It's a busy day, and I've got to get a little run in before it gets too hot. I hope to have a second post up later today, but am not sure I'll have time to swing it.
One quick note, after a week of relatively long posts. Yesterday afternoon, on the way home from the college, I stopped for gas at the Chevron station just across the street from PCC. Standing in front of me in the line to pay was a young man in Army fatigues. (We have a military recruiting center a block from the campus.) I noticed the position of the American flag on his sleeve. It seemed to face backwards, with the stars on the right hand, rather than the left hand, side of the emblem. I've seen that image on other soldiers' uniforms in coverage of the war, but never been able to figure out why.
So very politely, I spoke up. "Excuse me", I said to the fellow; "Can I ask you a question?" He stiffened as he looked at me, almost as if he were bracing himself. "Sure", he said, without enthusiasm. I wonder how many times others have button-holed him in his uniform in gas stations and check-out lines, and then berated him about US foreign policy. He certainly looked as if he was readying himself for what would have been a familiar tirade. I hurriedly asked him about the flag, and was amazed at the way in which his face visibly sagged with relief. "It's because we always want to be seen as going forward", he said. "It's positioned the way a soldier would carry a flag into battle." (I confess I didn't get it right away, and had to look it up on the Internet when I got home.) I thanked him and we parted. (I had no idea what his rank was, I can't identify military insignia, but I assume with his fatigues and a black beret he was Army, right?)
I left the encounter feeling oddly sad. I was simply curious, and hadn't the slightest intention in the world of rattling a man who, from what I understand, has one of the more difficult jobs in the country these days. But it brought back memories of the mid-1980s, when I was a freshman at Cal and participating in often-violent anti-ROTC demonstrations. (The ROTC building was actually burned down at one point, and no, I had nothing to do with that!) But years ago, I heaped my share of terrible verbal abuse at many a young cadet. I sprayed more than one young man with spittle as I railed on about whatever the issue was at the time (I think it was opposition to the Contra war in Nicaragua.) I overturned tables, ran from campus police, and took part in a variety of small acts of criminal destruction of ROTC property that seemed (at the time) to be enormously brave and today seem to me to be colossally juvenile. Trust me, folks, if I seem gentle today, it's an act of will and a gift of grace that have made me so. I could be a vicious hothead when I was younger and filled with more testosterone.
I wonder if I owe some sort of collective amends to the military. I don't know how the young men at whom I yelled and whom I called names (unprintable here) reacted to what I did some twenty years ago when I was a teenager. I can't imagine it was easy for them to remain stone-faced while I -- and my fellow upper middle-class self-righteous radicals -- directed apoplectic rage their way. Today, I think what I did back then was wrong and pointless. Alas, at eighteen I was at an age when I was indeed "often in error, and never in doubt." I'm ashamed of my past behavior, even though I haven't hurled profane opprobrium at any one in uniform since my last protest, which was fourteen years ago at the start of the first Gulf War in January 1991. (That story of my final protest -- and why I've never gone to another one -- is worth a post all its own.)
So folks, I'm not ready to abandon my Anabaptist pacifism. But I have decided that I need to do something tangible to make amends for my past behavior. I was shaken by my encounter with the guarded young soldier yesterday, and I felt overwhelmed by a need to apologize to him for all that I had yelled at men like him many years ago. (Note: I could never yell at the very few female ROTC cadets I saw back in the day; a strange mix of simple-minded feminism and in-bred courtliness made it impossible for me to ever raise my voice at a woman. I simply ignored them and went after their male counterparts. Embarrassing, but true.)
Folks, I'm open to suggestions. A batch of cookies? A visit to the recruiters with a word of thanks for their hard work (and maybe a small number of gifts)? Mind you, I'm not a supporter of this current war. But I haven't always differentiated between the cause for which men and women fight and those men and women themselves. And I've got the feeling this morning I've got to take some small but tangible action.
I was wrong, and somehow, a debt still hangs over my head.
UPDATE: Following a suggestion below, I visited Books for Soldiers and made a donation. It felt good, as donating usually does. It's not the end of the amends, but it's a start. I still need to do something for my local recruiters. Would Starbucks gift cards be a good idea? Or would they worry that it was a joke,with no money on the cards? Much to think about.
UPDATE #2 (Saturday 10:49AM): Things seem to have gotten fairly heated in the comments section, This is understandable, as my account of my own past behavior could be expected to strike many a nerve. That said, folks, it is vital that you refrain from using profanity here if you wish to have your comments remain. If you're enraged by me, so be it -- you're entitled to your anger. But insulting each other -- and using ugly language that demeans entire groups of human beings -- simply makes a civilized exchange impossible. If you really need to spew, send me a private email (firstname.lastname@example.org).