Saturday, March 27, 2010

What I Am, What I'm Not

I'm political, but not the way you might think.

I consider myself a social-justice Democrat.  I voted for Obama, I supported health-care reform, I support ending Don't-Ask/Don't-Tell.  I believe we are better as a diverse, inclusive, multicultural society than as one which is homogenous and insular. I support the idea of National Service.  The topic of gun control barely appears on my radar.

I'm antiwar, but not the way you might think.

I understand that certain things are worth fighting and dying for.  I won't call that just, but I'll call it necessary.  At the same time, I feel that we as a culture are entirely too comfortable with the idea of war.  We see grave threats in every tinpot dictatorship; we see World War II in every round of diplomatic sabre-rattling.  We're always sort of looking for the next war, and even then only the ones that people in power tell us to see.

War is a political move, but its consequences are very real.  People get hurt.  People die--innocent people, families even.  Entire cultures are often reduced to squalid poverty by war, and the recovery process can literally take centuries.  And the servicemembers who prosecute those wars often come back changed, sometimes for the worse.  But when they do come back that way, do we show them the compassion and understanding they deserve?

No.  In most cases, we cast them aside like broken toys, or turn a blind eye, as if instructed by some unspoken taboo.

Before you respond with moral outrage at these statements, remember: I have friends who've been reduced to husks by their service.  People treated them like heroes, too, until they showed up with anger problems, or with substance-issues that they couldn't control.  Those friends who gave their all for our country were neglected, mocked, or in some cases kicked out of the service entirely, without ceremony.  For obvious reasons, it makes me angry to see yellow-magnet stickers on SUVs.  It makes me angry to hear soccer-moms talk about the importance of not surrendering "over there."  Those same soccer-moms get uncomfortable when you talk about your friend with PTSD; they make a show of ignoring the homeless vets down on the Basque Block.   Their callousness, their lack of awareness says that our society views war as a hobby, as something we do when we're bored.  And I think our history reflects that.

I get tired of being asked why I haven't watched "The Hurt Locker." I get tired of answering people's questions and not being believed.  I think that we as a culture are numb to war, and until we gain a more serious understanding of military action and its human costs, then I don't believe that we can prosecute a just or effective war, anywhere.  And I'm sorry, but I will not abet the continued ignorance of my countrymen.

In this sense, I am political.  In this sense, I am antiwar.

When I first got out, I was drawn to antiwar protest groups.  I still maintain membership in a few.  But I haven't really protested, in part because of a lack of infrastructure, and in part because of the things I've seen within those groups.  Many are torn apart by infighting, and the protests I see put forward just... don't strike me as effective.  They don't focus on changing the narrative.  And that's a problem for me.

I read pieces from fellow activists, some of them heroes of mine, and the language they use is very politically-charged, very we're-still-fighting-Vietnam.  It only resonates within the echo chamber, and turns away those still unconvinced.  I hear talk of occupations, and illegal orders, and war crimes, and while I agree, I feel that the issue is still treated as black-and-white.  Soldiers aren't all baby-killers, any more than they're heroes beyond reproach.  They're human, and they make mistakes.  And sometimes, the strains are just too much.

But people don't see that.  They don't want nuance.  They don't want consequences.  They want a flag to wave, and a story to make them feel good.

I don't do feel-good.

My opposition to war is very simple: I don't think that we should engage in conflicts abroad to distract from problems at home.  I don't think war should be taken up as a source for profit.  I don't think that war is an answer to diplomatic obstacles.  I would rather see us engage the world and talk, rather than drum up bellicose, patriotic fervor.  I don't trust any war we have to sell.  I got news for you, America: if a war has to be sold to you, then it's probably not worth buying.

I want to speak out.  I do.  I feel that our current wars are unjust, and that my fellow servicemembers and veterans are often abused in modern discourse.  Everyday, their sacrifices are cheapened, their trusts violated by their service branches, their leadership, their government, and by the American public.  But I'm not satisfied that the existing systems for redress are working to change the dialogue.  I watch heroes of mine, fellow war-resisters, burning flags to make a cheap point.   I hear war-supporters question the truthfulness of my accounts.   Everyone's a traitor, everyone's a liar, and when everyone's a liar nobody can lay claim to facts or reason.  

But this war will be won by facts and reason.

I believe that our dependence on pre-emptive war hurts us as a nation, harms our standing in the international community, and harms our servicemembers and their families.  But when I see the fractured, fact-free shouting match that passes for dialogue even within our legislative bodies, I feel like I'm taking part in a discussion that my parents' generation simply failed to finish.  I feel like we're stuck in that old mindset: hippies-vs.-squares.  And when I feel like that, I can only think to myself: 

No. That's not who I am.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Milo Unbound

My name is Seth.  You can call me Milo.  It's been my pseudonym for as long as I can remember.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: I'm an Army veteran, having joined the Reserve in 2004 before going Active-Duty in 2005.  I was stationed in Germany for a few years, and spent 15 months of that deployed to Iraq.  My MOS was 21C - Bridge Crewmember, which means that I helped build, maintain, inspect, and perform reconnaissance of military bridges.  I received two ARCOMs during my time downrange, and I returned home in December of 2007.  In June of 2008, I ETS'ed.

It's been almost two years since I got out, and during that time I've made a new life for myself in the Pacific Northwest.   Many things are the same, but many things are also different.  I'm back in college on the GI Bill, and also working a full-time job in tech-support.  I have a tightly-knit circle of friends, and a sense of what I want from life and how to get there.  On Wednesday mornings, I take my wife downtown for bagels and coffee. I've been out for a while now, and compared to most of the other vets I know, I'm doing alright.  I've attained a measure of happiness.

My adjustment has not always been easy.  Coming back from a war, transitioning from military to civilian--these things are never easy.  But I had help--good friends, a loving wife--and a sense of why my choices were my own.  I spent so much time in Iraq making deals with myself, so once I got out, there seemed little reason not to keep that focus alive.  Compared to two years ago, I'm a happier, more complete person overall.  My priorities have shifted, and I count myself grateful.

But not everyone is so lucky.

I still keep in touch with people I knew.  One friend received a head injury while downrange, and for almost two years has been waiting on a med-board.  Another turned to alcohol, and got kicked out when I couldn't be there anymore to cover for him.  Another friend from outside my unit, he joined up with PSYOPs, and just married a girl from Thailand.  He's a lifer through-and-through, but I can see now that he suffers misgivings.

I've spent time out the wire, been mortared, rocketed, shot at.  But I never got hit with an IED.  I never had to raise my weapon to another human being.  I've never killed, and I've never watched a close friend die.  Some soldiers might be ashamed of this, but I'm not.  I credit these things with being part of why I've been able to cope.  And a lot of people I know aren't so lucky.  So this is why I'm writing--for them.

Being a veteran, you spent a lot of time wrestling with guilt.  There's always someone who had it worse than you, so you feel bad for talking about things that still bother you.  Sometimes your fellow soldiers only reinforce this, with all their talk about POGs and Grunts.  I existed somewhere between these labels.  You tell yourself things--If I'd just done one more mission, re-upped for one more tour--and you feel bad, hearing about friends that are going yet again.  And when you get that call from the friend who's been drinking again, you feel hollow afterward, because you got out okay.  That is a weird feeling--like what right do you have to have your stable marriage and GI Bill?  These are the things that haunt you.

But that's all over now.

I don't believe in a God, but I am thankful every day that I got out.  I have been delivered out of Egypt, and that is why I'm writing.  I'm tired of seeing friends that can't adjust, tired of seeing spouses not know what to do.  I am tired of never talking about my experiences because someone might not believe me.  I am tired of watching good friends suffer.  I want to help them, and this is the best way that I can think of that doesn't involve signs or slogans.  All I have are my words.  But I hope that they can be enough.

This blog is by a veteran, for veterans and their loved ones.  It may not always be about the war; it may not even be a great source of information.  But I hope that it can be a source of comfort.  I hope that, through my words, some might see that it gets better.  Through my words, maybe someone can figure out how to be happy, how to be whole again.  If my words can accomplish that, then that will be enough for me.

So that no one ever has to have it worse.