Saturday, June 28, 2008

When They Tell You to Shut Up

I would like to pass along a very arresting article I read today, called "Welcome Home, Soldier. Now Shut Up" by Paul Rockwell.

Rather than write about it, I am going to quote it here in its entirety. People should not be shunned or chastised for what they think or how they feel about something, just because the subject matter is offensive or embarrassing or contrary to their own perceptions of a thing. That a soldier can't talk about his personal experience of a war, because it contradicts someone else's story about that war, is disturbing.

Thank you, Mr. Rockwell, for calling attention to this matter.

There are two kinds of courage in war — physical courage and moral courage. Physical courage is very common on the battlefield. Men and women on both sides risk their lives, place their own bodies in harm’s way. Moral courage, however, is quite rare. According to Chris Hedges, the brilliant New York Times war correspondent who survived wars in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans, “I rarely saw moral courage. Moral courage is harder. It requires the bearer to walk away from the warm embrace of comradeship and denounce the myth of war as a fraud, to name it as an enterprise of death and immorality, to condemn himself, and those around him, as killers. It requires the bearer to become an outcast. There are times when taking a moral stance, perhaps the highest form of patriotism, means facing down the community, even the nation.”

More and more U.S. soldiers and Marines, at great cost to their own careers and reputations, are speaking publicly about U.S. atrocities in Iraq, even about the cowardice of their own commanders, who send youth into atrocity-producing situations only to hide from the consequences of their own orders. In 2007, two brilliant war memoirs — ROAD FROM AR RAMADI by Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, and THE SUTRAS OF ABU GHRAIB by Army Reservist Aidan Delgado — appeared in print. In March 2008, at the Winter Soldier investigation just outside Washington D.C., hard-core U.S. Iraqi veterans, some shaking at the podium, some in tears, unburdened their souls. Jon Michael Turner described the horrific incident in which, on April 28, 2008, he shot an Iraqi boy in front of his father. His commanding officer congratulated him for “the kill.” To a stunned audience, Turner presented a photo of the boy’s skull, and said: “I am sorry for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on innocent people.”

The Winter Soldier investigation was followed by the publication of COLLATERAL DAMAGE: AMERICA’S WAR AGAINST IRAQI CIVILIANS, by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian. Based on hundreds of hours of taped interviews with Iraqi combat veterans, this pioneering work on the catastrophe in Iraq includes the largest number of eyewitness accounts from U.S. military personnel on record.

The Courage to Resist

We cannot understand the psychological and moral significance of military resistance unless we recognize the social forces that stifle conscience and human individuality in military life. Gwen Dyer, historian of war, writes that ordinarily, “Men will kill under compulsion. Men will do almost anything if they know it is expected of them and they are under strong social pressure to comply.” “Only exceptional people resist atrocity,” writes psychiatrist Robert Lifton.

How much easier it is to surrender to the will of superiors, to merge into the anonymity of the group. It takes uncommon courage to resist military powers of intimidation, peer pressure, and the atmosphere of racism and hate that drives all imperial wars.

Silencing the Witnesses to War

War crimes are collective in nature. Especially in wars based on fraud, soldiers are expected to lie — to their country, to their community, even to themselves.

The silencing process begins on the battlefield in the presence of officers, power-holders who seek to nullify the perceptions and personal experience of troops under their command.

In his war memoir, Aidan Delgado describes attempts of his commanders to suppress the truth about Abu Ghraib. First his captain says the Army has nothing to hide, Abu Ghraib is just a rumor. But then the captain continues: “We don’t need to air our dirty laundry in public. If you have photos that you’re not supposed to have, get rid of them. Don’t talk about this to anyone, don’t write about it to anyone back home.” In the U.S. military, the truth is seditious.

Two years ago, Marine Sergeant Jimmy Massey published his riveting autobiography (written with Natasha Saulnier) in France and Spain. How the Marine Corps - through indoctrination and intimidation - transforms a homeboy from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina into a professional killer who murders “innocent people for his government” is the subject of Massey’s unsettling, impassioned, Jar-head raunchy, and ultimately uplifting memoir, COWBOYS FROM HELL. (No U.S. publisher has picked up the book. A Marine who speaks truth to power is not without honor save in his own country.) In Chapter 18, Jimmy describes a seemingly minor encounter with his captain. Here Massey gives us a look into the process of human denial in its early phase.

Massey has just participated in a checkpoint massacre of civilians. His sense of decency, his sanity, is still in tact. Like any normal human being, he is distraught. The carnage of the war, the imbalance of power between the biggest war machine in history and a suffering people devoid of tanks and air power — the sheer injustice of it all — begins to take its toll on Massey’s conscience.

In the wake of the horrific events of the day, his captain is cool. He walks up to Massey and asks; “Are you doing all right, Staff Sergeant?” Massey responds: “No, sir. I am not doing O.K. Today was a bad day. We killed a lot of innocent civilians.”

Fully of aware of the civilian carnage, his captain asserts: “No, today was a good day.”

Relatives wailing, cars destroyed, blood all over the ground, Marines celebrating, civilians dead, and “it was good day”!

The Massey incident goes beyond the mendacity of military life. It concerns the control, the dehumanization of the psyches of our troops.

As one Vietnam veteran put it years ago: “They kept fucking with my mind.”

In 1994 Jonathan Shay, staff psychiatrist in the Department of Veterans Affairs, published a pioneering work on post traumatic stress — Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. According to Shay, who recorded volumes of testimony from Vietnam veterans, commanders routinely try to efface the perceptions and the normal feelings of compassion among American troops. Military necessity, including the ever-present need for political propaganda, determines what is perceived, and how it is perceived, in war.

It was an extremely common experience in Vietnam, Shay writes, to be told by military superiors dealing with crime and trauma: “You didn’t experience it, it never happened, and you don’t know what you know.” And it was fairly common for traumatized soldiers to say to reporters: “It didn’t happen. And besides, they had it coming.” Shay recorded the testimony of one veteran who, in great anger, describes the pressures to alter his perceptions of collective murder.

“Daylight came, and we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids…You said to the team, ‘Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.’ Because that’s what we were getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it. We got body count.’ They’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians. So in your mind you’re saying, ‘Ah, fuck it, they’re just gooks.’ I was sick over it, after this happened. I actually puked my guts out…But see, it’s all explained to you by captains and colonels and majors. ‘Fuck it, they was suspects anyways. You guys did a great job. Erase it. It’s yesterday’s fucking news.’”

Willful Ignorance at Home

The collective process of denial on the battlefield eventually extends to the homeland. Returning soldiers, to be sure, are often honored, but only so long as they remain silent about the realities, the pathos, the absurd evils of war. Willful public ignorance is a source of pain for veterans.

Ernest Hemingway’s brilliant short story, Soldier’s Home, published in 1925 after World War I, gives us insight into the reluctance of civilians to address the psychic needs of soldiers back from war.

The simply told story is about a young man named Krebs who returns to his home in Oklahoma. At first Krebs does not want to talk about the war. But soon he feels the need to speak — to his family, his neighbors and friends. But as Hemingway tells us, “Nobody wanted to hear about it.” His town did not want to learn about atrocities, and “Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie.”

There’s the rub. His ability to assimilate into civilian life depended on his willingness to fabricate stories about the war. Soldiers are not only expected to lie on behalf of the military during the course of war, they are also expected to participate in homecoming rituals that preserve the civilian fantasy of war’s nobility.

In Hemingway’s story, the pressure to lie is so powerful, Krebs begins to manufacture stories about his experiences in battle — just to get along, just be able to lead a normal life.

Repression, however, is a major cause of mental illness and loneliness. Krebs morale deteriorates. He sleeps late in bed. He loses interest in work. He withdraws into himself.

That’s all Hemingway tells us. It’s a quietly told story, all the more powerful for its understatement.

There is a connection between Hemingway’s war-informed fiction and real life. As Shay notes, there is a tension between a soldier’s need to communalize shame and grief and the unwillingness of civilians to listen to troops whom they sent into battle. One Vietnam veteran told the following story:

“I had just come back from Vietnam and my first wife’s parents gave a dinner for me and my parents and her brothers and their wives. And after dinner we were all sitting in the living room and her father said: ‘So, tell us what it was like.’ And I started to tell them, and I told them. And do you know that within five minutes the room was empty. They were all gone, except my wife. After that I didn’t tell anybody what I had seen in Vietnam.”

Welcome home, soldier. Now shut up.

Notwithstanding clichés and pieties about support for troops, those who promote war are often the least likely to share the burdens and memories of war when soldiers return. When Ron Kovic, who was paralyzed from the chest down during the war in Vietnam, steered his wheelchair down the aisle of the Republican National Convention in 1972, the delegates spat on him and cheered for Nixon — “Four more years.”

W.D. Erhart, Vietnam veteran and author of Passing Time, never forgot the horrific episodes of his tour in Vietnam. In his first autobiography, he tells a friend about his speech at a Rotary Club. “I even put on a coat and tie and went to the Rotary Club. The Rotary Club, for chrissake. I laid it all out for ‘em. I told ‘em about search and destroy missions, harassment and interdiction fire, winning hearts and minds, all that stuff…Was I ever sharp that day.

“Now listen. You won’t believe this. I got done and nobody said a word. No applause. Nothing. Then this skinny old fart shaped like a cold chisel gets up and says he’s a retired colonel, and he thinks we should keep on pounding those little yellow bastards until they do what we say or we kill ‘em all, and he tells me I can’t be a real veteran because a real veteran wouldn’t go around badmouthing the good old U.S. of A., and the whole place erupts in thunderous applause.”

Welcome home, soldier. Now shut up.

Today Georgia Stillwell is a mother of a 21-year-old Iraqi war veteran. Her son is now homeless, unemployed, and despondent. Early one morning he drove his car over an embankment. She says that her son is a mere physical shell of himself. “My son’s spirit and soul must still be wandering the streets of Iraq.” It is not simply what happened in Iraq, but how veterans are treated at home when they seek to unburden their souls, that reinforces post-traumatic stress. On the night he drove the car off the road, he was crying, talking about the war. “His friends tell me he talks about the war. They describe it as ‘crazy talk.’ He wants the blood of the Iraqis he killed off his hands.”

“Each generation,” writes Chris Hedges, “discovers its own disillusionment, often at a terrible price. And the war in Iraq has begun to produce legions of the lost and the damned.” For our morally courageous veterans — for all of us, really, who seek forgiveness — only the truth can heal.

Published on Friday, June 27, 2008 by The Black Commentator.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

FISA rumblings...

The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a legislative compromise on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, marking the beginning of the end of a fierce battle over civil liberties and national security that has been waged in the halls of Congress for more than three years.

And yet, for all of the political passions the issue engendered, the fight over FISA ended with something of a whimper. The final product -- much to the consternation of the progressive community -- gave the president wide authority to monitor terrorist suspects and collect communications from U.S. citizens without review. It also offered telecommunications companies that helped with the previously illegal program immunity from lawsuits, a hard provision to swallow for the program's opponents.

In the end, only 15 U.S. Senators were willing to resort to procedural tactics as a last-ditch effort to hold up the legislation

Five Myths About the New Wiretapping Law
(why it's a lot worse than you think)

Entire FISA Bill
FAQ on legality of wiretape program

Background of Controversy

Friday, June 20, 2008

Trois-Rivières, ma ville à moi

J'aime ma ville.
C'est pas trop grande...
et pas trop petite.

I admit, I wasn't so fond of it at first. I didn't find it as charming, for example, as old Quebec City; it lacked the number and variety of the great restaurants and lively markets (comme Jean Talon!) to be found in Montreal.

I found the downtown area (apart from the main street of centre ville) rather drab and colorless. But mostly it was the industrial pollution: Gentilly-2 just a short way up the road; and Wayagamack, daily spewing its toxic particulates and foul-smelling fumes into the air from tall red and white smoke stacks, which, depending on the direction of the wind, often heads directly toward my house.

One summer I tried swimming in the St. Lawrence near l'Ile-St-Quentin and was nearly swept away by the strong current, a truly scary experience. And the public pools close in mid-August, a bit too early because it's still as hot as Hades at that time.

So those were the negatives. But, as with any place where you live for a while, you become accustomed to things. You discover little pockets of interest you hadn't noticed at first: like stores that sell the special kind of food you like; quiet places you can bike to and sit in the grass and watch the cargo ships pass by on the river; wonderful little private gardens in your neighborhood; activist and community organizations with which you can relate. In short, Trois-Rivière has become "home" now.

Not that I don't miss the wonderful mountains of Vermont and Pennsylvania, or the bookstores and memory-filled streets of Boston and Cambridge. But there's something to be said for Being Where You Are, not always living in the past or future but making the best of wherever you happen to be at the moment, for however long that is.

There's an interesting little local street mag here (
journal de rue trifluvien ) called La Galère, which I bought for the first time the other day. Its May-June issue, titled J'aime 3-Rivières, is devoted to singing the praises of T-R, in essays, interviews, poems and pictures. Check it out: (la texte est en français) on line.

I can honestly say, I rather like being a trifluvienne now.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

As the World Churns

Newsjunkie-itis. Be glad you don't suffer from it. Only, you never get real news anymore--only vague snippets, misquotes, talking points and sound bites. You actually have to hunt down alternative sources sometimes to find out what's really going on in the world.

Don't you just love how news TV networks show live coverage of some important person speaking, then abruptly cut to some talking head advising you that the network will "monitor" the situation, and "get back to you" on it. (Why not let us hear the whole thing for ourselves so we can form our own opinion? Instead they spend the next 10 minutes opinionating, giggling and interjecting their own cute remarks. It's called "anchortainment.") What you have to watch out for is when something that's being reported all over Europe and the rest of the world seems to get minimal or no exposure on US news. The message, it seems to me, is: "Nothing to see here, folks. Let's move on."

Or they take a single event, and cover that one thing 24/7, footage re-run after re-run after re-run (OJ in his Bronco, Stacey Peterson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson, Natalie Holloway--crime, celebrities, fluff, spin and politics).

Dennis Kucinich presented 35 articles of impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives this week against George W. Bush, which will go into the Congressional Record (so much for your legacy, George). Nothing will be done, of course. Everyone's too afraid, it seems. (Of what?) This skinny little vegan (DK) has more guts than the rest of the bunch combined. About time it got in the record.

Unrelated but still of note (I hadn't been aware of this before), the number of suicides among young people in Bridgend, South Wales since January has now reached 22. Some people are blaming it on Bebo (an internet social network similar to MySpace). Others, suggest there's a connection with the "mosquito" (youth deterrent) device. Who knows what really caused these kids all to kill themselves? And why were 19 or more of them all found dead by hanging? A V2K experiment? [1], [2]

Speaking of news, there was a virtual media blackout back in April and May re: RVC's high-speed chase and subsequent death by gunshot (through the back) in Houston. (Who ordered the Tuxedo taken out, and why?) And when you tried to search recent articles about it, they seemed to have been mysteriously expunged from the local newspaper's website (the search reply was always "zero articles"), which is strange, because other, much older articles on other stories were still available. Anyway, someone with his same name, let's call him RC#2, posted a comment on a political blog recently, warning that Israel's going to stage a false flag terror op in August that will be blamed on Iran. ("Israel will ‘retaliate’ and so will the US," RC#2 says. "We're all screwed.") What is one to make of that?, except it's not the first time such concerns have been voiced. In fact this war chatter has been circulating much more frequently net-wise these past weeks, which is worrying.

Please ... please ... not another war.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Garden Spirits

A curious trend, among some people, is to place certain plastic, metal or wooden objects on prominent display in or near their gardens, that have nothing to do with the plants themselves.

These things are usually not large enough to act as an impediment to animals or other beings intent on messing with the garden, and are used mostly for decoration.

But there's also the unconscious belief that by placing these things in the garden, it will bring good luck--and if your object is a replica of a spirit entity, that it will protect and watch over the little seedlings as they eke their way out of the soil.

I, too, have fallen into this strange practice. My Tibetan prayer flags on the roof of the tool shed send wishes to the universe, a grinning Buddha sits among the medicinal herbs (minus a hand, which somehow got broken off last summer), and a wood spirit scowls from the windowsill to any slugs hovering maliciously around the new tomato plants.

I got the Tibetan flags in Cambridge, Mass., the buddha at the dollar store, and the wood spirit from a whittler in Wisconsin (carved from the bark of native trees), courtesy of Ebay. And there they reign, in the queendom of veggies and flowers, from late May to mid-November, when I close up the garden and return them to the shed for the winter. Except the flags. They stay all year round and bear the brunt of thrashing rains that plaster them to the roof and drain their color, or frigid winters where they're either encased in ice or totally buried. I have to replace them every year but they have become such a tradition, I cannot imagine the place without them.

Some relatives dropped by last week to deliver four large raspberry plants and a pot containing six strawberry cuttings. They assured me we will have raspberries in July and again in September, from these plants. Yesterday there were little flowers on the strawberry plants.

I love my garden.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Montreal Bike Fest 2008

Check out Le Tour de Nuit last Friday night (an estimated 12,000 cyclists participated)!
[Photo André Tremblay, La Presse]

From last Wednesday, May 28 to today, thousands of cyclists have been converging on Montreal for the World’s Largest Cycling Festival: The Montreal Bike Fest. More than 45,000 bike riders participate in this annual event.

This week-long family-friendly festival includes Operation: Bike-to-Work, The Metropolitan Challenge, Un Tour la Nuit (Fly through the air with 12,000 friendly night owls on a 22-kilometre bike ride through the city!); and Tour de l’île de Montréal, where they shut down city streets to accommodate the approximately 35,000 cyclists who usually participate.

Unfortunately, it rained the whole weekend! Bummer. But they still came, and they rode through the rain anyhow.