Volume , Number 0
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Hooray for Hollywood
Imagine a Country Life in â€¦
Resistance, Humanitarian Aid, & the â€¦
Corporations, Law, & Democracy
Bush's Multiplex Wars Iraq, “terrorism,” â€¦
Preventing Iraqi Self-Determination
World Challenges GMOs
Syria: The Next Domino? Will â€¦
Iraq is a Trial Run â€¦
Supporting the Troops A code â€¦
Press the Press
Direct Action at Boeing
Boycott Azteca Tortillas
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Supporting the Troops A code word for “support the war”
I t is the images of the people at home that I have the hardest time watching on television. The mothers, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles of soldiers who’ve been wounded, killed, or taken prisoner in the war against Iraq. Of course, this is the soft side of news, the personal stories that “put a face on the war” and touch us in ways that pyrotechnic images of the intense bombardment of Baghdad can’t. There is nothing sentimental about these images, nothing false, nothing insincere: they are immediate, real, and true. But they also illustrate and epitomize the idea that we must “support our troops.”
It is such a stupid, banal statement: Presumably, very few people in America want to see them hurt or killed. Yet when I hear the phase “support our troops”—whether it be from Bill O’Reilly, Larry King, or the resolution passed by Congress last week that was an “official” support of the troops—I begin to go crazy. The phrase “support our troops,” as it’s currently used, is nothing more than not-very-veiled code for supporting the war and the administration’s ill-considered policy in Iraq. In my most cynical moments, “support our troops” sounds like “shut up.”
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. As are my own feelings about U.S. foreign policy, the military, and the soldiers—both past and present, living and dead. I spent most of the 1980s being emotionally and sexually involved with two men who were Vietnam veterans. Both are now dead of AIDS. But during that time I saw, repeatedly and vividly, the effects of the war on them. How they continued to suffer, how they were emotionally damaged, how they lived in pain, and how the mantra “support our troops”—even more ubiquitous during the late 1960s and the 1970s than it is now—was a pathetic lie in terms of its application to soldiers’ lives after the war. When I see grieving family members on TV desperately struggling to make sense of their losses in Iraq in a world-spun-out-of-control, I think of my lovers Jim and Derrick desperately grappling to make sense of their time in Vietnam and their deeply conflicted feelings of being American in a country that had all but deserted them.
I am an unrepentent child of the 1960s and its counterculture. I was going on civil rights marches as early as 1964, when I was 15 years old. My politics were fueled by the liberal Catholicism taught in my working class, all-boys parochial high school. By my last years in high school, I was speaking out and writing articles against the Vietnam War. I was an unabashed hippie and by 1967 I had come out as gay. I spent college protesting the war in Vietnam and as a member of Students for a Democratic Society I worked with social-change groups in neighborhoods close to my inner-city college. When I was called for my draft physical, I proudly told the induction physician that I was a homosexual—I even verified it with a letter from my therapist—and so successfully rebelled against the draft. Far from wanting to serve, I was convinced the war was illegal and immoral and I was determined to resist it any way I could. As far as I’m concerned, my resistance was a display of fierce patriotism. I wanted to support the troops—as the bumper stickers said—but I wanted to do it by bringing them home.
Far from alienating either Jim or Derrick, who did not know each other during their time in Vietnam, my anti-war, anti-establishment history attracted them to me. In each of these relationships—the first, with Jim, lasted from 1979 to 1984; I was involved with Derrick from 1984 to 1987—my past was not the issue; theirs was. For both of them, their time “in country” was a nightmare. How they survived the stresses of jungle warfare while living as closeted gay men is unimaginable. Both men hated the military. Each had been drafted because neither could find a way to dodge it. Jim was a just-out-of-med-school Marine. Derrick was a college dropout who had no other options. Both men hated what they did in Vietnam. They hated the policies they had been sent there to enforce. They had, pretty much across the board, almost no respect left for the U.S. government after what they saw—and did—there. These feelings were unthinkable for them, since both had been raised devout, conservative Catholics who, before Vietnam, saw themselves as intensely law-abiding and deeply patriotic.
When I began dating Jim, I had absolutely no idea of the intensity of his feelings about the war. On one of our first dates, we were at his apartment. I asked him about Vietnam and as he began talking he started to cry. At first I thought some specific memory had been triggered, but it soon became clear that he was overwhelmed with anger. He could barely talk, although he began telling a few stories—disconnected, but filled with vivid images of wounded or dead soldiers upon whom he had operated. His grief was overwhelming, not only for him, but also for me. I had no illusions about the war, but I had never come this close to the pain it caused. Over the next five years, Jim—especially if he were drunk or stoned—would describe, or rather try to describe, his feelings about the war. Sometimes he would try to tell ironic or funny stories. Sometimes he would talk about the sex he had had with the mostly heterosexual soldiers. Sometimes he would tell gruesome tales about medical procedures practiced in the jungle brush. But whenever and however he talked about Vietnam, he would invariably be consumed with rage.
Once he asked me if I thought of him as a murderer because of his actions in Vietnam. I said I didn’t—what was I going to say? But there was an unspoken chasm between us: he knew that I considered the policies and actions of the U.S. government murderous, and he had implemented them. I later realized that, in many ways, he considered himself a murderer and was looking to me for some kind of validation. It was true; during the war there were times when I did think of “our” troops as the murderers of innocent Vietnamese or of people who were defending their homeland.
After we broke up, I began dating Derrick and discovered that he was a Vietnam vet as well. I avoided the topic as much as possible. But it was, of course, unavoidable. Derrick was far less troubled than Jim about his time in Vietnam. He didn’t experience the trauma of being a doctor who couldn’t heal the wounded and dying. He saw his time there as something to get through. But there was damage. He would often describe his wartime experiences in caustic, funny terms that would turn bitter and rancorous. On some level, for him the entire experience was one of betrayal—both of his ideals and of his own sense of well-being. It became clear to me that sex for him was often some strange, disturbing playing out of the erotic and emotional stresses he had experienced in Vietnam. I asked him about this once and he became furious. He told me I had no idea what he had been through. He said that he respected my actions during the war and wished he had done the same—or even fled to Canada, which at the time didn’t feel like an option. He said I really had no way of even beginning to understand what he had experienced. His time in the war rose between us like a vaporous cloud that silenced his pain and obscured my ability to understand it.
The pain Jim and Derrick carried with them—as do many Vietnam veterans—was central to their lives. It was a formative spectral presence that never completely manifested itself, but also never disappeared. They didn’t speak to their families about it. They showed me their anger because there was no one else to give it to at the time. My anti-war history made me a safe harbor, not an enemy. But there was another reason these men could turn to me. So much of their experience in Vietnam was wrapped up with their sexuality: they were—by dire necessity—closeted in Vietnam. The anxiety surrounding their hidden sexuality was completely entangled with having to control and manage the death, the pain, the ripped-open, bleeding bodies they encountered. The men they were attracted to, close to, even emotionally dependent on, were men who were dying in their arms, on the operating table, at their sides, or a few steps behind them, decimated by exploding landmines.
In many ways I was smug in my politics. I knew I was right—and still do—but I was unprepared to deal with the hurt and pain caused by the war. Especially in men I loved and cared about. I could hold them and comfort them and have sex with them when they were upset. I could be a whole body that replaced their haunting mental images of dismemberment and ripped-apart flesh, but it was complicated, hard, and distressing. After Jim died his sister and her husband —also a former Marine, from a military family—insisted that he be given a military funeral. They were both proud of the fact that he had served in Vietnam. There was a five gun salute and an American flag draped his casket. I was sickened by it, as well as the fact that his sister and her husband asked Jim’s new lover and his gay friends to stand apart from the family. AIDS was never mentioned and it was only on my way home after the service that the hatefullness of this charade finally hit me: in the two years Jim was dying his sister never came to visit him. So much for familial, as well as national, support.
Watching the war in Iraq on television these past weeks, I am reminded of Jim and Derrick. All the “support the troops” rhetoric reminds me, particularly, of how much support Jim and Derrick needed after the war, but didn’t get. It is common knowledge now that America treated Vietnam veterans—after their homecoming parades were over—like the country’s dirty little secret. They were a political and cultural embarrassment. What we never really talk about in America is that—except for the benefits given to returning soldiers after World War II—the U.S. has always treated its returning veterans horribly. Even after World War II there were horrendous abuses:
- Many lesbian and gay soldiers were dishonorably discharged at the end of the war, a common ploy to avoid giving them costly benefits.
- African-American soldiers, while covered under the GI Bill, were routinely denied many of its benefits due to discriminatory banking and housing polices.
- Men returning from the American Revolution found they had lost their farms and homes to debt. (A situation remedied, to some degree, by Daniel Shays’s Rebellion in 1780.)
- Veterans of the Civil War, who were meagerly compensated to begin with, left the service only to be trapped in the economic crises of the Gilded Age, during which government policy rewarded bankers and industrialists (many of whom were war profiteers), and attacked the newly forming labor unions joined by many former soldiers.
After World War I, the plight of veterans was so bad that in 1932, 20,000 veterans—the “Bonus Army”—marched on Washington, DC, to demand relief from destitution and joblessness by insisting the government make good on the “bonus certificates” it had issued after World War I. They camped out in Washington with their wives and children because they had nowhere else to go. While the House passed a bill to pay the bonuses, the Senate did not. President Herbert Hoover decided this was lawless behavior, and called on the army to clear them out with a “shock and awe” type operation—the U.S. army burned the temporary homes of the homeless veterans and tear-gassed them. Several thousand veterans were injured by the gas; two were killed.
We know that there are thousands and thousands of veterans who are suffering from mysterious illnesses they contracted during the Gulf War—illnesses the U.S. government, for the most part, claims do not exist (shades of Vietnam’s Agent Orange). Now, as we engage in the ill-conceived, illegal war on Iraq, the Republican-controlled Congress is proposing massive cuts to veterans’ benefits, among other things, to support the sky-high cost of this war (along with Bush’s tax cuts).
Again and again, the U.S. has valorized war and each time, citizens are told it is their duty to support the troops. Yet the U.S., far more often than not, has betrayed these men and women when they come back home from war. Indeed, “support the troops” is, for the most part, empty rhetoric born of fear, anger, and an inability to really consider the needs and realities of people’s lives. I watch families on the television holding back their tears because their loved ones are in Iraq—possibly dead, actually dead, or missing—and I think about Jim crying in my arms about what happened in Vietnam. I think about Derrick’s inarticulate anger. I think about how they suffered in Vietnam—and caused the suffering and deaths of others. I think about how little support they had when they came home. I can’t help but think it’s happening all over again as I watch the war on TV.
Michael Bronski's latest book is the recently released Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; mailbikesnotbombs.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduate Center, Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16 in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; convention @adc. org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5-day Seminar at the University of Havana, plus visits to a co-op and educational and medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljustice center.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process in the U.S.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www. peacestockvfp.org.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations, and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.