Wednesday, November 22, 2006

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Consensus Now

According to opinon polls, Republicans are losing voting groups like white men and Catholics which were keys to their success. They are falling further behind with women, and even losing 10% of the previously rock solid Christian right. But it is the older voter that politicos believed would swing this election.

Now Reuters in the New York Times says that older citizens are likely to vote based not on age-specific issues like Medicare drug benefits, but on the same issue that dominates this election for all other age groups: the war in Iraq.

Pollsters haven't seen such cross-generational agreement since 1992, when pocketbook issues dominated in all age groups and helped put Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House and his party in control of both houses of Congress.

For the sixties generation in particular, statements like Donald Rumfeld's today will sound familiar. Under reporters' questioning over the apparent discrepancy of statements made by the Iraq prime minister saying his country hadn't agreed to benchmarks, and the Administrations contention that it had, Rumsfeld said, You ought to just back off, take a look at it, relax, understand that it's complicated."

How many times were we told by the Lyndon Johnson administration and then the Nixon administration that only they had the information and ability to judge how things were going in Vietnam and what U.S. policy should be. Yet it was clear then and it became clearer later, that they had ignored the information and perspectives available to them from experts in the region, in the history of colonial wars and so on, as well as the observations of what was happening in Vietnam made by reporters and researchers.

This is even more clearly the case in Iraq. Every major mistake the Bush administration has made was predicted and those predictions appeared on television and in newspapers and magazines, most of them before the war was launched. Yet their arrogance continues.

Americans aren't buying it anymore. Including the 60s generation, and older.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Seems Like Old Times

Lately I've been catching myself making references that a dwindling number of people get. Like "Mr. Tooth Decay." I gather that Mr. Tooth Decay makes something of a comeback in kid circles from time to time, but the basic reference is to beloved old Colgate toothpaste commercials that ran on Howdy Doody, and you have to be way way old to remember those.

In a recent theatre review I mentioned that the only Latin phrase I remembered from school was from a cartoon in which a police officer has pulled over a driver and asks him "Ubi ignus est?" That people wouldn't understand the Latin was part of the joke, because I thought (as the creator of the cartoon did) that the context would suggest it. However, I hadn't realized that cops pulling over speeders and asking them, "Where's the fire?" is no longer a well-known cliche. (Nothing as pathetic as an unknown cliche, is there?) The editor actually looked up the Latin, got the phrase, then asked me what it all meant--could the cop have pulled over a firetruck? I cut the joke, pronto. (That means, right away. Cowboys used to say it in...well, never mind.)

But just when I was ready to put all that ancient history behind me, I read something like this in Dan Froomkin's Washington Post blog, and damn if 1968 doesn't come back as big as life:

On the dominant issue of our time, the president is in denial. By most reliable accounts, three and a half years into the U.S. occupation, Iraq is in chaos -- if not in a state of civil war, then awfully close. But President Bush insists it's not so. He says the people he talks to assure him that the press coverage about how bad things are in Iraq is not to be trusted.

You might think that the enormous gulf between Bush's perceptions and reality on such a life-and-death topic would be, well, newsworthy. But if members of the Washington press corps consider it news at all, apparently it's old news. They report Bush's assertions about Iraq without noting that his fundamental assessment of the situation is dramatically contradicted by the reporting from their own colleagues on the ground.

I call it Iraqnam, and this is why. We've already destroyed it in order to save it, and people keep dying and getting maimed in horrible ways there, because a lot of people have forgotten 40 years.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

William Sloane Coffin on Iraq

One of the major peace activists of the 1960s, William Sloane Coffin died this year. I just came across this statement (in the July issue of Soujourners) he made about the Bush War in Iraq:

"The war against Iraq is as disastrous as it is unnecessary; perhaps in terms of its wisdom, purpose and motives, the worst war in American history. Our military men and women were not called to defend America, but rather to attack Iraq. They were not called to die for America, but rather to kill for their country. What more unpatriotic thing could we have asked of our sons and daughters?"

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Paul, Mary and Peter of PP&M, who did one of the
popular versions of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
in the early 1960s. Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 11, 2006

When Will We Ever Learn?

No more poignant a question was asked in the 1960s, when we were children. It was a refrain of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" that spoke specifically to concerns about the nuclear arms race and later Vietnam. But as we repeat the tragic blunders of Vietnam in stupifying detail, we experience again the resulting insanity at home, familiar from the 1960s. And for many older than us, from the 1950s as well.

First comes the imperial hubris.
Paul Krugman begins his analysis with Joe Lieberman: He has been wrong at every step of the march into the Iraq quagmire — all the while accusing anyone who disagreed with him of endangering national security. Again, on what planet would Mr. Lieberman be considered “sensible”? But I know the answer: on Planet Beltway. ...what’s really behind claims that Mr. Lieberman is sensible — and that those who voted against him aren’t? It’s the fact that many Washington insiders suffer from the same character flaw that caused Mr. Lieberman to lose Tuesday’s primary: an inability to admit mistakes.

They say: Pay no attention to the fact that I was wrong and the critics have been completely vindicated by events — I’m “sensible,” while those people are crazy extremists. And besides, criticizing any aspect of the war encourages the terrorists... I know that some commentators believe that anyone who thinks the Iraq war was a mistake is a flag-burning hippie who hates America. But if that’s true, about 60 percent of Americans hate America. The reality is that Ned Lamont and those who voted for him are, as The New York Times editorial page put it, “irate moderates,” whose views are in accord with those of most Americans and the vast majority of Democrats.

Lest we see this only as a generational failure, we should remember where Joe Lieberman came from. Fellow boomer Sid Blumenthal
reminds us:

When Lieberman ran his first primary campaign for the state senate in 1970, against an entrenched Democratic machine politician, he was an insurgent reformer, relying on an army of young idealistic volunteers. (One of them was Yale law student Bill Clinton.) Lieberman was a star liberal on the Yale campus, editor of the Yale Daily News, a civil rights worker in the south, an activist against the Vietnam war, and yet adept at getting out the vote.

Lieberman is a living cautionary tale as well in the demonization of those who question these imperial airs and actions. Shortly after his loss to Ned Lamont in the Connecuticut primary, and right after news broke about the terrorism plot foiled in England,
he said "I'm worried that too many people, both in politics and out, don't appreciate the seriousness of the threat to American security and the evil of the enemy that faces us -- more evil or as evil as Nazism and probably more dangerous than the Soviet communists we fought during the long Cold War," Lieberman said. "If we just pick up like Ned Lamont wants us to do, get out [of Iraq] by a date certain, it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England. It will strengthen them and they will strike again."

But he was hardly the only one piling up this amazing rhetoric. In just forty-eight hours time there was all this:

Vice President
Cheney said that the "purge" of Lieberman told "the al Qaeda types" that Americans don't have the will to defeat terrorists.

Right wing TV talker
Bill O’Reilly suggested that Lieberman’s defeat signalled to Iran that Americans "have no will to restrain their jihad.”

Right wing columnist
Cal Thomas refers to the "Taliban Democrats"

A CNN anchor suggested the Lamont might be considered "The al Qaeda Candidate"

All of this, plus President Bush tarring the biggest religion and major ethnic group in the world with the term "Muslim fascists," is all familiar from the persistent charge in the 60s that opposition to the Vietnam war was unpatriotic, giving aid and comfort to the Communist enemy. We soon learned this was akin to the McCarthyism and Blacklists of the 1950s.

If anything, the Bushite rhetoric is even harsher, but that might be related to a difference between now and then. In the 60s, many if not most Americans supported the President's conduct of the Vietnam war. Now however, some 60% of those polled in the U.S. say the Iraq war was not and is not worth it, while a
Zogby poll of Democrats show that 79% surveyed are glad that Ned Lamont won, and only 6% say their candidates should support the Iraq war. An AP poll shows Bush at his lowest approval level--33%--with Democrats favored over Republicans for Congress by 55% to 37%. Almost a fifth of Bush voters are defecting to the Democrats.

To be fair, Bush opponents are not rhetorically shy either, any more than antiwar advocates were in the 60s. But there's a difference when national leaders of the party in power go after opposition with such excess. Then it becomes the suppression of dissent, which we know was being done more than rhetorically in the 60s. What don't we know about what is happening now?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Hiroshima, August 1945 Posted by Picasa
After Hiroshima, Terrorism Is What Bombing Is For

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb used in warfare. Three days later, President Truman began a pattern of lies that characterized the nuclear age.
But another lie also emerged from World War II, when the kind of bombing we see today--from the air, on urban centers and civilian populations--was first done regularly, on a large scale. The lie is that bombing is an effective, reasonable and legitimate method of waging war, whereas there are other despicable and illegitimate acts committed by uncivilized and ruthless enemies, called terrorism.

The truth is that bombing is terrorism, no matter who does it, and it always has been.

As Norman Solomon recently reminds us, the immense explosion at Hiroshima was followed by an immense lie. On August 9th, President Truman told the Amercan people: "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, in so far as possible, the killing of civilians."

Solomon continues:

Actually, the U.S. government went out of its way to select Japanese cities of sufficient size to showcase the extent of the A-bomb's deadly power -- in Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and in Nagasaki on Aug. 9. As a result of those two bombings, hundreds of thousands of civilians died, immediately or eventually. If Truman's conscience had been clear, it's doubtful he would have felt compelled to engage in such a basic distortion at the dawn of the nuclear era.

In fact, Hiroshima had no military significance, and had not been bombed before--one of the principal reasons it was chosen for the A-bomb, so its destructive power would be more obvious to the Japanese and clearer for Americans studying those effects. It was considered a "safe city" to the extent that some parents in California who were forced into internment camps, sent their children to the safety of Hiroshima. So the victims of the U.S. atomic bomb likely included American children.

Truman's was the first of many lies of the nuclear era, including the initial lies about the effects of radiation. Some 75,000 people died in Hiroshima from the blast and fire of the Bomb. Five years later, radiation effects more than doubled the dead, to some 200,000. The vast majority of those who died from the Nagasaki bomb were from radiation, months and years later.
But the biggest lie is not about the atomic bomb, but the very practice of bombing. The facts show (as described in Sven Lindqvist's A History of Bombing and Gerard DeGroot's The Bomb: A Life, among other works) that the effect of bombing cities is not a strategy of war but a strategy of terror, and that it doesn't work.

The idea of this kind of bombing is not to kill enemy combatants or destroy military bases, but to destroy the population's will by terrorizing them with the threat of random death and destruction. Although the idea of this kind of bombing is now apparently acceptable, it is relatively new in the history of warfare.

While many nations experimented with it, especially imperial powers who bombed restless colonies, it was first used as a policy by the British in World War II in Germany. It did not result in a revolt of the German people against its government. The U.S. followed in its bombing campaign against Japan, at first aimed at military and industrial support targets, but eventually using saturation bombing against cities. It was the failure of this campaign to terrorize the Japanese population into submission that led to the decision to use the atomic bomb.

As Gerard DeGroot points out, when We (whoever We are) drop bombs, it is to destroy the enemy's capability to fight--the logic that says if you are going to destroy the enemy's tanks, then destroy the factories that build the tanks, and kill the people who work in those factories. But when They bomb Us, using the same logic, it is brutal, indiscriminate killing. "The difference is contrived--a matter of perspective. Indiscriminate bombing means killing civilians for the sake of attrition--the killing is the object."

But it isn't only attrition, and in less than the kind of total war that World War II was, it is more obviously aimed at terrorizing the enemy population. Hezbollah fires bombs into Israel to terrorize the population, hoping to eventually win concessions or ultimately to destroy the state of Israel. Israel fires bombs into Lebanon to destroy rocket implacements but also to terrorize the population into not supporting Hezbollah, either by allowing them to operate out of their neighborhoods or by supporting them politically. The strategy in both cases is the attrition of terror.

Argument on the morality of targeting civilians in war go back hundreds of years. All too ironically, the first known code that forbade the killing of non-combatants was promulgated by Abu Hanifa, a legal scholar in Baghdad. Western powers adopted a double standard: war between "civilized" European nations would be conducted in this civilized manner. But war against lesser peoples was total war, against the population as well as combatants. Primitive people were not only lesser, but more easily frightened by western technology's advances in explosives and methods of delivering them. World War II ended even these distinctions.

Now bombing is normal, and far from being the last resort, it is often the first option. Nations use it now because it is cheaper, and since no troops are endangered, there is no grumbling at home about the loss of life. Bombs of all kinds constitute a thriving business. In use, they have a very brief productive life before it's time to buy more. And there's plenty to chose from. Small groups can plant various kinds of bombs along roads or in parked vehicles, or use suicide bombers. Larger organizations can use bombs attached to small rockets. Nations can use bombs with sophisticated targetting capabilities, launched on rockets or fired from ships or dropped from airplanes. Long range missiles with thermonuclear weapons are still pointed at the U.S. and Russia.

From the smallest to the largest-yield weapons, bombs are instruments of terror. They sever the limbs of children, burn babies alive, destroy homes that send families into a tailspin of poverty, wreck the urban infrastructure that makes daily life possible, and send millions of traumatized people wandering into nightmare through the piles of broken homes and schools and hospitals, shards of bone, crushed bodies, smoldering flesh, hot twisted metal and clouds of toxic smoke, because they are supposed to. This is what bombs are for.

Friday, August 04, 2006

a fateful moment at the campus coffee shop.
photo by Bill Thompson. Posted by Picasa
Wars Within Wars

The Iraq war is becoming as long and agonizing as Vietnam--one poll says it is even more politically divisive. A Republican Senator said that the situation on the ground in Iraq is an "absolute replay" of Vietnam. A reporter who covered Vietnam sees a tragic repetition of the Vietnamization policy of the Nixon war, during which most Americans were killed and most of the destruction was done. And there are other resemblances as well.

Rather than make comparisons for you, let me simply tell a few stories about that time that seem relevant. These are recollections, with some poetic license, and like all stories, just one way of telling about it.

I obviously can't speak for everyone who was young in the Vietnam era. So when I say "we," it's shorthand for the people I knew. However, there were a lot like us. If you were draft age, and especially if you were in college, you were involved in these discussions to some degree.

Some of us talked about Vietnam and associated moral and political issues virtually every day. Some years (for me, the late 60s) there was hardly a conversation in which these subjects didn't come up.

There was one set of discussions about Vietnam: the politics, history and other contexts of the war. These began with the campus Teach-Ins in 1965 and became a major part of our education.

All of these discussions were in the context of a lot of information on campuses and in print--books, and extensive journalism, analysis and argument in the New York Review of Books, Ramparts and other publications. Many organizations sprang up and issued pamphlets, booklets and newsletters.

We listened to new young leaders and to established public figures, more and more of whom--from old Left firebrands and new poets to anthropologist Margaret Mead--were talking about the war and all the issues involved.

We also had novels (like Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five) and poetry influencing the discussion. And especially music, that dealt with issues pretty directly (Dylan's "Masters of War" for example) or contributed in terms of spirit, and of suggesting alternative culture and ways of being.

There was a related set of discussions having to do with the morality of participating in an immoral war. It had to do with decisions that young men like me were being forced to make, because we were being drafted. For us, the discussions went beyond politics and academic discourse. We were trying to decide what we were going to do, because we were being forced to make a decision, about our lives, about life and possibly death.

Bob Dylan Posted by Picasa
I turned 18 in the summer of 1964. I walked down the alley from the building where I was working, for the Voter Registration Drive sponsored by the Democratic Party and the local of the AFL-CIO's political committee, called COPE (I don't remember what the acronym stood for) to the draft board registration office. Actually, I hobbled. I was on crutches from catching a football as I was falling into a ditch. I don't recommend it as recreation.

I had the student deferment (2-S) during college, but we still had to report for physicals when called. I got called in 1967 during the highest draft call month of the war. My first physical was in Chicago, a chaotic nightmare of hundreds and probably thousands of young men in their underwear standing in lines and filling out forms.

We quickly learned that who passed and who didn't was almost entirely arbitrary, based on whether the person examining you at each station wanted you to get out or not. In my group, the top swimmer on our college team got out because somebody was a fan of college athletics. I was in the next line, and I was (and am) entirely deaf in one ear. I passed.

I also remember the young officer (a white guy) in charge of instructing us on filling out our forms. He was very authoritarian and by the book. Then when we were done he closed the door, and told us that anybody who went to Vietnam was a sucker, so get out any way you can.

Before that day and after, I consulted draft counselors in Chicago. There were several sets of them, from various organizations, and although they all gave you the information you needed about your rights, and the forms, etc. they each advocated a different approach to resistance. The Quakers advocated conscientious objector status. A more political organization preferred overt resistance, and jail as protest. However, by the time I was drafted, at least one of these groups changed their tactic. Draft protestors were singled out in prisons, they learned, and so they advised against going to jail if you had any other alternative, such as leaving the country (which generally meant Canada.)

March on the Pentagon 1967 Posted by Picasa
The moral questions we had to answer were many. They started with locating our beliefs about war. Am I against this war, or all wars? Under what conditions would I fight or kill?

Is it moral to avoid the draft when another will have to take your place? Is it moral to accept the draft and refuse to be a combatant, meaning another will take your place on the battlefield? On the other hand, is it moral to do anything, inside the Army or outside, that enables the war machine to continue?

For draft age men, there were practical questions that resulted from these quandaries. When I am called what should I do? Do I comply and hope for the best, hoping that either I don't get into combat situations or that I will make moral decisions if I do? Go into the army, and request a non-combatant role? But aren't non-combatants enabling others to kill, and isn't that equally immoral?

Do I resist and go to jail, and risk being in situations where I choose between being harmed and harming? Again, the issues of violence and nonviolent resistance.

Do I refuse by going to Canada, leaving behind everything and everyone I know?

To help answer these questions, we learned more. We learned more about how we would be trained, how the military worked, and how that would limit our choices once we were in it. We learned a little about what we could expect in prison. There was even less information on Canada, but we knew it meant we couldn't return, even if our families accepted our decision.

This makes it sound like a wholly rational procedure. It wasn't. It was nuts.

We saw a memo purporting to be a Selective Service document called "Channeling." It said that part of the purpose of the draft was to channel young men into activities that help the state--either in the armed services or into war work areas that were deferrable (weapons research perhaps), or if they were malcontents and protestors, channel them to jail or out of the country.

Those not faced with these imminent decisions debated the best ways to resist. Work within the electoral system--though there were few antiwar candidates? Was revolution the only answer? Analysis of the war led to analysis of reasons for the war, which led to moral issues involving racism, cultural as well as political imperialism, the military-industrial-academic state.

We spent a lot of time talking to each other about these issues, and trying to persuade other guys that fighting this war was wrong, that the army wasn't what they thought it was, and once they went in, they would regret it. These got to be passionate arguments, with a lot of angry words. Some women ended up in tears of frustration and sorrow for what these young men would be doing, and doing to themselves.

Besides the draft, there were also recruiters who came to campus, and we had ROTC on our campus as well. On the theory that reducing the number of people who go into the armed forces would reduce the ability to fight this immoral war, we protested recruitment on campus, and harassed recruiters when they showed up. We challenged them, as we challenged politicians, to start telling the truth. Because they were all lying, just about all the time.

There was no active protest against ROTC on my campus that I recall, but I do remember looking up from a newspaper I was reading in the student union to see a classmate in his ROTC uniform, and spontaneously giving him the Nazi salute. To me this was a bit of guerrilla theatre, something out of a Beatles movie even. But to him, as it turned out, it was very disturbing. We had a long talk about it on the patio outside the union building many months later, just before graduation. He told me his feelings about defending the country, and learning about honor and duty, and also about trading a couple of years in the Army for what they paid towards his college education. I told him my feelings about protesting the war and refusing as a patriotic act, and so on.

It was a sad conversation--especially since graduation was taking place at the same time as Bobby Kennedy's funeral-- but a real one. I'm glad we had it. A few weeks after graduation he was sent to Vietnam. He'd been there for two weeks when he was killed.

Buffy Sainte Marie Posted by Picasa
While months earlier, as I agonized over all this, I used every delaying tactic and bureaucratic opportunity I could to delay induction. By the time my induction physical was scheduled for Fort Des Moines, Iowa, I knew what I was going to do. First, I knew my rights down to the paragraph, and what appeals were due me. I had all my hearing tests and other information about possible physical disqualifications.

If all my efforts failed, I would refuse induction by stepping back when the oath was given. That would trigger more appeals. In the meantime, I had my conscientious objector papers ready to file. CO status was hard to get if you weren't a member of a church recognized as pacifist. I was raised Catholic, and the Crusades weren't a real good precedent.

But if I was going down, I would go down writing. I remember including the lyrics of a song called "Universal Soldier," written by Buffy Sainte Marie, but made popular by Donovan. It began:

He's five foot two, and he's six feet fourHe fights with missiles and with spears......He's the one who gives his body as a weapon in the war and without him all this killing can't go on...It ends:He's the universal soldier and he really is to blameHis orders come from far away no more/they come from himAnd you and me/and brothers can't you see/this is not the way we put the end to war.

I had come to the conclusion that it was a violation of my constitutional rights to be compelled to kill somebody. So I wrote that. I felt putting myself in position to be told to kill somebody, or to aid in killing people, without my informed consent, was immoral. I said that by pursuing an immoral war, the government and the army had ceded its moral authority.

But I had also come to the conclusion that personally I would not survive the army of these times. I was convinced that whatever I had that would be of use to the future would be destroyed in the army. It would drive me crazy in one way or another. (And in that I was sort of proved right.) Jail was the same kind of alternative. If I let them force me into one or the other, I figure they'd won. The war against the war was a guerilla war.

So if all else failed, I was going to head for the border. This was a big deal for me, because I had little conception of how I would survive. I've never been good at the making a living part of living, and I was really naïve then. My family was sympathetic about what I was going through, my parents didn't necessarily support the war (they had doubts) but they were frightened to death of the idea that I might refuse induction. And in any case, you soon learned that when you face these decisions, you really face them alone.

I took a long bus trip from Iowa City to Fort Des Moines, paid for by the Army. As I was the only member of my group on this trip, I was designated by the Army as the head of it. It was my first and last command.

I bunked at the barracks with a lot of farm boys pleased as punch to be going into the army and getting away from home, plus a few other college kids who found each other quickly and formed a squad for mutual self-protection. The army guys in charge pushed the kids around, but left us on our own.

My physical turned out to be a battle between the sergeant at station #1, regular army (black), who was thorough and flexible to the point that I was certain he was more than ready to let anybody who didn't want to be in the army just go home, and the doctor at station #9, a draftee (white) who eventually told me that no matter what I did or what my test results said, he was going to pass me, because if he had to do his two years, everybody did.

RFK campaigning in 1968 Posted by Picasa
This physical lasted three days. I had my hearing tests, and #1 sent me to a doctor in town for confirmation. With confirmation in hand I went to #9, who passed me. Same with other physical ailments. But I was getting the idea that #1 was going to let me string this out as long as necessary, so I began inventing things. I filed petitions based on the first ten amendments, separately, and on the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I wrote in rhyme wherever possible. I moved to the psychological claims.

As a kid from a working class culture I'd never even seen a psychiatrist up close before, but they sent me to a couple. After two and a half days of this, I was pretty convincingly crazy. I thought there was a film crew following me. To this day I don't know if it was a hallucination or not. Just before one of my appointments, I was facing a closed door. After twenty minutes or so, I saw the door open and a nurse come out of a broom closet, smiling at me. That's when I went in to see the shrink.

There was a different #9 that day and they wished me good riddance. They also told me that I'd never get a real job with this on my record. It took me a long time to recover from that period of time, the year or so from the first physical to the second, and I doubt I did completely. Between the two, Martin Luther King was killed, and the candidate I counted on to end the killing, Bobby Kennedy was killed. In the chaos of all this I couldn't take certain courses seriously and fell slightly short of my graduation requirements. Others of lesser academic standing had been given a waiver when they were that close. But as a well-known antiwar loudmouth, I was not.

I guess I've gone on so long about this to give you the context for what I'm about to say, which is the point of this diary. I did what I had to do to survive, body and soul. I did not survive unscathed. No one did. There were no moral certainties and though I'd been excessive at times in my criticism of those who became part of the war machine, I was ready to see things in a context which was in some ways larger, and in other ways, very specific.

I am not for a moment trying to say my experiences were equivalent to what soldiers went through in Vietnam. I was in a lot of protests, got into a few scrapes when total strangers could be violent because of your hair length, and caught my share of tear gas, but it's a whole different order from being under fire, in that context day after day, and coming home with those kinds of wounds. And for the record, I never spit at a returning soldier. Ever.

1967 at the 169 W. 1st St. Home for the Bewildered.
Is this a future Canadian MP? Posted by Picasa
In personal terms, I was already clear about each of us making the best decisions we could at Christmastime the year of the Christmas bombing, when our families were trying to be cheerful and live in happy America, and my best friend from high school and I were talking about what we were going to do about our draft notices. His decision was to accept induction, to request non-combatant duty. If he was ordered to Vietnam as a combatant, he would refuse to go.

I understood his decision and supported him, as he understood mine and supported me. We were as close to being brothers as I've experienced. Eventually he was inducted and sent to Korea as a chaplain's assistant. I wrote to him and sent him packages, which considering the shape I was in at the time, was considerable effort.

Later, I expanded this horizon and it happened like this: I was hitch-hiking at the edge of a highway, and saw a guy in an army uniform running towards me. This didn't look good---me with my long hair and guitar case. But I stood my ground and waited. When he got to me he was beaming. He had just gotten out, and he was happy to see anybody who looked like me. You guys were right, he said.

Shortly after that I began hearing about Vietnam Vets Against the War and this guy named John Kerry. They were at the next big demonstration in DC, so I marched behind them. My band of brothers had expanded.

Of my old friends from home, three had been in the Army, two of them in Vietnam. One was decorated for bravery under fire as a medic. The other, the kid from the African American family next door who I played war with when we were little, was an officer and also a hero. He saved a bunch of lives, and did all kinds of good things back in the states. There was a street named after him somewhere. As I'd generally been his commanding officer at home, being the one who made up the story we played out, I took some satisfaction in this.

My college housemate moved to Canada--I drove a van load of his stuff to his new home. He still lives there. He's thinking of standing for the legislature. Another protestor I knew from college used to be the chief of staff at the White House. After working to register voters for LBJ, I'd protested against him, and that burned my political bridges back home.

We all made our decisions, we all lived our lives. I don't judge others' choices, even though a lot of judging still goes on. Some Vietnam vets have never forgiven civilian protestors, even after reconciling with their adversaries in the field of battle. I don't understand that exactly, but I accept it. Still, many vets and protestors did reconcile, did come to a common understanding that we all make choices, according to circumstances we found ourselves in; according to the cards we were dealt. And we all have to accept the consequences.

In the heat of the moment, some men in Vietnam committed atrocities. They have to live with that, and with whatever judicial consequences ensued. I don't entirely agree that given the same circumstances we all would make the same decisions, but I was sure that I would not allow myself to be put in the position of having to make those kinds of decisions. Not in that war. That these guys in Washington wanted to put me in that position still makes me angry.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Posted by Picasa
Somebody who I respected, an older established writer named William Eastlake who was a World War II vet and opposed to the Vietnam war, cautioned me against becoming a pacifist, because you never know, a righteous war might just come along. It was pretty unlikely, but possible. I went with the unlikely part. I went with what I knew about the people leading the government then.

I believed concretely that to deprive an unjust government and an immoral war of your body as a weapon is a moral act. I believe that in the abstract it is wrong to do anything to further an immoral war. But I made decisions on just how far I would go with that, and others made different decisions, if they even believed that. Nobody had to pass any sort of test to march against the war, or vote against it when they got the chance.

I honored and supported war resisters then, both in and out of the armed forces, and I do now. I don't judge the soldiers who are in Iraq, not without knowing their story. They're only a pawn in the game of the Masters of War. I've got a relative there now, the husband of a cousin's daughter. We pray for his safe return. My best friend's daughter is married to a Iraq war vet. She's a wonderful kid and she's helping him adjust. I haven't met him yet but he sounds like a great guy. He's working in alternative energy.

It all makes me think of the introductory chapter to Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, in which he and his friend sit down with a bottle of whiskey to recall the war, but the friend's wife is hostile. Vonnegut asks her why. She says because you were all just children then. Vonnegut agrees, and he subtitles the book, the Children's Crusade.

Look at the faces of the Americans over there, especially the dead. They are children. Now some of them are dead children.

1971 March in Washington led by Vietnam Veterans Against the War Posted by Picasa
The organization I know the most about, and I respect them tremendously, is the GI Rights Hotline. The local group is composed of lawyers, physicians and educators, and lots of Vietnam vets. (I wrote about them here.) They are fighting against war "one soldier at a time." But they support the soldiers they counsel. They try to help them get their rights to medical care, and to help for their families. How the warmakers in Washington treat soldiers and their families is deeply immoral, a complete scandal.

But the Hotline also counsels kids being recruited in high schools, telling them about the empty promises and outright lies by recruiters. Some will go anyway, to get away from home, to meet new people, which they will. Some will change their minds after what they see and experience, and want out, and the GI Rights Hotline will try to help them.

When I was junior high age I had a plan to go to the Naval Academy. I probably could have gotten the congressional appointment. But then I found out I wouldn't be accepted, because of my hearing. The clarity of chain of command, the discipline, the dedication to duty appealed to me. It still does to some extent and it may yet prove useful, though I doubt it will be in a purely military context.

Another echo of Vietnam, though a perverse one, is a call by some ( including progressives) for the return of the draft, as some kind of national service requirement which would offer "choice" other than military conscription. I hope some of the practical objections to such a naive notion are obvious after reading this account. But even in a better world, I would never compel anyone to do any kind of "service." Compulsion is just plain wrong. When we need selfless service, and we have mechanisms worthy of that dedication, we won't be in short supply. After all, people are ready to join Starfleet right now.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

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From The Evolution of Brutality and the Skills of Peace at Captain Future's Dreaming Up Daily:

During the brutality of the Vietnam war, an immense dialogue took place on the meaning of war as well as that particular war. It found in history a long list of voices crying out against the futility of war, the needless brutality and its ineffectiveness in solving problems. It demanded that war be evaluated not just with numbers and geopolitical theories, but by suffering, especially of the innocent, and the brutalizing effect on those who inflicted this suffering as well as its victims. As the soldiers in World War I learned, they are often the same people.

This dialogue was central but also other dialogues were part of it. The Civil Rights movement sensitized us to the racial and ethnic component of the us/them equation, to the fear of difference, of the alien. Prejudices of the past were recalled, and the images of those Other racial groups that by then were obviously false. The examination of socially supported gender roles and their implication in violence and oppression began even before the feminist movement, and men reevaluated what it meant to be a man. Many started on a journey then to revive and refine techniques for solving problems without violence, and to develop new ones.

Today there are thousands of Americans involved in developing, learning and using what I call the Skills of Peace. I divide these interrelated skills into outer (learning about cultures and histories), inner (learning about ourselves, our responses and motivations, as well as cultivating attitudes and learning skills to clarify our relationship to the world) and interface (methods of communication, negotiation; skills of mediation and conflict management and resolution.)

Read more at Dreaming Up Daily. And check out The Skills of Peace at the SF Chronicle. Some useful links are here as well.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

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Turning 60


As I begin writing this, I am 59. When I finish it, I will be 60.

How do I think about turning 60 years old? Some look at how vital we are at this age in comparison to our parents’ generation, and say we’re still young. Or at least in middle-age. You might make a case that these days our youth lasts until 40, and middle age extends to what used to be the retirement age of 65. But as Michael Ventura points out, we’re not living to 120. Sixty isn’t the middle. We aren’t young, in Act I of our lives. We mostly aren’t in Act II anymore.

This is the start of something different. It is early old age---maybe even “young old age” if that feels better. In the theatre of our lives, it’s the curtain coming up on Act III.

This is going to be happening to a lot of people starting about now. When the battleship Missouri was steaming into Tokyo Bay to accept the surrender of Japan, my parents were marching up the aisle of the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Greensburg, PA. I was born the following June, making me one of the first of the postwar Baby Boomers, and so one of the first Boomers to turn 60. There will be millions more over the next decade.

Turning 60 is a hard thing to admit, even to ourselves. There is a shame attached to it in today’s world. Younger people and even our contemporaries look at us in a different way, and treat us differently. Of course, this happens anyway, whether we admit it or not, and whether or not we announce our identity in this way. Do we say we are 60? Claim the senior discount? It’s scary, maybe even depressing and demeaning.

Part of the scariness is obviously that getting older inevitably places us closer to death. More people we know or know of, people we grew up knowing or knowing about, are suddenly dead. We shudder when this includes our contemporaries, or even those slightly younger. It is hard to accept that we have fewer days ahead than behind. Maybe it’s even harmful to accept it?

Like anything important, both sides of the contradiction are true in some way, and must be embraced, reconciled. There is pain in coming to terms with Act III. But there is also freedom, and purpose.

Emphasis is a way of considering one side, before considering the other. Two texts have been important to me in the past few years in this intermittent but intense effort to figure out how to proceed. The first is an essay published in a fairly obscure journal by Michael Ventura, a columnist, essayist and novelist who was approaching 60 when he wrote it in late 2004. The second is James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character, first published in 1999. It so happens that Hillman and Ventura collaborated on an earlier book (We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychoanalysis and the World is Still a Mess.) So though they differ on some points, it seems to me they agree on most basic ideas. It’s mostly a difference of emphasis.

In his essay, Ventura emphasizes loss. This is natural for one approaching 60, and a necessary initiation. When I stumbled onto this essay (in a magazine I’d never seen before, called Psychotherapy Networker) I was jolted. It took me awhile to accept its premises. But in my own 59th year, I came to embrace it, guided by my own life to the truth of Ventura’s words.

The article is called “Across the Great Divide: Middle Age in the Rear-View Mirror.” It begins when Ventura realizes he must make a major change in his life. He can no longer afford to live as he had been in Los Angeles. He must find a new place to live. At the same time, he’s thinking about turning 60, and arranges to meet an old friend in Las Vegas. He drives there, taking a long and thoughtful route.

The statement that rocked me was simple: “When you’re pushing 60, the rest of your life is about saying goodbye.

“Your greatest work may yet be demanded of you (though odds are against that). You may find more true love, meet new good friends, and there’s always beauty (if you have an eye for it) and fun (if you haven the spirit)---still, no matter what, slowly, you must say goodbye, a little bit every day, to everything.”

Ventura’s examples are painfully familiar: you’re saying goodbye to your own face as it was in your youth; to how you drove a car (he mentions reflexes; I’ve noticed night-vision—my eyes don’t readjust from glare as fast as they did), to life without aches and pains, perhaps to certain strengths, and to access to your memory. “Alzheimer’s? ‘A senior moment’? You get used to it and hope for the best. Ain’t nobody can do a thing about it anyway. Goodbye.”

Yes, I know there’s advice out there on strengthening mental agility, and we can all be heartened by the research showing that brain cells continue to be born as well as die all our lives. But the basic point is sound.

Ventura is also saying goodbye to where he’d lived in the prime of his life. Though he isn’t saying goodbye to his career exactly—he writes a column these days for the Austin Chronicle--there is a sense that in some ways he’s doing that, too. Many of us at 60 are facing such a change. For those of us in a position to “retire” (leave our jobs and collect retirement benefits) it is also a time of taking stock of accomplishments, and saying goodbye to having any more, at least in that job. Financial retrenchment has its own set of goodbyes. In many ways, these all imply saying goodbye to possibilities, and perhaps to dreams unfulfilled.

[continued after photo]

my 50th birthday gift Posted by Picasa
To accept this element of turning 60, I had to come to terms with my 50s. In some ways, my 50th birthday was the best of my life. I’d been living in Pittsburgh but was preparing to leave for California with my partner, Margaret. After years of cobbling together part-time teaching and writing jobs, she’d landed a good full-time position teaching dramatic writing at Humboldt State University. I was attracted to what I learned about the place—an academic environment, in the redwoods, near the ocean, with a temperate climate year round (the increasingly hot Pittsburgh summers were making me edgy), close to indigenous Native American tribal areas, and not far from real wilderness. Yet not terribly far from San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, three of my favorite cities in North America.

I would be giving up my Pittsburgh life—the infrastructure that worked for me, the city and neighborhood I was fond of, and especially my apartment, the best place I had ever lived. It was a commitment to our relationship, but of course I had to think about my own life and livelihood. My local career in Pittsburgh had stalled, and I felt I could grow into a new one in California, but mostly I felt poised to come into my own on a larger stage. I felt strong and at the top of my writing game, yet with knowledge and experience I hadn’t had when my first book was published in my 30s---especially the hard-won experience of my 40s. My fifties, I felt, would be the fulfillment, the justification of everything in the past. They would also set the pattern for my future, for my culminating accomplishments and at last my proper place in the world, with access to the means to be creative and productive. My fifties would be my redemption. It seemed worth the risk.

For my family birthday, my sisters surprised me with a more personal and elaborate celebration than I expected. They assembled photographs from my childhood. And their gift was unique: an assemblage of objects under a glass dome that represented my life, in the form of a room. There was a desk and bookshelves, a computer, a guitar case on the floor, running shoes and a baseball glove, etc. But the detail was amazing and personal: for example, the tiny books included facsimiles of my book and a few others I treasured.

There was a sense of elegy to this, and of honoring, which was moving. Yet I was looking towards the future. I didn’t see anything ending, really. If I were successful, I could come back anytime.

The move to California was much more wrenching than I had ever imagined. Though I reveled in the soft air, cool until heated by sunlight, I mourned the loss of my apartment and what I had to leave behind. I also quickly discovered that while Margaret had a place in this world because of her job, I had none. The downside of the isolation became apparent. Nobody was much interested in me, as a writer or as anything else.

In some ways I was lucky in early encounters. I worked on writing a video concerning local forest issues, and worked for awhile with a Native American organization. I learned a lot from both, but neither led to anything lasting. And that became one of the characteristics of my 50s: a lot of beginnings that led nowhere.

By some measures, I was enormously productive. I researched, wrote proposals and wrote drafts of chapters on several nonfiction projects, often returning to some aspect of the one I’d been working on when I left Pittsburgh. I wrote fiction. I wrote plays, including a musical for junior high students about smoking, which included the songs: music and lyrics. I wrote and rewrote a screenplay, I wrote and rewrote a young adult novel. I used a new electronic keyboard, a 4-track tape recorder and a computer program to arrange and record songs I’d written.

I sent things out to agents, publishers, theatres, etc. I had conversations and correspondences with several agents and editors on various projects. Nothing came of any of it. The projects closest to my heart got the least response.

I got into grantwriting and picked up freelance jobs writing and editing reports, to generate income. I was already saying goodbye to writing on certain subjects (like popular music) and for some publications (I was no longer in, or in touch with, their younger demographic). But I continued to be published—in one year, my work appeared in five separate sections of the San Francisco Chronicle: the book review, Insight section, the daily and Sunday arts section and the Sunday magazine. Several of these pieces could well have led to books. None of them did. None of them led anywhere.

Thanks to digital technology, I did finally get my one book into paperback—when I did it myself. As that book’s author, I was filmed for three separate television documentaries, any one of which might have led to enough interest that I could get a contract for a new book (or so I thought.) But I never found out. Though I’d been interviewed in films before, and was very successful as a public speaker, none of my footage was used in any of these new projects.

Suddenly my fifties were three-fourths gone. I was applying for full time positions here and in the Bay Area and elsewhere for which I thought I was well-qualified. I got a few interviews, nothing more, and usually a lot less. Still, I kept trying and some cause for hope would turn up. In 2004 I got an assignment from the New York Times to write on a subject I wanted very much to write on, that was central to the book project I’d been vainly trying to put together since before I left Pittsburgh. It was a dream, and worked out very well. Everyone loved the resulting article—my editors and the people I wrote about.

But it led pretty much nowhere, not even to another assignment. I was told that the Times wasn’t taking freelance work for the arts section for awhile, and neither was the San Francisco Chronicle. My financial situation was getting desperate. There were no resources for reasonably frequent travel home, or to the wilderness, or anywhere.

For all this time I had gambled on the next step---the book contract, the book or movie sale, even a play production. Then on the good job that would set things right. Redemption.

But then, as I approached 60, I began to say goodbye to all that. In part it was now simply a matter of looking at time. I sacrificed a great deal to remain true to my dreams, even if that sacrifice wasn’t always intentional. I had already said goodbye to the possibility of having a family. That time had passed me by. Now I was saying goodbye to aspects of my dreams that would never come true, not in the time left to me. I’m not going to have a career as a novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, an author with a flow of books. It could happen that I’ll have again what I’ve tasted before, like the speaking engagements I had as a book author, or the buzz of seeing my play performed even on an obscure stage. But it won’t be a career.

the paperback edition now available, with
photo from when the book was written. Posted by Picasa
A career is about movement; movement with its oscillations but generally up and outward. It is about an identity and a livelihood created and recreated in the process. Over time. But much of that time is over.

This is sad of course, because it’s a kind of failure. But at this point, like a lot of failures or changes that come with age, it is also a relief. It is also liberating. I no longer have to look at anything I do as leading to anything else. Everything is what it is.

I don’t discount the possibility of more accomplishment, even of some kind of redemption in the eyes of others. But I’m saying goodbye to the need for it. Success and failure, what do they mean at this point? In comparison to other aspects of growing old, or to the vagaries of existence that take more control, not very much. They may cause me pain, but pain is now a regular part of life. There are famous people with great financial resources who wind up with incurable diseases. There are people with great health insurance who die as a result of bad medical practice. Having money increases your odds of having a comfortable and productive life, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

Like a lot of young writers, I used to sweat over the passing time, mapping out the years against the number of books I could write and publish, the necessary steps to the destiny I craved. Now those calculations show there isn’t enough time left. That anxiety is over. Nothing leads to anything else. But that also means that I can devote my full attention to whatever it is I manage to do in the present. That becomes its own reward. Nothing leads to nothing.

I know that few people get hired for good jobs at my age until they are already established in the higher ranks of that occupation. You either get a job as a CEO, a college president, or something much less. Maybe not only a greeter at Wal-Mart, but not a job that somebody considers part of a career. And there are occupations in fields of my interest where nobody over 50 is even seriously considered. So nothing I do is going to necessarily lead to anything like that.

Right now I have three small jobs that don’t add up to either the income or the demands of a full-time job. They require some diligence, creativity and applications of skills, but their challenges are modest, as are their results. Yet they all have their modest pleasures. So here I am. Say goodbye to redemption. Say goodbye to great expectations. Say goodbye to all that. The intense humiliation of my 50s has led to modesty. It has led back to the moment.

I think I did some good work in the past decade, including published work I can be proud of. I may remain puzzled and sad about the work that didn’t go anywhere, that was ignored or scorned, and I have to deal with the work that was never completed, that may never have a completed form, let alone a life outside the rooms of their making. But as long as I have memory, I’ll remember the excitement and experience of making them, or the struggle and yearning and the promise of their potential, however bittersweet those memories may be.

But this modesty, cooling in the release from the crucible of humiliation, is not the whole story. The dearth of time ahead, and the ashes and annihilation at the end of it, are only part of what Act III is about.

Ventura writes about more goodbyes: as older family members die, we say goodbye to family history we don’t know and now will never know, and neither will anyone else. We say goodbye to the last people who knew us as young children.

The common denominator of many goodbyes is death. He even says that the changes in our faces as we age marks the approach of death. “Call it whatever you like, but that’s what it is, that’s what we politely call “aging.” As we lose capabilities forever, we are moving towards the final loss of everything, which is death.

Some of these goodbyes aren’t too difficult to deal with gracefully, once they finally come. The anxiety over the years about losing my hair (which given my maternal grandfather, was all but inevitable) was far more intense and difficult than the acceptance of its reality (at least so far.)

But Ventura points out that the bigger losses are harder to deal with, and require a quality he calls fierceness. “It takes fierceness to grow old well. It takes a fierce devotion to the word goodbye—learning how to say it in many ways—fiercely, yes, but also gently; with laughter, with tears, but, no matter how, to say it every time so that there’s no doubt you mean it.”

This is a kind of tonic to the anxiety we’re bred with in this society to keep up, stay young, and fight off any sign or recognition of death, to the point that people never say their goodbyes at all. The denial of death—the rage against the dying of the light-- may be in some sense noble and courageous, but it can also be just plain denial.

James Hillman Posted by Picasa
But death is not necessarily the only or even the primary fact of aging, according to James Hillman. He quotes Spinoza: “A free man thinks of death least of all things.” Instead he writes that a purpose of his book, The Force of Character, is to “decouple death from aging, and instead restore the ancient link between older age and the uniqueness of character.”

“To the question ‘Why am I old?’ the usual answer is ‘Because I am becoming dead.’ But the facts show that I reveal more character as I age, not more death…Far more important to look at older years as a state of being, and ‘old’ as an archetypal phenomenon with its own myths and meanings. That’s the bolder challenge: to find the value in aging without borrowing that value from the metaphysics and theologies of death. Aging itself, a thing of its own, freed from the corpse.”

Hillman was 73 when he published this book--well into his own Act III. He’s 80 now, and has published what he said was his last book in 2005. As the virtual inventor of archetypal psychology, and former director of the Jung Institute, Hillman has written about the particular characteristics of youth and age for some 35 years.

In some ways, Hillman reclaims what others deny for Act III. He quotes T.S. Eliot, that “old men ought to be explorers.” “I take this to mean: follow curiosity, inquire into important ideas, risk transgression.” He writes of old age as adventure—an adventure of the mind, of the soul.

Hillman writes approvingly of the other recently published book I consider a guide to Act III for the Boomer generation: Theodore Roszak’s America the Wise (also published in paperback under the title “Longevity Revolution”), which Hillman calls “superb.” Describing the book’s thesis of the power of the Boomer generation to transform aging and the world: “Their sheer numbers could revolutionize society, moving it from predatory capitalism and environmental exploitation to what Roszak calls “the survival of the gentlest.’ The increasing proportion of seniors in the population tips the balance in favor of values that, he believes, seniors hold dearest: alleviation of suffering, nonviolence, justice, nurturing, and maintaining ‘the health and beauty of the planet.’”

But to embark on this adventure, Hillman believes we must begin by “exorcising the morbid idea of aging that keeps older citizens immobilized by depression, narrowed by anger, and alienated from their calling as elders; second, by restoring the idea of character, which strengthens faith in individual uniqueness as an instrumental force affecting what we bring to the planet.”

Hillman is not trying to reclaim youth, but to claim the unique capacities and energies of aging. There is a fierceness to the expressions of aging, he notes. “Why do older people become moralists, sentimentalists and radicals? They chain themselves to threatened trees; they march, they shout. They lecture Walkmaned ears about the moral decline of the West. We old ones are outraged, indignant, ashamed.”

It is partly the positive energies of the cantankerous, and the persistent return to recollections of the past. It is also the ability to find patterns over time, through having lived those times. We are the embodied memory the young don’t have.

In a three act play, Act III is the resolution as well as the ending. Character is what we’ve been making with our lives. “Character traits include vices and virtues,” Hillman writes. “They do not define character. Character defines them.” Character is our uniqueness, as we express it and as it is seen in the world. “Character is presentational.”

Character is what we are (the “acorn” of our destiny he wrote about in his previous book, The Soul’s Code) plus what our lives have made. The vicissitudes of aging reveal our essential nature. But it is not completely finished—we finish it with aging, and for Hillman aging is also an activity, a kind of art.

Tess Posted by Picasa
I was present for the last months of my mother’s final illness; I was there at the moment of her death. I helped take care of my father during his last weeks. But I learned most about dying from Tess, our cat, two summers ago. There were no layers of social complication, of her dealing with the emotions of others, with nurses etc. There was just her instinctual confrontation with growing weakness and onrushing death. Some of her behavior was not according to the book. She didn’t hide herself away as cats do, she stayed near us, perhaps responding to our involvement. In the end our companionship was strong.

But some of what the cat books describe was there: the helpless insistent purring, the hovering over the water dish without drinking, and the faraway look in her eyes. Without hesitation, she did what she could of what she used to do. She went outside and surveyed her garden, taking rests. She was in the world as fully as she could be, and yet she was looking far beyond it.

Being aware of the relative nearness of death as well as new aches and pains, failing vision and so on, does focus the goodbyes. Goodbyes are present experiences, though. They include being as fully as possible in the world of now. This moment that will never come again.

Yet in early old age, at the beginning of Act III, and perhaps through it all until the final scene, there is living, and contributing from one’s unique perspective, experiences, talents and character. When we were trying to be successes, we had to emphasize one or two differences, and otherwise be (or pretend to be) the same as everyone else. Now we have no choice. All our differences are on display. They are our character.

Character is the shape of soul. Without the inflation of early ages, we are forced to accept ourselves, good and bad, with consequences pleasant and painful. We are no one’s ideal. “I walk through life oddly,” Hillman writes. “No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin.”

There are characteristics that come with becoming an elder. We must take responsibility for the past and we feel the responsibility of the future. In the role of grandparents (actual or metaphorical), we set our sights on the future we will not see.

“Before we leave,” Hillman writes, “we need to uphold our side of the compact of mutal support between human being and the being of the planet, giving back what we have taken, securing its lasting beyond our own.”

In living past the age of procreation, when physical growth is long past and physical pain is a closer companion, we feel differently about our relationship to the world. We no longer feel only one purpose in life—our own preservation, and that of our offspring. And we want to know what it’s all been about. “In later years feelings of altruism and kindness to strangers plays a larger role,” Hillman writes. “Values come under more scrutiny, and qualities such as decency and gratitude become more precious than accuracy and efficiency.”

What we say goodbye to as we age reveals some hellos: hello perhaps to some sharper memories from the distant past. Hello to insights as well as embarrassments. Hello to other worlds. "Discovery and promise do not belong solely to youth;" Hillman insists, "age is not excluded from revelation." Indeed, if the theatre is any guide, Act III is when it's more likely to happen.

My favorite Magritte--as in many of his paintings,
it appears to be dusk, or dawn. Posted by Picasa
Hillman was one of the first since Jung to introduce concepts of soul in psychology. (For Jung, “psyche” and “soul” were virtually identical.) I find the relationship of character, aging and soul most comprehensible, at least intuitively, when I think of soul as not something in the body (as we were taught in Catholic school) but the body as being enclosed in soul.

We do things to do them, we live in the moment and work for the future of what we will leave behind. Character and contribution to the future are the final adventures. "A certain kind of reasonableness is its advocate, and a certain kind of morality adds its blessings," writes Carl Jung. "But to have soul is the whole venture of life..."

Part of what this has meant for me is represented by this site and its companion, the Boomer Hall of Fame, as well as my other ongoing projects (Captain Future’s Dreaming Up Daily, Soul of Star Trek, Blue Voice etc.) Here at 60’s Now I hope to explore issues pertinent to my generation, our present, past and the future we won’t see.

That’s something else important about Act III-- the character has lived through Acts I and II. We carry our history and the history we’ve experienced, not only in the weight and reference of our words, but in ourselves. I am all that I am, including the heroes of my youth, and those that gave me the imagery of my middle years, and those that inform me now. So that is also why I hope to build a kind of database of those influences from the past in the Boomer Hall of Fame.

I expect all this to happen slowly, fitfully, cumulatively. These aren’t the text-messaging kind of blogs, lots of short items off the cuff and often. Sometimes they will be. And while they won’t often be as long as this, I will take some care with them. I hope you’ll come back. Don’t be too disappointed if there’s nothing new. Your expectations should be modest, too. But our intentions don’t have to be. My name is Captain Future. I’m here to save the world.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Dr. Strangelove in the war room Posted by Picasa
Nuclear Lessons: The Sanity Clause

There were many influential figures in the history of nuclear weapons, but perhaps the most important didn’t actually exist: his name was Doctor Strangelove.

Strangelove came to symbolize the essential madness of nuclear war. In a previous essay, I wrote about how nuclear war was averted through a common global sense that it was suicidal and immoral. But there was another element to the consensus: that nuclear war was evidence of insanity. Not just madness in the loose sense, but in the sense of mental derangement. The view that came to prevail was that only a species that had gone mad would engage in a war that would destroy itself.

This was one of the psychological aspects of the Cold War nuclear stand-off—probably the healthiest, in that it was a factor in preventing nuclear war. But there were other psychological aspects that were less amusing or healthy, like helpless fear and anxiety, and dangerous projections and denial that threatened to provoke rather than restrain nuclear war. Now, in facing the prospect of a different kind of nuclear war or even the other potential catastrophes of our time, we are still haunted by these psychological spectres.

text continues after photos

Dr. Strangekahn Posted by Picasa
Invented for a 1964 movie of that title, Dr. Strangelove was likely based on several men, including Nazi-turned-U.S. rocket scientist Werner von Braun and geopolitical strategist Henry Kissinger, but probably primarily on nuclear scientist Edward Teller and nuclear war futurist Herman Kahn. Teller zealously promoted the H-Bomb and the arms race, as well as grandiose schemes such as using atomic bomb explosions as excavation tools. Kahn…well, Kahn is another story.

Once it became likely that the next war could be an atomic one, the U.S. military wanted to know what to expect. A project within the Douglas Aircraft Company which soon spun off to become the Rand Corporation, and one of its guiding lights was Herman Kahn. Kahn and Rand made some lasting contributions to how we think about the future. Together with scientists at M.I.T. and elsewhere, they were among the pioneers of systems dynamics. Kahn developed and popularized the idea of developing “scenarios” to project a combination of chosen factors into a story of future happenings. Out of this emerged a technique common to all kinds of “futurists,” and computer “war games,” the basis for a lot of electronic gaming today. And we talk about “scenarios” all the time now, though before Kahn it was specialized theatrical term.

But in “Thinking the Unthinkable” and other works on nuclear war, Kahn was also the inventor or at least the popularizer of such terms as "deterrence" and "throw-weight" or the ghastly jargon of "megatons," and "megadeaths." Kahn insisted on the "rationality of irrationality" in studying nuclear war, and he advocated the Cold War situation which came to pass: two sides armed with the “overkill” capacity to destroy each other and humankind several times over, and with the technology to respond to an attack (or a presumed attack) with enough nuclear weapons to destroy its destroyers. This would be the basis of deterrence. He called this doctrine Mutually Assured Destruction. He used its acronym: MAD.

Doctor Strangelove was demonstrably mad in a characteristic nuclear age way. He spoke very rationally and intelligently about mass murder and global suicide. As played brilliantly by Peter Sellers, he was confused in his allegiances—was he serving democracy, or Hitler? Even his body was split, with a “paralyzed” arm that when he was about to commit the ultimate insanity, tried to choke him.

He was not the only crazy character. There was George C. Scott as a combination of several military leaders, who talked of millions of deaths as “getting our hair mussed,” and carried around a folder that said “the world in megadeaths.” But the moviemakers had trouble making the movie crazier than reality. General Jack D. Ripper (who started nuclear war to protect his “precious bodily fluids”) was based on a general whose real name was General Powers. He once said that if there are three people left alive after a nuclear war and two are American, it means we won.

In fact, the moviemakers had intended to make a serious drama, but the more they researched the subject the more they became convinced that it was all so crazy that the appropriate tone was as a “nightmare comedy.” The mood of the movie is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, particularly their satire on war, “Duck Soup.” In another movie, Groucho and Chico negotiate a contract. Chico rejects every clause including the last one, the sanity clause. He says he won’t be fooled, because “there is no sanity clause.” That pretty much is the message of “Doctor Strangelove.”

"I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness"--Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Posted by Picasa
Excavating the Madness

The madness of nuclear war was not always apparent to the public as a whole, or at least not articulated in that way. The first reactions to Hiroshima were of horror, and the need to control nuclear weapons. But once the arms race began, there was considerable pressure to support the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. government worried about how the public was dealing psychologically with the atomic age. They waited for psychological studies, but none emerged, because the public didn’t seem to be feeling anything. Eventually, the government quietly sponsored research into why the public wasn't reacting. The theories ranged from "cognitive dissonance" to a kind of apathy later identified as "learned helplessness," to the simple but powerful psychological defense mechanism known as denial.

Denial was undeniably the national pastime of the 1950s, encouraged by the surface sunniness of suburbia and the patriotic repression of McCarthyism. But what ordinary people faced was that their ordinary life could be transformed in a split second into hellfire. No one could ever know how much the Bomb contributed to neuroses and psychoses, alcoholism and drug addiction, infidelity, domestic violence, and divorce, or to depressions that could be a crippling sense of pointlessness, or a lower-intensity, underlying sense of futility. But eventually there was public evidence of how the Bomb changed the psychological state of the times.

The pressure of MADness fueled an age of black humor and absurdism. Satire blossomed in the 1960s, with “Beyond the Fringe,” “That Was the Week That Was,” Firesign Theatre and edgier standup comedy by Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and others.

There were also serious explorations of just how insane this society might be, by Eric Fromm (The Sane Society), Lewis Mumford (In the Name of Sanity) and others. Beat poets, absurdist playwrights and novelists explored similar themes.

George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove Posted by Picasa
By the early 60s, the madness of nuclear war was being expressed and reinforced in popular culture by jokes and cartoons which emphasized the absurdity, and by novels, movies and television dramas which emphasized the horror. Though the horror and absurdity blended even in daily life (ask a Boomer about “Duck & Cover”), the two weren’t brought together and expressed until Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.”

Though it was controversial at the time, “Dr. Strangelove” became at least as important as John Hershey’s book, “Hiroshima,” the Stanley Kramer film, “On the Beach,” and much later, Nicholas Meyer’s TV film, “The Day After,” in both forming and expressing common responses and beliefs about nuclear war. “Dr. Strangelove” expressed the sane view that nuclear war was insane. That deep psychological consensus, in my view, was a major factor in preventing anyone from starting a nuclear war.

Since the Berlin Wall fell, the constant psychological as well as moral presence of nuclear war has faded. New generations didn’t live through that time, even though the threat of accidental nuclear war is as real today as it was then, and we have plenty of evidence that the potential for that kind of madness exists in our government and military.

My previous essays on nuclear war, especially relating to the possible nuclear attack on Iraq, sought to bring into light some of the lessons of those years: that nuclear weapons are not just bigger bombs, but unleash destruction that is different in kind as well as scale, especially through the long-term and potentially widespread effects of radiation. That because of the Bomb’s history, and the sense of immorality attached to their use, nuclear weapons are considered in a special category around the world, and the next use of them in war will likely bring immense geopolitical consequences.

To these I add the assertion that nuclear war was averted without either a coercive or cooperative world government or authority, largely because of a shared sense that however rational scientists, political and military leaders pretend it is, nuclear war is insane. We know they are all Dr. Strangelove. We need to remind ourselves of that.

There is another pertinent psychological implication—the danger that, from the power-mad leaders to the fear and despair of ordinary people, the use of nuclear weapons can itself drive a society or perhaps all of humankind insane.

Some of the responses to my previous essays expressed fears and anxieties that are very similar to those experienced earlier in the atomic age. The sense of helplessness feeds these fears. So in the remainder of this essay, I want to suggest two strategies for dealing with the psychological impact of nuclear weapons.

Carl Jung Posted by Picasa