by Wes Howard-Brook
When I was 14 years old in 1968, I doorbelled for Sen. Eugene McCarthy as he ran a strong anti-war campaign for president. I lamented when Bobby Kennedy stole McCarthy’s thunder and took the California primary, only to be gunned down by one of several “lone gunmen” during that period. 1 I joined my high school classmates in a protest on campus that involved overturning a local police car. My first act of civil disobedience was refusing to register for the draft. I thought everyone in the military was a stupid, violent, warmonger and I was doing what I could to have no part it the whole damn thing.
My generation was pretty good at opposing the Vietnam War, but not so good at embodying compassion for the victims of the war on “our side”: the young, mostly poor people who saw the military as a means for an education, for personal glory, or even to defend their country against “communism.”
All this changed for me many years later when I had left being a lawyer and was studying theology and ministry in Seattle in 1985. One of my classmates, Joseph, had recently been a neuroscientist at the UCLA brain institute. However, at the end of one of his research projects, he was called upon systematically to gas to death the remaining lab kittens. After one dead kitten after another, Joseph cracked. He walked away from it all: his job, his wife, his nice house and his life. Delayed PTSD had kicked in, almost 20 years after he came home from Vietnam.
He spent some time wandering, homeless, around California, before eventually ending up in Oregon. He was taken in and nurtured by some local Jesuits. After some healing, he discerned a call to learn about and to be reconciled with God. Not the “god’ who had told him that his rite of passage as a young man was to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and “prove” himself in battle, but a different God altogether. He struggled and wrestled with accepting the God of Jesus who proclaimed and embodied unconditional love and compassion for everyone. He ended up forming and serving vets’ groups, and became a father of three children, now living happily in Michigan.
Getting to know Joseph was a gamechanger for me. He broke open my self-righteousness and revealed his own broken heart and life. I cherish the many years that we walked together before his journey took him away from the Northwest.
I’m writing this piece because a Park Ranger was shot and killed yesterday in Mt Rainier National Park, allegedly by an Iraq veteran who had gone on a shooting spree in Seattle before seeking refuge in the snowy mountains. The CBS story of the finding of his frozen body included this line: “”The shooting renewed debate about a federal law that made it legal for people to take loaded weapons into national parks.” I posted the quote and a rejoinder on Facebook: “What it should generate is renewed debate on arming and training young people to kill and then bringing them home and providing no jobs or much PTSD care for them. We should expect a wave of such violence from the young, damaged people who are coming from another generation’s stupid, useless wars.” A wave of “likes” and responses poured in, including Eda Uca-Dorn’s plea that I write something about it here.
Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan are a shockingly high percentage of our homeless population, and the numbers will only grow as more vets return home. 2 According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, returning vets have an astounding 30% unemployment rate. The percentage of unemployed vets age 18-24 is more than double the overall unemployment rate for that age group. 3 Who wants to hire someone who has spend their last years learning to kill and putting those skills into practice?
Meanwhile, the right wing resist increased federal funding for PTSD, arguing that it is best handled “privately.” Maybe so.
As people who gather here under the banner of “Christian anarchism,” what is our responsibility to our sisters and brothers who return home from the battlefield shattered by the unspeakable trauma of war? At the absolute minimum, I think it means learning a lesson in compassion from my generation’s failure. We can and must love returning vets at least as much as we claim to love the poor and other victims of “empire.” How many of the people we share food and coffee with at our local meals here in Issaquah, WA or at your own are such vets?
But I think there is much more to do, too. The Occupy Movement has taken up the injustices that flow from our imperial economy. But one of those injustices is how we ignore the young people we’ve destroyed to serve the interests of the 1%. Many decades ago, courageous Marine Major General Smedley Butler penned his now famous screed, War is a Racket. 4 He laid out in simple terms, backed by facts and his own long experience, how war is fought not for democracy or peace, but to protect the profits of the elite. It has always been so. The unemployed, confused, broken young people like the one who died on Mt Rainier demand that we include their cause in our protests. It’s what Jesus would do.
- See Jim Douglass’ excellent first volume of several on these assassinations, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters, on why only Americans believe that political deaths are by mentally unstable “lone gunmen,” rather than part of the empire’s need to eliminate dissent. ↩
- See Pat Garafolo, “Homeless Veterans by the Numbers,”http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2011/11/11/366801/homeless-veterans-by-the-numbers/ ↩
- http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf. See Table A-5. ↩
- The text is available at http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html ↩