by William Rivers Pitt
August 18, 2003
"But as I drove toward Key Biscayne with the top down, squinting into the sun, I saw the Vets. They were moving up Collins Avenue in dead silence; twelve hundred of them dressed in full battle fatigues, helmets, combat boots...I left my car at a parking meter in front of the Cadillac Hotel and joined the march. No, `joined' is the wrong word; that was not the kind of procession you just walked up and `joined.' Not without paying some very heavy dues: an arm gone here, a leg there, paralysis, a face full of lumpy scar tissue, all staring straight ahead as the long silent column moved between rows of hotel porches full of tight-lipped Senior Citizens, through the heart of Miami Beach."
-- Hunter S. Thompson, upon encountering a Veterans protest of the Republican National Convention, `Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972.'
If you read Robert Dallek's new biography of John F. Kennedy, `An Unfinished Life,' a rather pointed irony greets you before you reach page 100. The book details, as few have before it, the incredible infirmities that Kennedy wrestled with during his life. Stomach problems, Addison's Disease, collapsing vertebrae in his back, and more, made every day of his life an instruction in pain.
No military induction board in its right mind would allow a man so sick to serve. Yet Kennedy used all of his family's considerable influence to pull as many strings as possible in order to get him into the Navy, and into the fight that was World War II. Powerful friends were pressured, and favors were called in, so John Kennedy could serve his country when it needed him. He could have stayed home; his health, arguably, dictated that he should have stayed home. He didn't. He fought for the ability to fight, and came in the end to serve with distinction.
Who does this bring to mind today?
It brings to my mind two groups as different and distinctive as night and day. The members of the Bush administration, of course, leap immediately to mind. Virtually all of the heavies in that crew moved heaven and earth to avoid military service in Vietnam. Dick Cheney "had other priorities," as did Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Andrew Card, John Ashcroft and several others. Some, like George W. Bush himself, had the same kind of powerful family connections that Kennedy enjoyed, and used them to stay as far away from the fight as possible.
These are the fellows who are now in the business of making you afraid. Fear is their growth stock, and they use the dividends to make war. These men, who never came within 16,000 miles of a combat situation in their entire lives, now use combat as the sole principle of American diplomacy around the world. The only way they are able to get away with this is by selling fear on the home front. They are quite good at it.
These men got their war in Iraq by making you afraid of September 11. They sold the fear that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved, that he had connections to al Qaeda, that he had all these terrible weapons lying around that would surely, surely come to find you. These men used September 11 against you, deliberately and convincingly. If you think you're not a sucker for this, go take a look around your house. Do you have any plastic sheeting and duct tape stashed away somewhere? I thought so.
The comparisons deserve to be borne out. Kennedy used his influence to be able to serve. Bush and company used their influence to avoid service. Kennedy faced real weapons of mass destruction in Cuba, and used diplomacy and the United Nations to defeat the threat. Bush and company faced forged, faked, non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and gave diplomacy the back of their hand in the push for war. Kennedy said, "I speak of peace, therefore, as the necessary rational end of rational men." Bush said, "Bring `em on."
The other group that comes to mind when considering Kennedy's fight for induction is a group called Veterans for Peace. VFP was founded in 1985, in their words, "by ex-service members committed to sharing the horrors they experienced. We know the consequences of American foreign policy because once, at a time in our lives, so many of us carried it out. We find it sad that war seems so delightful, so often, to those that have no knowledge of it. We will proudly, and patriotically, continue to denounce war despite whatever misguided sense of euphoria supports it."
I was privileged to share several days with the men and women of this organization during their annual convention in San Francisco. It would take an entire book, an entire volume of books, to describe my experiences there. It would take an entire book to describe shaking the hand of Brian Willson.
Willson is a Vietnam veteran who stands today on two prosthetic limbs attached to his knees. He did not lose his legs in the war. He lost his legs in 1987 while protesting in Concord, California. He and his comrades were attempting to stop a Naval train loaded with weapons that was headed for Central America. Willson laid himself across the tracks, determined not to move. He and the protesters had done this several times before, and each time the train had stopped. Not this time. The train took Willson's legs and smashed a hole in his skull. He somehow survived this, and stands today with the Veterans of Peace, unbowed and undaunted and unafraid.
He is not the exception among the men and women of this group. He is the rule.
The VFP convention centered around one concept: Defeating the politics of fear. These men and women, who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Haiti, Panama, the Gulf, who served everywhere the American military has been since 1941, refuse to accept the fear their government is trying to sell them. They repudiate it, denounce it, stand against it from a well of courage that is beyond the comprehension of most of us, and certainly beyond the comprehension of George W. Bush and his crew. This courage has cost men like Willson dearly, but they do not stop.
Some might say this group is not indicative of the average veteran. Woody Powell, national administrator for VFP, has a different perspective. "Each time we have this convention," said Powell, "veterans come from all over who have never heard of us. They just walk in. At some point, I always find these vets sitting and weeping. They tell me they feel like they have finally come home, that they have finally found people who understand."
These are men and women who have known fear, true fear, the fear with the big teeth and roaring snarl that rips the skin from your body before reducing you to ash. What they see happening in America today, the manner in which their government is actively trying to terrify the populace for their own purposes, disgusts them. They stand against it without fear.
Understand that the difference between these two groups - the Bush crew, and the men and women of the VFP - is the difference between what America is, and what America should be. Consider the experiences, the motivations, the actions, the sacrifices. Decide whether you want to spend your life afraid, or whether you will overcome that fear to reach the greatest victory of your life. Decide where you stand.
If Brian Willson can stand against that fear, by God, so can you.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times best-selling author of two books, War On Iraq (Context Books, 2002), and The Greatest Sedition is Silence now available from Pluto Press at www.SilenceIsSedition.com. He is the Managing Editor of Truthout.org, where this article first appeared (www.truthout.org). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org