A Teachable Moment?
By Andrew Himes
I spent my high school years during the 1960s growing more and more outraged by the war in Vietnam. Every day I came home from school and watched Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News reporting on yet another cycle of death and horror, destruction and dismemberment. Every day I heard about dozens or hundreds of new US casualties and hundreds or thousands of new Vietnamese casualties. I heard about atrocities like the killing of Vietnamese civilians in My Lai, and the carpet-bombing of the jungles by endless flights of B-52s, and pointless slaughter at places with names like Khe Sanh and Hue and Ia Drang. I was saddened by the killing. I was angered by the lies told about why we went to war and the fraudulent speeches by politicians like Lyndon Johnson who spoke dignified phrases about democracy and freedom while launching the most horrific bombardments and assaults against human life and dignity. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was sickened and horrified by the war and deeply opposed to its continuation.
In the fall of 1968 I went off to college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison bearing an extraordinary burden of self-righteousness. I lived in a permanent sense of outrage combined with an extraordinary feeling of freedom. I had escaped from the narrow confines of my family and church and high school, and the context of my escape was the ongoing war in Vietnam. By the end of my first year in college I had become a fulltime political activist. I gave up attending all but a few of my classes, and devoted myself to passing out leaflets, helping to organize rallies, attending antiwar demonstrations, and running the mimeograph machine in the Student Union to help organize yet more demonstrations.
Not only was I against the war, I was also against any soldier who had become part of the machinery of the war, whether by volunteering or consenting to being drafted, and then had gone off to take part in the war. I was sure such an act was the result of a moral choice made by an individual who was morally accountable. I believed soldiers knew what they were getting themselves into, that they were fighting an immoral war against civilians on behalf of an invading and occupying force. They were available for my sanctified disapproval, and I condemned soldiers along with their actions.
By the fall of 1969, these frequent demonstrations had become a source of irritation to the Regents of the University of Wisconsin, and they passed a law forbidding the use of loud speaking equipment on the public college campuses of Wisconsin for any political purpose. Antiwar activists on my campus at Madison held a quick planning meeting and concluded this was an egregious violation of our right to free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Far from being outraged, we were actually quite pleased, having been granted a perfect excuse for a demonstration and a gift of the moral high ground in our dispute with the Regents. We had the ideal occasion in mind. October, 1969 would see a national demonstration in Washington DC, supported by student strikes and other demonstrations on hundreds of campuses across the country. It was called the Vietnam Moratorium, and over two million American would march against the war in the largest political demonstrations in US history.
In Madison, several thousand students gathered in the square between the University Library and the Wisconsin State Historical Association. We had prepared for a dramatic yet peaceful demonstration. We selected four volunteers to be speakers at the rally and targets for arrest that day. Marge Tabankin was a vice president of the student body, a woman of large presence and strong ideas. Elrie Crite, a slim black man with a large round Afro, was the first director of the brand new Black Studies Center, which had been created in response to a campus wide strike called by the black student union the previous year. Billy Kaplan was an aggressive, eloquent, and fearless speaker and chairman of Students for a Democratic Society, the potpourri assemblage of radicals on campus. And I was the fourth person selected for arrest.
The other three speakers were set up on the steps of the library surrounded by the largest physical display of loud-speaking equipment we could muster, assembled from rental equipment stores up to a hundred miles away. We had gigantic amplifiers and massive microphones and ten foot tall speakers designed for use in rock concerts and political rallies.
Three of our designated arrestees were surrounded by a phalanx of the campus police, led by Chief Ralph Hansen, a genial, balding, and somewhat portly gentleman with a liberal disposition and a desire to keep the peace in a civilized sort of way. Ralph knew me well enough as a burgeoning troublemaker on campus, and I had acquired the permit for the demonstration in his office the day before. A large round fountain occupied the middle of the yard in front of the Library where we held the rally. During the summertime the fountain was uncovered and active, but in October it was covered by a metal sheathe that protected the fountain from the ice and snow of the coming winter. By 10 AM that morning, I was perched high above the rest of the crowd atop the metal sheath, which made a perfect speaker's platform.
As the rally began, Marge, Billy, and Elrie each stepped up to the microphone in turn and began to speak. As they did so, each was arrested and carted off to the Madison City Jail, leaving no one on the platform except for the police. The crowd then began to stir, with no immediate focus for their attention except for the cops, who were doubtless worried about what might come next, given the history of violent protests in Madison. At that point, I opened the cardboard box I had brought with me to the top of the fountain cover and pulled out my portable bullhorn to carry on with the rally. As soon as I started speaking, the crowd recognized what was happening. They turned their backs on the police and began chanting and shouting. Several cops led by Ralph Hansen started shoving their way through the crowd in my direction. And the crowd, while offering no active resistance, also provided no assistance to Ralph and his cohorts. When Ralph reached the bottom of the fountain, he looked up at me, waggled his finger in my direction, and shouted, "Andy, you come down from there right this minute!" To the delighted cheers and catcalls of thousands, I hollered back, "Ralph, come up and get me!"
That moment was one of the supremely glorious moments of my life. Two cops clambered up the slanted metal sides of the fountain cover and hauled me down, placing me in handcuffs at the bottom of the fountain where Ralph waited impatiently. I was hustled into a squad car and taken to jail, where I was charged with "illegal use of a bullhorn." I spent no more than twenty minutes behind bars before our lawyers got me bailed out, a newly-minted minor hero of the peace movement. The next day in the New York Times, I read a small article about our arrests in Madison. The case itself was thrown out a few months later by Federal Judge Frank Johnson, who declared the law unconstitutional.
35 years passed and I grew up a bit. I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as I had been opposed to the war in Vietnam. But I was looking for how we could create a dialogue that transcended political arguments and led to an exploration of the human cost of war. I helped produce a film called Voices in Wartime that included an interview with Jonathan Shay, a psychologist who has treated hundreds of veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder. One afternoon in the spring of 2004 I sat in front of a television with my laptop, transcribing the raw footage of Jonathan's interview as he talked about how soldiers experienced war. Jonathan said, "We are talking about a clicking in of some very deep emotional mechanisms that bond soldiers to each other. The grief that a soldier feels when a comrade is killed or severely maimed is akin to the grief of a mother whose child has just been killed." That last phrase of Jonathan Shay's hit me hard. At a deep emotional level, I understood as never before the personal cost of war for soldiers.
In August of 2006, I was a speaker at a veterans' conference in Seattle. I told the story of my first arrest, in October of 1969, to those present, an audience of some 50 or 60 veterans, many of them from the Vietnam War. I looked back and remembered myself as a nineteen year old kid, full of self-righteous energy and disdain for anybody who disagreed with me, contempt for Ralph Hanson and Lyndon Johnson and my own parents, full of righteous anger directed at anyone who was in the military or in any way a part of the political superstructure that justified, supported, or funded the war. It would have been far from my consciousness on that long ago October morning, I said, to consider what might be going through a soldier's mind, or what the sufferings of any soldier might amount to or how they might matter. I was sure I was right and that anybody who made any choice contrary to my own was morally wrong. I was a fool, I said, full of my own sanctified disapproval of soldiers and disdain for their sufferings. I had been right to oppose the war. But I was wrong to oppose the warrior. I had failed to understand that soldiers themselves were victims of the war. I knew nothing of the sorrows of soldiers, of the fear and pain that attended their service and the nightmares that followed it. I was ignorant of their motivations and of the terrible cost they had borne and continued to bear. I had refused to grant them humanity, and in my refusal I had diminished my own humanity.
When I finished speaking, the first person to stand in the audience was a burly vet about my age. He was an ex-marine named Michael Patrick Brewer wearing a Veterans for Peace t-shirt. Michael was crying, and had trouble talking. He said that my story had opened his memory to a story of his own from that same time - October, 1969. And he said he had never told his story to anyone for 37 years. On that day he was a young active duty soldier who had just returned from Vietnam after a year's tour. He was in Chicago that day, only 100 miles away from Madison where I was. And he was also at an antiwar demonstration, part of the national Vietnam Moratorium. He was wearing his Marine uniform, and after much struggle and thought he had decided to speak at the demonstration.
Michael told us how he'd gone to the rally and up onto the platform where he had been invited. He knew just what he would say. He planned to make a short speech in which he would say that we needed to stop three kinds of hatred. We needed to stop hating the Vietnamese. We needed to stop hating each other. And we needed to stop hating ourselves. As he was waiting for his turn to speak, someone else on the platform saw his uniform and attacked him, screamed that he was a baby killer, and kicked him, driving him off the stage. He said he had never before spoken of his shame at being so treated.
"You know," he said, "that was more traumatic to me than anything that happened to me in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969."
After the workshop, Michael said to me, "You used the word 'sanctified.' You talked about your 'sanctified disapproval.' I've never heard anybody use that word before in that way. Nobody's ever apologized to me for what happened that day. And I never knew how much it mattered to me. I've always known what I did the next day - I walked into Hines Hospital in Chicago looking for help for my sadness and depression, though I didn't stay because they were just looking for guinea pigs to medicate. For some reason I never put those two events together until right now. I didn't go for help again until October, 1997, the same month as the Moratorium. 28 years of repression. Ain't the brain amazing? When repression is perfect you can't find it."
By giving me his forgiveness in so graceful and compassionate a way, Michael helped me understand that I was much in need of it. That day was important for both of us. As Michael told me, it was a big emotional "clear" for him, helping to close a chapter of his life in which he had difficulty trusting others or committing himself to being part of a community working for social change. He needed to hear how I had learned I was wrong, how much I wanted and needed to hear his story, and how I had come to feel compassion for him and other veterans. Michael needed to experience the liberation that came from forgiving me.
A gulf of perception, personal experience, expectation, and memory separates us from each other. On one side is who I am, my relationships, my pangs of hunger and desire, my terrifying loves and magnetic fears. On the other side are those others, like Michael, unknown and alien to me, whose emotions, experiences, and deepest beliefs I can only view "as through a glass, darkly." Even as I tell myself the story of my life, it changes. The story finds new pathways, enters new dominions. I discover new metaphors to filter and explain my memories and reshape my learning. I discover new connections and synchronicities between myself and those whom I identified in the past as my opponents.
For my part, I needed help from Michael to reach across that gap. I needed Michael to tell me his story, and I needed him to hear mine without judging me. We both needed to understand deeply the fear and sadness that had motivated each of us. And then we could begin our lives anew, having reconfigured the gap, having changed each other and ourselves. We could become each other's salvation. We could become each other's brother.
Now, five years after 9/11, we confront one of the most critical moments in our nation's history. With much blood and treasure, we have paid for some powerful lessons and deep wisdom. Out of the wreckage of this war, might we come to a new understanding of the terrible human cost of war, and the legacy of trauma created by war? Are we nearing an historic "teachable moment" when we may be open to new insight into how we can live in a more sustainable and peaceful world? The world is waiting.
Go to the essay on the Voices in Wartime web site
Help on Organizing a Community Screening of the Voices film
Voices in Wartime Anthology Available!
To order the book or DVD, go to http://voicesinwartime.org/order.htm
Voices in Wartime is a 240-page book containing the most powerful and eloquent voices - poets, writers, reporters, and veterans - testifying to the trauma and devastation of war, and the need for healing. Voices in Wartime is also a feature-length documentary that delves into the experience of war through powerful images and the words of poets - unknown and world-famous. Poets around the world, from the United States and Colombia to Britain and Nigeria to Iraq and India, share their poetry and experiences of war. Soldiers, journalists, historians and experts on combat interviewed in Voices in Wartime add diverse perspectives on war's effects on soldiers, civilians and society.
See a Trailer of the Film: Go to http://voicesinwartime.org/trailer.htm
Learn More about the Film: Go to http://voicesinwartime.org/movie.htm
Hear the Poems from the Film
Featured poems from Voices in Wartime are now available in MP3 and Windows Media audio formats on the web site. Visit the Poems in the Filmpage to download and hear the audio clips.
Go to http://voicesinwartime.org/poems.htm
...to get this monthly e-mail from the Voices in Wartime Education Project, a newsletter of art, essays, and ideas for healing conflict and the trauma of war, plus news about Voices in Wartime.
Go to http://voicesinwartime.org/register.htm
Home - http://voicesinwartime.org
About the Movie - http://voicesinwartime.org/movie.htm
About the Education Project- http://voicesinwartime.org/about.htm
Contact Us - http://voicesinwartime.org/contact.htm