Friday, May 16, 2008
You can watch it here:
Thanks to everyone who's taken the time to send me a message, long or short, as well as view, rate, and comment on the video. It's been a hell of a ride.
Here's my problem: I'm twenty-five years old and I've never voted in a presidential election. The first time I had a chance to vote, three days earlier I'd turned eighteen, and I let the day slide by with my ballot uncast. If anyone had a stake in that election, I did. Six months later I was a combat medic in the Army, deployed overseas in South Korea.
That was the Gore vs. Bush Lite election, one that has proved pivotal and disastrous in retrospect. But those days I was an ignorant kid, full of the faux jadedness of a middle-class American who had not seen anything of the world. In the following months I came to understand that of all the people who could have voted, I should have. Me, or the guys next to me. Sergeants, lieutenants, or other green, wide-eyed newbies fresh out of BASIC training.
It wasn't that I was unaware of my ability to vote, I just didn't: I didn't care. I wasn't inspired. To me politics was a bland, faceless and needlessly polarizing affair, and I was apathetic toward my ability to change something that I suspected had been, "bought, sold, and paid for," as George Carlin put it, a long time before I was born.
I also remember clearly the day I was informed that the United States was going to war with Iraq, and later, the realization that it could have been avoided if people like me — apathetic kids who only wanted the accoutrements of a powerful nation without the burden of its responsibilities — had quit for a minute feeling sorry for themselves, and instead taken half an hour to punch out a piece of paper.
That day, we were standing in formation, all of us. The entire One-Nine Mechanized Infantry Battalion, whose war cry, "MANCHU!" closed out all of our battalion-level events.
We earned that war cry, I learned soon after arriving, when our unit landed in China, and ultimately proved key in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. It was my bad luck that I'd had a history teacher in high school who should have been in every high school in the nation. One day when we were skimming the book's three paragraphs on the Rebellion, he told us to stop reading. He took off his glasses, and rubbed his face, and informed his students of details that the book had conveniently left out:
That while it was true that the Boxers had begun killing white Westerners of all stripes — missionaries, tourists, and businessmen — it wasn't because they simply woke up one day and decided that white people sucked. The Boxers, he told us, actually began killing Americans in protest of, in large part, a billion-dollar opium trade that the United States, along with Western powers such as Britain, were pushing on China at the time. The Boxers were tired of watching their countrymen turn into opium zombies, and their peaceful protests had done no good. They were fed up with seeing their ideals and way of life wither on the vine of rampant industrialization, for no better reason than the greed of Western powers, who had the economic clout to strong arm China's politicians into allowing the legal mass importation of opium on the back of unfair trade.
So in that formation, each time at the end, we would stamp our feet and whoop and yell the war cry that we had gained by slaughtering people who no longer wanted to be drugged and controlled.
My medical platoon was next to the scouts and cooks and mechanics, and all the other platoons that formed the infantry battalion's support company. The four infantry companies flanked us, two on either side. It was a gray skied day in the early fall, and I was cold. The battalion's commander, a Lieutenant Colonel who eventually signed off on the papers that gave me my early walking papers from the military, paced back and forth in front of us.
He told us that Bush Lite wasn't screwing around. He had early news, stuff not even the media could access so soon in the process. I would find out later that this Lieutenant Colonel in a South Korean backwater was telling us with certainty of a thing that, in the States, had not even been given a full intelligence estimate. His sources in the Department of Defense had informed him that it was an inevitability. This was before Colin Powell stood in front of the United Nations, and shook a shaker full of salt that was supposed to represent anthrax, and told the world that Saddam Hussein was into the heavy shit: Weapons of Mass Destruction.
"MEN," the Lt. Colonel screamed, a heavily glassed man who looked like he should have been an accountant for a major corporation, rather than leading trained killers. "MEN. WE'RE GOING. TO FUCKING. WAR!"
Even at the time, indoctrinated as I was in the institutionalisms of the military, the reaction seemed absurd. Rather than a subdued silence, in which we all calmly thought of the devastating repercussions of such a conflict, and how we might die, the men around me whooped, and hollered, and stamped their feet. But that is what warriors do, and I was never a very good warrior, which is why I joined the medical corps.
MANCHU, some hollered, until it caught on and built to a chant that echoed through the motor pool like an earthquake. The motor pool was the only place large enough to hold our battalion-level formations. It was awesome and terrifying to behold. And I want to make it clear that though I never fit particularly well into the military mold, I have nothing but respect for the men and women who serve. That day in the motor pool, they were excited at the prospect of doing their job. Because standing armies exist for one reason: To wage war and kill more effectively than the other side. That is why it is key to have an individual who respects the simultaneous responsibility inherent in our model of Presidency. He is at once a mere civilian and the only five star general in the nation.
That position allows him the power and luxury of long deliberation, of extensive second-guessing. It allows him to consult with his top military advisers and gain from the wisdom they have accrued over a lifetime spent fighting for their country. It requires his humble respect of the awesome trust that has been placed in him by the men he sends into battle, because they have sworn their unwavering fealty to him, and they will die for his decisions. It gives him the ability summon up the assets of an entire people, to utilize the brains of the greatest nation in the world, in order to explore thoroughly a case for war.
Generals, once they have been ordered in, do not.
It is shameful, and sickening, when a President does not listen to his top military advisers, and he sends men into battle the same way that he would order a Philly cheese steak with cheese whiz instead of swiss: With a kind of obsequious, swaggering self-congratulation. That is a hard combination to pull off, but that is what Bush Lite did when his Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General Shinseki, informed his administration before the war that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to control the chaos in Iraq once the initial fighting was through. Shinseki was scoffed at, then fired, while men who were trained to listen to men who were trained to fight believed only what they wanted to believe, convinced self-righteously of their own rightness.
If there is ever a case for self-doubt, it is in the decision for war, and they showed none.
Three years later, I had a chance to vote once more. Then it was John Kerry vs. Bush Lite, and again, I didn't cast my ballot. My apathy, if anything, had grown. I felt hopeless about the state of the world, and my ability to do anything of meaning in it. I remembered that there was a time, four years previous, when my vote might have mattered, and I also remembered that day in formation, when we whooped and hollered for a conflict that would prove one of the most disastrous in our nation's short history.
The problem for me was that John Kerry did not inspire. He seemed to be a different face of the same problem, and I was pessimistic about his chances at beating a manipulative, incumbent war-time president such as Bush Lite — one who had not yet shown the world the full range of his stunning incompetence. When Kerry lost, I didn't believe my vote would have changed the outcome. But I viewed my apathy as a problem, one whose originations I couldn't pinpoint and whose immobile parts I didn't know how to grease. Politics, it seemed, would always be politics.
And then, a few years ago, I saw a thing that I thought this nation had lost the capacity to produce: A radically new Presidential candidate who knew how to channel a fire and hunger for change without coming off like an inevitably doomed nut job. This candidate exploded on the national consciousness in the way I like to imagine people in the 1960s watched JFK take the United States by storm with his youth and optimism. In the 1960s JFK told people frankly that the world was a serious and dangerous place, but that what tied us together and made us great was not our fear of the world and our unhesitating use of force, but our creativity and passion. Our goodwill and hope. From that we got things like the Peace Corps, and the space program, and we avoided the very real possibility of nuclear annihilation.
Wouldn't it be great if we sent our kids out in droves again not to die, but to teach people in developing countries how to dig fish ponds and raise tilapia? Wouldn't it be great if we didn't really give a shit what someone believed, and instead acknowledged they were humans; that they needed help and a friendly hand more than bullets and saber rattling?
Back then, the Peace Corps was seen as a way to battle the, "notions of the 'Ugly American,' and 'Yankee Imperialism,'" and anyone who tells me we don't need that more than ever right now is way too high on war, mindless fear, and religious crusading. At a time when the rest of the world sees us as trigger happy cowboys who'll shoot anyone that doesn't want democracy, peace and goodwill are what we need to spread more than ever.
See the thing is: If the Peace Corps was possible when we were up against an unprecedented challenge in overcoming the Soviet Union — just as we are up against an unprescedented challenge for our nation in overcoming religious extremism — why isn't it possible now? I'm a firm believer in crossroads. In pivotal moments in history and the right man (or woman) to lead a people through those times. The history books show that the wrong man capitalizes on a nation's fear and plunges it into broken ignominy — and from that you get things like Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia — while the right speaks to the common good and elevates it to a lasting excellence. From that you get things like America, the way it's supposed to be: Free, and open armed. A land of opportunity.
So I admire this candidate's unflagging message of unity, cross-cultural communication, and a hope that is not the dumb, blind hope of self-assured moral superiority; but a hope that is tempered with healthy skepticism and realism. I admire his deliberative eloquence and sincerity in calling for the end of the status quo. These are qualities that not only make for a wonderful President, but qualities we should insist on in any leader.
Is he perfect? Probably not. But in 2008, I'm voting for Barack Obama, and it will be the first time I have voted in my life.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
None But The Lonely Heart
But, Mary dear, I know you have another husband, and that he has another wife, and that she has another husband, and that our own child, through marriage, is now my uncle and your sisters father on your grandmother's side, but can't we talk this over. There is still time, our divorce doesn't become final for another five minutes.
We'll talk it over some other day, John, but not today.
Why not, dear?
Today I am to be married. Bon soir, John. Prosit. Auf wiedersehen. Au revoir. Adios. Aloha.
How do you like that? She didn't even say 'goodbye'.