I was once asked by a man, why I was not at war right now.
The question struck me of something that would have been asked 60 years ago, but with this man’s age, I could figure that this was the same question he may have been asked when he was younger. It had been kept in a bottle in his mind. And when it was asked, it’s mustiness, aged by it’s fevored jinogist implications, and dated by it’s assumption that all men should willing to kill for their country, sat thick in the air, pierced only by my wide-eyed amazement.
I explained that I lost a friend in Iraq, to which he told me my friend had ‘done a good thing’, and suggested I do the same.
I left this conversation feeling broken. Like I had been punched in the face. Like every thing I’ve done in my life, every little thing I have made, in attempts to make the world better for those in it, were crushed and grinded under an all too familiar boot. The boot of my old friend, the idealistic soldier I dreamed of being when I was 10.
I used to want to fight for the United States. I grew up playing war. I had my toy soldiers. I had my toy guns. When the toys didn’t suffice, I had my mother take me to surplus stores and obtained the standard issued clothing. I had joined the cub scouts as soon as I was old enough, and then the boy scouts, and enjoyed many of our military centered events. An overnight sleepover on an aircraft carrier. Midnight games of lasertag in the gynassium at Fort Bragg. Digging terraces for the Army Corps of Engineers. Seeing the soldiers and climbing all over their Helicopters at the National Jamboree. And learning to shoot rifles.
At about 11, I remember riding back from the surplus store, and it occured to me, that ‘killing’ meant I would be ‘killing’ actual people. Having grown up a southern baptist, and ever-loving to human beings, especially the faceless mass idea of human beings, I asked my mother, ‘How can soldiers kill?’. This followed with ‘But isn’t it Murder?’, ‘Does God excuse soldiers?’. My mother, being one of the most compassionate Human Beings I have ever known, as well as a devout christian, replied that she did not know how they could be excused. That killing is always wrong. I accepted this quickly. And with that, decided that if I should ever join the military, it would be as a chaplain.
When I became a teenager, I found punk rock. And the moral question I had asked earlier, became concretely backed up by the lyrics of dozens of bands. For the first time, I had found an intellectual framework, based on reason and rational argument, against the killing. The songs against the violence, that highlighted the hypocrisy inherent in the military solution of fixing world problem through killing people, became my favorite. And in finding this, the wounds left of justifying my idea of good; God, with the idea of a world built by him that viewed killing as acceptable; an obvious attack on all Living Beings, was healed. But I also realized something quite unsettling; that the majority of the people around me in this society, profess a morality that they contradict, and addamitly contradict, daily. In this realization, many of my heroes died instantly. And a new world view was created, based on the idea that our adherence to our morality was the quality to be admired, and that the morality I admire and strive for, is one that respects ALL living beings.
I set about to sew my own seeds of support those people who had a spirit like mine. I attempted it in lyric, I attempted it in action, and I attempted it at the core of my being. And for the most part I succeeded; I created many songs over the years that focus on that hypocrisy, and give revernce to those that resist it, and those that build alternatives. I gave support from whatever power I’v had, that of organizations I was a part of, or the power inherent in myself, to causes that furthered a resistance to the obliteration of human being through instruments of power, be it bombs or poverty. But in my own life, I failed. Over and Over again.
Growing up I was attacked. A lot. I was an outsider. I reflected on the world around me. My childhood years consisted of a back and forth see-saw of trying to be accepted, and rejecting the need to be accepted. My attempts at being accepted rang false to my peers. It resulted in a lot of teasing, and a lot of bullies trying to kick my ass. I could not wear a polo shirt right. I could not wear a baseball cap right. I have a picture of myself, age 11 or so at the boy scout jamboree, with my hat broken off to the side. I just could not let myself fit in. I’d spend hours decorating my bicycle like my favorite motorcycle, fashioning logos and even a top tank out of a paper bag, and the neighborhood bullies would rip them apart. My friends would not acknowledge me in the presence of other they looked up to. I was trying to be friends with the ‘good kids’, and I rang false to them. And I was being false. I think the ultimate problem was, I was very compassionate, and I was very smart. And those two things mean one thing to the average male kid: faggot.
So I would decide to be me. The loving, smart, kid, who had compassion. And I would get attacked. But I woud fight back. This lead to folks families calling my family, asking why I treatened to kick the ass of their son, who had threatened me. Asking why I had chucked a chunk of ice in a snowball fight, at the face of a kid who was making fun of me. Asking why I was running aroung the neighborhood, without a shirt on, at 8 years old, carrying a bb gun. All fair questions. But mostly ignoring, and even supporting the fact, that their child had bullied me. I remember one parent saying that I shouldn’t threaten her son, that it was his right to want to beat me up, and she couldn’t stop him from doing it, because I’m weak and probably deserve it. This was my suburban life.
Add to this domestic patriarchal physical violence and mental abuse at home, and you had a kid that was in a hell of a quandary. To be compassionate, to be caring, to challenge the status quo of incompassion and violence as a young smart kid I had to be strong. Very strong. I had to be ready for abuse. I had to be ready for violence.
And I had to become my own advocate. I remember a local radio station had gotten a hold of my bands demo tape. They were playing it, then pausing and making fun of each line of my lyrics. To a 14 year-old kid who had trusted in the value of music as a safe, cathartic space, this was the worst nightmare. I listened in horror, as the most honest confessions of my emotional life were ripped to shreds by college kids on college radio. My friends and I called the station and told them, in so many words, that we were not happy about this and they may want to take care with themselves. In one of many other episodes, I was issued a death threat in a zine by kid who was going off to join the marines, that did not appreciate my anti-war stance. And this kind of thing went on and on. So I became used to the idea of being violent, in defense of myself, as a neccesary condtion of my existence. I found family in punk rock, and in that family I found people who would stand next to me through thick and thin, and fight for me. They were my crew. And through this was more violence.
I also had to create my own self-esteem. Growing up as I did, I had no clue as to any intelligence I had. I functioned one of two ways in school; either on honor roll, or failing. Never in between. I concluded I was an idiot, probably helped on that by those around me, save for my Mother, had concluded I was an idiot. So I did as an idiot would do, and clung to the only things that seemed to work. Skateboarding. Guitar. Then punk rock. In punk I found self-esteem. In meeting a friend, he showed me that I had value, in all aspects of my life. That I was a good person. Then he was killed. And I went on half-knowing I was good, admist a sea of negative to non-existent affirmation. So I realized if anyone was going to acknowledge my good qualities, it would be me. During the months where I was lowest, where I needed that affirmation greatly, I had to generate it myself. And accordingly would come off cocky. And when it was the worst, I would come off completely egotistical.
And then it hit it’s toll. I found myself in a relationship where my violence, born as a protection to the external world, was now corroding my life. I was having an impossible time correlating between the love in my heart, and the neccessary protection needed for such caring. And that juxtaposition, made me feel that the neccesary conditions needed to protect that good, made that good something that I uncounciously shyed away from. Good became corroded by the reality of what I felt I needed to do to protect it. And the ego boosting much needed from feeling like such a failure to obtain the feeling of ever being good enough, let alone the high idealism I had been shooting for in much of my life, meant I was constantly rationalizing myself, and being cocky, falling upon deaf ears and jaded eyes. And I hurt those that I loved.
And then a friend died in Iraq. And for once, I paid attention to reality. I questioned a lot of things during that time, but one thing in particular was my actions. I realized that words and actions themselves will lead us to a certain life. And it will be the product of the actions and words involved in it, regardless of the intent, or the desired end goal. That violence ahead of the idea of compassion will end up the same way a soldier fighting a war, not for grand nationalism, but for the reasons of his own personal situtation, will end up; in violence and death. And I tried to be present with that. And I tried to end those years of suffering. It ended up with my life falling apart at the seams, and a trip to a mental hospital.
The ensuing recovery was a rebuilding. A new city to thrash old mental patterns. Being single to force me to find my way myself. A new job to help rebuild my foundations and confidence. And over time I built my strength up, this time open-palmed instead of closed-fist, with humility instead of hardened resolve, and I began to build what I would call ‘my life’. This time, in the shape of the one I had always wanted: full of love, compassion, and understanding. Acting decidedly as an adult, leaving behind the abused kid who had to fight everyone just to stand still.
And so, looking back on the question of that old veteran, asked to me at a time when I had rebuilt myself to live decidedly, and with purpose in the pursuit of compassion and non-violence, I’m amazed by it still. Why am I not killing people in the specific name of one nation? Because as a living being, it is the absolute worst thing I could ever do. I would be betraying my kind. And It would corrode my life and the life of those around me, especially of those that I killed, and it would set a horrific moral standard for human behavior when added back to the cumulative course of human action. The only thing I could do worse, would be to then be proud of it.
I should have asked “to what end?”. So that men can keep on controlling other men through mechanisms of power, leveraged either by the violence of war or the violence of debt? A violence that sews mistrust and abuse into the lives of those it touches to the point where they feel they have to take to violence to perpetuate something as beautiful as the love and compassion they want for their families and themselves?
Taking careful consideration of the situation of this question, I regret not saying any of this to that man. But I did not know any of this. I was bowled over with the reverance I felt to those that gave their lives for the idea of our nation, and not comfortable standing on the feet of myself as a human being who rejects this. It was because I still viewed the act of death for a cause, and the power of a gun as being more legitate than those whom sew a culture that works to carry forth the beauty of life, for all humans, regardless of nation or political belief.
But I know it now. And I won’t forget it. I won’t forget that for each of us that makes a stand, towards a hopeful future, that each of us carries forth a moral currency to which our intent never escapes the sum of our actions. And that those actions should be taken wholly, as the way we have chosen to conduct our lives. When we take that approach, we will nrever mistake violence as justified, and more widely, as serving a goal of humanity. When we take that approach, the totallity of our being will stand equal to the totality of our ethics. Until then, we will fail our idealism.