Remembering veterans, peace activists, and war victims

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Nov 11, 2016 Remembering veterans, peace activists, and war victims

This blog entry is updated from my 2015 Veterans Day blog entry. 

On Veterans Day, I remember veterans, peace activists, and war victims.

I work on Veterans Day, closing my office on Memorial Day. Fortunately, we also have a federal holiday devoted to the inspiration of a non-violent warrior for justice, Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am not a full pacifist. I know we need an effective military. I know I need to know how to use my fists, fighting ability, and taijiquan lessons in the event of a street attack. , but also know that our nation is overly militarized, overly militaristic, and overly saturated with a government-military-industrial complex. 

I grew up seeing the ugliness and pomp of the military. My father graduated from West Point in 1958. He was too young for the Korean war, and too old to be called from the reserves to the Vietnam war. He often watched war movies, and Patton is one of his favorites. I was probably too young at around eight years old to see all that blood and guts in Patton, and Tora! Tora! Tora, but I saw those films anyway around that age,  liking Patton and not liking Tora!, less because of its violence and more because it seemed to drag on, or maybe that was just about dealing for the first time with subtitles.

As a child and at later class reunions, I returned several times to West Point for football games and class reunions. A highlight there was meeting astronaut Frank Borman, not long before he became head of Eastern Airlines. Suffice it to say, at home neither pacificism nor military propaganda were spouted.

In mid-2015, I spent a long weekend across the river and in clear eyesight of the West Point, taking my path further for powerful inner peace at the Mindful Lawyering retreat at the Garrison Institute. May Garrison’s peaceful and calm vibrations spread to West Point.

From pictures and articles in the Life magazine that arrived weekly at our home, I became traumatized early on by the Vietnam war.  I felt like my body was excruciatingly and interminably on fire — with my skin melting off — when I first saw the picture of the 1963 self-immolation photo of Thich Quang Duc, which I first saw at around five or six years old. I was also deeply traumatized from the 1972 photo of naked and scarred child Kim Phuc running desperately away from the napalming of her village, while nearby soldiers looked all calm as if the situation were normal business as usual. I also had a nightmarish reaction over the 1968 photo of Vietnamese police officer  Nguyen Ngoc Loan summarily executing  Nguyen Van Lem on a Saigon street, after Lem reportedly massacred even civilians that same day. Of course, the trauma I suffered paled in comparison to the victims of such violence.

In 1982 in college, I started uncovering more and more layers of the onion about the atrocities that are committed in all wars, by all sides and militaries of all nations, not at all limited to My Lai.

I do not accept glorifying people merely for sacrificing their lives on the battlefield, and particularly when considering all the millions of lives and tons of blood spilled in the world’s wars, on top of the trillions of dollars poured into militaries and heavy diversion of government resources to the military and constant erosion and violation of civil liberties in the name of war and national security. Every person and every government and military campaign must be viewed as a whole. Failure to do that brings a huge gap between our lofty goals and ideals for our government and military, and what they actually do.

I am not a total pacifist. I believe it was essential for the United States to fight Hitler, but of course it was ironic that this was done with a racially segregated American military. Then again, would Hitler ever have risen to power had there been no World War I and such a crushing defeat of Germany in that war, followed by a struggling aftermath? The military is overgrown. The U.S. government too often yields to firing up the electorate and a wild west mentality to settle conflicts by force and threat of force, rather than to better hone and rely on the art of diplomacy.

Using effective diplomacy and hemming in military excess is not impossible. Although I take it that America’s military, military budget, and nuclear arsenal continued growing under his watch, Jimmy Carter “was thankful that although my profession was that of a military man – commander in chief of the armed forces, prepared to defend my nation with maximum force if I had to – I was able to go through my entire term in office without firing a bullet, dropping a bomb or launching a missile.” (Esquire, January 2005). Many Americans at the time preferred the cowboy mentality of Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in an Electoral College landslide. Carter’s full quote is: “The hostage crisis lasted almost a year. Most of my political advisers were urging me to launch an attack against Iran. I could have, in effect, destroyed Iran with one strike. And it would have been politically popular to do so. But in the process, I would have also killed thousands of innocent Iranians. And it would have undoubtedly resulted in the execution of our hostages… My family tied me back to the human element in the most important international, diplomatic and military decisions I had to make. And in the end, I was thankful that although my profession was that of a military man – commander in chief of the armed forces, prepared to defend my nation with maximum force if I had to – I was able to go through my entire term in office without firing a bullet, dropping a bomb or launching a missile.”

Plenty of members of the military see military service as an opportunity for advancement through such avenues as ROTC coverage of tuition, preferences in hiring veterans for federal civilian employment, and opportunities to work with military contractors after leaving the military. The military is a huge business on the governmental and non-governmental sides, and in the civilian and non-civilian sides. How much healthier our economy would be if the military and criminal justice budgets were substantially shrunk.

I have defended many current and former military people in civilian criminal court, and will continue to do so. I have also represented numerous peace activists, and will continue doing so. We all are connected. Our nation is too militaristic. That tide must be reversed.

In short, Veterans Day should not be a day blindly to glorify the military, military service, nor soldiers. Instead, it should be a time to humanize soldiers and those they have harmed; to understand the psychological and physical wounds so many of them have inflicted, suffered and continue to suffer; to recognize peace activists and conscientious objectors; and to recognize the sacrifices all the foregoing people have made, while maintaining a realistic and critical assessment of American militarism; recognizing the serious tradeoffs involved in using and threatening military force; and recognizing that soldiers are humans including those who will commit horrid atrocities and others who will work to stop the atrocities.

One cannot expect to avoid military atrocities when putting guns and other weapons in the hands of a huge number of soldiers, with a huge percentage having had very limited critical life experiences, no experience abroad, and little knowledge and understanding of and sensitivity to other cultures and world affairs. Similarly, one cannot expect to avoid repeated police misconduct when giving so many insufficiently experience police guns, tasers, handcuffs and the power of arrest over a huge number of people. The military and police are very undemocratic institutions.

On the peace action front, refusing to be drafted into the military and to register for future military drafts are not automatically cowardly acts rather than courageous stands against militarism and abuse by the military, sometimes at the risk of being shunned by their own families and communities for doing so. The person who influences me most with the peaceful path is my friend and peace mentor Jun Yasuda.My teacher Claude Anshin Thomas — who killed over one hundred people in Vietnam; later pickled himself in alochol, drugs, and sex; and is now a Soto Zen Buddhist monk — reminds us that “Everyone has their Vietnam.”

When soldiers refuse to follow inhumane orders from military superiors, and urge military superiors and colleagues to refrain from excessively and unnecessarily violent actions, they are taking steps that all military personnel must take, but which most apparently do not.

The military is a necessary evil that causes death, maiming, and destruction — during warfare and other combat — without due process of law. My total opposition to the death penalty very much informs my strong preference for diplomacy before military action — which involves no judicial process before firing on others — as a last resort, and to erring on the side of restraining military actions,

We all are connected, not just humans with humans, but humans with all other beings. Once not-so-distant-cousins started shooting dead and maiming their cousins during the American Civil War, that perhaps spelled a culture in the American military and among American soldiers to more easily dehumanize the “enemy” in order to be more willing to kill opposing soldiers, and to see battles and wars as conflicts between good and evil, rather than in shades of gray, and rather than questioning the real motives behind government officials’ so easily ordering warfare (thus the antiwar slogan “No war for oil” that started with Gulf War I) and so hesitantly ceasing warfare when on the losing or non-achieving side.

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