On the Saturday before the Sunday of the Pride Parade, the Pride Celebration happened in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza and the surrounding grid of streets. From a stage in front of city hall live music blasted out over rows and rows of canopied booths where it appeared everything was for sale but washers and dryers. Booths purveyed savory ethnic dishes and ballpark food, healthy and not so healthy beverages, clothes, crafts, trinkets, sunglasses, hats, books, posters and miniature icons from India and little pipes–a whiff of the sweet weed meandered all day through the crush of celebrators. There were also booths where nonprofit organizations and special interest groups dispensed their acome-ons. One booth belonged to CMEN, or California Men Enjoying Naturism. The booth was nearly empty except for three folding chairs, a cardboard box of pamphlets about CMEN, and seven men with nothing on.
Across the top of the booth stretched a yellow banner with bold red letters, Meet Nude Men. One hundred thousand people walked by the CMEN booth on that warm and sunny June Saturday and they were all startled when they saw the men dressed in nothing. But their reactions varied, from people who looked like out of towners or from the burbs asking to have their photos taken with the nude men, to girls who squealed and giggled their thoughts out loud, to the homeless men upon whose turf our booths rested who yelled angrily at the nudists that they better put some clothes on, as though delivering an ultimatum. The guys without clothes took it all in the best of humor.
When I worked for magazines I ran booths at trade shows all over this great land of ours and at every show I made temporary friends with the folks in the booths on either side of mine, and in a lull we’d stand and talk. The same happened at the Pride Celebration with the twist that the men I stood and talked with lacked any attire.
Our booth next to this fleshy spectacle was naturally less provoking, even though we had flags of all persuasion but national on poles above our booth, and a banner across the front announcing we are the local members of Veterans For Peace, a national organization that often pushes the buttons of good citizens who believe, as the generals do, that we will have peace when we’ve killed enough foreigners, and believe that people who demonstrate for peace should be pummeled. Though we had fewer visitors than the guys next door, we actually had a good number stop and chat with us. We had information about Veterans For Peace and what we’re up to including Veterans For Peace’s work on trying to get our government to help the millions of Vietnamese who are victims of the defoliant known as Agent Orange which contained dioxin and was sprayed and dumped on their country during our ill-founded war.
Ill-founded is a gentle way of putting it. From what I’ve read of the history of Vietnam since the end of WWII, many powerful and influential people within our government knew from the start our war in Vietnam was unwinnable yet every one of them found pursuing the war a better choice than appearing to be weak on communism.
Not that our military leaders should be let off the hook for leading us into war because politicians told them to. They should simply be seen for what they are, members of a traditional organization as much a part of our social tapestry as churches, with tenets that do not change. They should be seen as leaders of an organization that feeds on war. The military’s very existence and that of the trillion-dollar weapons industry where so many generals find employment after they retire depends on our going to war. Two reporters from the New York Times drove up the Hudson Valley to West Point to talk with cadets approaching graduation and a commission as a lieutenant in the United States Army, and every cadet they interviewed regretted our withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan because army officers need the experience of a war to move up the ranks. As someone said, asking a general if we should go to war is like asking a football coach if there should be a game this weekend.
I was an enlisted soldier in the Air Force for four years. When I got out, I felt, at best, that I’d wasted those years, but over time I saw I learned a couple things. I know we should grow in thought and character as we grow older, and because I know this I’m left with only a cultural residue of respect for people in uniform. As young men and women they were sucked into the military by the multi-billion dollar advertising and public relations extravaganza the pentagon conducts to make the war machine look like a public service. During the baseball World Series, from the strutting military color guard and the infield-sized stars and stripes and the fighter jets flying over, to the flashy and heartrending commercials between innings that urge young viewers to sign up, the Pentagon’s clout has turned the fall classic into a piece of propaganda. At what point do the generals who goad the president into armed conflict become witless killers who have ignored and resisted their own maturing nature that in any balanced person leads them to know a peaceful resolution is always better?
My hitch in the service had me working in the target room of a nuclear bomb wing. Our nuke-laden bombers and missiles were always on alert, ready at the push of a button to soar over the North Pole and annihilate the Soviet Union and consequently annihilate the entire world.
When our war in Vietnam geared up, I worked a target rooms where we prepared target charts and target photos for fighter pilots who obliterated North Vietnam and Laos. My second trip over, I was in the target room of a B-52 wing that carpet-bombed huge parts of South Vietnam from 30,000 feet.
This brings me to the current habits, begun by the second Bush administration, of (1) calling everyone in uniform a hero and (2) thanking veterans for their service.
There is nothing heroic about dropping a planeload of bombs from 30,000 feet on the jungles and villages of people just trying to live their lives. Nothing is heroic about preparing the target charts, loading the bombs, about cooking chow; sorting mail, or being a recruiter. Strangers who learn I’m a veteran often extend a hand to be shaken and say, “Thank you for your service.” I never ever was thanked for my service until George Bush the younger began sending other people’s children to the slaughter, and to prove his compassion he told the American people Vietnam vets haven’t been thanked. He said, “Thank them for their service,” and since then people have said those words to me. When this first began happening I would say back, “Don’t thank me. Everything I did was wrong.” My wife and kids told me I startled people and made them feel uncomfortable when they thought they were being kind, and coached me into modifying my response. But my feeling is, who do they think they are thanking me for four years of my life they know nothing about simply because a president who is wanted for war crimes in Spain and Germany told them to thank me? Still, I listened to my family and I changed my rap. Now I grasp the extended hand and say, “Thanks, but you want to be careful saying that to some veterans because they might feel terrible about what they did and what happened to them.”
That sounds pretty solid to me, yet a month ago at an art show of work by women veterans, a woman a little younger than me who’d not been in the military thanked me for my service. I thanked her for thanking me, and followed with my modified rap about some vets feeling bad, and she was seriously surprised. “Why would they feel bad?” she asked me.
The art show was put on by Swords to Ploughshares, a veteran service organization whose primary mission is helping homeless, sick, addicted, and alcohol veterans get on their feet, and is the woman who still wondered why a veteran would feel bad, works with a bank that gives money to Swords to Ploughshares. Although she was at the art show as a volunteer, and was immersed deeply in the world of fucked up veterans and at an art show where every women artist talks about her work being therapeutic, the woman thought we all are proud to have served.
There’s another angle on serving going around–it has always gone around–that says that even if the politicians and Pentagon have it wrong, it is still the soldier’s job to go out and fight the war and we should honor and thank the soldier for that loyal service. That jingoism is riddled with holes, the biggest being if the politicians and Pentagon all thought invading Iraq was the right thing to do, and the 18 and 19 years olds thought it the wrong thing to do and wouldn’t do it, there’d have been no invasion for every declared candidate for president this time around to say was a mistake, as they all have.
A soldier has the right and the duty to not go if he feels the war is wrong. As brave as a soldier’s performance is, as valid as his heroics and as deserved as his decorations are, there is little difference between an army that wrongfully invades a foreign country and the teenage hooligans who rampage your neighborhood smashing car windows.
And I could go on. I could tell you how most of the veteran community responds to Veterans For Peace as if we are apostates and I guess we are. But I want to tell you about the day at the booth.
People came by and talked to us, many of them veterans who had not heard of Veterans For Peace, or knew of us but haven’t joined or aren’t joiners, something I was until I was about 45 five when I stumble upon Veterans For Peace. Before that my rap was that I’ve been in three organizations in my life; the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and the United States Air Force, and I’m not going to join anything else. But Veterans For Peace is different. What I’ve written here I could say at a Veterans For Peace meeting. I might be told I don’t have the floor or I might be told I’m off topic, but I wouldn’t be told I’m full of boloney.
A woman came up to me at the Veterans For Peace booth, a Navy veteran a little younger than me, or that’s who I thought I was talking to until she told me she wouldn’t have joined the Navy except she had a low number. I knew she referred to the draft lottery during the Vietnam war when birth dates were pulled out of a spinning basket like lotto numbers, and a low number meant you were soonest to be drafted, and I knew girls weren’t drafted, ergo I knew I was talking to a former man who was now a pleasant person named Monica. On the opposite side of our booth from the nude guys was a large booth surrounded by a tall fence covered with cloth. All day Saturday friendly people came and went in flowing and silky attire that looked spiritual but nondenominational while the booth remained closed. The friendly people said they were setting up for Sunday, the day of the Pride Parade, the centerpiece of the weekend.
Hung on their fence was a colorful though not large sign.
“Radical Faeries: We are a network of satyrs, sissies, butch leather queens, ceremonial drag queens, artists, farmers, witches, pagans, sacred fools, rural and urban dwellers who see gays, lesbians, and transgenders as a distinct and unique people, with our own culture, our own spirituality, and our own path of being.”