Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cui bono? (Autobiographical)

WARNING: AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL POST. Lots of "I" talk. Feel free to skip.

As promised in a previous post about Veterans Day celebrations at my school, here is the rarely-told tale of the time I considered joining the Navy.


Both of my grandfathers served in the military, as did my father. None of them were interested in military careers but they helped fight World War II and Viet Nam, although they rarely talked about it.

Approaching the age of 19, I was a bit of a mess. My first attempt at acting school (in Chicago) had been a disenchanting experience and I had spent much of that semester drunk. By my 19th birthday, in January 1990, I was living on Eighth Street in New York City, giving college a fresh start, and looking at a range of options. A period of military service, I thought, might be a win-win: national service meant something to me, and I also assumed I would learn useful things and perhaps open some doors for myself if acting did not work out. And so, despite not knowing how to swim, I had the Navy on my mind.

In world events, our invasion of Panama had just taken place.


The best thing college did for me was to bust open my tiny view of the world, shaped in no small part by Hollywood-manufactured fantasies. What news I paid attention to, I accepted from the major television news media without much critical analysis. Politics was mildly interesting to me but my analysis was superficial and my information came from homogeneous sources.

In December 1989, a week ahead of celebrations of the birth of Christ, President George H.W. Bush invaded Panama in something called Operation Just Cause. Manuel Noriega was a bad guy and we were fighting a war on drugs and defending democracy, the Panama Canal, and freedom, and all that. Thousands of innocent people were killed as we bombed civilian targets, many of them slums where poor people lived stacked up like dogs in a kennel.

The United States was condemned internationally for the action, which shortly followed the collapse of the Soviet Union as a balancing world power. Extending as much sympathy to the president's position as reason could allow, this still appeared to be an act of aggression. As I dug deeper into the history of Noriega's relationship with the U.S., I felt increasingly alienated.

And then came Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, more history, and deeper questions about how our military strength was being used in the world. I began to ask the question, as it is phrased in Italian, cui bono? For whose benefit?


An awful lot of reserves got called back to duty for service in the Persian Gulf War, in an ominous foreshadowing of the stop-loss abuses of George W. Bush's Iraq occupation.

My chess-playing friend in college, a Burmese-American named Sam, was a marine reservist who got called up and refused to go on political and moral grounds. Legally and socially, this is a very difficult and painful position to take. The law had a hold on him. Soldiers are not allowed to choose their wars. Socially, he was seen as a deserter, a coward, someone who had benefited from military service and now didn't want to go fight in a war. To top it off, he was an immigrant, adopted when he was very young. When his case went public, he was in real danger of assault.

Sammy did not, in my view, desert his country in anything but a legal sense. His crisis of conscience was rational and defensible. He did not flee to Canada or Mexico. After much anguish, he ultimately made his case in a court, was convicted for his action, and spent years in a military prison. Life was rough for him there, as you might expect. In letters he wrote to me from Camp LeJeune, however, he showed a certain peace with his decision to tell the truth and face the consequence.


The Navy stuff got filed away for a while. I ended up, instead, as an intern with War Resisters League. The particular issues I worked on were militarism and youth awareness. What I learned about the military-industrial complex shocked and offended me; the use of the lower classes in warfare also angered me. The remainder of college was a long period of nausea and disbelief. I gave some speeches to high school and college age audiences, urging them to make an educated decision before making a commitment to military service. I may as well have been reading the famous Canton, Ohio speech of Eugene Victor Debs: every word of it seemed current.


The political consequences of propaganda and delusion led me to a personal enquiry, which is how I came to Zen practice in 1993. As for the world around me, I stayed in touch with some of the intellectual socialists I had encountered through War Resisters League, in particular David McReynolds. The New York socialists I met had seen much in the 20th Century, were experienced in organizing people, were good listeners, and it seemed to me they were asking the right questions about our society.

In 1992 I cast my first vote in a presidential election. It was a write-in vote for J. Quinn Brisben, the Socialist candidate. I chose that vote after reading the platforms of all the candidates, and finding that only one of them -- and it was not the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton -- addressed the concerns I had about the use of force, the misuse of human beings in warfare, and the massive profits being made, or the appalling ecological damage being wrought, from war and death.

That was the position from which I began to view current events as history in progress. Meanwhile, my "why?" questions, and the strong emotions I was feeling about all of this, led me to the meditation cushion and deeper enquiries still. What was I doing here?
What was "I?"
I still feel a hearty respect for those who serve in the military, generally. People enlist for a range of reasons, most of them honorable, some of them noble. Some enlist because economically they have no other options. Once in uniform, they do not choose their missions. They go where they are sent. It is a moral outrage that this selfless service is abused in the interests of wealth and power, and I long for every person considering the service to be educated in realpolitik, divorced from romantic manipulations. In short, I view soldiers as workers and as our children. Human beings. Buddhas in progress. Not cannon fodder.
National service takes other forms, as well. Interestingly, many services that promote the behaviors of a functioning democratic society -- like organizing unions, voter registration drives, independent election monitoring, and the like -- are often held in suspicion and derision by the media and the reactionary right wing. These don't count as "service to one's country."
There is a long tradition in our nation, going back to our founding, that power should be reserved for a small community of well-connected people who are, so to speak, above the rest of the herd. "The herd" is just there to vote and grant legitimacy to the oligarchs. People who speak effectively against oligarchy tend to be marginalized as traitors; and the rare people who actually seem to organize numbers of people effectively enough to worry the oligarchs tend to come down with a sudden case of Death.
And so, with respect to "service," "patriotism," and "loyalty," and similar buzz words, I ask: cui bono? For whose benefit?
And thank you for indulging this long memoirish blog entry.

[Photo: The El Chorillo slum, bombarded by U.S. forces in the 1989-90 Panama invasion.]


Nathan said...

Man, I feel bad for Sammy, and all those soldiers who have gone to prison for standing up to military injustices.

Kelly said...

Thanks for sharing this with us, Algernon. I enjoyed getting a little more insight into what has made you who you are!

Despite our varied blog entries, many of us really know so very little about each other.