so many ways to try to save Private Manning

1 The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning by Inis Nua Theatre Company (1)I was excited that the Welsh play THE RADICALISATION OF BRADLEY MANNING was coming to town — especially after I learned that it had its premiere at the Clearing Barrel, the GI coffeehouse in Heidelberg. Melding themes of gender identity, the war in Iraq, and Welsh radicalism felt and is a worthy task.

And the performers last night at Philaadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre, who traded off the role of “Bradley” among them as they shifted eras and roles, were terrific – engaging, comic and tragic by turns. In the photo above,Bradley Manning (Johnny Smith) downloads classified military intelligence while a fellow intelligence officer (David Glover) obliviously works behind him in Inis NuaTheatre Company’s American premiere of The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning by Tim Price. (Photos by Katie Reing)

Private Manning monitors the transfer of files she’s about to leak to Wikileaks -a few minutes before the entire cast shifts gears and dances to Lady Gaga:

Born This Way – LADY GAGA (Official Video) from Oguzhan Can on Vimeo.B

Bits of this video show up on the stage’s monitors that for much of the evening had the Collateral Murder video, as if Gaga could replace the latter: as if someone could find in its joy some healing, some knitting apart of torn selves and torn hearts.

And the entire cast, which up until now had mostly kept their limber bodies pressed into military poses, begins to dance. They surround Manning and help her shed her clothing, until FOB Hammer becomes the most delicious underground dance club imaginable.

I’ll write more lucidly about the play later, but these are the scenes that were still in my head this morning:

  • Manning lies tearfully in hir underwear while a procession of Marine prison guards circle the room, asking loudly whether Detainee was OK. The answer shifts repeatedly.
  • A Welsh middle school social-studies classroom turns metaphor for class warfare, with students rioting and tormenting one another by turns
  • The  basic-training exercise where recruits have to keep emptying their packs, and then race to put everything back together.

The scenes in those years  find most compelling were there, but less memorable onstage. I really wish I’d seen it with an Iraq vet – or with Stephen Funk, who danced to Gaga and Michael Jackson as he enacted a far more powerful version of the same story two years ago.

More later,  as I puzzle out what I actually think – as someone still striving tomake Manning’s story a coherent part of ours.

 

 

 

 

 

Iraq and a hard place

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All this Manning talk has distracted me from writing about this amazing mural, powered by the singular organization Warrior Writers. They’re poets, essayists, performers and visual artists of all stripes, mostly from what their director calls “veterans who’ve served since September 11.” Together with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program,  they produced this testimonial a half-mile away from where I live, entitled “Communion Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It was funded in part by veterans’ health agencies who believed sort of what I do: that creating art is a key way to tapping the strength inside the trauma.

I was there for the opening on Veterans Day, when the commissioners and City Council folk celebrated the work of the artists and all the vets who helped them create this mural. You get to decide if dissent is involved, but to the extent that vets turn their own trauma into something that speaks truth, there’s no question it deserves our attention.

At the mural opening, I also had the privilege of meeting a newer member of Iraq Veterans Against War, a talented writer from Western Pennsylvania. And he gave me permission to post the poem he read that day, which you should read aloud to yourself: I think it even without the line breaks it sings.

Continue reading

For the 40th anniversary of Kent State

I’m listening to a program on NPR’s Talk of the Nation about the events of May 4, 1970, at Kent State University. including a survivor of the shootings and a few historians that reminded/explained the super-intense political context. While I was eight years old at the time, this year I feel I do have some memories to offer: those of the people I’ve spent four years writing about. A few paragraphs from the book:

vvaw_logoThe U.S. had just invaded Cambodia, sparking mass protests around the country. William T. Ehrhart, later of the laureates of Vietnam poetry, told Gerry Nicosia, author of Home At War, that he and his fellow vets in Philadelphia were stunned:

We hadn’t heard of [Vietnam Veterans Against the War] yet but they were in green and they were obviously Vietnam vets and they were obviously trashing the ROTC building with great glee. And the students ate it up: “The Vietnam vets are going crazy!” The next morning we found out about the students getting killed at Kent State.

On May 4, four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen after the university’s ROTC building was set aflame. The lasting image in a nation’s mind was not the one the protestors remembered, of hippies facing down children who’d joined the Guard (perhaps to avoid Vietnam) and putting flowers in their M-16s, but one young girl weeping over the dead body of Alison Krauss, twenty years old.

Erhart told Nicosia what the killings meant to new vets — to people who, like him, had thought they were sent abroad to prevent the harming of U.S. civilians. It isn’t enough to send us halfway around the world to die, I thought. It isn’t enough to turn us loose on Asians. Now you are turning the soldiers loose on your own children. Now you are killing your own children in the streets of America. GI’s and civilians protested together in dozens of cities. In Seattle, near Fort Lewis, nearly 13,000 blockaded the Seattle Freeway, to protest both the Cambodia invasion and the Kent State and Jackson State killings.

Turned cynical by Chicago '68, Ochs always turned up for soldiers.

Turned cynical by Chicago '68, Ochs always turned up for soldiers.

Two weeks later, the national Armed Forces Day traditionally celebrated near military bases was celebratcd differently at some U.S. bases, in the first annual Armed Farces Day. At Fort Bragg, 700 GI’s marched through the base, addressed by Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland at the rally’s end; at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota Phil Ochs, in his now-trademark gold suit, asked over his guitar “Who’s the criminal here?”

At Fort Lewis, 20 miles from Seattle, my old friend Steve Morse, once a young Quaker who had not been subject to to the draft, was Sgt, Morse, appearing before a special court-martial for distributing seditious material. Instead of a term in the brig, though, Morse was soon headed to Cambodia as a member of K-Troop, 11th Cavalry Division.

What? I hear you cry.

That same question was sort of what inspired me to do the book in the first place; I first published Steve’s story, about the Quaker boy who ended up a GI organizer, as an article in the 50th-anniversary magazine of the now-defunct Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. (When I started the book I phoned him and said, “Steve, I’m writing a book about….you!”) To read my version of the rest, you’ll have to wait till the book comes out.

But I’ll take this moment to salute the veterans who, just like the former hippies, are busy calling each other to say – “F***k, has it really been FORTY years?”

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p.s.  Since I mentioned Phil Ochs, here he is a year after that Armed Farces Day, shortly after his legendary performance to launch the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation. Legendary because I have yet to meet ANYONE who remembers hearing him that week, even those who were central to the event like Scott Camil and Bill Perry.  Maybe someone reading this remembers that early concert?

is this true?

… if it concurs with the experience of someone you know – or maybe you. From Shannon Meehan’s excellent piece in today’s Home Fires:

Killing enemy combatants comes with its own emotional costs. On the surface, we feel as soldiers that killing the enemy should not affect us — it is our job, after all. But it is still killing, and on a subconscious level, it changes you. You’ve killed. You’ve taken life. What I found, though, is that you feel the shock and weight of it only when you kill an enemy for the first time, when you move from zero to one. Once you’ve crossed that line, there is little difference in killing 10 or 20 or 30 more after that.

War erodes one’s regard for human life. Soldiers cause or witness so many deaths and disappearances that it becomes routine. It becomes an accepted part of existence. After a while, you can begin to lose regard for your own life as well. So many around you have already died, why should it matter if you go next? This is why so many soldiers self-destruct when they return from a deployment.

I know something about this. The deaths that I caused also killed any regard I had for my own life. I felt that I did not deserve something that I had taken from them. I fell into a downward spiral, doubting if I even deserved to be alive. The value, or regard, I once had for my own life dissipated.

I guess this is why Lt. Col. David Grossman spends so much time giving seminars to soldiers: to get them over that first hump so they can accomplish their mission. But it’s also why you see him sometimes, in those peppy seminars, in the same segments that start with soldiers’ suicides — something that Meehan also talks about.

The Pentagon is trying right now with special training to rewire people after it’s over, something they call “Battle-Mind.” Or have they moved on to a new name, a new idea? Or is it now just tossing handfuls of Zoloft, crossing their eyes and hoping for the best?

“the erroneous belief that they have rights”

Certainly not those guaranteed by the First Amendment, with its pesky talk of free speech. This just in from Iraq Veterans Against the War:

The U.S .military plans to extradite stop-lossed Iraq war vet to Iraq for court martial over protest rap song

Fort Stewart, Ga. – The US military plans to extradite a stop-lossed Iraq war veteran to Iraq “within a few days” to face a court martial for allegedly threatening military officers in a protest rap song he made.

Spc. Marc Hall has been jailed in the Liberty County Jail near Fort Stewart, Ga., since Dec. 11 because he wrote a song called “Stop Loss” about the practice of involuntarily extending military members’ contracts.

“It is our belief that the Army would violate its own regulations by deploying Marc and it would certainly violate his right to due process by making it far more difficult to get witnesses. It appears the Army doesn’t believe it can get a conviction in a fair and public trial. We will do whatever we can to insure he remain in the United States,” said Hall’s civilian attorney, David Gespass.

Gespass claims the Army’s attempts to deploy Hall violate Army Regulations 600-8-105 and the Army’s conscientious objector regulations. Hall applied for a conscientious objector discharge Monday. The military’s move would also separate Hall from both his civilian legal team and military defender.

“The Army seeks to disappear Marc and the politically charged issues involved here, including: the unfair stop-loss policy, the boundary of free speech and art by soldiers, and the continuing Iraq occupation. The actual charges are overblown if not frivolous, so I’m not surprised the Army wants to avoid having a public trial,” explained Jeff Paterson, executive director of Courage to Resist.

An Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) member, Hall served 14 months in Iraq. He was scheduled to end his military contract on Feb. 27 but received a stop loss order that he would have to stay on active-duty to re-deploy to Iraq with his unit.

“Marc served his tour of duty to Iraq honorably,” said Brenda McElveen, Hall’s mother. “To his dismay, he was told that he would be deployed again. When Marc voiced his concerns over this matter, his concerns fell on deaf ears. To let his frustration be known, Marc wrote and released the song. Marc is not now nor has he ever been violent.”

Using stop loss orders, the US military has stopped about 185,000 soldiers from leaving the military since 2001. An additional 13,000 troops are now serving under stop-loss orders. President Obama said he thinks the practice should be stopped.

Hall, 34, was charged Dec. 17 with five specifications in violation of Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Conduct, including “wrongfully threatening acts of violence against members of his unit.” His arrest came about a month after 13 people were killed in a shooting incident at Fort Hood, Texas. Hall, whose hiphop name is Marc Watercus, mailed a copy of his “Stop Loss” song to the Pentagon.

Based at Fort Stewart, Hall said the song was a “free expression of how people feel about the Army and its stop-loss policy” not a threat. “My first sergeant said he actually liked the song and that he did not take it as a threat,” Hall added.

A South Carolina native, Hall wanted to leave the military to spend more time with his wife and child.

The title of the post is historical, of course: those who read my piece in Guernica might remember my talk of the 1819 West Point rebellion put down by superintendent Sylvanus Thayer, who was eager to correct such an “erroneous” belief. Speaking of Guernica, they’ve got me on assignment today, so this will likely be my only post till very late. In the meantime, listen to the song yourself and see whether it’s worth a courts-martial.

Unstuck in time again, in a good way

It’s been forever, I know. I should have at least updated my other shop’s cheers as Sotomayor became a Justice, especially the soulful essay about how she, a wise Latina herself, felt during that confirmation ceremony. But given the demands of that other shop (go look! Make comments!) and that I’ve been writing the last two chapters of my book simultaneously, I’d made a conscious decision not to blog until I was done. Well, not completely conscious, or else I’d have put up one of those “Gone Fishin”signs.

But last week I finally went to this convention, which I’ve described to friends as “like going to a party where fully half your characters are there to answer the questions you never asked.” Veterans for Peace, founded in the wake of the collapse of the Nuclear Freeze movement, and containing many of the folks I’ve now been writing about for years.It began with a rousing statement from Rep. Donna Edwards (above), who like me isn’t a veteran, but who may as well be: her father was career military, and she remembers when her father was stationed in the Philippines and “if we wanted ice cream, we had to go all the way to  Quezon City” because in military facilities, including the huge Clark Air Force Base,  “all the hangars and freezers were filled” — she choked up — “with the caskets of young men and women who had died in Vietnam.” That told her, she said, “When we ask our young people to sacrifice, it’s our responsibility to get it right.”

I remember when Edwards was “just” the director of the National Network Against Domestic Violence, and we were working together on military issues: that one, like many of the issues jostling in  my brain and this book, was challenge and enriched by the information streaming everywhere last week.

coxMuch was  super-informal, with benefits: e.g. I warned Paul Cox (right), who I’ve known nearly 15 years now, that he was a star of my Vietnam chapter, and as a bonus he let me see and upload some 1969 photos he’d just got hold of.  (They proved what I’d always guessed: he was even more of a babe at age 19 than now.)

ellen_barfieldWRLAfter dropping by the Women’s Caucus — where I also got to check in at the long-pervasive issue of military sexual abuse and homophobia— I got to interview Ellen Barfield (U.S. Army 1977-1981, now on the board of War Resisters League.) Barfield told me about being stationed in 1980 at Camp Humphreys, in South Korea, when her unit and many others were suddenly put on lockdown during the Kwangju Massacre.

barfieldportraitWe were put on high alert; the combat troops were given orders, and up in our unit we started getting riot training.” she told me.  Asked by fellow officers if women should participate, she and other women said hell yeah, we’re soldiers too — but matters never got that far. “That’s as close as I ever came to combat,” Barfield reflects now. “But – it wouldnt have been combat, it would have been killing civilians!” Already a Nation reader who’d been struck by the grinding poverty she saw in Korea, she set about upon leaving the Army to learn more about U.S. involvement in backing up Sung’s repressive government. “People are kept for so long from knowig their history,” she told me.  She learned a lot from members of the then-newborn VFP such as former CIA Asia specialist aideChalmers Johnson and Brian Willson, who’d lost his legs protesting U.S. aid to repressive governments.

plow8bBarfield was soon drawn in by the nuclear-freeze movement, just as Philip Berrigan and the rest of the Plowshares movement were getting arrested  at nuclear plants all over the country: Barfield was soon doing the same at the PANTEX plant near her hometown of Amarillo, Texas, and has been a “soldier for peace” ever since. I learned some of the latter story from a panel on nuclear-weapons issues, where a hikabusha (survivor of Hiroshima) asked through a translator what the  U.S. was doing to teach its children about nuclear weapons.

At panels on The GI Rights Hotline and on active-duty resistance, I learned more about the still-ongoing cases of current resisters such as Agustin Aguayo (above), and of those in exile fighting for asylum, like Andre Shepherd (below), whose German support network includes a woman who’s been doing this work on and off since the Vietnam years.I didn’t think then — but do now as I write this – that if I had stayed at CCCO a mere year longer, I might never have felt able to leave.

Despite the friendliness of the members of Iraq Veterans Against War, though, I was perhaps too shy about the IVAW workshops, fearing they were tired of me already — something I regret and don’t, now.

johnjudgeBecause on my way out of town, I touched base with John Judge — who  has been doing this work literally since I was two years old, including with the G.I. Project of  VFP’s vibrant predecessor. John described for me what he witnessed when  Vietnam Veterans Against the War was  neutralized  by the Red Squad in 1974,  “destroy[ing] the single most visionary and effective peace group in history.”   (I’d already written about these events here, drawn from documentary evidence).

wintersoldier_bannerWhen the RU moved into VVAW’s Chicago headquarters (note the North Vietnamese star at the center of the logo), so did posters and newspapers with appropriately “militant” headlines, such as: VVAW BATTLES V.A. THUGS. A civilian volunteer named John Judge, who watched the transition, was astounded. “Were they really advocating physical violence against medical personnel?”

The transition did, Judge added, have its comic elements: “They came in with these handlebar mustaches and sideburns, like Stalin, and these flannel workshirts.” Romo and his RU peers also told Judge to stop reading a pop history book in his bag, because We only read Marx and Engels here. “I told them, Those books are 150 years old now.” But the new regime also purged any members they deemed not “correct,” which included many who had been working triple time to help the new veterans get what they needed.

The January 1975 issue of THE VETERAN, whose “Vets Fight V.A” article was just before the “Victory to the Indochinese,” was also its last until 1996. The closer RU got to its goals, the more complete the damage to an organization once powerful enough to scare Nixon.

road_from_ar_ramadi_coverThat conversation with John stayed mostly comic/elegiac.  We did touch on the question I’ve since been trying, separately, to sort out: if the same has already begun to happen to IVAW, perhaps under the influence of it outgoing board president Camilo Mejia, the brilliant young scion of Nicaragua’s revolution? I mention the latter fact in full respect; Mejia (with whom I share a literary agent!)  grew up in the fullness of a poet’s revolution, and his father, Carlos, wrote the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s national anthem. His speech last Thursday was compelling, as when he noted that the U.S.’  unfortunate Asian land war had left room for all the democracy movements south of the border.

But my concern was rooted in more than Camilo’s charisma: rumor has it that while I was worrying about ANSWER (Workers’ World Party) and World Can’t Wait (RCP) leeching off the younger group, I was too distracted by their sideshow to see the steady recruitment tactics of this group, only a few years younger than RCP and hipper/younger/jazzier in its presentation.

It’s not a meaningless question: dissenting soldiers are already being marginalized every minute. I hope those rumors are incorrect, but I’m not that optimistic.But my job now is to find out what actually happened, and to tell that story as honestly as I can.

(p.s. Thanks so much to Gerry Condon, whose comment below helped me correct some errors born of hurry and 50 percent humidity. That’s part of what this blog is for.)

for more Mount Airy news….

go here, from now on. As the book’s publication year approaches, I need to give more energy here to its concerns. But I did want to let you all know how the move came out!

I’ve mentioned, methinks, that I’ve  had a longstanding not-so-secret crush on the City of Brotherly Love (and sisterly affection) for more than ten years, a side grace note to my torrid love affair with the city of my birth. New Yorkers (and I’ll likely call myself one till I die) like to feel with Colson Whitehead that “I was born here, and thus ruined for anywhere else…..” The first Pelham in the subject line is Pelham Bay, the Bronx neighborhood from which I [was] sprung.

But I’ve always had  a soft spot for small cities, and when I first got to know Philly I was living in San Francisco, which is even smaller, and came here because my organization had an office here. Philly struck me as a cross between Baltimore, where I once moved to heal from divorce, and that other colonial town where the Lenape first met Europeans.

Of course, as you know I actually moved nearly a year ago from Manhattan, to which I moved in 2000 an exultant new lover. The circumstances even made the papers. But it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that we felt able to look for an apartment here — and less than a month ago, had the incredible luck to find a place in Mount Airy, not the first Philly nabe I fell in love with (that honor goes to Old City) but a place that already feels almost as much home as did Washington Heights/Inwood, where we lived for six years, or my long-cherished Mission District. (Those two years in Greenwich Village were dreamy, but always felt borrowed.) I do feel a little like a stereotype, being so happy about the food co-op, the lesbian-owned bookstore, but there we are.

phillyview

Mount Airy, where we live now, is none of those places: it’s completely itself. Its history is slightly younger than NYC’s, though settled first by Germans in the 1680s (and first called by the English “Beggarstown,” which feels kind of appropriate for us if not the actual neighborhood).

Boy_with_SquirrelThe major street nearest to me also bears the name of Pelham, an estate owned by the Revolution’s hardest-working engraver (or someone else in his family). We don’t live in one of the nabe’s stained-glass beauties, but a Victorian that has its own deep charm

I’m writing this now as a transitional post between this and New in Philadelphia. There, I might feel more free to include quieter observations, like how it feels to be reunited with a cat or why I’m beginning to suspect that I’m actually in Berkeley.