Wednesday, November 11, 2009

War Is Not a Game

Prologue to War Is Not a Game
forthcoming book by Nan Levinson

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
(Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy)

“We’re going over now. You ready?” A young veteran with a quicksilver smile and a soul patch asks a fellow vet grabbing a smoke outside the Holiday Inn in downtown St. Louis. They nod. The August heat wave, close to one-hundred degrees all week, has finally broken so that it’s no longer punishing to venture beyond air conditioning. The two veterans, one lanky, one solid as a door jamb, climb into a car where a few others wait and they all head down the street to the America’s Center and the Missouri Black Expo job fair, now in full swing.

The convention hall is big, echoing, over-lit and packed with job recruiters and seekers, but the clump of young men and women in black T-shirts with “Iraq Veterans Against the War” stenciled on the front are hard to miss as they make their way to a booth with “Go Army!” splayed across its canopy. Army recruiters and civilian employees stand behind a table laden with brochures and sign-up sheets, while teens and young men take turns playing America’s Army, a simulation game whose website proclaims it to be “The Only Game Based on the Experience of Real U.S. Army Soldiers.”

The buzz began the day before, when a handful of IVAW vets were hanging around the hotel lobby on a break from the panel sessions of their third annual meeting. There’s a job fair going on across the street, someone said, the Army’s got a recruiting booth, I saw them unloading a truck, we need to do something. They batted around ideas until someone, probably Steve Mortillo or Jabbar Magruder, suggested a sound off and it clicked. Quickly, the plan spread, a quiet signaling among the veterans. Now at the expo, they’re ready to act.

If you could take it with you...

At the turn of the millennium, The Women's Review of Books asked a bunch of its contributors what we would most want to bring from the past 1,000 years into the next. My contribution still holds: A millennium? Most memorable, liberating, fun? What could empty my mind faster, except to ask my favorite anything? So, to winnow the task, I've taken a page from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a Japanese courtesan and fellow straddler of millennia, and made two lists of things that, for better or worse, arrived on the scene in the past thousand years. Feel free to add your own. Things That Delight The city of Florence. The idea of America: jazz, slang, public parks, public libraries, front porches. The toss-away grace of Fred Astaire, the arch wit of Oscar Wilde, Baryshnikov leaping, "A Lark Ascending," a Yeats poem, costume jewelry. The great clowns: Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin, Tati, Fo, the Marxes, Allen (Gracie), Ball (Lucy), Mary and Rhoda. Ice cream. Things That Changed the Way We see Sunglasses, Galileo, street lamps, Mercator, plastic, Henry the Navigator, carbon paper, photography. The stroboscope, the silicon chip, the printing press, daylight savings time. Hollywood, neon and limelight. Brunelleschi and Alberti. Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Political cartoons, LSD, wallpaper, picture postcards, glass mirrors, the minute hand on a watch, x-rays. Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial and Frank Gehry's Guggenheim. Anna Akhmatova who, waiting month after month outside a Leningrad prison where her son was held during a terror-laced time, was asked, "Can you describe this?" "I can," she answered. And then she did.

3-15-2003: before the war begins

The day begins with an email from a soldier in Kuwait. “I have no problem fighting off an oppressive government,” he writes. “I have no problem blowing someones head off if they are trying to rob my house or harm my family.” The problem he does have is the collusion between government and big business using the army for unconstitutional and economic gains. On and one he goes with so much anger against what he calls “our new oilnationstate.” His is not the first such rancor I’ve encountered from soldiers preparing for war.

A few hours later, a friend and I gather with others, hard to tell how many, lining Mass. Ave. about a mile west of Harvard Square with antiwar signs, many clever & pointed. My favorite is two kids with a boombox and a sign saying, “Dance for peace.” They do.

A woman next to us gives us her extra sign to hold and I bounce “NO WAR” up and down as cars pass and flash us the peace sign. “Cambridge,” my friend scoffs. It’s colder than I expected, so I’m not dressed warmly enough, but for a short time it feels like solidarity and that feels good.

We march to Harvard Square, those behind us chanting, “What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”

I’ve been yelling the same words for over half of my life and they’re wrong. I wanted peace yesterday and I want it tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, and goddamn, but I’m not going to get it, all this solidarity and voice-of-the-people aside. Today, I don’t yet know how easily my government will ignore the public outcry against this misbegotten war that hasn’t yet begun, though it’s clear to us all that it’s a forgone conclusion.

Late afternoon, I read from the pile of news stories my oldest friend has sent me about her father, Max Zera, who became, kind of by default, the press attache par excellence for the Army’s 1st division during WWII. The longest piece is a report from the Battle of the Bulge, written by a war correspondent I’ve never heard of: Iris Carpenter. It’s fine journalism and a horrific story. So much slaughter and misery. My friend says Max saw it as politically motivated. This is “the greatest generation,” mostly dead or dying, their greatness repackaged as all valor (which was real) and no horror.

“Your guy in Kuwait would be at the front of the battle if he were in that war,” my husband observes. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I try to figure out at what point one country’s army should try to stop another’s. I fall asleep before I understand.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Gates Open to Sending More Troops to Afghanistan

How's that for a double entendre headline? (in the Boston Globe, LA Times and other papers)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

communal conversation

I've reached the age of communal conversation in which enough people trying to remember together eventually come up with the word none of us can think of alone.

Monday, August 24, 2009

IRS by any other name

misread a headline today as Internal Revenge Service

Friday, August 14, 2009

exerpt from War is Not a Game: David Wilson's story

David Wilson, former Army sergeant & resister of sorts....
by Nan Levinson

Regardless of the official response, nearly all applicants for Conscientious Objection describe being ostracized by their peers and their chain of command and isolated at a particularly stressful time of their lives. David Wilson, an Army sergeant stationed in Kuwait before the invasion, emailed me after he turned in his CO packet that “people in my unit won’t look at me or they give me the evil eye.”

Wilson’s story is his alone, but it follows a familiar trajectory for soldiers who applied for conscientious objection early in the war, from his solo navigation of the process without the knowledgeable guidance of counselors who might have made it easier, to the Army’s maze of obstacles, to the disdain he came to have for the military mission in Iraq and the politicians who created it.

He grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where his father taught at the Citadel, his mother was a vocational high school principal, and his family worshiped at the Baptist church. (His faith is now in mountain biking.) Looking for money to pay off debt and to return to school, he enlisted in the Army in 2000 at the relatively late age of thirty. He was self-reliant, fit, and sure of himself, so he had no problem holding his own with the other, much younger enlistees. By the time he was sent to Kuwait in February 2003, he had risen to sergeant and was assigned to the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command as an electronic warfare technician.

Wilson and I were introduced by another soldier in his unit, who had gotten out as a CO before the invasion. We exchanged emails in March and April of 2003 and resumed emailing, his preferred mode of communication, six years later. We didn’t know each other and, as with all these exchanges, he had nothing to gain by answering my questions, but answer he did, diligently, promptly and fully, even when his personal time was limited on the Army's computers in Kuwait.

Six weeks after he arrived there and one week before the invasion of Iraq, he wrote: “My position on going to war with Iraq is difficult to describe. I have no problem fighting off an oppressive govt. I have no problem blowing someone’s head off if they are trying to rob my house or harm my family. I do have a problem with a govt that uses its army to achieve those goals. I have a problem with a govt. that does not pay attention to actions it is taking that harm the Constitution that I was sworn to defend.”

A month later, still in Kuwait, it was a different story, as he wrote on drunkcyclist, a friend’s blog. “I hear missiles flying overhead and I get interviewed by CNN as they do a documentary. I feel relief when the A10s hit the persistent launcher in Basra with a missile. Then I get real angry. I wish bad things on those who do what they think is right for America.”

Friday, August 7, 2009

Can you kill one troop?

The appeal of using the word troops to stand in for soldiers, marines, sea- and airmen and women, not to mention the coast guard, which no one does, is demonstrated in this sentence. Journalists need to write succinctly (note to the publicity-conscious: if you want to show up in news reports, get a job title that's shorter than 4 words) and at the same time be inclusive of all manner and gender of military personnel -- another awkward term. So we get "Three U.S. troops killed in Iraq's Basra" from Reuters, and "Pentagon Plans to Send More Than 12,000 Additional Troops to Afghanistan" from US News and World Report to cite just 2 of hundreds of similar headlines. (With 4430 U.S. soldiers, marines, etc. killed in Iraq and 773 in Afghanistan as of today, and nearly 200,000 stationed in those countries, we have many occasions for the phrasing.)

"Troops killed" is short, nasty and brutish -- which is the problem. The collective noun erases the individual and smooths over the specificity of the lives interrupted and the deaths that have resulted from the wars. Troops don't seem like people -- maybe not to them either.

Journalism stylebooks say that
troop used in the singular means a group of people, while the plural, troops, means several groups. They give their blessing to using troops to describe a large number of individuals -- it's understood to mean individuals, they say -- but what constitutes a large number isn't specified. AP and the New York Times stylebooks, industry standards, note that "Three troops were killed" is a no-no. Apparently a lot of headline writers and reporters didn't get the memo.

I'm not sure what a useful alternative would be. The dead get turned into
casualties, the deployed into battalions or brigades (and, yes, Iraqis and Afghans are enemies when alive and have beeen dismissed as collateral damage when we've killed them, but that's a rant for another occasion). That's how the language works and we understand, don't we? But the collective term also dehumanizes the people we're talking about, making it easier for the vast majority of Americans who have nothing to do with anyone currently in the military to forget that these are mostly young, often unformed, sometimes bored, usually scared men and women and maybe making it easier for them to become dehumanized when they're sent into misbegotten fights that baffle and outrage them.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Good enough for what?

Yesterday, the New York Times published a memo written by Col. Timothy R. Reese, Chief of the Baghdad Operations Command Advisory Team, in which he advised that the U.S. should end its combat operations in Iraq now and get all its troops out within a year. The American forces are somewhere between irrelevant and an irritant, he wrote, and the Iraqi Security Forces are "good enough." That day 12 Iraqi civilians were killed by bombs. The next day it was 29. Good enough for you? It's encouraging to have evidence that at least someone in an official capacity in the U.S. military understands the futility of keeping American soldiers in Iraq way after they've worn out whatever welcome they may have had (a dubious conjecture to begin with), even more encouraging that he's willing to go on record with that analysis and that someone has made sure the NY Times got a copy of the memo. But damned if we won't end up patting ourselves on the back for getting the level of violence somewhere back near the one we created six years ago and would never tolerate in our own country. "As the old saying goes, 'guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,'” he wrote, naming U.S. troops as the guests. Smell anything fishy, anyone?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lily America (+ a recipe)

A few years ago, Margaret Randall solicited family stories about food with accompanying recipes for a book as a gift to an editor about to retire. As far as I know, the book never materialized, but this story did, so I offer it up here.

“Lefi Paretsky, 14,” reads the manifest of the Campania that sailed into New York harbor on July 9, 1904. “Last place of residence: Slonim.” “Ethnicity: Hebrew.” “Occupation: Servant.”

Long before I knew her as my grandmother, Lefi became Lily and no servant she. Ever. Also no longer Paretsky, nor Ratzkin, nor Rosenthal, not any of the names she adopted as she moved through her new life. But Lillian LaVine, wife of Samuel LaVine, a name also changed en route from Vilna to Golders Green to Ellis Island.

Not Ellis Island for Lily, though. For her, it was Boston harbor, and the ship she was supposed to be on was somewhere on the bottom of the sea. The rest of the family was busy mourning in New York when the telegram arrived, announcing, We’re here! Tanya, the oldest son, a businessman in Brooklyn, was dispatched to fetch them: Lefi; her younger sister Rochel (soon to be Rose); and their parents, Pesche and Jankel.

Jankel was 56 years old, too old, the authorities said, a burden on the state.

"He’s my father. "l’ll take care of him! " " replied Tanya, pulling himself up to his full five feet and change.

"You?" scoffed Mr. Authority, "You’re a cripple. What can you do? "

It was true. Tanya’s arm had been maimed in an accident at his window sash factory, but he wasn’t a greenhorn and he wasn’t intimidated. With his withered arm, he took the table where Mr. Authority sat and hoisted it above his head. "My father," he insisted. "I Will Take Care of Him."

Or so the story goes.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Deborah in free fall

Deborah Digges, a longtime colleague, killed herself by jumping from the top of a sports stadium in Amherst, Massachusetts on Friday, 10 April 2009. There is a category of friendly colleagues, people you know only through work and see seldom, but enjoy running into whenever you do. Deborah was in that category for me and it makes me sad that I won’t ever have that small pleasure again. My husband was the first at the university to learn about her death when her son, a former student, called on Saturday. The grim details came a day or two later. At a hastily organized memorial service, students and colleagues, stunned and sorrowful, read poems and talked of her warmth and talent and passion for language, and some cried as they described her teacherly embrace. Afterwards, everyone talked about how spectacularly she had died. I make no claims on knowing how or why she came to her resolve – I didn’t know her that well and it seems kind of prurient to speculate – nor do I know much about the physics of free fall. It occurred to me that if you really mean to end it, it’s a good idea to be sure you’ll be dead and not just badly messed up and alive to suffer. But more haunting is an image I’ve concocted of Deborah (who was a babe, though that’s not a thing obituaries mention) in mid-air, hair flying up like in a cartoon, arms stretched wide to the wind. And I keep wondering what was in her mind in the moments after she stepped off that edge and before she landed.