their fellow soldiers. Then last weekend, we were joined by my daughter Linnea at the Arlington West Memorial Day observances on the beach in Santa Monica, where one antiwar leader after another called in stirring tones for the end of the Iraq War. Finally, last night we joined a small group of like-minded people in Echo Park in a fledgling effort to start a Progressive Democrats of America chapter in downtown Los Angeles, where our thoughts turned to ending the war as well.
In each case, our heads nodded as speakers we like and admire shared sentiments about ending the Iraq War. And yet, as I sit here listening to the delegates discussion wind down, I can’t shake the feeling that all the antiwar speeches and demonstrations—no matter how well-reasoned and heartfelt—will not amount to a hill of beans.
America’s forces for empire have learned their lessons once again and made their adjustments with better managers leading the war effort, and the country’s attention has shifted to gas prices and foreclosures.
Lessons America Won’t Learn
Coming out of my generation’s war—the Vietnam War—America could have learned to avoid repeating history with the kind of fraudulent, empire-building adventuring we’ve seen repeated in Iraq.
Instead, the warmongering crowd that holds such sway in American politics decade after decade learned rather how to snooker public opinion by keeping the returning caskets out of sight and war correspondents safely leashed, how to pervert the national guard and army reserve system to avoid instituting an unpopular and certainly war-ending draft, how to hide behind our soldiers’ sacrifices to fend off criticism of foolhardy policies, how to make political opponents bite their tongues even when they know what they want to say is true and that most Americans would support them. (See this earlier article.)
A year or so ago, it seemed like momentum was mounting and could actually lead to a quick resolution to the Bush Administration’s foolish war, but that moment has passed, pushed to the side largely for political considerations. Democrats and others did not have the votes in Congress to force the Bush Administration to end the war quickly and they feared being branded as soft on defense as was the Democratic Party after Vietnam.
The only hope now is to elect both a Democratic president and a sweeping Democratic majority in Congress not just to end this one war but change the country’s mindset from warmaking to peacemaking.
Will we do it? Not easily, I warrant.
I’ve always had mixed emotions about my Vietnam War experience. I joined the army at 19 and volunteered for Vietnam, partly as a high-minded service to my country and to honor my father’s service in World War II before me, but also as one of a series of efforts to redirect a young life that had gone badly off the tracks, efforts that would not gain real traction until my thirties when I got sober.
Coming out of Vietnam, I was proud of the way I conducted myself in combat, but also confused and dismayed that my country would pursue a war of conquest under the guise of bringing democracy and freedom to the peoples of a distant land, then confused and dismayed again at some within the antiwar movement who seemed too often content to shift the burden of fighting that war onto the dispossessed—often darker skinned—among us.
That confusion continued through my twenties, as I hung out on the fringes of the antiwar crowd, but wore my fatigue jacket with its sergeant stripes until the fabric gave away at the seams. Nor was I above “dining out” on my Vietnam veteran status, if someone wanted to buy me a drink or trace the outlines of my shrapnel scars.
But then, as part of getting sober, I put my veteran status aside, at least no longer thinking of myself first as a Vietnam veteran nor wearing my experiences so obviously on my sleeve.
Instead, I spent the next two decades helping run a halfway house in Torrance that among many others attracted a steady stream of fellow Vietnam veterans, with whom I would share my experience, strength, and hope. I would also often accompany my friends Jerry Guild and Frank Priest—veterans of World War II and Korea—on panel sessions to the alcoholism unit at the Brentwood VA
At both places, I would often meet fellow veterans who had stayed stuck in Vietnam, 20 and 30 years down the road still wearing jungle boots and camouflage fatigues and speaking in the part Vietnamese, part French, part who-knows-what patois GIs “in country” learned to speak.
Knowing that 20 and 30 and 40 years from now there will be Iraq War veterans who cannot leave their wartime experiences behind, who are consumed by the nightmares they bring home from their multiple tours of combat duty, who are among the army of homeless veterans, who are so prone to suicide and alcoholism and depression—this, no doubt, is a part of the disquiet I feel today.
During her presentation, April Fitzsimmons cited such statistics as the fact that 400,000 veterans are likely to experience homelessness this year across America, that 49,724 veterans are homeless in California currently, and that suicides among veterans are significantly higher than for Americans generally.
Building for Peace
Sharon and I came out for Barack Obama so early and so strong in part because we felt he might be able to transform American politics, not just leading a much-needed Democratic administration, but inspiring new generations of activists and reaching out to well-meaning Americans across the political spectrum, as the Kennedy brothers and Gene McCarthy once did.
Despite the way she has chosen to run her campaign in recent weeks, Hillary Clinton would likely make a good Democratic president—certainly she would fight for her programs—but she is not likely to inflame a generation the way Obama has shown he can do.
And that’s what we need—Americans inflamed to battle the forces of empire that have taken America into one fraudulent invasion after another, starting with that peculiar Carribbean foray by Ronald Reagan’s administration, which sent an aircraft carrier, fighter planes, and platoons of Marines against a few guys with shotguns on Grenada.
It isn’t just that the Iraq War needs to end. It’s that America needs to use its superpower status to project peace into the world, not just power.
And you know that with John McCain as president, with his little Mussolini-like stamp of the foot and finger jab as he intones “I. Will. Never. Surrender. In. Iraq.” that we’ll be invading someplace soon with him as president, and it won’t be Grenada.
— By Dick Price
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