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In Memory: to veterans of war and peace

... I failed that young man. I should have confronted him, made him see what he must see by now -- if he is alive ...
Hatfield Valley Advocate, June 3, 2004

MASSACHUSETTS -- Two autumns ago, when the Afghanistan war was in full swing and an incursion into Iraq had just been broached via the White House's self-described "product roll out" campaign, I was asked to speak to a university class. I had been invited by an American history professor to talk about "the 'Sixties" to a group of about 50 students.

To illustrate the points I wanted to make, I pulled together -- in addition to my Country Joe and the Fish and Phil Ochs albums, my cache of underground papers, posters, comix and photographs -- what I thought were some brilliant analogies between the Nixon administration and the Bush administration. I figured to use these obvious parallels to dramatize my remarks on those "days of rage."

I arrived a half-hour early and drew with intricate, Einstein-like squiggles the entire polemical pipedream I had in mind on the blackboard. I was relieved to learn that they still have blackboards and chalk in classrooms.

When class started, I stared out at the sea of faces and detected that though the lights were on, very few folks were at home. Hormones were pumping some up, hangovers dragging others down, but the immediate terrors of the world seemed banished from their minds. Ah, college.

The only student in the class who seemed genuinely engaged was a shaven-headed young man, hard as a spike and hot-wired into the third rail of patriotism. Everything I said was like a jab in his chest with a pointed finger. He would barely let me complete a thought before he was raising his hand. "Excuse me," he said with mock politeness, after I'd made my parallel between the "domino theory" that led to Vietnam and GWB's "Axis of Evil" that was leading us into God, or Allah, knows where.

"We have a right to invade Pakistan and Iraq if it means stopping terrorism," he said with majestic sincerity.

I accepted his remark as either fanatical brainwashing from too much Limbaugh or an attempt to get a rise out of "the teacher." I looked around the room at the future cannon fodder for GWB's imminent foolishness. No reaction.

The kid kept coming back at me. Time after time, I'd finish a thought, and his hand would shoot in the air like a ramrod. "Excuse me, but ... " I was taken aback by the absolute certainty that he had about every thing he said. He simply knew. He was the embodiment of Eric Hoffer's "true believer," and at such a tender age! It became a kind of comical standoff as I let his comments go by unchallenged, hoping he'd grow weary of his game.

I could have taken the time to deflect, perhaps deflate, his arguments, to score some points. But my main point was to get the class to think about the parallels, to understand that history repeats itself, maybe not in neat cycles but like an imbalanced pendulum, spending more time over on the right, but always, with agonizing slowness, returning to the more natural inclinations of the good, idealistic, perhaps even utopian side of humanity, on the left.

I played music and passed around copies of the LA Free Press , the Great Speckled Bird and Chicago Seed circa 1968-70. I filled the air with "the 'Sixties," performing the song and dance the professor wanted. And by the end of the class, some of the porchlights began to flicker and movement was detected inside a few craniums.

When the bell rang, the young man left quickly. Others drifted by to thank me and ask questions. When they'd all gone, I asked the professor about the "true believer." He was, I learned, in the National Guard and was chomping at the bit to join Bush's global military campaign.

I failed that young man. I should have confronted him, made him see what he must see by now -- if he is alive -- after however many nightmarish months he has spent chasing neocon delusions through the dust of Iraq. Even if he is not dead, surely some part of him has died a little from the things he's been forced to see and do in the name of "liberating" the Iraqi people.

I should have told him about David Dellinger, the veteran peace activist who died this week at 88. Though Dellinger was a 'sixties icon, he'd been engaging in acts of conscience since the 1930s; even as late as three years ago, he hitchhiked from Massachusetts to Quebec to protest globalization. In 1969, as a member of the Chicago Seven (with Abbie Hoffman and fellow Yalie John Froines), Dellinger lectured the judge, "You want us to be like good Germans, supporting the evils of our decade, and then when we refused to be good Germans and came to Chicago and demonstrated, now you want us to be like good Jews, going quietly and politely to the concentration camps while you and this court suppress freedom and the truth. And the fact is, I am not prepared to do that."

A wise older friend of mine is always reminding me: No one ever learns anything meaningful vicariously. You have to make the mistake and pay the price of that newfound wisdom. As Bush himself once tried, unsuccessfully, to tell an audience: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

But what if the cost of that wisdom is too high? What if it costs your life?

R.I.P veterans of war and peace.

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