Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Dodging the Draft, Dodging Ourselves 

"All those eyes on me--the town, the whole universe--and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! They yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, of the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was.

And right then I submitted.

I would go to the war--I would kill and maybe die--because I was embarrassed not to.

That was the sad thing. And so I sat in the bow of the boat and cried.


The day was cloudy I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to war."

So wrote Tim O'Brien in "On the Rainy River," of his decision not to flee to Canada, despite his lifelong pacifism. This luminous passage came back to me as I read of reaction to the news about a planned "war resisters memorial" in the town of Nelson, BC, one of a handful of Canadian towns that succored young Americans fleeing the meat grinder of Vietnam.

Never mind that the memorial and event are entirely the work of private individuals, and probably a small group of them at that; it should come as no surprise that since the news was publicized, the town of Nelson itself--an absurdly peaceful, friendly, and beautiful little town I recently had the pleasure to visit--has found itself in the crosshairs of the jingoes. This link, which carried a sampling of the abuse, and occasional plaudits, generated by the story, currently appears to be down. Suffice it to say that the abuse divided between O'Reilly-esque threats of a nationwide boycott of all things Canadian and denunciation of the "cowardice" of those who "refused to defend our freedom". (A similar, more civil spectrum of comments can be found here.)

It would be sad enough to encounter this reaction even under normal times, but to see it now, where once again cynical politicians are using the threat of shame and ostracism to coerce support for a desperately evil war, only underscores the importance that their refusal to submit to the illegitimate will of unworthy leaders was indeed an act of courage worthy of remembering, and indeed, following. As Eric Alterman trenchantly put it yesterday,

Iraq is actually worse than Vietnam. When Vietnam happened, we hadn’t experienced Vietnam yet. We didn’t know that a president would lie to the country in order to involve us in a war that would needlessly kill tens of thousands of Americans and destroy our prestige and moral standing in the world. Now we do. And we let it happen again.

The widespread human inability to distinguish legitimate duty from submission to the herd, to separate nobility from political rank, to resist manipulation of moral emotions for immoral ends, is, as is being demonstrated daily, a central problem for us as a species, not just us a nation. Until we learn to recognize this flaw in ourselves, history will continue to repeat, tragically, forever.

It's certainly possible that what the organizers come up with may retroactively falsify (and thus cheapen) the resisters' motives and experiences, just as many who went to Vietnam, too scared to say no, or unwilling to admit a mistake, now falsify theirs. Let's be clear about one thing: The only real cowards during the Vietnam era were those that supported the war while ducking fighting it. Those people, it should go without saying but never does, are now the very bastards sending another generation off to slaughter in the current one. That so many Vietnam vets fail to direct their rage at them, says alot about the need for just such a memorial, and recognition of the many forms that courage takes.

[UPDATE: Well that didn't take long. I am told via email from a town official that the organizers have backed down, official announcement to come later. Chalk up another victory for fear. Tim O'Brien would have understood.]

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