Friday, January 26, 2007

We, the People

"I'm the decision maker," BushCheney declared today. Article II, section 2 of the Constitution does indeed give him the authority to command American forces. But that same document begins with the phrase "We, the People of the United States". Whatever authority BushCheney exercises derives from the consent of the governed.

And we decided on November 7, 2006 that Iraq was NOT in our national interest. If BushCheney is unwilling to listen, I recommend everyone read the words of Molly Ivins:
A surge is not acceptable to the people in this country — we have voted overwhelmingly against this war in polls (about 80 percent of the public is against escalation, and a recent Military Times poll shows only 38 percent of active military want more troops sent) and at the polls. We know this is wrong. The people understand, the people have the right to make this decision, and the people have the obligation to make sure our will is implemented.


We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous. Make our troops know we're for them and trying to get them out of there. Hit the streets to protest Bush's proposed surge. If you can, go to the peace march in Washington on Jan. 27. We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, "Stop it, now!"

See you in the streets tomorrow.


Please keep Molly in your thoughts. She's been hospitalized in her ongoing bout with breast cancer. Hers is one voice I would hate to see stilled.

Unreality Check

One of the things that surprised me in October 2002 when I finished hiking the Appalachian Trail was talk of war with Iraq. When I started walking in April of that year, the US was fighting in Afghanistan in what seemed like a logical response to al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001. I had reservations about that war but I certainly saw the connection to the previous year’s attacks. Prior to beginning my hike, I was pretty focused on my preparations. If Iraq was a matter of particular concern to the US, I was not aware of it.

Once I was on the trail, I was in a different world. Current events and world affairs did not enter into that world to any great degree. I was far more concerned with more immediate matters: weather, trail conditions, finding decent campsites each day and supplies in towns along the way. Not surprisingly, I did not pay much attention to much beyond the trail. Besides, all of my previous hiking experience was that nothing much would change when I came off the trail after a week or even a month-long. Everything would be pretty much the same.

Occasionally, I encountered some reminder of “the other world”, the world of non-hikers. One of my fellow hikers was an Army Ranger first sergeant, due to retire in July 2002, wondering if he would be stop-lossed because of his experience (he wasn’t). Another reminder came on September 12 when I stopped in a Rangely, Maine grocery store (the only one, actually) and saw a newspaper photograph of the previous day’s one year 9-11 anniversary. But for the most part current events beyond the trail were hardly evident. When I thought about war at all, the thoughts were about my own experiences thirty years before.

When I finished hiking and began my return to the southwest from Maine, I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. It took about five weeks to make the trip, stopping to visit family and friends along the way, so I was still somewhat disconnected from events but Iraq was clearly a big issue. Talk of Iraq, a sometime American ally whose tyrannical but secular regime seemed dangerous to its own people, as central to American security seemed wildly out of place to someone like me who had not followed the discussion all year. Congress was being asked to authorize war against Iraq? Clearly something was missing. When the authorization came to a vote in late October, I was amazed that it passed so overwhelmingly and with so much Democratic support. It just didn’t make sense to someone like me who had, in effect, dropped out of the sky into BushCheney’s America. (It probably made little sense to any intelligent person who followed events but at least that person would be aware of the discussion.)

Nor did the run-up to war in the following months make much sense to me. Events in Iraq and the reports of inspectors searching for weapons of mass destruction suggested that Iraq was far less dangerous than the specter conjured by BushCheney. By this time, though, I was sufficiently aware of events to know that, for what little sense they made, America was going to war in Iraq. I knew also from history and experience that it would be a disaster.

Even though my long hike left me bewildered about going to war in Iraq, it did prepare me for that war. As I wrote in previously, I came to terms with my experience in Vietnam. That resolution put me in a position to deal with a present that, in many ways, required that I fully understand the lessons of the past.

Funny how that works.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

State of the Union Day

Americans were treated yesterday to BushCheney’s alternate reality in Iraq. First came General David Petraeus’ assertion that 21,500 extra troops will establish security in Baghdad that has previously eluded US efforts. A few hours later, during his State of the Union speech, George W. Bush called for Americans to give his “new” plan a chance to work. The combination of General Petraeus’ earnest, cautious optimism and the President of the United States speaking to a joint session of Congress links the political to the military: the commander-in-chief standing with his brave soldiers in fighting a determined enemy while simultaneously holding off the voices of defeat here in the US.

It’s a clever move. Americans will do anything to support the troops even if they question BushCheney’s competence in determining their mission. As long as he can tie himself to the military, he has some hope that he can lessen resistance to his latest “plan for victory in Iraq”. And he has a perfect accomplice in General Petreaus. The general’s complicity is not a matter of simple careerism. He’s not a willing yes man for a dubious plan; rather he, like so many military leaders, has a positive “can do, will do, sir” attitude that is essential for those charged with difficult tasks. If he is to lead men into battle, then he must believe in his mission. He brings credibility that BushCheney so visibly lacks.

That was so visible in the Armed Services Committee hearing where General Petraeus testified yesterday. BushCheney supporters took the opportunity to link the General to the plan for additional troops. John McCain used his questions to emphasize the importance of additional troops and highlight the impact of Congressional opposition to BushCheney’s plan on troop morale. Asked by Joe Lieberman whether those resolutions would give encouragement to the enemy by exposing divisions among the American people, he replied: "That's correct." As a result, John Warner admonished the general about appearing to wade into a political debate and warned Petraeus to not let himself be trapped into portraying members of Congress as unpatriotic for disagreeing with BushCheney.

So there you have it. A lame duck, president riding on the backs of the troops he sends into battle, seeking to salvage the train wreck he orchestrated by telling Americans, "This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we're in." That statement says it all to me. In short, BushCheney did not know what he was doing as he led this nation into Iraq. Subsequent events demonstrate that he hasn’t understood what he has been doing since the invasion. (See BarbinMD’s DailyKos diary for a good summary of the past year’s cluelessness.)

I think Jim Webb said it all when he stated in his response to the State of the Union speech, that leaders owe the men and women they put in harm’s way “...sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it.”

Sound judgment. Clear thinking. Not applicable to BushCheney’s wars.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Walking Back from Vietnam

[After about a year-long hiatus, I am working on my memoir of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike again. One of the recurring themes is Vietnam. It shows up periodically during the first half of the hike. By the time I reached Virginia in my third month of walking I had come to some conclusions.]

Vietnam has been on my mind this entire hike, especially so since I’ve been in Virginia. The empty time in my brain on the trail gravitates to events and emotions that have churned my soul for three decades. I am face to face with my military service in a way I cannot avoid. At issue is my willingness to kill in a war that I believed was wrong. Military service has traditionally been a source of pride but not for me. I fought in support of a corrupt regime against its own people. How can I be proud of that?

Hiking has always reminded me of walking in the jungle but until this thru-hike, I never acknowledged that I hike to set things right. But that’s what I am doing: I am using the same skills and determination I showed as an infantryman in a more benign setting, in a way that allows some pride of accomplishment. For all the hiking I’ve done, thought, I’ve never resolved my conflicting thoughts and feelings about Vietnam, always leaving that until someday. That someday is now. On this trail.

Walking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia brings the events of 30 years ago into the present. The geography of my youth reminds me of the days when I faced the reality of military service and war. By the time I was a college senior in 1970, I knew that the war was bad policy, that the US was fighting against history itself in Vietnam, destined to fail, just as other invaders and occupiers had failed to defeat Vietnamese nationalism in past centuries. But that knowledge did not qualify me for conscientious objector status, which at the time required religious belief against killing. Like most Americans, then and now, I deplored killing but recognized the right of individuals and nations to defend themselves. I’d hoped the war would end before I graduated but it was still there, waiting for me after college.

I had given some fleeting thought to heading for Canada or refusing induction but, in the end I decided to take my chances in the military. It was the easy way out for a young man whose father, uncles and one aunt had served in World War II. As a college graduate I figured that I could land a safe job, away from combat, and could dodge the moral issue of killing in a cause I did not believe in. I was wrong. I landed in the infantry and found myself in the killing zone–a grunt with a rifle–in January 1971. Ill-suited to the task and dubious about the cause, once in the field, I was more than willing to fire my rifle at anyone threatening me or my buddies. I numbed my mind to the fear and questions about the war, stayed low and just tried to survive.

Luck was with me. My company saw little real action; I never fired my rifle at an actual target. It wasn’t that nothing was happening; every other company in my battalion was ambushed with at least several killed and others wounded each time. Squads from my company (but not my squad) were ambushed and took casualties several times; three men died in combat-related accidents. I was just flat out lucky during five months of combat patrol. And I was even luckier when I was assigned to the rear as company clerk. But I returned from Vietnam with questions about my moral courage, my willingness to kill in a questionable cause. Those questions have followed me ever since, never fully answered, never resolved.

Until now. I’ve been thinking about those events every day this hike. Instead of ignoring them as I have for so many years, I confront them straight on. The decisions I faced and the choices I made as a young man were hardly clear cut. Yeah, I thought the war was wrong but the political scientist in me allowed me to believe that Vietnam was bad wrong policy, not an immoral war, as many opponents believed. I did not question the right of my country to risk my life, only the wisdom of the policy that put me at risk. I did what I was asked. I was afraid to say no to my country.

Looking back on that year, I faced discomfort, hardship and fear; somehow I endured the physical tasks of combat. I was spared death, disfigurement and disgrace. I never harmed any one (by chance only, but at least that’s one thing not on my conscience) nor acted outside the rules of war. As a nation, the United States trashed, poisoned and bombed Vietnam unmercifully for almost two decades. That was the immorality of the war. But those horrors go well beyond my military service; ALL Americans share collective responsibility for that bit of history. As for me individually, I served honorably and well in a questionable war. I committed no crimes in Vietnam. I’m clean. I can’t say the same for my country.

Although I had little interest in being a soldier, miliary service offered some rewards which affected my choices. The GI Bill offered education benefits that could support me in graduate school. Being a veteran offered credibility to question policies that contributed to war. So joining the Army with the hope of skating by no longer seems unreasonable to me. Neither is fighting to survive in a life and death situation. I did the best I could.

There It Is. I did the best I could. After the fact, I can re-evaluate those choices but I cannot change them. I did the best I could with the information, knowledge, emotions and traditions available to me at the time. And I did okay. I was no murderer or war criminal. Just another GI getting by, maybe older and more educated than most of my comrades, but in the end I was just one of many young men facing difficult choices in those years. Soldiers and draft-dodgers alike, we all got by as best we could. That’s it. I don’t have to debate this anymore. I did the best I could. And I got a lot out of it. I made it through an amazingly different experience alive. I came back more aware of my strength and the fragility of life. Not to mention three decades of questions and doubt, my personal demons.

Thoughts of and about Vietnam followed me up the trail. I wrestled and debated them as I watched nature’s beauty pass before me. I remembered patrolling in the jungle, a frightened young soldier, just hoping to survive. Now, 30 years later, I was fighting my own personal war over choices I made long ago. I resented the intrusion. My thru-hike was supposed to be an adventure, a release. Yet here I was reliving my past. But the time spent dancing with those demons did offer release. By the time I reached central Virginia I felt like I had come to terms with Vietnam in a way that had eluded me for three decades. Standing before Audie Murphy’s memorial (*) I was able to proudly salute a fellow soldier.

My AT thru-hike grew out of my Vietnam experience. Had I not spent that year in Vietnam, I may never have known I could backpack with such determination and may never have wanted to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Hiking the AT helped me realize that I am proud of my Vietnam service, despite my reservations. I served my country. I met the most threatening challenge of my life. And in the years since, I have been an informed, active and outspoken opponent of war.

My AT thru-hike gave me the opportunity to reflect on that most difficult time. I will always have some regret and sadness about those events but I realized during my hike that I did okay. My Vietnam ghosts remain with me but the past is settled.

[* Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II died in a 1971 plane crash near the Appalachian Trail route on Brush Mountain in southwestern Virginia. A short side trail leads to a granite memorial].

Sunday, January 21, 2007


Yesterday afternoon I spotted a hawk in a neighbor's tree. I think it was a female Coopers Hawk from the tail feathers and otherwise muted plumage. She perched there for about five minutes, surveying the neighborhood before launching into flight, which is where I spotted the bands on her tail feathers. I caught a glimpse of another hawk soaring nearby.

Not long after sunset, I saw the two day old crescent moon hovering over Venus low in the southwest just above the horizon. The moon's entire disc was illuminated with light reflected from our humble planet and its thin crescent was a bright sliver on the lower edge.

None of this is unusual. Something like these events happen around the world all the time. I'm just fortunate to see them occasionally in my neighborhood and it reminds me that, for all our pretensions, we humans are pretty damn insignificant.