Notes toward an introduction

It’s been a long time since I first started batting around the idea of a book about the G.I. Rights Hotline, (a book I’d still love to write someday), and instead took on this behemoth of a project. Below is what I’m calling my faux-introduction; we hope that someone with more clout (Dan Ellsberg? Cynthia Enloe?) will write the real one, but in the meantime I tried to articulate my multiple themes and my reasoning behind who I included and didn’t. For those who’ve been following my travails all along,  some of what’s below will feel familiar; my hope is that it will also explain, a bit better, why I zeroed in one the people I did.

My inspiration, kind of my gold standard, was people who’d taken the path directly from warmonger to peacemaker, like Philip Berrigan or the just-recently-lost-to-us Howard Zinn (seen as a 1944 bombardier, right). But that inspiration, and the way I frame it above, is too incomplete to be honest,  or even narratively interesting to me.

On the simplest level, some kinds of military dissent — desertion comes to mind —  ALWAYS constitute a challenge to the military’s functioning, and need to be described even when it’s for non-political reasons.

More profoundly, what’s come clearest as I finish the book is that my interest is not only the total transformers, though that’s kind of the core of the inquiry, as the partial ones along the way. For each chapter and each war, I’m asking for what ends government-sponsored violence and preparation for same were being relied on —especially, perhaps,  including odious ones like slavery and genocide of indigenous people — and honoring soldier-dissent against them, too. My old friend Sam might argue that since the means — military action — is odious, that should be enough; but it’s not.

Back when I was on staff at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, I used to half-joke that  “if there’s gonna be a revolution, it’s going to happen because of antiwar veterans,” like those who volunteered for my branch of the G.I. Rights Hotline. Being defiantly uninterested in Marxist predictions of actual revolution, what I meant was that fundamental, progressive change has been escorted into American life with such figures, half-ignored even as they’re being lionized for other reasons.

I’ve usually described my criteria for inclusion in the book as “a kind of reverse funnel,” one ending in a laser-sharp focus on truly antiwar soldiers but beginning with a much wider palette:  Chapters 1-7 including mutinies over late pay and desertion in protest of the freeing of slaves (one of the least glorious moments for Civil War soldiers) and then narrowing through Vietnam and beyond —until, by  the 21st century, “we have our hands full just challenges thrown up to what some Iraq vets call “gee-wot” (the Global War on Terror).” Earlier rebellions, such as the 1779 mutinies against price-gouging and the 1930 Bonus March, seen only as “important reminders, especially through the Cold War, of the immense potential power of such rebellions.” That all sounds way too glib to me now, after three years of learning and writing.

What feels both more honest, as a journalist and historian, and equally true to the spirit of Philip Berrigan and Howard Zinn, is this:  Include a selection of those who, having had a significant experience in the U.S. military, have used that experience to help nudge American society as a whole away from militarism. Mili-what? Think simply of the concept of “relying on armed enforcers to protect us and our stuff” (the latter meaning land, or water, or oil, or more amorphous concepts such as national identity, ideology or “credibility” ,e.g. saving face).  You can look up the Webster’s definition if you like.

As I write this, Howard Zinn has just died, and a 2004 Nation quote has just surfaced: “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.” It’s those surprises, in the form of challenges thrown down to the established order by soldiers, that I’m tracking, making semi-educated guesses as to which of those zigzags was pointed toward peace.

Show me the money. The name “soldier” is derived from the French “soldat,” meaning money: and issues of how well troops are paid was a flashpoint of dissent from day one.  The opening chapter, “A Country Born of Dissent,”  is rooted in such rebellions, including the 1754 mass desertions of colonial soldiers, the 1781 Mutiny in January that almost got Washington involved, Captain Daniel Shays’ uprising against bankers (whose veteran-troops were called “The Regulators.” Take that, Bernanke!). Class issues were alive and well, continuing when Lt. Matthew Lyon, one of Ethan Allen’s “Green Mountain Boys,” was defeated by a mutiny on July 4, 1776 when his men refused orders that involved not fighting the British but guarding absentee landholders’ property. Matthew Lyon, the commander of that 1776 mutiny and publisher of the anti-Federalist newspaper The Scourge of Aristocracy and the Repository of Important Political Truths, ended up, twenty years later, a foe of John Adams imprisoned under the 1798 Sedition Act.

There wasn’t yet a concept of an antiwar soldier, especially after James Madison nearly secured for Quakers an exemption from military service for conscientious objectors. But in the meantime, men from “peace churches” in uniform were a wild card of their own, as when Methodist minister Lee preached peace to his Continental Army brigade: “ Many of the people, officers as well as men, were bathed in tears before I was done.”

Hardcore mavericks and original sins. For the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, one of the main tasks of the American soldier was to perpetrate those two original sins I mentioned earlier — the slave economy, and the bargain first proposed for native peoples by  Thomas Jefferson. “They will in time either incorporate with us as citizens of the United States, or remove beyond the Mississippi,” Jefferson wrote to future president William Henry Harrison, adding that if they resisted “we need only close our hand to crush them.”  Or, either become private capitalists and gentleman farmers like us or kicked off your land, which conveniently becomes ours. Precious few, especially during active duty, saw anything wrong with the latter, though half-native soldier William Apes did wonder why he was fighting in the War of 1812 against those who’d despoiled his Pequot ancestors.  His matter-of-fact “I could not think why I should risk my life, my limbs,  in fighting for the white man, who had cheated my people out of their land,” cast triangulated light on that war’s expansionist aims (for all the geopolitical context and diplomatic spittle, the war ended when the Brits exacted an immediately-broken promise not to mess with the Indians).

A few years later General Ethan Allen Hitchcock called the Jefferson-Jackson expansion policies “a blight upon the Indian.” Hitchcock, the Hamlet of American expansionism, railed in his diaries against President Andrew Jackson, who was acting to put Jefferson’s Indian policies into bloody practice. When another president sent him to Mexico for another very-regretted war, Hitchcock made common cause with West Point dropout and rogue diplomat Nicholas Trist, who negotiated peace with Mexico, even as hawks back home were chanting for his recall.

Those who actually took public action against “Indian policy”   were, almost without exception, also connected somehow to the abolitionist movement, which had begun to move from relentless newspapering and prayer to a harder core. These included Hitchcock, who found in the Civil War the fight he could finally get behind, andSilas Soule, who offered some of the rare light refusing to participate in the  massacre of Indians at Sand Hill after having volunteered for Lincoln’s war against slavery, along with two of his brothers.

Also lining up to end slavery were Ambrose Bierce’s uncle Lucius Bierce, who sent guns to John Brown before raising two regiments for the war; the iconic Charles Shaw and George Garrison, sun of the iconic William Garrison, among the white officers leading battalions of black soldiers, and the Carpetbagger officers who went South to try to enforce Lincoln’s promise. These soldiers were engaged in something intrinsically radical even when working for the President, throwing “surprises” at the powerful economic and social forces that had fed the slave economy.

Without them, we would likely not have the minority who took the next step and went on to become prominent antiwar voices when the Spanish-American and Philippine wars came along —  Frederick Douglass’ son Lewis; the younger Bierce, who William Randolph Hearst feared sending to the Philippines because of his veteran’s skepticism;   and the flotilla of grizzled vets who joined with Andrew Carnegie’s Anti-Imperialist League, like Donelson Caffery (whose brigade had fought Bierce’s at Shiloh), John Adams descendant Gettysburg veteran Charles Francis Adams. Not to mention Mark Twain, who lived to vacation with Woodrow Wilson years after the League was gone and few remembered his“The War Prayer.”  But Twain’s antiwar poems and the writing of the younger Bierce, especially his story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” would be remembered by those looking centuries later for a soldier’s story that rang true.

From “nostalgia” to“shell shock and beyond. Bierce, darling of the yellow press and bete noire of plutocrats, would eventually become what  journalist and veterans’ advocate Lily Casura has called “the quintessential, though unrealized, poster boy for PTSD,” wandering to suicide in Mexico via a tour of old battlefields. A close read of his early postwar writing. as in “What I Saw at Shiloh” which ends: I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh;  when that same battle took place, hundreds of soldiers of both sides broke down, carried onto hospital ships with a case of what doctors called “nostalgia.” That was around the time that commanders and military doctors started tracking soldiers’ breakdowns as less “weakness” and more something related to war, even positing that the trials of battle damaged the heart muscle — both accurate and prescient, considering the complex hormonal and developmental re-wiring that we now know takes place when stress responses harden.

This, unlike the money and mavericks, is a stream I was looking for, having been near-obsessed with PTSD as a subject long before I knew I would write this book. The relationship between the military and traumatic stress is a complex one, as noted by experts like Col. David Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Consequences of Learning to Kill on War and Society. Some, like Andrew Jackson, never got over it but subsumed it into national policy; others, like Bierce and George Garrison, turned it all inward. Still others, of course,  turned trauma into art —like World War I vet Lewis Milestone, the protagonist of whose All Quiet on the Western Front tells a group of schoolchildren: “We live in the trenches. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we’re done for, because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you.”

By then, the Freudians were grabbing hold of what laypeople had called “shell shock,” a grip that was complete by the time John Huston, still having nightmares from his World War II service in Europe, made the long-suppressed documentary Let There Be Light,  whose subjects ask earnestly to be cured of their “psycho-neurotic” ailments.That suppression, added to general cold-war amnesia, meant that when Vietnam veterans started experiencing something similar, they had  to work hard to know what was going on.

The process of doing so, getting those truths near-permanently exposed and their treatment mandated, also has required a lot of those surprises, and a fair amount of dissent; like soldiers’ compensation, its psychological damage is another cost of war.

Speaking of the cold war, however,  civil rights icon Bayard Rustin once told his old friend David McReynolds that before the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, national discourse was like a brittle steel wall, and it took a mighty shake from Montgomery to fracture it. That wall squelched a lot of early postwar surprises, from Howard Zinn’s own American Veterans Committee and early organizing by Medgar Evers, while energy underneath it continued to bubble in all sort of unexpected ways, as J.D. Salinger and Joseph Heller poured PTSD onto the page and the paradigm-shattering ROTC dropout Rustin, who’d long since finished his prison term for refusing the draft, began organizing to infuse “Gandhian” principles into the fight for racial justice,  until he showed up at Montgomery to help Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. take his boycott national.

The fracturing of that wall, its accompanying surprises (the Beats, the civil rights movement), is part of the origin story of the 20th-century peace movement. As soldiers and veterans increasingly became involved in the latter, the learning was mutual:

Stand up for your beliefs, brother. How do the less-antiwar dissenters interact with the most hardcore objectors? The dynamic between the two is simultaneously twisted and heartening: From the Revolution on, non-dissenting soldiers often took note of what we’d now call “peaceniks” not with horror but with solidarity, and when the wars themselves turned explicitly bad looked to them for guidance, or at least proof that to object wasn’t insane.  Early examples included  and Civil War medic Jesse Macy, who kept refusing to be shunted aside all the way to the end of the war; conscientious objectors who encouraged strikes at military prisons during World War I and II; and in-service CO’s like Desmond Doss, who saved hundreds of soldiers as a medic during the Battle of Okinawa, and Lew Ayres, who went from playing a traumatized soldier in AQWF to spending months as a medic in the Philippines, some of it under the command of Major William Kunstler.  In these new wars, many young soldiers and veterans tell similar stories: “There’s a lot of respect for what you did,” a Marine once told Stephen Funk (above), one of the founders of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

I hardly mean to claim that the pacifists were making converts left and right (certainly not right). It’s probable that the majority of the soldiers were little affected by these dissenters, but I’m not writing about the majority. And at many points on this zigzag path, there they were —the series of surprises, the wild cards in the deck, the grace notes or minor crescendos that cut against the standard music. As the book proceeds, you’ll glimpse both sides of these interactions — and watch them collude, as when some of them show up sick.

Also in this stream are the civilians without whom the soldiers might never have been able to get the word out, from War Resisters League founders Frances Witherspoon and Tracy Mygatt to the stalwart military law experts and volunteers, from Citizen Soldier’s Tod Ensign to the indomitable Kathleen Gilberd, co-author of Rules of Disengagement, the Politics of Military Dissent. (I know that by doing so I leave out whole swaths of equally dedicated activists who did NOT focus on dissenting soldiers, but ….) In a few cases, like my old friend Steve Morse, it worked the other way just a little; Steve went from Swarthmore to joining the Army so he could better organize soldiers, though at the time he was also part of a somewhat pernicious subset of civilians who saw in soldiers (working-class  and armed!) the  perfect recruits for their brand of socialism. (That subset has remained in action, on all sides of the political spectrum  – from Ron Paul to World Can’t Wait.)

One is for fighting, one is for fun. As better scholars than I have noted, the U.S. military has long been identified with a certain kind of exaggerated masculinity, in ways that have actually increased as those other walls kept crumbling. And the mouse in all those houses is the presence of non-gender-conforming soldiers, from the women who “passed” in the pre-20th century wars to the gays who did the same (Walt Whitman’s lover Peter Doyle or Major Alice Davey Sheldon, also known as James Tiptree Jr.). By the time we get to the 1990s, women have been welcomed into the U.S. military with mostly open arms while gays remain simultaneously criminalized and ubiquitous; the resulting fights for equal treatment, sparked in part by revelations of sexual assault of women in uniform just as gay service members really began to organize, is actually where gender could stop mattering, and stop threatening the military ethos — and thus, no longer belong in this book. Stay tuned to find out if that ever happens.

Everything old is new again. So what’s happening right now, in the dual wars that some aggregate into “the long war” or the “global war on terror?” A series of new and old surprises on all the paths above, along with some new ones enabled by technology and globalization and the sheer kick-ass defiance of the soldiers themselves.

Roman Polanski: The 1970s Are Over, Thank God.

! CML07pride This week’s arrest of Roman Polanski felt weirdly unsurprising. It fit somehow with all the flashbacks to 1969 the media’s treated us to this year — as that TIME cover put it, “From the Moon to Charles Manson.” What will the 1970’s reminiscences be like, one wondered? Maybe like this.

But who really remembers 1977? And what does anyone really remember about Polanski’s arrest?

I actually remember that time pretty vividly. I was fifteen years old, and in some circles at my high school, relationships with older men were all the rage. They meant we were cool, outre, too daring for dating. (Not for me, mind you, though I still hoped to grow into it.) When the tabloids shrieked about Polanski’s statutory-rape conviction, I even blithely wrote an op-ed in my high school journalism class about how such “relationships” shouldn’t be illegal, even if the girl in question was 13 years old.

Of course, like most opinion writers then and now, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I certainly didn’t know that the girl had told a grand jury that she was given Quaaludes and then raped, that she’d said no and asked to go home, that Polanski pled guilty to a lesser charge and then fled before final sentencing.

My main excuse now for my blitheness then is that I was fifteen, and that it didn’t last long. I’ve never been able to see a Polanski film. and cringed every time he won another award. Knowing the traumatic facts of his life, from the Holocaust to the Manson murders, plays differently with me: it can explain, perhaps, but it’s the opposite of an excuse.

This week, I was floored as news reports kept saying that Polanski had been arrested “for sex with an underage girl,” without explaining what had happened; at the sudden movement to “Free Polanski,” giving the perp what Slate’s Elizabeth Wurtzel calls “a genius exception for rape.” Even Whoopi Goldberg made my old mistake: “Things are different in Europe,” she said, and besides “It’s not rape-rape.”

I have no doubt that Goldberg has since been shown the grand jury testimony, but what’s her excuse for talking before she’d done the research? It’s on TheSmokingGun.com, for godsake.

Or she could have paid attention to Kate Harding on Salon.com’s Broadsheet column. In Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child,”

Continue reading

operation pink slip, first draft

Another blast from the past: from an invasion whose memory is mostly now buried under those now bleeding our soldiers.

Thinking about it now, I’m struck how how Bush I’s 1989 “Operation Just Cause” set the template for his son’s Iraq actions —  a former CIA “asset” run past his pull date turned Public Enemy #1, just like Osama bin Laden. Rachel called it “Operation Pink Slip.”

We need to watch for that now, with Hamid Karzai and Afghanistan.

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.)

A salute to another Bronx girl- gettin on the SCOTUS!

sonia_sotomayorLast night, President Obama called all three of the women we last mentioned as potential Supreme Court Justices and told them he had chosen the very first on our list, 55-year-old New York judge Sonia Sotomayor — despite a whisper campaign that had already questioned her intelligence and called her a “fiery Latina” instead of the more respectful “potential first Hispanic Justice.” Sotomayor has more combined experience at every level of the judicial system, than any current member of the Court:

  • The Associated Press starts with Sotomayor’s compelling biography: “Sonia Sotomayor’s path to the pinnacle of the legal profession began in the 1960s at a Bronx housing project just a couple blocks from Yankee Stadium, where she and her family dealt with one struggle after another.”
  • In its May 15 profile, the New York Times calls her “Baseball’s Savior” for her role in ending the 1994 baseball strike. The Times also noted that she runs what lawyers call a “hot bench,” demanding of attorneys that appear before her bench at the Court of Appeals: “questions come fast and furious and lawyers have to be fully prepared.”
  • About that whisper campaign, which is likely to continue (as with all nominees): It began early with a much-discussed piece in the New Republic, which quoted comments from a judicial handbook and anonymous law clerks and questioned her intelligence and painted her as domineering, even though writer Jeffrey Rosen admitted that “I haven’t read enough of Sotomayor’s opinions to have a confident sense of them, nor have I talked to enough of Sotomayor’s detractors and supporters, to get a fully balanced picture of her strengths.”

American University law professor Darren Hutchison analyzes the written comments critics refer to in criticizing Sotomayor, and notes that “domineering” is not language normally used about male justices such as Antonin Scalia:

For Sotomayor, being a sharp interrogator and requiring lawyers to be “on top of it” are negative qualities. These traits are not negative in most men, certainly not white men… In Scalia, toughness is positive; in Sotomayor, it is nonjudicial. If Scalia asks irrelevant questions, he is just being a dutiful “law professor” trying to hold the attention of his class. If Sotomayor does the same thing, she is just interested in hearing herself talk. When Scalia duels harshly with litigants, the “spectators” watch in amazement. If Sotomayor asks tough questions, she is seen as difficult, temperamental, and excitable. The disparate treatment is too dense to deny.

As I said when I posted this on WVFC, we’ve been rooting for every woman on the shortlist. But I’ll be keeping extra-close watch on the cable-TV noise if they try to pull the “too aggressive” or “fiery Latina” or “affirmative action” card and try to stop her confirmation. And now it’s time to call my oldest friend, who first taught me that one doesn’t mess with brilliant kick-ass Puerto Rican girls.

of time warps, and beside-the-point ANSWERs to worlds that can wait

Like the guy in the show above, I can’t believe it: I’m finally out of 1973. Unlike LBJ, I got  out of Vietnam, sort of. (I ended up with a 60,000-word chapter, in a book  that’s only supposed to be 110.000 words total!) I can almost say that I’m in the home stretch on this book, and am starting to frame its end – including scenes I witnessed personally (such as Ron Kovic confronting Colin Powell in 1995, when many thought the latter should be President). Meanwhile, the very lateness of the hour means I’m seeing another phase of the story take shape, as the Afghan war becomes the topic of the hour.The voices of vets like James Gilligan, who  tunneled through Afghanistan before going to Iraq, suddenly seem more urgent to hear.

But first, a little rant, about something that’s none of my business.

The months sunk into the “Vietnam years” made me feel more strongly than ever about trends I’m seeing in some of these newer veterans’ groups — stuff I keep TRYING, in good journalistic fashion, to shut my mouth about so that I can just watch it happen in real time.  It’s about the perpetual dance between dissenting veterans and groups of the sectarian left, for whom the latter are sort of a dream date.

When one young vet blithely proclaimed I could interview him at an event sponsored by World Can’t Wait, I instinctively refused, having grown up avoiding WCW’s sponsor at demonstrations in NY and Washington. I wrote a piece about WCW’s Maoist doppelganger, equally “militant” and equally cloaked in multiple spinoff organizations. Both pour a lot of money and support toward whatever young veterans they can find, support that has likely felt essential and important when the wider world is trying to ignore the wars. But the effect, throughout history, has not always been…. productive.

drillsgtI don’t want to go after those two groups in particular; and I can’t claim to be against military-civilian alliances or the need to look deeply at the power structures that sustain these wars. But witness the collapse of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1975, as narrated by  the late Steve Hassna. I met Drill Sgt, Hassna in the 1990s, and I trust his description of what he  called “The Split”:

A debate started in the organization in mid `72 about the future and what to do when the war was over. By this time everyone knew that, in fact, the war was going to end soon, just not sure when. One train of thought was we “struggle”, (that’s a leftist term, for “fight the good fight”) to see the war end. Then decide what we were all about. The other was, “We need to build an organization for the revolution, be the vangaurd, and all that other crap. Continue the fight against the capitalistic power structure and embrace a Marxist- Leninist analysis for a people’s revolution, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!!

This sort of thinking really gave most of the members in VVAW a headache, and many left in disgust. This type of thought train was coming from VVAW members and non-veterans working in the organization who had adopted that Marxist analysis. The one thing to remember is that these people were coming into VVAW to push their special agenda. They were not there to stop the war, they were there to advance their political thought. Everything from the R.U.(Revolutionary Union),R.S.B (Revolutionary Student Brigade),Venceremos, October League, S.W.P.(Sociallist Workers’ Party), CPUSA (Communist Party United States of America) and last but not least, the one, the only,the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party). Though small in numbers, they were able to get into positions of power that would let them set VVAW policy….

The ANSWER prototype was no better, at that point still working on defending Stalin and weeding out “revisionists.” Of course, back then the FBI was watching all this – having installed an impressive set of informants by then. And the FBI was also tracking the WCW precursor the Revolutionary Union, as the latter instructed its Midwest “cadre” that ““veterans are potential revolutionary force” and advised its cadre “to link up with veterans” in the “fights . . . against the Veterans Administration for benefits” because they could use any Washington demonstrations to “begin to realize our goal of linking the veterans’ struggle with the overall anti-imperialist movement.” Not to actually secure any veterans benefits, mind you; not to heal the hole in vets’ hearts or figure out why so many were sick. It was all about the “movement.”  Finally, Hassna continues:

1975wintersoldier_banner

In 1973 VVAW got a new name, and a whole new set of headaches. Now it was VVAW/WSO, VietNam Veterans Against the War/ Winter Soldier Organization. The addition of WSO meant that non veterans could join and be in positions to set policy. The left played on the guilt and pain that members had from the war. We (members) had to embrace Marx and bare our souls to our crimes against humanity. Meetings turned into political education classes, with criticism/ self-criticism periods thrown in to help us move forward for the revolution. Do I need to say how much of a royal pain in the ass all this was? On top of all this, there were people who took this crap seriously.

As you see above, they  even changed the banner on the group’s newsletter, to strongly resemble the Chinese flag.

I’ve read more scholarly accounts of this entire evolution from less folksy sources; check out tthe three major histories of the VVAW to a 1975 dissertation on the G.I. movement by a rather conservative Chicagoan who points out that the sectarian left had “different priorities.” More crucially, he added, the emphasis on “hating the brass” prevented them from making common cause with the officers who agreed with them.

No way to know whether the future for today’s rapidly-morphing soldier-dissent will play out similarly. But nothing I’ve learned in the past year has  made me feel, personally, any different from when I first saw Garett Reppenhagen, a man I respect hugely, first appearing at a podium with ANSWER streamed at the front.

I shouldn’t care about this, as a writer. There’s a lot of Yeatsian  circle-the-gyre energy to all this. But as someone who sees  the need for clear opposition to war and values the role of the soldier/vet, I do care. As the need to counter Obama-as-LBJ grows stronger, the fastest way to bury that voice in the margins is  to dress it in such ridiculous  clothing. Luckily, there are whole swaths that are already steering clear; I’ll watch as quietly as I can, to see what happens to the rest.

always with the unoccupied space: thank you, Katherine McNamara!

mcnamaraKatherine McNamara started crashing people’s expectations early – peeling off to Paris in the middle of a Cornell history Ph.D. and learning she was a poet, striking out for Alaska just as the oil boom was ending; founding one of the first prestigious literary magazines published entirely on the Internet. And ever since we met last month at WVFC’s “The Time of Your Life” luncheon, she’s been talking to us about literature, politics, publishing, why she doesn’t believe in reinvention and why her next stop might be Antarctica.

narrowrdAll it takes is to read one sentence of your book The Narrow Road to the Deep North – or even your editor’s notes in your magazine, Archipelago – to know you as a poet.

My diction comes from growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, in an area populated by so many immigrants from Ireland, Lithuania, other countries. My valley was a very interesting place, but it was a place you had to get out of. Still, there’s something I’d call a a sort of Wyoming Valley accent that I’d never heard till last year, when I first went to Ireland, heard and heard that from people there. A familiar but half-remembered music.

You really became a poet, you said, in Paris, where you were pursuing a Ph.D. in European social history.

When I got the fellowship to go there, ,a friend shook me: “you’re not going to be like other Americans who go to Paris and sing in the metro, are you? You’re going to be a writer!” But Paris also made me realize that I could be curious, I could go out there. I learned how to be a very young, pretty girl traveling in the world: how to walk, how not to call attention to myself the way we Americans always do. I learned how to walk through the world!

kathfairbanksI began to feel the call as a poetry in Paris, but I didn’t really get it until I moved to Alaska.

You stayed there for seven years – supporting yourself as a poet! You also learnef a lot, you said, from visiting poets that came to the Midnight Sun Writers Conference. Those writers included people like Ted Hughes, William Stafford.

One of my first friends in Alaska turned out to be a poet, and a man in a very influential position. He invited prominent American poets to come to Alaska. And that’s how young poet learns to do poetry: you learn it from your elders!

I really did have a calling as a poet. I lived cheaply – I wmas young! I always had low overhead, slept on couches, that sort of thing. My last actual job was with the Iditerod school district.

leegoernerkath Along the way I met Lee Goerner, an editor from New York. It wasn’t exactly that we had a romance: I think we recognized something in each other. We married in 1988, and I began writing Narrow Road in New York in 1989.

New York in 1989 —what a culture shock after Alaska!

There’s a historian who said that “1989 was the end of the 20th Century.” That was the year th Exxon Valdez went aground; that spring the Velvet Revolution, that summer the Berlin Wall fell. And before any of that, Iran issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie — which caused a huge roiling in publishing, struck terror in many hearts.

Lee had left Knopf, where he had been for twenty years, and became editor and publisher at Atheneum; I was offered a book contract for a book about Alaska.
But as Lee published writers he cared about, he became known as a “literary editor,” at a time when publishing was changing.

With the consolidation and conglomeration of so many companies: I didn’t know who my editor was at Viking anymore, it looked like Viking might be shut down. Lee had made his life in this; he made sense of it in a different way — until 1994, when Atheneum was shut down by a new owner. Lee didn’t work from then until the day he died a year and a half later, quite young.

I moved to Charlottesville — I had friends there, it was congenial, it was quiet. I traveled a lot, and tried to figure out what to do.

Which turned out to be — Archipelago?

I was in Los Angeles and had lunch with Sonja Bolle, who was at the time editor of the LA Times Book Review. We were talking about trade publishing, the shock to it. Meaning the loss of Lee, but also of what we called the “missing books” — that the books that you’d once call mid-list were just not appearing. So I suggested to her that once a quarter or so, she feature these unpublished books, invite a wellknown novelist to review one of two of these works becoming “our shadow lit” She laughed and said “i don’t know if we can do it, but it sounds like something you should do.” I said, “Who needs another another literary review on the newsstand?” “No,”she said – and remember, this is 1996! – “you should use the Internet. It’s too democratic. But if you’re there, we’ll know where to look.”

It was an interesting idea. I thought about it: I did have a Mac laptop 540, the Mosaic interface had by then come in… And I had a little money that I wanted to devote to in some way to books, to publishing. I corresponded with a number of writers, all of whom said – “we’ve thought about doing something like this, but you should be the one to do it.”

I ruminated and I traveled a lot, came back and hired a graphic designer to do the logo and the whole site. Someone came up with and gave me the name: Archipelago. It went live in March 1997.

You hadn’t done editing before, but Archipelago was noticed pretty immediately — from the Times Literary Supplement to USA Today. The latter called it “THE place on the Web if you care about serious literature.”

archlogo-bigWhatever I knew about being as an editor, I had absorbed from Lee: it amounted to deep respect for the writer. To make a piece of writing more of itself. I had an eye for poetry, and for people who were willing to help. People were very generous.

That really big notice in the TLS — it was quite a nice note, it got us a surge of traffic. At its height, we were getting 18,000 unique page views a month.

Our final issue was in 2007; I still get queries and submissions, notes that say “we miss you.” It’s all very flattering, but what’s more important: it tells me there are serious readers out there. In the mid-90s. publishers would say there are only 60,000 serious readers, or even 40,000. But if our magazine could get 18K a quarter, that would gives you ALL the serious readers in the world! It put the lie to those claims.

Along those lines, you did a series of interviews called “Institutional Memory,” about the conglomerations that were, as you put it, “turning once-respectable trade publishers into grubby media companies.”

Publishing has always been countercyclical to the economy, and it alwys meant a small return on investment. You made enough to pay the bills, you didn’t make tons of money. “Institutional Memory” was my way of exploring: what’s happening to publishing? why was Lee treated the way he was? I called Michael Bessie, who helped found Atheneum. and interviewed him. Then I thought: this could be an interesting series. Talk to some ppl who started in the heyday of publishing, their sense of what had happened, and the authors they’d published. We started with the second issue, with British publisher Marion Boyars . The series went on for about five years! It had the energy of a conversation. it achieved what we wanted to say.

You also wrote a series of “Endnotes,” as you called them, that got more and more political as time went on.

I did not expect to write about politics. Politics is the work of the polity, the citizenry, in whom sovereignty resides under our Constitution. It is not the work of literature or the arts. It is, however, a subject of informed, carefully considered opinion. It seemed, as the Bush administration took hold, that what I saw, read, and was told gave me a perspective and language not always available to our readers, when the mainstream media were not, with certain exceptions, reporting the story accurately.

It was our early sense that the narrative had changed: that this nation rapidly lost both power and influence in the world, that our moral standing had been brought shockingly low, that the very basis of our governance was being altered without our consent. This was not a matter of mere personality; the changes in our governance since the Reagan-Thatcher years are structural. I was educated in the history of Europe and am haunted by the specter of the “good German” who went along with law and authority while his murderous government made (preventive) war on the world and its own citizens.

You closed the magazine just as the 2008 election was beginning to heat up; so we never heard what you thought about the one prominent Alaskan in the race.

clelandobamaAlaska once had very good governors. The former hunting guide, a Republican, Jay Hammond, who, in the 1970s, worked to advance sustainability of natural resources and the environment, was governor when I first lived there. I was last in Alaska four years ago, when Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, ran for Senator (against Lisa Murkowski, I think), and lost by a hair’s-breadth. Is that when Palin won? Here’s a photo of Knowles and Max Cleland campaigning in Fairbanks.

Palin is typical of a great many Alaskans, I suppose, but I hardly knew them, as I lived mostly among Native (and a number of white) people in the bush, and around university people in Fairbanks. Alaskans (rather like Americans) like to think of themselves as exceptional.

Why did you end Archipelago when you did?

I’d begun work on a second book, that took more and more of my attention. I didn’t have the attention the writers deserved. Besides….the Web had changed. We were very old-fashioned as it turned out.

peter_kalifornskyThe book is a linked series of three memoirs, of people who were notable in their parts of the world, and close to me — all linked by literary and autobiographical strands. Two, about whom I’ve written a bit already in Narrow Road to the Deep North, are ‘Malfa Ivanov’ (the name she gave me to use), who was my second mother, and Peter Kalifornsky, the late Dena’ina Athabaskan writer. The third is Lee Goerner, formerly of Knopf, and the last publisher and editor-in-chief of Atheneum.

There’s a very strong literary theme in all this. Malfa, my second mother, had decided that if I was good learner she would teach me. Peter Kalifornsky was the writer, and he was the last speaker of his language. I worked with him for several years on translations. He and I talked a lot about what it means to write a language that was only oral, only known by the people you know and their ancestors. That literary line goes on to my life with Lee in New York, and as an author.

You were a poet when you met him. But you aren’t writing poems now. You told me that New York City made it impossible, at least for a while.

I could feel it when I landed, 20 years ago. I had this sense in my stomach, my gut: I’d just landed in the heart of hard capital. For a while it didn’t matter; after all I was working on a book of prose.

kath2007-019aWhich is, as i said, very poetic. Do you see poems in your prose now, and the way you work with?

I don’t want to flaunt myself, but that’s very much my sensibility. There’s also a kind of religious sensibility, an appreciation of quiet. There are many ways in which poetry and religion meet. I think that’s where I stand, in that overlap: I stand in the protection of that space.

After all the changes you’ve been through, you really don’t believe in reinvention?

That meme for reinvention came up maybe in the 1980s — in New York people were always reinventing themselves. But in Alaska, I’d lived for years among people for whom such talk — that was a variety of lying. At the very least, it always has seemed to me a kind of whistling past the graveyard.

When your book is done, are you really going to become a visiting writer in Antarctica? You said you would love to go there with your brother, who’s a professor of astrophysics in Canada.

Last fall, I met a curator from New Zealand – we talked about his experience with Maori people, mine with Athabaskan Indians. He encouraged me to apply to the National Science Foundation. It was intriguing, because I realized: The way I know Alaska is…. because I was taught to see by the native people who were my friends. I learned to see the invisible as well as the visible world, because I was kindly and beautifully taught. But Antarctica has no indigenous people — I’m curious as to that it would be for me.
That’a what I’ve done i my life – move into unoccupied space. Not physically, as if Alaska were unpopulated — it isn’t! But I left academia because it was too restrictive and didn’t let me ask the questions I needed; I went somewhere, Alaska, where the anwers weren’t packaged. And so with Archipelago: there wasn’t much published on the Net, so…You move into some sense the unformed space, the space that’s uncolonized.

My brother says he’s not interested. But I think It would be really interesting for somebody like me and somebody like my brother to look at, to experience the same place.
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(Yes, it’s another cross-post from Women’s Voices for Change. I worked my ass off turning hours of interviews and e-mails into something. And unlike the other work I did yesterday – talking to a brilliant young Iraq vet, editing some of the book – this I actually had to finish!)