When I was seventeen in1967, a friend and I got in trouble at school, cutting class to go surfing if I remember right. This was not the first time we had been caught breaking school rules so it was no surprise when we were both called in to the principal’s office.
We were introduced to a couple of army recruiters and given choices. My friend Stein – his mother dead and his father the town drunk – could enlist or go to juvenile hall. I was offered expulsion or military service. I chose expulsion.
Stein, still not eighteen, showed up in Vietnam just in time for the Tet offensive. He was in country for less than two weeks before he was killed.
I would never betray my friend Stein by thanking him for dying in a war that no one has has ever explained to my satisfaction that had anything to do with mine or any other Americans’ freedom, or pursuit of happiness.
I do grieve for the young men and women whose lives are fodder for what we all know are the market forces and political ambitions that motivate modern war. But I will not so blithely dismiss the tragedy of their deaths by rationalizing this horror with empty bromides that have no meaningful connection with reality.
It’s 1971, four years after Stein’s death. And now I carry a gun on the streets of Oakland, California. I have the gun because I do guard duty for the Black Panther Part.
When the Panthers armed themselves to protect their community from police violence I saw and felt for the first time that feeling of willingness to put my life at risk for the sake of the safety and freedom of people I loved, people who I considered to be my brothers and sisters.
I am also spending a lot of time with soldiers. They are all combat veterans from Vietnam who are now joining up with Bay Area revolutionaries and acting as teachers on how to handle weapons and tactics for urban insurrection.
It’s 1998, a lot of years have passed since the end of the Vietnam war and many more young people, most of them like Stein, innocent, have lost their lives in the never ending American military mission to protect my freedom which I am using to drive a cab in San Francisco.
I get a drunk Vietnam vet in my cab and right away he starts in with that ridiculous crap about how we could have won the war if the politicians had some backbone. I am thinking to myself that it must be tough to sustain that wall inside oneself between the lies that helps you feel good and the truths that are too horrible to face, that the war was never about freedom or happiness, that the more Vietnamese that died at hands of Americans, the more determined they were to fight, just as you would if a foreign army had invaded your home town and was doing the same things to your family that you were doing 10,000 miles from your home.
I am weary of this fellow and my first instinct to humor him goes out the window when he starts in on me because I opposed the war. He calls me a peace pussy. That’s it, I rip up his platitudes about the war. I tell him who I hold responsible – Johnson, Nixon, Kissenger. I tell him about the six months jail time I did after being busted at an antiwar rally.
And just as I think that things are going to get really bad, that I am going to have to notify my dispatcher that I need police assistance, he leans his head over the seat – I see his face and I see the tears. He says to me: “Brother, I am glad you didn’t go.”
I am stunned. After all these years and all the arguments about the war – it’s never been as real as this moment. I told him something I had never got a chance to say to so many of my peers: “Brother, I am so glad you made it home”.
A little after two in the morning on a San Francisco street two grown men weep in this small moment of stunning truth.
It’s now 2010, I am in Ocean Beach and its Memorial Day. All day long I have been watching the the twenty-somethings give thanks for sunny beach weather and cold beer.
We have been at war in Iraq for eight years and Afghanistan even longer. Too bad more wars don’t add up to more freedom from unemployment, home foreclosures, and bankruptcy .
Me, I think that all these wars did was allow the thieves on Wall Street the freedom to rob the country in broad daylight , get away with it and even get bonuses. I am sure everyone of them is thankful for the American soldiers who made all this possible. And how about those oil execs? They used their freedom from regulatory oversight won with the blood of our young to act recklessly and inflict a serious wound to our mother earth and make billions of dollars in the process. You gotta love that kind of freedom.
Now I know from some of the earlier posts that there are going to be those who want to say to me I should be thankful to my friend Stein and the many others who sacrificed so that i could have the freedom to express my dissent. To them I say “Bullshit, get real!”
If you truly grieve for the fallen then show your outrage at those who put them in harms way for the most cynical ambitions. And I extend this challenge. If you are so sure that there is a demonstrable connection between any American military action post World War Two and our freedom – than prove it. There is only one rule: you have to be concrete, no delusional platitudes, as they have proven to be too deadly.