Thursday, September 04, 2008


Agent Orange
(From the RNC)

I’m suffering from PISD (Politics-Induced Symptoms of Deflation). It’s a form of depression caused when na├»ve hope for political change is rapidly squashed by the reality that the powerful elite who run the Empire will only permit a limited dose of democracy. I’m prone to the disease because I still suffer from an innate optimism that periodically compromises my immune system.

As I write, I’m taking a brief break between the Vets for Peace (VFP) national convention that was here in the Twin Cities last week and the peace marches triggered by the RNC Convention that began Monday in St. Paul. To parallel the bumper sticker, “If you aren’t mad, you’re not paying attention,” I’ll say, “If you’re not down, you don’t know what’s going down.”

I felt the first symptoms of PISD during the VFP convention. One of the keynote speakers, James Yee told a story that was so unbelievable it had to be true (here’s a link to a Democracy Now! Interview with Mr. Yee: Amazing that the same organization that graduated Yee from West Point as an Army officer and assigned him as the chaplain in Guantanamo for Muslim guards and prisoners would then charge him with treason, threaten him with the death penalty, imprison him in solitary confinement for 78 days, and subject him to the same sensory deprivation abuses he spoke out against at the prison. When the Army could produce no substantive evidence at his court martial, it dropped all charges, awarded him two medals for this same service, and then granted him an Honorable Discharge.

Among the prisoner abuses he spoke of were those that only left scars on the soul. The military of the religious right, which asserts so much control in this country, uses the prisoners’ religious beliefs in a jujitsu move designed to demoralize them and inflict deep insults. He confirmed the stories we’ve all heard: how the interrogators desecrated the prisoners’ copies of the Koran by urinating on them, and how female interrogators used their bodies to assault the prisoners’ religious and social mores. Yee also described how interrogators forced their Muslim charges to bow down within a circle painted on the floor with a Satanic pentagram in its center while they screamed at them to pray to Satan. It reminded me of the stories I read as a youth of the Roman Empire’s persecution of the early Christians’ faith. Kafka couldn’t write a stranger story even with Solzinetzin as a coauthor.

Before I could climb out of the rabbit hole created by Yee’s speech, the next speaker at the VFP convention that night, Jeremy Scahill, knocked me right back in with his description of the Empire’s private military. Scahill, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the author of the bestselling
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. My wife, Cynthia (VetWrite), and I had heard him speak when we witnessed the Winter Soldier hearings last March in DC. Even though it was the second time I heard the story of the Bagdad massacres by Bush’s Blackwater mercenaries, Scahill’s unique and riveting storytelling, replete with details and tongue-twisting Iraqi names and places, captured my attention once again and placed me back in that mental horror movie.

Noam Chomsky warned about mercenaries when he wrote about Vietnam, “Usually wars like the Vietnam War are fought with mercenaries—like the French Foreign Legion. The U.S. tried to fight what amounts to a colonial war with a conscript army. And a colonial war is a very dirty kind of war. You’re not fighting armed forces. You’re fighting mostly unarmed people. And to fight that kind of war requires professional killers, which means mercenaries.”

The clincher that brought on full-blown PISD for me was Scahill’s description of Blackwater’s pervasive presence in New Orleans immediately after Katrina’s landfall. Armed with war-zone weaponry normally reserved only for the military and police in this country, Blackwater mercenaries explained to Scahill that they had been deputized by the Governor of Louisiana to “confront looters and stop criminals” and to “protect FEMA” even though FEMA personnel did not arrive in the area until days later.

“Bagdad on the bayou,” as Scahill termed it three years ago, served as a warning of our “radical privatization of government” and increasingly militarized society. He said we still have 40,000 more private contractors than US troops in Iraq and that a shocking “70% of our intelligence apparatus is now in private hands,” including the separate CIA-like division of Blackwater. Scahill cautioned us against expecting real change even if Obama wins the Presidency. “Obama’s staff told me that he has studied the issue of mercenaries and has not ruled out their use.”

In a similar fashion, we now have St. Paul under siege with the arrival of the Republican National Convention and hundreds of private guards, National Guard troopers, FBI, Homeland Security, and local police, armored with fearsome automatic weapons, gas and concussion grenades, pepper spray, and three-foot-long night sticks. Like futuristic cyborgs—part human, part head-to-toe black Kevlar—they line our streets in police-state fashion. As we VFP members gathered Sunday on the lawn of the State Capitol to lead a permitted march of five hundred into downtown and up to the double rows of fencing that protected the Republican conventioneers from the unwashed, a menacing formation of five Black Hawk assault choppers circled low and slow over our assembly and then returned a half an hour later for a repeat of the maneuver.

All of this was not just a show of force intended to intimidate (which it most certainly does); it’s applied force. For example, St. Paul Police, under orders from Homeland Security, conducted preemptory raids on homes and arrested people on conspiracy charges (which triggers memories of the Chicago Eight who were charged with conspiring to incite a riot while crossing state lines on their way to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, convicted, and later found innocent on appeal). Police here have abused protestors and even arrested journalists, including Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and her staff (refer to There have been gross overreactions by police in response to minor acts of property damage and acting out by hooligans (got to wonder how many are working for the FBI, which again triggers memories of the agent provocateurs of the 60s).

Another keynote speaker at the VFP convention was Scott Ritter, the former chief United nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. He floored me with his prediction of this election year’s “October Surprise.” Hours before in my workshop on the decisions that led into the quagmire of Vietnam, I had described the “October Surprises” engineered by Nixon for his election in 1968 and by Reagan for his election in 1980. For 2008, it will be the restart of the Cold War in Georgia, Ritter predicted. Worse yet, Ritter said the Georgia crisis will only delay the inevitable attack by the US on Iran.

You can’t catch PISD from depressing news alone. The severity of the disease comes from the distance that separates the highs of optimistic hope for change and the lows of crushing reality—the deflation factor. The VFP conference, my first although I’ve been an active member since 1991, showcased the vitality and dedication of our membership. I met so many people with amazing stories of how the dark sides of their military experiences have become the engine for changing their own lives and helping to improve conditions in the country. The esprit de corps was palpable. Only a Dr. Phil workshop would have had more men hugging each other.

Fortunately, my writer mentor and wife of 35 years (VetWrite) provided a beautiful description of the moving opening ceremony for the conference that featured Native American speakers and drummers so I need not revisit that topic (refer to entry on 8/28/08 at I’ll turn instead to our Executive Director, Michael McPhearson, who made several cogent remarks to open the conference including the exhortation that we “get out of our comfort zones” to further the mission of VFP. Referring to the Million Doors for Peace Project (, he said, “We’ll have to get out and talk to our neighbors.”

We heard from two dozen excellent speakers and I attended half a dozen workshops. A real asset was the presence of so many members from the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW, read more about the group’s dramatic march to the RNC Convention to demand a briefing with John McCain, These are young men and women who bring an energized momentum to VFP. They are expert taking great advantage of the now well-developed peace infrastructure and the organizing power of the Internet and cell phones. But we all ride on the many shoulders of our heroic predecessors in the movements of the past (anti-war, labor, suffragette, civil rights, prisoner rights, etc.)

A highlight of the VFP conference was the speech by Rick Hanson, a member of Military Families Speak Out. The Hanson’s son, Eric, served two tours of duty in Iraq. He spoke to the shared mission of all assembled: “It is good to be surrounded by the integrity of this gathering. To have the IVAW with us here renews our hope. . . . [You speak out] with a validity that can not be dismissed by anyone. The Veterans for Peace individually and collectively . . . serve as role models to all of our groups . . . . We are grateful to be the recipients of your experience and heartfelt empathy. . . . We are whole-heartedly committed to succeed in our combined mission of ending this catastrophic war and taking care of our kids as we get them home.”

For a final comment, let me express how pleased I am that at my side throughout the VFP conference and the peace marches was my wife, Cynthia, and for some of the events, our daughter and her husband. Waging peace is a family value.

[1] “The Lessons of Vietnam: An Interview with Noam Chomsky,” reproduced form Indochina Newsletter, Issue 18 (November-December, 1982).