Thomas Paine:

“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Winter Soldier, Spring Suburbanite: The Fragility of Peace of Mind

Odd juxtapositions interest me: a stream of sewage in Iraq, a medic holding an Iraqi child, the face of an Iraqi schoolgirl; a cool, suburban pond in America—clean water, electricity, pampered koi, space for peace, quiet.

It is early morning. A Marine helicopter flies overhead on its way to Camp Pendleton, its propeller-driving, no-heart thudding, a sound like canon shots in steady succession, while I tend to the small pond in my back yard in the North County of San Diego. I go back inside, turn on the television to watch Democracy Now!, as is my habit each weekday. All this week, beginning last Friday, the independent news program has covered “Winter Soldier - Iraq and Afganistan,” a sobering, heart-breaking repeat of the hearings held in 1971— same name, different war.

Each day, with each soldier or Marine telling his story, exposing his heart, his conscience, his sorrow over the atrocities he saw, or was forced to commit, or committed with mindless adherence to orders from above, I begin to absorb, viscerally, and to comprehend —as well as a civilian can— the profound wound that is the Iraq war and occupation. Not that I didn’t see the crime of the Iraq war and occupation before this. But now I am closer to feeling it in my bones, though I won’t claim to know what those who have actually been there know down to the marrow.

Furthermore, I have part of the answer to my doubts about Joey (previous post, March 9, 2008). Now I know he was telling the truth: he committed murder; he not only had permission from above, he had orders. But whether he has since recovered his lost soul and being, his conscience, the integrity he lost somewhere along the way at home or in Iraq, is still in doubt. I remember showing him some literature from Iraq Veterans Against the War, the IVAW. He insisted there wouldn’t be any Marines on the list of names. When I showed him the names of Marines on the list, he shrugged his shoulders, continued polishing his car, and said, “...traitors to the corps.”

Jon Michael Turner, during his testimony at the current Winter Soldier hearings, said this: “There’s a term, ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine.’ But there’s also the term, ‘Eat the apple, F the corps, I don’t work for you no more.” Then he stripped off his medals and ribbons and threw them toward the audience.

Last Thursday I had a little drama of my own—sold all my beloved koi, witnessed what was for them a violent capture, and fretted all day and night over their transport and introduction to their more humane (larger) and heavenly, new pond and home. That night I couldn’t get to sleep, still worrying about them, imagining their koi sufferings, remembering how scared they were, the scraped scales, the repeating image in my mind of one koi who had flipped herself into a prickly potted plant while being caught.

Well, we all have these little worries, and some in our cities and suburbs suffer real tragedies and grieve throughout life over profound losses, such as the loss of a beloved in Iraq. But civilian life does not require that we act in opposition to conscience; we are never forced to commit atrocities, acts which condemn us either to a numb psychopathology or to a life of PTSD and its many manifestations— alcoholism, homelessness, despair, nightmares, flashbacks to horror, guilt, suicide, and more. For me and my suburban koi experience, it’s one night of tossing and turning an hour or two before finally falling into a peaceful sleep; for the winter soldier, it’s a lifetime of memories eating away at his peace of mind, whether awake or asleep. A soldier may find treatment, or honor through bearing witness, or solace through activism on behalf of truth and an end to war, but in fact, the wound will remain throughout his or her life.

I disagree with the mind-set that defines toughness in our culture as an ultimate value. Sure, it’s great to be strong, great to be able to do what needs to be done. But we are so much more than that—we ache; we bleed; we love, laugh, cry, and all the rest of the human things we do, and are. Peace of mind is fragile. I lost a moment’s peace over fish. I cannot imagine what it is like to lose peace of mind over some horrific act I have committed, or have seen. However, the loss of peace of mind described by those at Winter Soldier must also be seen as evidence of conscience, soul, of a moral sensibility, of goodness, courage, strength, integrity and liberation from denial. The winter soldier must take heart. He is a fine man; more, he is a human being, worthy of our profound respect and thanks.

When I say, “thank you for your service” to the winter soldier, an Iraq veteran against the war, the service I am referring to is service to truth, to the conscience and soul of America. I am sorry for the wound they have had to bear for the rest of us; I love them and wish them well. Whatever they have done, it was done by us all.

Jon Michael Turner also said, “I just want to say that I am sorry for the hate and destruction that I have inflicted on innocent people, and I’m sorry for the hate and destruction that others have inflicted on innocent people. At one point, it was OK. But reality has shown that it’s not, and that this is happening, and that until people hear about what is going on with this war, it will continue to happen and people will continue to die. I am sorry for the things that I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was.” This, to my mind, is how a Marine supports and defends the Constitution of the United States, how he honors his duty and his own humanity.

These Winter Soldier testimonials are the most important stories in the news this week. Has the mainstream media covered it? Nope. Not even Countdown. C-Span covered one panel, the one with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!. Good, but that was it. And, they identified the event without mentioning its true title, “Winter Soldier.” Plus, they failed to list it in their schedule or provide video for re-play, which they often do with their broadcasts.

True to mainstream media’s support for the Bush Administration at the expense of the First Amendment, and in keeping with their lack of coverage of anti-war protests, the media fails us again. They disappear the conscience of our culture. They’re big on sex scandals, sports scandals, and the back-and-forth insults of Presidential campaigns, but the true life stories about the human cost of war? Forget it. Those stories don’t exist for most Americans, thanks to the media. On Wednesday morning, for example, a woman who was in favor of the war called in to C-Span and said, in effect, that “these left-leaning people” who think we are over there murdering Iraqis are wrong—”it isn’t happening.” Well, if the media were doing its job and broadcasting Winter Soldier testimonials, she wouldn’t be able to say that. And even though most Americans are against the war and would probably appreciate hearing the stories coming back from Iraq, many others also go about their cozy lives in ignorance, tuning in to watch World’s Wildest Police Chases, or 24, or American Idol, without a moment’s loss of peace of mind. If challenged, some may even defend their apathy, having bought the silly notion that we’re “fighting them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here,” which can only be believed by a person who knows nothing of the corporate-driven reasons for this war, of history, of reality.

Thomas Paine wrote, “THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth.” Cheney would no doubt twist those words to suit his propaganda, which works on some in our population — “Freedom is not free” — who either forgot or never knew what the American revolution was all about— the who, and what, was the tyrant and the tyranny, that is to say, a king and government in league with corporate power. Today, everything Cheney stands for is the very same tyranny this democratic republic was founded to thwart; but here it is, the same tyrannical, corporate-powered spirit, back again, infecting our world. In response to a reporter’s comment that two-thirds of the American people think the war isn’t worth it, Cheney smirked, with undisguised pleasure and self-satisfaction, “So?” Hello? The man doesn’t give a rat’s ass what the American people want. He wants his power, his profit, the delusion of benign intent. It’s what he wants, and that’s all that counts—besides, we haven’t put a stop to him yet, despite his crimes. Why should he worry?

In the meantime, the Bush Administration has cut funding for the VA, where the prevailing attitude has poor character as the defining factor in PTSD.

These too are times that try men’s souls, but, if you are a media mogul, or George W. Bush, or Dick Cheney, or Condi Rice, your soul will not be tried— in your folly, your lust for power and your greed, you have denied your soul, and now it is beyond reach. Let there be no doubt—you are the monsters.


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