A few days after Bush ordered the 1st Marine Division across the Kuwait-Iraq border, I'm mingling with support-the-war veterans at our Memorial Park on the north edge of New York state. I'm a "stop-the-war" veteran trying to get some talk going about the invasion and why it happened. The vets turn deliberately away, refusing argument. I persist; the shouting begins. Get off "our" park is the message. I return fire; the urge to shout is irresistible, but I keep on drifting through the 50 to 60 vets gathered there with their Legion and Marine flags and yellow ribbons and Old Glories on strong staffs and "God Bless America" from a boombox.
Two veterans rescued me by dropping down into ordinary talk mode. We traded remarks on various outfits and past events, and then one of them said that the situation here was "confusing." The way he said it, his quiet manner, with a little shrug, told me that we shared a scene that wasn't pure black and white. I think the other veterans probably felt the same -- some doubt about this particular war. That would be one reason for their backing off from argument. When confronted with confusion, close all hatches, stand tall. We all do it, but it can be uncomfortable, a reminder that life is complicated and uncertain.
Some of those vets had relatives and friends on a killing field none of us knew much about. Close ranks.
And there was outrage that a veteran could be walking on memorial turf, talking peace in a time of war.
And there was disdain for my anti-war copy-cat slogan, "Support the Troops, Bring Them Home."
And there had to be remembrance of Vietnam, the dishonoring of GIs returning from hell. A few years ago I heard a Vietnam vet say that if a combat soldier tries to explain what really happened and the listener says, "I understand," be sure to tell that listener, "No, you don't."
Translation: If you've been there, no need to tell; if you haven't you might as well not ask. I can't go all the way with that, but have to say that there is something special about being trained and licensed by your nation -- Sparta, Athens, Mohawk, Apache, Britain, Germany, Israel, Iraq, US of A -- to kill enemies in certain marked-off parts of the earth where enemies will be trying to kill you and your comrades. The experience puts down deep roots and it's hard to go way down there and dig up words. And, first thing you know, another war comes along complete with protesters and you take special note of the ones who have this pious certainty about something they don't know much about; they simply don't get it, and there seem to be a lot of those types. It's easy to hate those people.
So that was the situation where we set up our weekly anti-war vigils. Not very many of us. We did get into some hassles with the vets. A few argumentative conversations did happen, and that was good. I don't think there were any fanatics on either side. Some of us knew or recognized each other. That was the painful part. And the weather was usually bad.
Veterans: It's one thing to hold to reality from the killing fields; loyalty to those we served with; loyalty to the dead; loyalty to a certain time and place that is simply and forever a part of a life. We can't get rid of that. Why should we? But on the other hand, war is everybody's business, and we're the ones with the reminders. People need reminders. We vets need them too. They can act like traffic bumps, forcing everybody to slow down and look and listen, and maybe go away with nagging questions buzzing in their minds.
Here's a proposal: We ought to be using what we know so well to show other Americans a few war facts: how things so often go wrong; that terrible things always happen, no matter how meticulous the planning, no matter how "civilized" we soldiers are; that crimes do occur because the killing fields are set up that way. Can we help our people understand these realities and that, therefore, war must be an absolutely last resort? And that modern military offense in particular, with its huge toll of "collateral" damage and lopsided casualty lists, is not acceptable? Sure we can. No use going off in a sulk saying that nobody understands. That's the easy way. Let's take the hard way. And maybe it won't be all that hard after all, once we realize that injustice and terror and unspeakable acts happen in many ways, everywhere, and that very few people are shielded from life on this earth. Only a tiny minority can afford places of escape, and even those places are apt to be illusions supported by Monopoly money. The vast majority of humankind are veterans of life.
A good beginning has already been made, with veterans coming out with honest ideas about heroism, breaking through military rhetoric and revealing true courage -- the kind that the overwhelming majority of our species always comes up with when push comes to shove.
So, is it to be the easy road of go-along with total militarization of our country and disdain for other nations? Or can we go back to what we truly and honestly know, and call the shots from there? We're at a turning point. Which way?
Anti-war folks: We are there too, the same turning point. Which way? Not the easy path of assuming that somewhere in the places of power someone is listening to our sensible demands, paying serious attention to us because, well, after all, we're the good people. Get off it! Get off this abject, self-centered dependence on those in power. They're not listening; they haven't been listening for some time now. They don't care about you, they don't give one good goddamn about you and yours. It's time to back off and take a hard look at who we really are and who we think we are, and at the same time look across the street at the counter demonstrators. Who are they? Fellow Americans, that's who. And they're in the process of taking their vehement disagreement with "us" to a high pitch of hatred, wrapped in their own dependence on power, setting themselves up as our enemies. Are we going to let them get away with that? Some will turn into full-time enemies, no doubt about it, but most aren't there yet. The hard-nosed and everlasting point is: If we Americans, living in the very belly of New World Order, harden ourselves into take-no-prisoners factions, we lose. We ALL lose. Continual war as a way of life will be the only winner.
Among anti-war and anti-globalism activists there has been talk about taking back the flag. Good idea. It's time to establish the truth that we are patriots. To establish that truth, it won't be enough to carry Old Glory. The tough part will be establishing beachheads on the ways we stereotype those who disagree with us, and then maybe they'll quit typing us. Then, and maybe only then, real down-on-the-ground argument can happen -- shouting even, always with the hope that listening is part of the happening. We Americans are not very good listeners. This is a big problem.
A last word about our local anti-war vigils and the counter demos. We came, without discussion, to an understanding, a turf arrangement. Cops drove past occasionally, but saw no need to interfere. And now "the war is over," vigils are cancelled. Are we back to square one? I don't know. The thing is, up here on the border we know each other, by newspaper, radio, grapevine and friendships. We have to get along, somehow or other. This is not a city. It's towns and villages and grand quilts of pastures and brush, woods and stone walls and cattle and sheep in the fields, and mountains on the far horizon. Life is not easy here. I remember a line spoken on a radio interview by Florence Reece, who wrote "Which Side Are You On?" It goes like this:
"It's a beautiful country, but it will have to be made that way."
Martin Murie served in the US Army 10th Mountain Infantry during World War II, later got a doctorate in zoology and taught life sciences at universities in California and Ohio before retiring to write fiction and poetry in far northern New York state. This originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser.