Preemptive Pacifism


"Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out… and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel… And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for 'the universal brotherhood of man' -- with his mouth."

"Statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception."

    - Mark Twain
“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say “we must not wage war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but the positive affirmation of peace.

True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to an evil power. ...It is rather a courageous confrontation with evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart. ”

    - Martin Luther King



1965 is a year that vividly sticks in my memory. 

I was on the cusp of being a teenager, morphing overnight into a pulsating mass of hormonal excess, developing a hyper inquisitiveness about the mysteries of the world around me. I absorbed information like a sponge, questioning everything, trying to make sense of the world that, up until then, I had accepted at face value. 

I hit the lottery in a very important way by being a young person in 1965. It is impossible for young people to imagine today, in an era when music is disposable, where any song from any year can be listened to at anytime on your ipod, when AM radio is a wasteland of flap jawed reactionaries, but back then AM radio provided the musical soundtrack for your life. Given the almost spiritual importance of music to a teenager, with songs of the moment forever associated with some rite of passage, the fate’s smiled on those of us who came of age in 1965, which may have been the greatest year for hit music, ever. If you will indulge me, I think I can prove my point by listing the no. 1 songs of that year, in order of their appearance at the top of the charts:

January 2        I Feel Fine - Beatles
January 23        Downtown - Petula Clark
February 6        You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ - Righteous Brothers
February 27    This Diamond Ring - Gary Lewis & Playboys
March 6        Eight Days A Week - Beatles
March 27        Stop! In The Name Of Love - Supremes
April 3        Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat - Herman’s Hermits
April 10        I’m Telling You Now - Freddie & Dreamers
April 24        Game Of Love - Wayne Fontana & Mindbenders
May 15        Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter - Herman’s Hermits
May 29        Ticket To Ride - Beatles
June 5        Back In My Arms Again - Supremes
June 12        Help Me, Rhonda - Beach Boys
June 19        I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) - Four Tops
July 3            Mr. Tambourine Man - Byrds
August 7        I’m Henry VIII, I Am - Herman’s Hermits
August 14        I Got You Babe - Sonny & Cher
August 28        Help! - Beatles
September 18    Like A Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan
September 25    Eve Of Destruction - Barry McGuire
October 2        Hang On Sloopy - McCoys
October 9        Yesterday - Beatles
November 6    Get Off Of My Cloud - Rolling Stones
November 20    I Hear A Symphony - Supremes
November 27    1-2-3 - Len Barry
December 4    Turn! Turn! Turn!  - Byrds
December 11    Let’s Hang On! - 4 Seasons
December 18    Taste Of Honey - Herb Alpert
December 25    Over And Over - Dave Clark Five

Not a single dud, a surfeit of classics. I rest my case.

So we have established that the year I became a teenager was the greatest year in the history of the world for music on the radio, providing a remarkable soundtrack for that important year in my life.

Psychologists speak of a concept called imprinting. It appears that there are certain times in our lives when we are susceptible to being affected dramatically by experiences that otherwise seem unremarkable. The psychologist Konrad Lorenz did a series of experiments where he showed that geese have a narrow window of time in their development that imprints upon their brain the creature that is their mother. Lorenz manipulated that imprinting period to trick goslings into thinking that he was their mother. Counterintuitively, imprinting has as much to do with timing as does the significance of the event.

I mention this because that first year as a teenager is an imprinting year. Many things are experienced for the first time, and it is these initial experiences that burn forever into the memory.

That year, before 250 TV channels existed, before video games, the mind numbing expanse of the internet, before reality television, when we had some time to fill, we read things. Even households like ours, with precious little disposable income, subscribed to newspapers and magazines. So one day I noticed we had a new Life Magazine, perhaps the most popular magazine of the time, a huge glossy magazine filled with remarkable photos and stories about the world around us. This particular issue featured a series of articles about events on the other side of the world, events I was vaguely aware of, but up until that point had paid very little attention to. The issue was devoted to the little discussed American military presence in Vietnam. 

I don’t remember the content or tone of the text. What is forever burned into my brain however, is a photo that filled one entire tabloid sized page, printed in vivid, glossy color. The photo helped mold my world view, an imprinting moment.

It was a photo of a U.S. helicopter crew member being removed from the bay door of his helicopter. Several comrades were frantically carrying him out the door. His  body was excruciatingly, inhumanly limp, reminding me of the unsettling muscular limpness of squirrels my dad killed and brought home to put food on the table. The crewman’s abdomen was a hideous mass of blood and torn flesh and viscera, the flesh and uniform congealed into a dark red concretion. The rest of his body was undamaged, the terrible stomach wound was the only wound, yet to my growing horror, i noted thin trails of blood streaking from his mouth and nose and ears, guided by gravity into parallel streams of crimson down the side of his face. His eyes were hidden by mirrored aviator sunglasses, and the sunglasses reflected the brilliant Vietnamese sun and the desperation in the faces of his comrades. From behind those sunglasses streamed another trail of blood down the side of his face, and the only possible source of the blood were his hidden eyes. Bleeding from the mouth and ears and nose and eyes as a result of a stomach wound suggested a type of injury that I had couldn’t conceive of, an insult to the body that seemed to contradict my knowledge of the structure of the human body.  The fact that the crewman’s eyes were hidden by the mirrored glasses, that you couldn’t see his eyes to search for a glimpse of life made the horror all more vivid. 

So this was what was going on in Vietnam.

The thought that passed through my mind as I absorbed the photo remains clear today, in fact is among just a handful of verbal thoughts from my youth I can remember verbatim. As I looked at the picture this is what I thought. “Thank god I am too young to ever have to go to Vietnam.”

It would be 6 years before I was draft age, and I knew that even World War II had only lasted 4 years after America entered the fray. This was just one small, far away country. Yes, I was too young to worry about going to Vietnam.

In 1965 my friends and I hung out and goofed off and obsessed over girls, all with a constant background of incredible music to associate with our growing awareness. But after seeing the picture in the Life Magazine I became aware of another background noise, an anxious white noise signifying that perhaps everything wasn’t as it appeared in our simple small town universe.

I began paying close attention to the goings on in the world at that point, intuitively making the connection between the horror of the photo and the political process that nurtures such horror.

In the summer of 1969 I had not yet turned 17 and was watching on TV and reading in magazines about the the goings on of youth in more favored parts of America than my rural community. Music was no longer the background soundtrack of youth culture but had morphed into the center of a youth lifestyle. We continued to track the musical trends on the radio, but now on FM radio, a format that more faithfully reproduced the entire audio spectrum bringing the pounding beat from the background to the foreground. The concert at Woodstock took place that summer and the reports in the media painted a picture of a disaster, 3 days of mud, sex, drugs, rock and roll and anti-war protests. My lifestyle consisted of playing wiffle ball and going to the Dairy Queen for excitement, so the stories from Woodstock were a bit other-worldy, but not altogether unappealing. Woodstock seemed to signal something important and grand, a shift in thinking, and I could sense it’s vibrations out of sight over the eastern horizon. The disapproval of the adults around me watching the sounds and images on the evening Huntley/Brinkley news report made the goings on at Woodstock even more intriguing. 

In that same summer my next door neighbor was drafted into the army. Within a few months he was in Vietnam, and was sent home in a year, a stone heroin junkie, courtesy of Vietnam’s mind blowing carnage and fear, the resulting stress, and the easy availability of heroin in Vietnam. He was damaged goods, no longer of use to the war machine.

On his return he spooked the neighborhood for a few weeks with pathetic and scary nocturnal behavior. He knelt outside our door one evening scratching on the window, making moaning noises like a wild animal. This was the sort of multimedia show that sticks in one’s memory. Naively unaware of the true nature of his demons, isolated from the bigger world there in our small town, we told ourselves that he was strung out on marijuana. They soon took him away in the night and he has been in and out of mental institutions ever since. 

1971 soon rolled around, I went to college and recall that Who’s Next became the soundtrack of the fall of my Freshman year. The great Who song Won’t Get Fooled Again seemed to play around the clock on my floor of the dorm. 

That same fall, the certainty I felt years earlier looking at the picture of the doomed pilot, that the Vietnam War would certainly end before I reached draft age, was exposed as the wishful thinking of an unknowing pawn of the military/industrial complex. Of course the war was more deadly and pointless than ever and now, at age 18, I won the worst lottery in existence by drawing a 25 in the draft lottery, a sure ticket to jungle warfare. I had no family connection to get into the National Guard, the marriage and college deferments had been abused by future vice presidents and were no longer available. My interest in how political abstractions become concrete impediments to one’s mortality intensified.

During the election campaign that year, our president Nixon dramatically announced that he had a secret plan to end the war. Knowing that I would be drafted the following spring and be forced to stare into the abyss, I considering voting for him out of self interest. Ultimately I couldn't vote for the wretch, and of course, the "secret plan" was the sort of shameless conservative deception we continue to see on a daily basis these many years later.

In the spring I was commanded to take a long, solemn, predawn bus ride to St. Louis for my army physical along with others from my hometown who drew the short straws in the lottery. It was cruelly early for teenagers, and what conversation there was limited to recitations of the methods each of my bus mates were using in attempts to fail the physical.

Having not considered that their might be strategies available to beat the draft, I silently cursed myself for my lack of vision. Being more well read, if less visionary than my bus mates, I sat in silence and considered the Shirley Jackson short story “The Lottery” and it’s inevitable ending, coming to the realization that it’s theme was not metaphorical in the least. 

When we got to St. Louis, we were herded like sheep into an ancient building complex. We were made to strip to our underwear and stand in line with hundreds of other anonymous teens, to be poked and probed for any defect that might make us unfit to be butchered in Southeast Asia. Some of the young men, in turns out, weren’t wearing underwear, thus spent the morning making the rest of us more uncomfortable than we already were. I don’t care how secure you are, standing in line with hundreds of naked and nearly naked guys feels queerly unnatural. 

In that endless line were teens who had forsaken hygiene for weeks, fouled themselves for days, taken pills to raise their blood pressure, pills to mimic psychotic episodes, pills to make their pulse race madly, carried voluminous notes from the family doctor on their medical deficiencies. Many of them intentionally pressed the wrong buttons on the hearing test, pretended not to see the eye chart, confessed their passion for other men, their membership in NAMBLA and the communist party. We all had blood drawn, every tenth or so recruit fainting from anxiety, a bit of cruel theater given  my observation that the drawn blood was put in unlabeled vials and stacked randomly in large trays. We all endured the station where a luckless young medical doctor, day after day, week after week, told thousand upon thousands of young men to bend over, and examined their rectums. Occasionally the line would pause, and this karmically tortured graduate of years of medical school would deal with the inevitable recruit who had deduced that inserting an object in his nether regions was a sure ticket out of the draft. 

Every single one of us passed the physical. 

It would seem that, in the Vietnam era, if you were ambulatory enough to get to the physical, you were army material.

The bus took us home, all sitting in defeated silence, in the knowledge that a letter would soon be delivered to our mailbox telling us to report to duty.

In the meantime my 5th grade teacher's only child came home from Vietnam in a box, forever destroying a kind lady that I and my tiny community held in enormously high esteem.

Somehow, weeks before I was to enter the abattoir that was the military at that time, they ended the draft, and I got a reprieve. The legend is that some important children of privilege were about to be called up and their parents called in some favors from their retainers in congress. Ours became a volunteer army and, to this day, in egalitarian America it is the underclass who provide the bulk of the cannon fodder for the wars of our politician’s corporate sponsors.

It would be four more years before the war ended and ended badly for America, but, having been saved by the bell, my military service began and ended on that one surreal day standing in a line in my underwear. 

That’s my war story, and as a result, I have been following goings on in Washington with a feverish intensity for 40 years now. The fiction that Vietnam would be the first domino to fall in a scenario of global domination by godless communism, led to the death of 50,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and turned me into a lifelong skeptic.

(I prayed that I wouldn't go to Vietnam despite the odds in favor of it happening. I obviously didn't go and today I am a religious skeptic. What an ungrateful wretch I am.)
 
There were abundant lessons to be learned from Vietnam, lessons not lost on those who served there. Those good men and women, knowing the cost of employing the mortality of innocents as fodder for political abstractions, now counsel to employ our vast military only when all other options have failed.

Others, sheltered from the consequences of Vietnam by family connections and ‘other priorities’, never having to worry, like their socioeconomic inferiors, about being drafted into warfare, didn’t learn the lessons, but manufactured lessons of their own. We pay the price for that hubris today. 

I was lied to to get my vote in 1971, a lie that could have contributed to my doom. I, and my fellow Americans, were told more lies in 2003, leading to more unnecessary death and heartache. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

My imprinting experience with the Life Magazine and Nixon’s lie about a plan to end the war have led to a pointed sense of anger towards politicians who use their office for war mongering and profiteering. Ethics and morality are not a game to most of us, and I am not talking about matters of the flesh that some moral arbiters are revealingly obsessed with. I am talking about a set of moral and ethical values that can be traced back to the Christian manifesto, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a sense of morality that is based on compassion for one’s fellow man, not judgments of one’s fellow man.

One of the forgotten legacies of the 1960’s was that the antiwar movement was rooted in the Compassionate, Pacifist teachings of Jesus. Even those of us who weren’t comfortable with the supernatural found great wisdom in those teachings, found ideas to embrace and live by.

In the sixties and early seventies music truly seemed to matter, and music was often rooted in examinations of morality and ethics. Imagine for a moment you were listing the number one hits of the past year, as I did earlier for the hits of 1965. I venture that it would be a mind numbing exercise in melodic and moral emptiness, stirring emotions much like those engendered by considering political developments of late. For contrast, listen to “Eve of Destruction” in the context of 1965 and the escalation in Vietnam and it will give you the chills. Listen to ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ by the Who and consider the leaders who took us into the war in Iraq, a war that, like Vietnam, was manufactured for political reasons, and has also lasted longer than the American involvement in World War II.

The Vietnam era was a volatile and often frightening time in American history, defined by the war and the assassination of many pivotal figures in the public eye. But, excepting for a few extremists, young people maintained Faith in America. They didn’t want to dispense with American Ideals, didn’t want to overthrow the country, they wanted to embrace the American Ideal and make that ideal real for all Americans and not just a chosen few. They wanted to end an unjust war and return America to it’s roots as a beacon of hope for mankind. Sadly, young people  today aren’t encouraged to embrace Idealism, but are are encouraged to take their place as consumers, bombarded by interminable corporate marketing, manipulated to spend their precious moments in life in front of a video or computer game, engaged in activities that preclude independent, critical thought.

Our current leaders are the real revolutionaries, subversives, reshaping the America as an Oligarchy, for the powerful, by the powerful, and of the powerful, creating an environment where corporations literally have the same rights and legal protections as an individual, reshaping our ideals to include preemptive war, spying on our citizens, torture, secret tribunals.

In a telling moment, when our brave soldiers were sent to Iraq at the start of the Iraq war, our leader told all of America that the best way to support the war effort was to continue spending and consuming. Huh!? Compare that inspirational thought with those of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’s corporate stock prices.

They don’t show pictures of war wounded and dead in the media today of any sort, much less full page color photos in mainstream magazines available to a 13 year old as was the case in 1965. I believe it is those sort of photos that turned average Americans against a demonstrably pointless war, a war that was only good for the military industrial complex profit margins. Our conservative friends, in concert with corporate media, have made sure that images of the truth don’t sway the public today. 

Like the hippies and anti-war activists they despised, our current leaders came of age in the 60’s - but somehow got a different, more cynical and opportunistic lesson from the era than the 95 percent of youth that identified with the peace, love, and music movement that defined youth culture then. The lessons our neo-conservative friends got from VIetnam, the lessons of men who never served in combat, wasn’t that most wars are pointless exercises in death, waste, and futility, but that the heartache of war can lead to opportunity. They learned that to control the message and images that the electorate sees is to be able to control the agenda, to be able to profit both financially and politically from the death and destruction of war. To control the message and images is to be able to avoid reckoning for financial and political duplicity, to avoid having to answer to the people. One imagines they even think they have conned their creator. 

Some years later, I, the tree hugging pacifist liberal, somehow found myself working on a giant military base in Germany. Over my four years working on that military base I learned how incredibly professional, talented, and dedicated our military is, how little my Vietnam era assembly line draft experience resembled the current reality of the military. I learned about the incredible commitment military personnel have, the long hours, the endless training, the separation from families, the mind blowing danger, even in peacetime, the passion they have for their mission of protecting their beloved country. I went into the experience skeptical about military culture and came out a life long admirer of the American military, in spite of my pacifist leanings.

And my experience working on the base of the First Infantry Division made me realize this: Anyone who would utilize our military personnel recklessly, use those dedicated and selfless souls for any initiative that hadn’t explored every possibility for peaceful resolution before putting them at mortal risk, would have to be the worst kind of scoundrel. I believe this unthinkable possibility has happened. I believe this is a unprecedented, unforgivable, sociopathic betrayal of our American fighting men and women. The architects of the Iraq War will take this shame with them to their graves whether they will ever acknowledge it or not.

Most of us feel impotent in the face of the terrible waste of precious lives and national resources to no good effect, of the rigged system that let’s this terrible waste continue without consequence to the perpetrators. But we must never lose sight of our moral imperative, of the crystalline truth that we must serve as witnesses and recorders of these outrages. If we ignore them, if we submit to the admonition that the best way to serve our country is to simply be consumers and trust the men behind the curtain, we have failed in our solemn duty to resist evil, to embrace righteousness.

Leading architects of the Iraq War like to speak about the 1960’s with disdain, calling it an era of narcissism and self indulgence, and they never tire of telling us about their own moral superiority, rooted in their Christianity. 

Consider what they have done and then consider this:

Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus said if someone strikes you on the cheek offer him the other cheek. Jesus said that if you meet a man with no shirt, give him your shirt. Jesus said that a camel will pass through the eye of a needle before a rich man gets into heaven. Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth. Jesus told us to devote ourselves to the least among us.

These statements are not open to dispute, they are the core, the very essence of Christianity. One cannot be a Christian and believe otherwise.

I, the religious skeptic, say amen to Jesus, and may the agents of violence and intolerance who invoke Jesus’ name be damned for perverting the message of the Prince of Peace. 

A man mightily influenced by Jesus of Nazereth, Mahatma Gandhi, had this to say about the human impulse behind warfare: pursuing an eye for an eye, he said, will leave the whole world blind.

Let’s choose vision, and turn our back on willful blindness.

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