Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Black Bird

[Another in my series about my experience on the Navajo Reservation.]

Ravens are everywhere in Window Rock, Arizona. In the air. Perched on utility lines and fences. Scavenging along the road. Few Window Rock vistas–near or far, it doesn’t matter–do not include ravens. They are as iconic as the Navajos with whom they share this land or the dramatic rock formations that are this land.

Ravens are big birds, averaging about two and a half pounds and a four foot wingspan. Graceful in the air, ravens look goofy walking on the ground, their heads bobbing forward with each flat-footed step. Their color is a deep black with a purplish hue that appears iridescent in the right light. Ravens have long, thick bills and shaggy throat feathers. Unlike hawks or other larger raptors whom they resemble in flight, ravens are often on the ground, scavenging, oblivious to their awkward gait but keenly aware of their immediate surroundings. Ravens are cautious but take flight only when necessary, seemingly confident of their ability to escape any terrestrial threats.

The sheer cliffs that dominate the east side of Black Creek Valley are raven rookeries. Crags, ledges and other clefts in the rock provide numerous nesting sites. The nests are quite visible; the white stains on the rock–years of raven poop–testify to generations hatched and fledged on these cliffs. The nests, used year after year, are active from late spring thru the summer. During that time, the cliffs are abuzz with activity. The noise from the raven nests drifts down to the valley below. Parents fly back and forth. Chicks move about the nest, on to its edge and finally into the sky. When a hawk ventures near, the adult ravens gang up on the intruder to drive it away.

Ravens are gregarious. Although a lone raven gliding in the sky above is not uncommon, they often fly, forage and scavenge in small groups. Their rookeries on the the sheer cliffs recall the cliff dwellings of the Ancient Ones, now abandoned. Perhaps the congregate nature of their nesting sites is an apt metaphor for this highly intelligent bird. Ravens have demonstrated cognitive learning ability in a variety of tests. Their foraging and scavenging strategies also demonstrate their ability to think ahead. Ravens will carve chunks from carrion rather than nibbling; if driven off they will be able to take food with them. Ravens will follow wolf packs to scavenge on their kill and will, if the opportunity arises, stalk other predators to steal their prey.

Their dark plumage and size creates a spectral image. In western culture the raven is a somber bird, a harbinger, Poe’s “thing of evil–prophet still, if bird or devil!” A solitary raven perched on a fence post, calling out in its deep baritone feels like an omen even on a sunny day. When the sky is dark and the wind blows, it’s easy to see ominous portents in that lone creature roosting along the way.

In reality, that raven and his many kin are part of the natural world they inhabit. Just another creature that is adapted to this harsh land. No particular ill follows their path. Sometimes they seem to be talking to me as I pass. Maybe they are, telling me to keep moving or perhaps some secret that I will never understand. What I do know, however, is that for me to be part of this land, I must recognize the raven as a fellow creature who shares the land with me.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

July 4, 2007

The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were not fearful men. Had they been fearful, they would not have challenged the world’s leading military power with their declaration. I cannot imagine that they weren’t apprehensive. They knew the risks but their commitment was stronger than their fear; they trusted in themselves and their cause. The rest is history.

Two hundred thirty-one years later America is officially a fearful nation. Our leaders warn us of myriad dangers and tell us that “everything is changed”, that we must accept restrictions of personal liberties that previous generations fought and died to preserve. We are told that we are safe only if we allow the president to act on his own without restraint, that governmental intrusion into all facets of life is essential if we are protect America from the threat of international terrorism.

I much prefer the America of 1776 to CheneyBush’s America. The signers of the Declaration of Independence boldly stated:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness....And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

In the first decade of the 21st century our government issues color-coded fear alerts to remind us how fearful we should be.

The signers were by no means perfect. Some owned slaves even as they declared all men to be equal. Nor did that equality did not include women and much of the working class. But the ideas contained in the Declaration defined human rights and their relationship to government in a way that had never before been asserted by a polity. Those rights have been the basis for expanding freedom, however inconsistent and sporadic, in the two centuries since, a task that is still incomplete. Whatever their faults, the signers were willing to assert these rights against very long odds.

On this 231st Fourth of July, I remind my fellow Americans that fear did not create nor has it sustained this nation. On this day, we should remember Abraham Lincoln’s final words at Gettysburg during a horrendous civil war:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Yesterday I felt hopeless and completely ineffective. Today I remember why I cannot succumb to my fears. The idea of America so eloquently stated by the Declaration of Independence is too important to abandon.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

A Bad Day

Today is one of those days when I feel like nothing will ever change. The Lewis Libby commutation tells me that equality before the law is a matter of degree. As the pigs said in Animal Farm, “some are more equal than others”. Even more distressing are the mounting casualties from Iraq in a year when a Democratic Congress was supposed to put an end to this misguided fiasco. I worked damn hard to replace one of the biggest Republican assholes in Congress with a well respected local Democrat only to see him join other Democrats in continuing the war.

A few days ago, I wrote that “silence equals consent” but what difference does it make if we shout, rail and vote with no discernible effect? In the end those are our bullets, bombs and soldiers in Iraq. So what if I don’t agree with the policy that put them there? They are still acting in my name, in my country’s name. My tax dollars support those actions. The institutions of my government carry them out. How can I separate my self from those actions? Right now I don’t see any way out.

I’ve spent much of the last three years actively opposing this war and the lying fuckers who took America into the war and look what I have to show for it. Not much. I’ve put my own affairs on hold so I could stand in the blazing hot sun in Phoenix to register my opposition, yet here I am watching the war grind through its fifth year with CheneyBush still looking for that golden unicorn of a compliant Iraqi ally in the Middle East and Congress unwilling to stop what most Americans consider sheer folly.

My 2002 Appalachian Trail hiking partners Red and Gary have spent that same time doing what they want to do: cycling in New Zealand, Australia and the US, hiking the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. For all the effect I've had, it seems like things would be no different had I just gone with them.

Deep down I know that even if I were on the trail, the war would still be with me. I’m just too hard wired to pay attention to this sort of thing. But I don’t see where it has made much difference.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

What Do We Owe Our Veterans?

Yesterday’s edition of About Face asked the question, “What do we owe veterans? Are veterans just another special interest. Much of the discussion was about programs, the VA, funding and delay. We touched briefly on “why we owe veterans”, that their courage and sacrifice gave us America. I had prepared a litany of contributions made by veterans. (I always have lots of info that I can either summarize quickly or expand, depending on the volume of calls.) The list began with a successful insurgency against a major world power, included occupation of a vast land area, defeating German and Japanese militarism, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and now Iraq. In all these wars and actions, we ask soldiers to kill in our name. We tell them that our cause is so important that you must shed your humanity and destroy other human beings. On top of many sacrifices–hardship, privation, pain, death–we ask of our soldiers, asking them to kill leaves a grievous wound on their souls.

The wound is salved by knowing that the sacrifice had an important, good and lasting result. The World War II soldiers who saw so much harrowing and sustained combat against a seemingly invincible tide of militarism and totalitarianism can certainly look back and balance their descent into the abyss against the danger to America and the world. Surely, Continental Army veterans saw the good that resulted from their sacrifice (although many were quite disillusioned at the new government’s stinginess in recognizing their service). Veterans on both sides of the American Civil War looked with pride, knowing that they contributed to something greater than themselves. No doubt, all of these veterans might sometimes wonder about the things they did in war, but they could look on the results of their sacrifice and reassure themselves of the results’ value and importance.

I claim no such value for my service in Vietnam. What I did made absolutely no difference for my nation’s security and prosperity. About the only claim to I can make for my service is that someone else didn’t have to go. Another person was spared looking into his soul and learning that he could kill another human being for no good reason other than his country said to do so. Sure, there was the threat of International Communism but by 1970, the American and Soviet spheres of influence had learned to co-exist to the point that they could engage in proxy wars without fearing (too much) that these minor conflicts would lead to general war. And besides I was fighting against a home team that had a long, long history of resisting foreign occupation. So I came away with no real salve for my conscience. Stories, poetry and songs from World War I tell me that many of those veterans also wondered why. I hear many of today’s veterans asking the same question

My answer to the question “What do we owe veterans” is A WAR WORTH FIGHTING. Better to have no war at all but if the nation is going to ask Americans to kill other human beings, for god’s sake, make sure there is absolutely no other means to deal with the threat and that the world understands and supports the need for those deaths. Even in a just war, loss of life is tragic but to inflict those casualties when ANY alternative remains possible is a crime against humanity. That’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.

Others may think differently. So many of my Vietnam veteran brothers still insist that it was just war, that they served their nation honorably. I agree that they served honorably and very often with great courage and sacrifice. But the nation did not serve them honorably. Maybe in the early years when the nation still believed in the war’s lies, but in only a few years most Americans no longer saw Vietnam as a great threat, certainly not worth more lives and carnage. Yet that is exactly what the nation got. As John Kerry noted last year, almost half of the names of the Vietnam Wall came after Americans decided against the war. Keep in mind that Richard Nixon promised a “secret plan to end the war” in the 1968 election. Hubert Humphrey couldn’t quite abandon Lyndon Johnson and in the end, Nixon’s plan eked out a narrow win over Humphrey’s compromised credibility. But Nixon lied. He had no plan and, in fact, expanded the war into Cambodia, setting the stage for another five years of war.

In 2006 the nation voted overwhelmingly for an end to the war in Iraq. In return CheneyBush has given us “The Surge” with even more casualties and destruction. All for..., well, I don’t know. The Iraq war, which has destroyed America’s international prestige as surely as it has ground up our armed forces, sure as hell does not contribute to our national security, so what are our soldiers fighting for? Is it worth the physical and mental wounds that these men and women will bring back with them. Will they have any salve for their wounded souls? Not that I see. America lost that opportunity when we followed our leaders’ lies into an unprovoked war.

To my way of thinking, this nation has failed in its most fundamental obligation to its service members and veterans by sending them to war in Iraq without justification. All that we can do now is to mitigate the damage and, given Veterans Affairs budgets and an impenetrable bureaucracy, many veterans can’t even get that help.

Support the Troops. Yeah. Right.