Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Support the troops.

On Valentines Day my son was asked to make a valentine’s card to send to the soldiers in Iraq as part of a “support the troops campaign”. He declined and told his buddies, "You shouldn’t do that, I’m not going to do it, the troops do nothing for me.” This remark incensed his after school councilors, and Cosmo was placed at the “time out” table in the front of the auditorium. (Though I was assured by the councilors that he was not being punished.) I spoke to the administrators, supporting my son’s stance, and thought the incident was water under the bridge, until an administrator chose to single me out and give me a letter of thanks from the local police department that organized the “Support the Troops Campaign”. What follows is my response.

February 27th, 2007

Dear Ms. Frederick,

I am in receipt of the letter provided JCC from Kathleen Andrews of the Plantation Police Department thanking you for organizing the “Support the Troops” campaign. I am not quite certain why you deemed it necessary that I should be singled out to receive this letter, but I would love to revisit this topic in more detail. Thank you for providing me with the opportunity.

As I write this, over 3000 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, upwards of 60,000 have been maimed, countless others have suffered deep psychological scars that will remain with them for their lifetime. Over 600,000 Iraqis have been killed, (not including the 500,000 children who died during the Clinton years and sanctions) millions more maimed, untold numbers have been poisoned by depleted uranium, and will suffer for generations to come. Who knows how many have suffered psychological trauma, no one is keeping count of this statistic. Millions are displaced, homeless, without means to support themselves or their families. Four years into this occupation, millions more have been sickened by drinking dirty water. The lack of doctors, lack of medicine, lack of necessary medical equipment and the lack of electricity have all contributed to this catastrophe, and now, even food is a major issue. (Where exactly do you suppose the 100’s of billions of taxpayer dollars that have been poured into this quagmire have ended up? Certainly not in the rebuilding of Iraq, nor in the “support of our troops”, who are still lacking in even the most basic gear critical for their survival- though a McDonalds can be found in the Green zone.)

As you may or not may not know, the vast majority of the Iraqi casualties are children, woman, elders, and other non-combatants. I won’t begin to guess how many of these casualties come directly at the hands of our troops. But I will say this- unequivocally- their deaths are the direct result of an immoral American foreign policy, and each of us, as American citizens, carry this burden and this responsibility.

One thing Kathleen Andrews fails to address in her letter is the sense of abandonment our troops feel because they have been abandoned by our government. They are ill equipped (lacking basic armor for their Humvess as well as the proper vests for themselves) on a mission that seems pointless, if not reckless. Nor does she address the fact that they feel abandoned because many are on their 3rd or 4th tour, with no end in sight, and even less progress to show for their sacrifice. I would propose that if people are serious about supporting our troops, they take a minute, or an hour, to write to their Congress people demanding action- proper equipment, proper training, limited deployments, and a mission that has clear objectives and goals. Perhaps the best support one could offer is a demand that our troops end the occupation and return home. Far from “negativity”, as Ms. Andrews would describe it, this would show a true concern for our men and women in harms way.

Once home, perhaps we could demand that they get the care they need- especially for the psychological trauma they suffered while in the war zone. Perhaps you are familiar with the story of Jon Schulze, a US Marine from Minnesota, who recently committed suicide after being turned away from a VA Hospital, even though he told them 3 times in as many days, that he was suicidal. He was found hanging from a rafter in his basement. His case is far from an isolated incident. I personally know vets who are a hairs breadth away from killing themselves and the only help they get from the VA is prescription drugs. So, perhaps we should get serious about what constitutes “supporting the troops”.

One thing you have mentioned repeatedly is that Cosmo is “just a boy”, implying that he shouldn’t have an opinion about these matters and he should just do what he is told. I disagree completely. One thing I have impressed upon him is that in the face of injustice, silence is not an option. Even though he is “just a boy”, I am thankful that he had the courage to speak up and to refuse to do this project. He was particularly upset when he heard his councilor say that the troops were “saving America”. It’s nice to know even an eight year old knows better.

I think it is a shame that 8 year-old children (and even younger I assume, as children as young as 5 or 6 attend your program), were told to write valentines cards to the troops in the first place, and the fact that they are expected to do this without thought or question is ridiculous. Any teacher worth their salt should be encouraging children to think for them selves, question authority, and never, ever do anything blindly on faith- isn’t that what education (and democracy) is all about?

I can think of plenty of valentines that could have been written around the topic of the war that would have been useful and positive. The children could have been offered an option- perhaps it would be kind to write to children in the war zone, expressing love and hope for them (and us). Perhaps the kids could write to the children of soldiers who have been killed in Iraq, or who have lost their limbs, or their minds, expressing sympathy, love and hope for them (and us). Perhaps the children could have written valentines to our so-called leaders who continue to fund this catastrophe, expressing love and hope for peace (for them, and us). Of course, in writing to the troops, they could ask them not to kill (but I ask you, would you have considered this “supporting the troops”?)

One thing that Cosmo has learned from me at his young age is that peace never comes from the barrel of a gun and the vast majority of victims of war are children just like him, as well as their mothers, fathers, and grandparents. While adults easily dismiss this “collateral damage”, children get it. They recognize the immorality (though they may not label it as such) and the horror of this fact. No rationalizations, no denials, no obfuscations overcome this basic fact of war.

I teach peace in my household, not war. I have a deep and abiding faith in the concept of “Not harming any living being”, (the first precept in Buddhism), and in working non-violently for change. In living this, I am far from perfect, but I endeavor to protect and take care of all living creatures. I do not believe in the efficacy of violence to solve anything, and recognize that war is self-defeating. I also recognize that this country is steeped in violence. We imprison over 2 million citizens, we endorse the death penalty, pass laws against feeding the homeless in public parks, we build walls to keep out immigrants and allow vigilantes to track them down in the desert. We spend 1.7 billion dollars a day on the military (again- not enough armor? You must be kidding me.)

I would like to quote Dr King, who said, "I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."

Sadly, things have not changed much in 40 years. Again, quoting King, “Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of (Vietnam) Iraq. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in (Vietnam) Iraq. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”

And finally, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam Iraq and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

I share teachings on non-violence with my child. He is free to ask questions, and often, my response is simply, “I don’t know”. This encourages both of us to look deeper. This education will benefit my son, his friends, his classmates, and society at large far more so than being blindly told to “support the troops”. Real support for the troops in Iraq and the many troops to come (including, someday, my boy’s peers) is teaching peace as a process, a process that begins with me. A process that includes social justice, equality, love, equanimity, and compassion- a process that has understanding as a catalyst. It comes with the recognition that those deemed my “enemy”, are in fact, not separate from myself. It goes hand in hand with the concept of tikkun olam, and the work before us as individuals and as community. This supports not only the troops, but all living things. Perhaps the next time JCC wishes to support something, the JCC administrators can think about including peace, love, and compassion in the lesson plan. This would benefit us all a great deal and I think my son would be an enthusiastic participant.

Ms. Frederick, I understand you may not hold one single belief of mine as your own. This is fine with me. (Perhaps you have never been shot at by a soldier, or stood in front of a tank as it leveled it’s canon at you, or been hit with a sound bomb or tear gas canister, perhaps a 10 year old child, shot by a soldier, has never run, terrified, into your arms. Perhaps you have never sat with a distraught soldier as he told the story of his best friend blown up by an IED.)

This letter is in no way trying to impose my belief system on you. I am simply sharing my feelings, thoughts, and experiences.

I am asking, though, that you take care with those whose care has been entrusted to you. As you know, children’s minds are supple, but they can also be easily molded. What is open, loving and pure can be closed, distorted, and easily manipulated. We need look no further than our own experience for proof of this. As a teacher, I hope you encourage children to think for themselves, ask questions, and make positive choices. I hope that because “he is just a boy” you don’t feel obliged to impose your beliefs on my son or any of your other charges. This would be a grave disservice to them. Perhaps if we encourage our children to question, and remain open, loving and kind, their world will be just a bit brighter, a bit more caring, a bit more loving then the world we birthed them into. And perhaps, just perhaps, we may be open enough to learn something from them.

Finally, I understand you may feel good and right about your participation in the “Support the Troops” campaign, and I imagine that is why you chose to share the letter with me. I hope it is equally fine with you that we chose to express our support in what we believe is a more wholesome manner.

If you have a chance, watch Cloy Richards talk about his tour of duty: http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/022607T.shtml