The Other 9/11

Time to rub your nose in it.

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The other 9/11 was the coup in Chile, 1973, and the United States was deeply involved, to the extent that it makes Vladimir Putin look like a piker with his interventions. Putin’s cynicism, alas, has some justification: If you’re sufficiently powerful — if you’re the winner — war crimes go unpunished. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger (among others) should have ended in prison.

This video is from a Canadian video series Rare Earth, hosted by Evan Hadfield who happens to be the son of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield… you know, the cat who sang David Bowie songs from the International Space Station. The series is a real mixed bag in terms of quality, the main problem being that Evan Hadfield imagines himself to be an essayist in the same league as Ian Brown of CBC Sunday Morning fame. Sometimes that’s even true. That’s approximately a complement, by the way. When it’s not true, the pain is eased by the work of Rare Earth’s videographer, Francesco Petitti.

For those inclined to separate Pinochetism and Nazism, there are organic links, including to the sort of Evangelicalism fuelling the religious right here in the States:

The coup in Chile had repercussions and consequences far beyond that country, far beyond the South American continent; some would argue it changed the world. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine makes a convincing case:

I do believe Klein’s documentary ends on far too optimistic a note. We chant “The people united will never be defeated” as we consistently get our asses kicked, when in fact “There ain’t no power like the power of the dollars and the power of the dollars don’t stop!” I would call for revolution but the 20th Century experience has been that revolutions change far less than advertised. In a strange sort of way, that may be the main justification for optimism.

Well, one way or another, a change is gonna come. Even if it’s only the mass extinction of the anthropocene.

Advise: Bomb Primary

on the bombing of Hiroshima

On the news of the death of Claude Robert Eatherly, with apologies to T.S. Eliot.

“Advise: Bomb Primary”

A million burning people screamed in his brain,
Their eyeballs bubbling, their faces flowing,
Nameless shadows etched in concrete.
The man who fingered Hiroshima
Began dying that day, and each bomb dropped
Struck another mortal blow
Until he returned, no longer at ease,
Robbing the Post Office not for money but his life,
Screaming in the night for the radioactive dead.
But atomic cancer took his voice then
Slowly, slowly sent him to join
The people for whom he had wept.

— Yip in July, 1978

When we speak of the sacrifices veterans make in the fulfilment of their duties, until recently it was usually in reference to the visibly physical: death, dismemberment. Since the Vietnam war, it’s become apparent that the experience of war, including simply be a witness to it, can have crippling consequences. Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other subtle psychological poisoning can be every bit as consequential as any physical wound. How vulnerable military personnel are to things like PTSD depends in part on the degree to which the individual feels the experience was justified, was necessary.

People who need to justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will find it easy to be cynical about Major Eatherly‘s post-military conversion to anti-nuclear weapons politics. They may be right in their cynicism for all that I know. Motives are such slippery things! But my humble opinion is that whether sincere or feigned, Major Eatherly was also right in his opposition. Furthermore, it is long past time that us civilians need to start taking responsibility for what we are asking military personnel to do on our behalf.

Were the bombings necessary or justified? This is an old question that is vehemently argued, to the point that the National Air and Space Museum found it easier to display the Enola Gay (the aircraft that atom bombed Hiroshima) without any discussion of the historical context. My armchair general opinion is that if you assume that an invasion of the Japanese home islands was necessary then it’s a moral toss-up. But Japan had already lost the war, getting their leadership to admit it was the issue. It’s possible that a brief blockade could have done the trick as well.

That leaves politics as the deciding factor, and there I’m inclined to agree with those who argue that this was an act intended to nail down the Pacific edge of an American empire, and was aimed as much at the Soviet Union (a country with imperial ambitions as well) as at Japan. That said, the effects of the bombings were so spectacularly horrendous that they may have helped keep the subsequent Cold War as cool as it ended up being. We’ll never know.

The Spirit of 1970

It wasn’t all Peace & Love, alas.

1970
Anti-war planning meeting at the University of Illinois at Chicago, circa 1970. Photographer unknown.

I don’t recall who took this photo. I want to say an acquaintance from college, Paul Chen, but it may have been someone with the Illinois Institute of Technology student newspaper. Or someone else altogether. I’ve had the print since sometime shortly after the meeting. It accurately captures the spirit of some of the folks involved in lefty politics at the time.

The Wounds That Never Heal

a review

Originally published in New Ground 113, July — August, 2007.

by Bob Roman

Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War by Penny Coleman. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. 223 pages, $23.95.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become recognized as an inevitable consequence of war, and this book is a wonderful discussion of PTSD, it’s history, and the efforts (or lack thereof) to treat it in just that context: war. My only problem with the book is that I agree far too much with the author. Why is this a problem? A great part of the book deals with the Vietnam War, a history that is very much in dispute and often written from a particular point of view. I would feel more comfortable, actually, with someone I had political disagreements with.

For example, Coleman discusses the Nixon Administration’s campaign to blame Vietnam veterans’ problems on abuse the veterans suffered from protesters and radicals. The iconic image, of course, is the spat-upon veteran. Coleman uses Jerry Lembcke’s work, The Spitting Image, to refute this; after extensive research, he was unable to find any evidence such a thing happened. But Lembcke’s research could be absolutely solid and still be wrong. Even if it never happened, why does it feel, to many, as though it did? Why would that be of any concern aside from politics? It turns out that one of several things that leaves combat veterans vulnerable to PTSD is a related violation of a sense of “what’s right.” This mostly applies to the soldier’s relations with the military (including peers), but it could apply to the soldier’s relation to society and country in general, especially given that soldiers were rotated out of Vietnam as individuals and not as units. For a good account of just how general a violation of “what’s right” could be during Vietnam, I’d recommend a slim book of poetry first published in 1976: The Long War Dead by Bryan Alec Floyd. As poetry, the quality is uneven but in affect each poem is etched with blood.

Aside from brief excursions into the Trojan and American Revolutionary wars, Penny Coleman begins her history with the American Civil War. The state of medicine in the States did not allow for any consistency in diagnosis, never mind treatment, but some military doctors made astute observations, even if military practice remained barbaric. For the U.S. military, at least, the big breakthrough was World War I. Apparently someone prior to our entry was paying attention to the European experience; the military devised a scheme to provide effective battlefield maintenance, essentially patching up soldiers well enough that they could be sent back to the front though their post-war fates are another matter. Coleman weaves together a number of interesting strands in her discussion of PTSD up to the Vietnam War: advances in psychology that provided insight into what was happening to these soldiers, lessons learned then discarded for bureaucratic convenience in time for the next war with a pretty consistent lack of interest in providing help to soldiers after their wars, and the epidemic of suicide that seems to plague combat veterans.

A majority of the book deals with Vietnam. This is not simply because of Coleman’s interests; the Vietnam war was different. Coleman uses the history recounted earlier in the book to compare and contrast with military practice during the Vietnam war. One of the more presently relevant observations concerns the implementation operant conditioning in military training after World War II. A study found that during that war, 75 to 80 percent of soldiers were not firing their weapons, even when their lives were immediately threatened. By the time of Vietnam, the firing rate had gone from 25 percent to 95 percent.

Intertwined with each chapter are personal testimonies by families of Vietnam veterans, accounts that give immediacy to the issues Coleman is discussing. All of the testimonies involve suicide. Coleman is making a point here, one that needs to be made. And it can be quite affecting, including one widow who exclaims, “This isn’t over, this isn’t over. It’s 1999, and my husband just died from the Vietnam War.”

After reading the book twice, I’m still not certain what all the political implications are. But an important one is the degree to which the Vietnam war was ended not by protest and politics here in the States but by the disintegration of the combat forces in Vietnam. This has become a fashionable observation in the anti-war movement today, recalling especially those soldiers who were active in organized resistance. This is perhaps a bit of wishful thinking on the part of wannabe revolutionaries; Coleman’s book documents that while there was considerable organized resistance, a better part it was very individual and sometimes violent (e.g., “fragging”). But this does suggest that anti-war organizing within the military and among veterans is not to be neglected.

Perhaps Coleman’s conclusion is correct:

“Those injuries to mind, and the deaths they so often provoke, do not deserve to be erased. They deserve to be included in an honest and honorable reckoning of war’s cost. They deserve to have a public as well as a private meaning. Perhaps the naked magnitude of the cost will convince us that finding peaceful solutions to our problems, though a tall order, offers a compelling, motivating ideal…”

Perhaps. Though Nelson Algren’s short story, “pero venceremos” comes to mind. The protagonist, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, spends much of his time in a bar where he reiterates, endlessly, a particularly gruesome encounter in battle to the complete and uncomprehending distraction of his friends and acquaintances. Finally one of his friends tells him to forget it; the battle was a hundred years ago. No, he says, it’s just like yesterday. But after a long pause, he asks, “Did I say yesterday? It wasn’t even yesterday, the way it feels.”

“How does it feel, Denny?”

“It feels more — like tomorrow.”

Chicago Rallies for Peace and Justice

the guiding principle for the peace movement should be to speak loudly and carry a big stick

A version of this article was originally published in New Ground 96, September — October, 2004.

by Bob Roman

While hundreds of thousands marched against the Bush agenda at the Republican National Convention in New York, similar demonstrations were held on a much smaller scale in numerous cities across the nation on Sunday, August 29. In Chicago, some fifteen hundred people gathered in the Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams for a Unity Rally for Peace and Justice, a demonstration against the Bush agenda.

Some press reports estimated the crowd at 1000, others at 500, and all of them were accurate. It was a bright, unseasonably chilly afternoon. Even fifteen minutes after the scheduled start, there were only a few hundred people. The numbers then ballooned until, after about an hour, people began drifting away faster than they gathered. But people had come from all across the metropolitan area and beyond. A “feeder” rally was organized in DuPage County with participants taking the train into Chicago, a chartered bus came from the Rogers Park neighborhood, and car pools were organized from as far away as Fort Wayne, Indiana.

One of the goals of the rally was to answer the policies that the Bush Administration would be advocating at the Republican National Convention by providing the news media with an alternate story. And the rally was somewhat successful at this despite the modest turnout.

The “Unity Rally for Peace and Justice” was organized by a coalition of community, labor, political and religious organizations. In July, a call to organize the rally was issued by 30 of the leaders who had organized the March 16, 2003, Daly Plaza demonstration against the Iraq war. The number of participating groups grew to over 60 by August 29. Much of the organizing work was done by Chicago Jobs with Justice and its Committee for New Priorities, Chicago Labor for Peace Prosperity and Justice, Chicagoans Against War and Injustice, and the American Friends Service Committee. But the event actually mobilized a significant percentage of the sponsoring organizations to help with various tasks beyond mobilizing their own people.

Rallies such as this one are not cheap. This event had a bare bones budget of $12,000. That this was an ad hoc coalition and that the money had to be raised in a month and a half, these facts made fundraising interesting. Deep pocket contributions from SEIU and UNITE HERE started the process, but the overwhelming majority of the money came in smaller amounts from each of the other sponsors, including Chicago DSA. Some additional money came from a grant and from individuals.

The rally organizers emphasized that the opposition to the Bush agenda was far more than just being against the Iraq war and occupation. But they did want that issue prominently displayed at the rally. To that end, Chicago DSA distributed hundreds of fluorescent “No War” buttons. DSA signs also complimented the broader agenda of the demonstration and were quoted by the press, for example: “Bush says leave no billionaire behind” and “Georgie Porgie, president by theft. We will not miss you, once you have left.”

The rally organizers needn’t have worried about the war. While the speakers at the rally did indeed cover a range of issues, they also made the war a central issue. It is ironic, then, that the speakers almost uniformly boosted Kerry, a candidate with not exactly an anti-Iraq war record. (The organizers had told the speakers that this was not a Kerry rally, but once you let people loose on a platform…) It’s even more ironic that the best turn out for the rally was from the anti-war movement.

But I think it’s true that if the rally audience had been polled, the vote would have been overwhelmingly (not at all unanimously) for Kerry. And it’s not that most of those (and certainly not the rally organizers) have any great expectations for Kerry. We’ve had far too many Presidents who have promised peace then delivered war. For example, Daniel Ellsberg pointed out in his memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, how U.S. policy toward Vietnam was really pretty consistent from Truman through Nixon. Ellsberg does not claim that it makes no difference who wins a presidential election even in the context of Vietnam, but it does illustrate the difficulty in voting for peace except, perhaps, as a gesture or wishful thinking.

Yet from Tariq Ali to George Kennan, analysts have noted how domestic political considerations in the States (and we are not unique) have driven U.S. foreign policy. In electoral politics here, the foremost principle guiding most of our politicians is “Cover Your Ass.” It seems that it should be easy: that the guiding principle for the peace movement should be to speak loudly and carry a big stick.

Except it’s never so straightforward. Because of the deliberately built in advantages of incumbency (including gerrymandering of districts), Kerry will (should he win) most likely face a Congress still run by Republicans, Republicans mostly well protected by safe districts. It will be conservatives who have a first and best shot at Kerry’s hams.

What to do? This is very much on the minds of the rally organizers. And in the weeks and months following the November elections, you will be hearing more from them as part of an effort to address that very question. But that brings us to the final goal of this rally, one explicit in its title: unity.

Those with an eye for such things will have noticed a fairly well balanced selection of speakers at the rally, from politicians (Representatives Schakowsky and Gutierrez, Alderman Munoz), labor (Lynn Talbott and Tom Balanoff), religious, community and others. This was not to display an aesthetic of political correctness; these speakers were intended to illustrate the breadth of opposition to the Bush agenda and the unity of the opposition to it. I’m afraid the latter is mostly wishful thinking.

First, my experience with ad hoc coalitions has been that they do their work then die or they are institutionalized as an organization or as part of an organization, gaining resources while narrowing in scope. Except that the core of this coalition is a network of organizations that have a history of working together, I don’t see that there is any reason to expect things to be different. The coalition that organized this rally will not be that One Big Venue sought so earnestly and endlessly by the left, nor will it even be the harbinger of it.

Second, with respect to foreign policy, the movement has always been fragmented among a variety of ideologies, theologies and constituencies, all speaking in one way or another to a basic political fracture. That is: it would be possible to develop a laundry list of policies and approaches to policy for a democratic, peaceful foreign policy that would be supported by a large majority of the movement. But there would be no agreement on whether it would be possible to use as tools the State Department or the Defense Department to implement such a policy. The arguments vary from case to case, from ideology to ideology, etc., but the point is the permanent lack of agreement.

The peace movement is fairly good at saying “no”. Often enough that is a good and honorable statement. But it is a crippled vehicle for proactive advocacy.

Even so, the Unity Rally for Peace and Justice accomplished most of its immediate goals. The two most common criticisms were that, however worthy individually, the speakers in sum were too much. And a great many people really were not in the mood to be talked at; they wanted to march, to demonstrate their displeasure, something that a rally alone did not provide.