I was a little kid and the Vietnam war was pretty much the #1 topic on the news and around the dinner table. One day I noticed that the post office was stamping letters with the admonition, “PRAY FOR PEACE.” I was surprised, because this seemed extremely controversial to me. Everybody who was calling for peace was, as far as I could tell, a dirty Communist hippie. But the postal service was institutionally assuming we were all ready to pray for peace.
That was the first time I noticed America’s split personality about peace. We want world peace, we really do, Santa — and yet we start more wars all the time. How many are we in right now? Eight?
Oh yeah, did you know we’re in several wars right now? Your tax dollars at work, America.
During the Vietnam war, my dad was a civilian technician for the Army. The war machine fed me and put me through college. And as I put it all together I hated it. I ate it, I wore it, I listened to it at dinnertime, and realized that when I grew up I wanted as little to do with it as possible.
But how do you end war? Can it be done at all? Is that what we really want?
These seem like rhetorical questions, but there is actually an answer to the first one. My hero Jeff Paterson figured it out. It’s pretty obvious, really. It all comes back to the prime directive: thou shalt not kill.
Jeff was a rural kid who faced limited opportunities and decided the Marine Corps would help him get his act together. Stationed in Okinawa, he wondered why the local people hated the U.S. presence as much as they obviously did. So he started checking out books in the base library and read up a little about American foreign policy over the past 50 years or so, and came to the startling conclusion that killing people for the financial health of multinational corporations was wrong.
The U.S. military, particularly the Marine Corps tells you there’s no point in talking to anyone about what you’ve been through because they could just never understand. What are they talking about? About how we [screwed] over all the people in the countries that we were in? How it’s perfectly acceptable to purchase a woman for a week or give their parents a dishwasher in exchange for a servant and a sex slave? How it is perfectly fine to blow up somebody’s house with a 155 mm Howitzer artillery-which we did a couple of times-and then pay off these peasants with canned foods from our mess hall? They told us that people on the outside wouldn’t understand all this. Ha! They’re right.
Then, in August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. President Daddy Bush started making warlike noises immediately, and Jeff knew his unit was going to be deployed to the Middle East before long. He had no intention of going, and he called a press conference to announce that he would refuse to be deployed.
It wasn’t much later that his unit was told to get ready to get on the plane to Saudi. It was time to put up or shut up. So what Jeff did was … sit down. He sat down right there on the tarmac, outwardly serene but quaking inside as he heard sergeants debating loudly about whether or not they should beat the crap out of him. (That’s him on the right, making history as the first GI to refuse to deploy to the Gulf.)
Jeff was the first of several dozen GIs who resisted deployment during the first Gulf War. His phenomenal act of courage (or “cowardice” if you really like war) made it obvious to me that this was the ONLY way to end war. It’s going to come down to the soldiers — getting educated, caring, refusing.
Jeff left the Marine Corps with an honorable discharge, and has since devoted his life to helping other GIs who agree with God that killing is wrong. (His organization is Courage To Resist, and if you really do pray for peace you might want to toss them a coin or two.)
The generals won’t stop war; it’s their bread and butter. The politicians won’t stop war; it makes them look so strong and resolute and electable. Who’s left? It’s up to the soldiers.
And in this new millennium, GI resistance is taking a new turn. Men who were babies when Jeff sat down on the tarmac are revealing the real impetus for our wars, complete with lies, speculation, gossip, and disinterested horror. Very few people heard of Jeff Paterson in 1991, but plenty of Americans know the name Bradley Manning in 2011. If we do manage to achieve peace someday, Bradley Manning will be hailed as the premier Wikileaks whistle-blower who helped put an end to war.
But that’s tomorrow. Today Bradley suffers inhumane isolation at the brig in Quantico. They have to keep him away from the other soldiers because, y’know, the hunger for justice and peace might be contagious.
We can only hope.
Chopped Liver Productions will be exploring issues of war and peace in the coming year, with videos, humor, and heartfelt commentary. We invite your comments.