Anti-War: Report from the U.S. Provinces

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04/25/2002

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Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

When U.S. soldiers came back from Vietnam they claimed to have been greeted at airports by hippies who spat at them and called them baby-killers. Recently historians have done research on this, the results of which have been: no evidence to support the spitting allegations, nothing, not one incident, zip.

They forgot to talk to me.

Not that I hunked any lungers, but I did lob some slime after listening to a story about a small Vietnamese child who, by appearing out of some underbrush, uncorking a grenade, and running toward some soldiers, turned himself into “the enemy.” It was a survival tale, an us-or-them, told by a returning vet named Craig. “Too bad he didn’t kill you,” I said.

This was 1970 in Cambridge, where I had returned to from New York after a long absence. The friends I was visiting, also friends of Craig, couldn’t believe what I’d said. They were mute. They laughed helplessly–without actual sound–sides pumping in and out, they way you laugh when it hurts to do it.

I never got a chance to apologize to Craig. At the time I didn’t think I should or that there was anything wrong with my attitude. It seemed natural wanting people who didn’t agree with me to drop dead–or to have been dropped dead without the moral turmoil of my actual participation. Anyway I was just repeating the general tenor of what had been said to me by one or two white radicals.

The NLF and the Viet Cong, on the other hand, went to great lengths to make a distinction between the U.S. government, its policies, and its people. They expressed “solidarity” with the US people; they assured us that they did not see us as the enemy. Some view this as cynical manipulation. I don’t. It seemed to me then–and it still does– that a protracted engagement such as the one fought in Vietnam –required a positive vision of the future–a weird leap of faith — a gamble on the creative up-side of solidarity rather than the dehumanized down-side of cash nexus–a power greater than hate– to sustain it.

This was the first time I had heard of supporting a people, but not the homicidal choices of its government. And I admit I find it easier to accept the benefit of the doubt than to grant it. Our boys in Iraq, for example. If they identify with our government’s will to rule the world and are so bamboozled by slogans like “keeping the world safe for democracy” or “war of liberation”– how could they ever know it? They and the bamboozling are one in the same package . So supporting them is like supporting zombies. But if it is just a matter of ignorance and our boys don’t know their “war of liberation” is a false cause or that there is anything wrong with killing people because you don’t like their political leaders, I should feel bad about their lives being wasted as cannon fodder, objects, things, cogs in a bully-machine. But I do and I don’t feel bad. And they don’t seem to feel too bad about it themselves.

A few months ago I met a student-soldier. A handsome kid and a member of the Reserves, he was at a peace meeting, and he told me and a group of other middle-aged ladies that he’d die for us. He was about twenty-two and he was only at the meeting, he said, because he was not convinced that there actually were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He hadn’t seen compelling evidence. Then he dropped the I’d-die-for-you thing and all conversation slid off the table. He didn’t say, “I love you to the death”. But it felt the same for some bizarre reason, just as romantic and vulnerable and doomed and full of passion. Part of me wanted to leap up and dissolve in his sudden patriotic ardor.

So last Tuesday, at lunch time, when I was at a peace demonstration outside the Post Office in Salem, a town north of Boston, and holding a “No War” sign, I mentioned the die-for-you kid to another middle-aged lady who was also holding a sign, and who had also been at the meeting. She said that she had had the same reaction, robbed of her power of speech somehow–but that she would like to have told him she didn’t want anyone to die for her–him or Iraqi children or anyone. She wanted them all to live. I agreed with her.

There weren’t too many of us there: a few academics of a certain age; a handful of middle aged ladies, one of whom had gone to El Salvador to monitor elections on behalf of the UN many years ago; a bespectacled whipper-snapper or two of the male persuasion; a slender black lab with a glossy coat and a strap around his snout; a WWII veteran who was not a pacifist but found this war repellent. “It’s an unjust war,” he said. But he feared the jingoists of his own town so stood with us.

The American flag flapped above us on a thick white pole and, behind this, a long, red- brick post office of three or four stories. On the plaza around were a few bedraggled leafless trees. Several lanes of traffic whirred in front, and the sky was soggy New-England gray.

Dozens of people honked in support as they drove by–one of the signs told them to. And, predictably, a lot of over-testosteroned pick-up trucks slowed down so their owners could flip the bird or yell an imprecation; nothing too severe –things like, ” Our boys are dying so you can stand there,” and “Go to Iraq,” or “Commie,” or “Fuck you.” The best one was, “You shit heads; you smell bad; go help Saddam.”

Mostly the insults were funny, but after awhile the yelling started to get on my nerves. Plus it seemed that the muscle queens driving the trucks were really frantic trying to think of something bad enough to say–usually after they pulled a little American flag off the dash and waved it menacingly in our general direction. I sensed weakness. The lab who, by this time had her muzzle off, was similarly unimpressed.

A pick up truck buzzed by, ” You… you… hippies,” screeched a dark-haired guy with prodigious bicep.” Get a job.”

“Oh yeah. Hippie!” I howled back like Mike Meyers in Goldmember.

“Go to Iraq,” yelled another one.

“Oh yeah –okay.”

I was starting to dislike these people, but I also liked disliking them. Peace and hate; it was better than Prozac. “Fuck you,” croaked another thumb-head in yet another four by four. I had already told the guy on my left–a socialist with gold-rimmed glasses–about my closet desire to do away with people who don’t agree with me, and how at these times I remind myself of George Bush. It was growing by the second and with it the thrilling sense that I knew who I was.

“Bang,” I whispered to the socialist. I dropped my peace sign to one side and squeezed together my index and middle finger to mime a gun pointed at the heckler. “Bang bang.” And the next one too. “Bang, you’re dead.”

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