Yesterday, much of white America was honoring the genocidal killer Cristobal Colon who, as Ward Churchill has aptly said, “Got lost and was discovered by the native people on a Puerto Rican beach,” I find myself pondering the violent culture that his stumbling into the Americas ultimately led to: the establishment of my country, the world’s most violent nation, the so-called United States of America.
How are we to explain how a flood of immigrants, most fleeing from oppression of one kind or another in Europe and later Asia and South America and some dragged here in chains from Africa, ended up producing a nation so steeped in violence and the implements of destruction needed to produce that violence, that we as a people no longer even recoil at the horrors the U.S. routinely commits, encourages, funds, ignores and covers up? How are we to explain the collective lack of will to put a stop to the domestic gun slaughter, by citizens and by police, that makes Americans 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than in any other country in the world (save for those that are currently at war)?
I was born in 1949, and for my entire life this country I live in has been embroiled in wars, mostly of its own making. It has devoted the bulk of its collective national wealth over those decades to creating – and using – ever more powerful weapons of mass death and destruction and since the end of World War II has, by a conservative estimate, been responsible directly or indirectly for the killing of at least 10 million people, the vast majority of them civilians, and most of the rest fighters from other countries who were simply defending or trying to liberate their own homelands – an action that most Americans would readily defend if the people they were fighting against weren’t wearing U.S. uniforms.
Meanwhile, here at home we have this toxic culture that increasingly celebrates violence and considers owning a gun and being prepared to use it to settle disputes or to “defend” one’s family a national right equal to or perhaps greater than the gradually vanishing right to speak one’s mind and publish one’s thoughts, to freely assemble, and to petition the government about grievances.
How we got to this sorry state, where there are more guns in America than there are people, and where every day, according to the FBI, there is at least one mass shooting (defined for American purposes as the killing in one gun incident of at least four people), is an interesting subject for discussion, but at this point I’m more interested in how we move beyond discussion to making us a more peaceful people.
I’m convinced that the problem is that we in the U.S. are all so divorced these days from reality – living as we do in a state of increasing social atomization and in a world of illusion produced by films, television programs and digital media that all work to detach us from the real blood and gore and agony that are the consequence of our own collective violence.
When Hollywood shows our vaunted Special Forces “heroes” blowing up and slaughtering a bunch of terrorists and rescuing some hostage, committing war crimes with abandon, we don’t see the agonized death of the “collateral damage” victims of the assault – the children in an invaded building who are frequently blown away along with the “bad guys,” or the agonized deaths of those “bad guys” themselves. We don’t learn the complex reasons those “bad guys” have put their lives on the line in the first place – many of which if we stopped to listen to them, we might understand and even agree with. We see it all instead in black and white, and don’t have to deal with the consequences of our being wrong. We also watch cop films where the good guys are cops who break the rules in order to wreak their own “justice” on the “bad guys,” in a made-up world where cops are just trying to protect us, and would never make mistakes, at least on purpose.
In the real world, of course, it’s not that simple. Those VC that our military was slaughtering with our high-tech weaponry in Ken Burns’ PBS “myopic” were in fact courageously fighting against the United States in defense of their own country. They certainly were not attacking the United States or seeking its destruction, and indeed though they would have had every right to do so, no Vietnamese fighter ever sneaked into the U.S. to blow up a U.S. military target or even commit an act of “terror” against a civilian one. The Vietnamese, north and south, were fighting for the independence and unification of their own country. Even in the current U.S. war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, whom me may properly see as religious fanatics bent on establishing a medieval society alien to our own, have never attacked or even remotely threatened the U.S. They have been trying to rid their country of foreign, and what they perceive as immoral and heathen, influences. Once it was the Soviets. Now for the last 16 years, it’s been us.
We see the world of “them” – any other people that want to chart their own future independent of the wishes of the U.S. – as being against us, and for that cardinal sin, we are willing to unleash our incomparably destructive war machine against them, and civilian casualties be damned. So in Afghanistan, we recently obliterated a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kandahar, with a fixed-wing gunship known in the military as “Puff the Magic Dragon” raining down machine-gun fire on anything that moved for over half an hour and slaughtering doctors and patients alike. No American’s in the chain of command were punished for that atrocity and war crime. There were Taliban being treated in that facility, so the U.S. military argued it was fair game – a position the U.S. has taken over and over when it has destroyed hospitals, whether in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Syria. Similarly, we have been blowing up wedding parties in the Middle East, always “by mistake.” Mistakes happen, we’re told, and “We thought it was a Taliban convoy.” Oops.
Now Saudi Arabia is deliberately bombing schools and hospitals in Yemen, using jets and ordnance supplied by the U.S., and has created the world’s biggest cholera epidemic, which is killing innumerable children and old people, while also using cluster bomb weapons manufactured and sold to its military by the U.S. – weapon known to primarily kill children and other civilians. There have been some Al Qaeda people operating in Yemen, so we have to destroy the country, we’re told. And so we turn away and watch our football game, complaining that some of the players are disrespecting the flag to protest police brutality against black people.
There is no end to this kind of self-justifying murder and mayhem on the part of our government, or to the lusty support of most U.S. citizens, for whom the words “bomb the shit out of them,” or “bomb them back into the stone age” are on the tip of the tongue, ready to be uttered at the slightest provocation. No thought is given to what that sentiment really means in human terms.
Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember when I was 11 wanting nothing more than to own a gun. I have no idea why I wanted one. I was brought up loving animals and was not an aggressive kid or a bully. We had a dog, three cats, a Shetland pony, a goat and several chickens, and for a while several pet young raccoons and a pet bluejay that I had raised from a fallen nestling. I loved them all, and I loved wildlife in general.
But I wanted a gun, and when I was 12, my parents agreed to let me buy one – a beautiful Remington single-shot .22 rifle. I had to save up for it and pay for it myself. Then I used to ride my bicycle two miles to the local hardware store to buy a box of bullets for it. Back then in the 1950s, there was no age limit in Connecticut for owning a gun or for buying the ammo for it. Initially, I bought the cheapest short shells that had hardly any power. Then I started buying long-rifle shells that had substantially more power and range. Finally, I discovered hollow-points, where the lead projectile had a little hole drilled in the nose that caused the bullet to expand upon impact, increasing significantly the destructiveness of the little projectile.
My friends and I used to love to go out into the woods with our guns and try to use our hollow-points to shoot down small trees. The trick was to stand back 20 feet or so from some tree that had a trunk diameter of maybe four inches, and then to accurately shoot holes into it in as accurate a horizontal line as possible until the tree tumbled over. Exciting destructive stuff for a kid.
I’m not sure when the temptation came to actually kill something, but it eventually happened. If I remember right it was when I was out shooting randomly at selected inanimate targets with one of my best friends and we spied a bird perched on the top branches of a very distant tree. The bird was so small as to be unidentifiable to us. We decided to see who was the best shot. My friend fired and missed. I took a bead on the bird, fired, and watched in smug satisfaction as it fell to the ground.
We ran off to find it, but the tree was so far off that by the time we got there, my victim was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps I had wounded it, and it had managed to flutter off into the underbrush to die, or maybe some small predator had carried its body off before we got there. In any event, I didn’t have to witness the reality of what I had done, so I felt nothing but pride at my superb marksmanship.
From there, I went on to shoot several other small animals, mostly birds, and looking back, I marvel at how I gradually lost any sense of remorse at having killed them. I didn’t shoot bluejays or larger birds, which I had respect for – just more nondescript songbirds – sparrows and the like. I had somehow hardened my heart when it came to them after killing that first one.
Then one day, I and this same friend, whose family owned a couple of shotguns, went out with two of those guns with the intent of shooting ourselves a couple of grouse for the coming Thanksgiving holiday. I think at the time I was probably around 14 years of age. We had no luck despite walking around in the deep woods all morning trying to flush one of the birds, though we did flush a great horned owl, which was spared only because I shouted out “owl!” just as my friend was about to shoot it in the excitement of seeking a large brown winged creature flying up in front of him. He pulled the trigger but had turned his gun away in time so that he missed it.
Shortly after that pulse-raising incident, I did finally flush a grouse. As it began to fly up and away from me, I fired my shotgun. It was not a good shot, and I only succeeded in hitting it with a few errant pellets from the shell. It was enough of a hit to knock the bird out of the air, but it continued running through the underbrush. I began to run after it and heard a powerful explosion and felt a wind past my left ear. My friend, in his excitement, had fired at the running bird as I was chasing it, and nearly took my ear, or the back of my head, off!
Anyhow, I managed to catch the wounded bird. I picked it up, compressing its wings with my cupped hands, which quickly became coated in blood. As I held the frightened creature, it turned its little head frantically, seeking to find an escape. I began to cry as I held it, regretting what I had done, and not knowing what to do. A seasoned hunter might have just twisted its neck and put the little thing out of its pain, but I couldn’t do it. So I told my friend to reload and put barrel of his gun up against the back of the bird’s head and to fire while I held it. He did what I asked and I found myself holding a still, headless grouse, still bleeding, in my hands.
I was still crying, and was desperately wishing I had never shot it.
I tried to make the best of a bad situation bringing my unwanted trophy home, cleaning it, and trying to cook it for my Thanksgiving as if not wasting it would absolve me of my crime. My younger brother and sister, both animal lovers too, glowered at me as I attempted to pick out all the lead shot from the body. In the end, I ate very little of my bird. Even the shot aside, I had no appetite for my kill.
It was the last animal I ever shot. I lost interest in my gun too after that, and eventually sold it at a tag sale with no regrets.
That experience of killing the grouse was definitely a formative moment that came back to me when I was 17 and a senior in high school and we were studying the Vietnam War in a humanities class. Looking at the images of burning peasant homes in Vietnam, and of the victims of napalm being dropped on their villages, I remembered that helpless suffering little bird and decided I would not be able to accept the draft. Turning 18 in April 1967, I went to my local draft board to register and told the woman in the office that I would not allow myself to be drafted. I would refuse to go, I said. She warned me that would be illegal and that I might end up in jail, and advised me to apply for conscientious objector status if that was how I felt.
While I looked into that option, and on the advice of my history teacher did consult with a teacher at my school who had been a CO during the Korean War, I ultimately concluded I was not against all war. I was sure if my own country were invaded, I would fight to defend it, and that if I were Vietnamese, I would hope that I’d have the courage to be a Viet Cong fighter.
I did eventually go to a CO hearing at my draft board in 1969, but the hearing didn’t go over well when I made that same last point to them.
My story of draft resistance after that is irrelevant to this account. Suffice it to say that I rejected taking a student deferment, thinking it unfair to high school friends who hadn’t gone to college, and with a lottery number of 81, eventually had to deal with the inevitable induction notice and the consequences of that.
In October 1968, as a college freshman, I went down to the big Mobilization Against the War demonstration and march on the Pentagon and ended up on the Pentagon Mall at the front of a massive all-night sit in, where I burned my draft card and was eventually arrested and dragged off to the federal prison in Occoquan, VA along with hundreds of other protesters. I ended up getting arraigned and handed a five-day suspended sentence for misdemeanor trespassing at the Pentagon and left jail with a commitment to oppose the U.S. war in Indochina until it was ended.
I do believe that the course of my political life and even my choice of career as a journalist was set by that poor little grouse, and by my being forced to confront the true consequences of my violent urge to harm a living thing. Now I wonder if there’s any way that we can make it so that all Americans have to face the reality of the violence that we all so easily support or at least turn our attention away from.
Perhaps if we were forced, whether by our news media or our schools, to confront that reality, most of us would stop being so bloody-minded as a culture and as a nation.