Saturday, August 22, 2009

William Calley, My Lai and Me

News that William Calley is remorseful about his actions at My Lai isn’t hard to believe. If I had that on my conscience, I would forever remember and regret it. Even so, I appreciate his apology for what his orders did to the villagers and the soldiers who carried out those orders. As always, Calley asserts that he was following orders but for the first time he acknowledges those orders were illegal and that could have been refused. Still, he carried them out and will never be able to erase that stain. He cannot change history but for the first time, has acknowledge his responsibility for the deaths and destruction at My Lai. If every veteran of every war did the same, there would be no more war.

Calley’s experience rings true in my own experience of Vietnam. These days I recall thinking, “just take your chance and get past it” and now realize that Vietnam will never be in the past for me. Like Calley, I followed orders that I could have legitimately refused: to accept induction and deployment as an infantryman. Refusing those orders carried consequences I was unwilling to face. So I took my chances, did what I was told and skated by. I followed orders. I did nothing illegal.

But the legal orders I followed still give me pause. I knew the war was wrong yet participated in the war, not just passively but as an active combatant. I fought against people whom I believed had the right to resist American intervention in their country. That’s the part that will never be past. I guess you can say I was young, scared, uncertain—all the things that cloud judgment—but I was also a college graduate who knew history, diplomacy and government well enough to see what was going on. The fact that I was lucky enough never to face the decision to kill another man changes nothing. I knowingly served in an unjustified, illegal war.

William Calley followed an illegal order and ordered his men to do the same. I followed legal orders to actively participate in an aggressive foreign intervention of questionable purpose, one that lengthened Vietnam’s civil war by two decades and expanded its violence exponentially. I will live with that forever. As the nuns used to say, it’s on my Permanent Record. About all I can say is that like William Calley, I am sorry.

That’s why you see me every at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Water Street in Olympia with my Veterans For Peace flag and why I have been an anti-war veteran ever since Vietnam. It gives meaning to my service. For some reason Americans will (sort of) listen to a veteran speaking against war than to someone who knew enough to honorably refuse to serve. Certainly one reason I was willing to serve was so I could speak out. For that reason, and the fact that I cannot forget, I will never stop speaking against war.


The story isn't getting much notice in the major media that I checked. Not the Washington Post, New York Times, Google News or Yahoo News. I found the AP story at MSNBC which is the same copy at NPR. NPR also has an interview with the man who arranged for Calley to speak publicly.


Friday, August 21, 2009

A Walk in the Park

Timeless seems to be the best word to my experience on my trip to Olympic National Park a couple weeks ago. So timeless that I don’t even have photographs (we forgot the camera, another story entirely). All I have are the memories of a small campground on the North Fork of the Quinault River, the quiet rush of the river and mist playing up and down the steep, forested ridges defining this remote valley. Except for the campground and the second growth forest, the scene probably looked little different in past centuries. Certainly, compared to much of North America, this area is The Last Wilderness.

Even a limited three days there had a timeless feel. Once Maggie and I found a campsite, we had little inclination or need to move. Everything we required was close at hand. Time didn’t stand still but it did progress gently as we leisurely explored the area around our campsite. We were only about 10 meters from the riverbed but the water was maybe another 90 meters across rocky, gravelly channel interspersed with wooded brushy islands and great masses of logs piled against the brushy, rocky restrictions to a high flow. The immense log jams and wide channel tell me that this is a waterway of some considerable consequence when running full.

The campground is the smallest in the park—nine sites—and not recommended for RVs. It also has no potable water. I figured the restrictions and lack of amenities would keep most visitors away. Still, I was heading out to a national park on an August weekend so I made plans to arrive early. The plan worked. We found six open sites at 3:00 pm on a Friday afternoon and were quickly and comfortably set up. A few adjacent sites were occupied later on but were mostly out of sight and sound. But even on Saturday morning only half the sites filled and one remained open through the entire weekend.

Maybe the forecast discouraged people from coming out. Predictions were for light rain and drizzle all weekend. Nothing out of the ordinary for a Northwest summer and particularly welcome after the previous week’s record-breaking heat. The forecast was true. Skies were overcast the entire time. Occasionally the clouds lightened up, giving a hint of sunshine but that’s about all we got. Mostly just an all encompassing gray entwined with all that green.

About the only disappointment, such as it was, was the absence of any large wildlife—no deer, elk, bears or cougars. Lots of micro fauna, though. On the first afternoon we stumbled on a large garter snake that immediately bolted into a log jam. The next day I came upon the same spot and found two garter snakes, each a couple of feet long. This time I froze immediately. They did also and we watched each other for maybe 20 minutes or so. One was a deep coopery red with muted stripes along the length of its back. The other was earth tone brown-green with somewhat more vivid stripes. After a while the latter moved around a bit before coiling up. The other remained stretched lengthwise on the log where I first saw it.

Snakes are amazing creatures; they seem to flow rather than move and are fascinating to watch. What looked like a large ant was scampering in the area, moving ever closer to one of the snakes. I half expected it to strike when the ant walked within a centimeter of the snake’s snout. It did not and the ant continued its journey, which took it over, across and down the snake’s back before it flew away. I guess it was not an ant after all. Then a third snake came out from under the log jam. It was a deep emerald green with two vivid yellow stripes down its back. The differing colors almost made me wonder if they were all the same species but a ranger later assured me that garter snakes are the only snakes in Olympic National Park.

Maggie and I hiked up the trail that parallels the North Fork, through moss-covered trees, rock and fallen timber of the rain forest and crossed several small side streams. We spotted any number of banana slugs along the way and the occasional hiker. Earlier in the day we helped two young hikers shuttle between trail heads. They were out for a 17 day hike and found part of their route closed due to a wildfire. I don’t know how they came to ask us for a ride but they came to the right people—I was happy to return the same favor that so many others had so generously extended me during my long distance hikes.

A second hike took us a few miles to Irely Lake which is not really a lake at all these days. It used to be. These days it’s mostly a grass covered field interspersed with the trunks of trees drowned by the water when it was actually a lake. The water marks on the trunks were easily above six weeks. The area is now home to thousands of tiny frogs that swept away from us in waves as we walked. We also found crawfish on the mud flats, which surprised me since I did not think they could live out of the water. But these guys were certainly alive; they immediately went into full defensive mode with pincers up and open at the touch of my hiking stick. We spotted a salamander intently contemplating what looked like a dead dragonfly but it never moved and we weren’t about to disturb it. Later that afternoon we lounged in camp enjoying the quiet as the clouds wafted ever lower into the valley. A shrew dashed across an open area. It looked mostly like a small tuft of black fur.

The mist throughout the weekend was wonderful to behold, enough to give the area soft, gentle feel but not enough to get us wet for much of our time there. Still, the cumulative effect of three days’ mist had finally soaked in the canopy so that by our last morning pretty much everything around us was wet even though it never actually rained. What had been a dry site in Sunday morning’s mist was pretty wet by the time we pulled out on Monday.

That’s okay with me. I live in the Northwest. It’s supposed to be wet.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This is Not a Pipe*

In all the debate about health care, this article may be the most accurate.

(*with apologies to Rene' Magritte.)

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Monday, August 17, 2009

A Health Care Event

For the second time in about four months a blood vessel in my left eye burst, turning it into a lurid red orb. Yesterday--a Sunday--I called the Veterans Affairs nurse (apparently in Dayton, Ohio) hotline and after describing my symptoms and an ongoing concern about chronic chronic irritation in both eyes, she advised me that she would make a note in my file to my primary care physician. Today, my physician directed me to the eye clinic, where despite a full patient schedule, I was able to see a doctor who spent about 30 minutes examining my eye and listening to my concerns.

Not bad for an overworked, understaffed bureaucratic socialist medical system.

Oh yeah, all this at no charge.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

(Un)Civil Dialogue

The shouters and screamers at this month’s congressional town halls are pretty much the same ones who give me the finger or yell at me during peace vigils. In neither case are they trying to discuss an issue, define expectations or explore ideas. No, they just want to prevent anyone else from doing so because… because…well, because they are correct and anyone thinking or acting otherwise is worthy only of contempt and scorn. The difference between the health care mobs and the drive-by haters is simply time and scale—a fleeting gesture versus a full-on, in-your-face rant played nationwide.

Now, I grant you that a street corner vigil isn’t exactly a forum for extended discussion. It is, however, an exchange of ideas; I, expressing my hope for peace and justice, and passersby, reacting. Many honk and wave, which is always fun. Most just drive by.* But some express hostility with words or gestures, the drive-by equivalent of the health care shouters. Clearly, they impute some dangerous and evil motives behind my action. What is lacking is any willingness to engage me in any sort of dialogue. Their hostility is just part of taking a public stand. At least, they are not physically dangerous.

Even as I may disagree with what I think they believe—remember, all I have to go on is an aggressive gesture—I must still be willing to ask why they believe what they believe and listen to what they say. They, too, are human beings with a free will that I always respect. In turn, I expect the same and from there we can explore and debate an issue. That’s not happening at the August town halls. What’s happening there is political theater. And it works. Everybody and his dog is talking about it.

What’s happening is nothing new. Read the comment strings of all too many blogs and you will find ill-mannered vitriol instead of facts. Ranters and screamers abound in those forums, so why should we be surprised when it boils to the surface, especially when called to action by the usual conservative-corporate activists?. Remember Howard Beale and how he “wasn’t going to take it anymore!”? He was Everyman raging against the corporate manipulation. Now it’s Joe and Jane Sixpack outraged that some Americans believe public action is necessary to deal with a national problem, that they are oppressed by government, that all will be well if only government were to disappear.

It’s all part of a political charade that convinces ordinary people that their interests lie with corporate control and vast accumulation of wealth by a few rather than with the many Americans who share their own economic fears and challenges. It’s an old game; southern politicians bamboozled poor whites into ignoring their common economic interests with black Americans. Corporations pit workers against each other to minimize labor costs. The players and cards may change but the idea is the same—keep the economically disadvantaged separate and powerless. It’s worked pretty well during the past century. Just look at the distribution of wealth in this country.

Speaking to the issue at hand, health care, Those of us seeking reform are not asking for a government handout or a magical solution. We—I, at least—seeking to use our combined strength and resources as a nation to solve a very pressing problem, providing effective health care for all. It’s a massive undertaking and definitely fraught with uncertainty. That’s why health care calls for a public solution. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, I am unwilling to leave my health care completely to the whims of for profit entities. We’re talking about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness here. Without health, these unalienable rights don’t exist. Without health, America is not a strong nation. These are all good reasons to address health care as a matter of vital public interest.

That’s what I would tell the shouters if I could get a word in. Since they won’t listen, I’ll tell my representatives in Congress.

* Their dogs almost always react. You can see their heads turning to watch us as they pass by.