The first time I heard Bob Dylan’s “Chimes Of Freedom” I was in tears for almost the entire song. It’s not a short song, either, clocking in at a hefty 7 minutes and 10 seconds. I wonder how many people today would find time to listen to a 7 minute protest song, especially one protesting against things that people seem to have decided nothing can be done about anyway.
Why the lyrics affected me so strongly, I’m not sure. The short answer is probably that I was 18 or 19 years old, and ready, even desperate, to be passionately for or against something or anything. It certainly wasn’t because I was able to personally identify with the predicaments of the hopeless and hapless characters enumerated by Mr. Dylan. At that age I hadn’t yet been in jail, homeless, an outlaw, a prostitute, a poet behind his rightful time or a lonesome-hearted lover with too personal a tale. More than 40 years later, I still – touch wood – haven’t been a refugee, a rake or a soldier, though I came close enough to the latter to feel the hot breath of war at the back of my neck, like a rampaging dragon that, at the last minute, someone else went out to dispatch on my behalf.
I received my draft notice a couple times, but on each occasion something intervened to stop me being suited up and shipped out to Vietnam. The first time I was re-admitted to college and regained my student deferment; the second time, I was already at Fort Wayne undergoing my physical when it was ascertained that I was too mentally unstable for the delicate business of shooting people and blowing things up. In a fit of pique, I’d set a few little fires and been caught; as part of my punishment, I’d be forever banned from setting some really big fires on the other side of the planet.
Freed from the terror of conscription that pursued most males of my generation, I devolved into an almost cartoonish hippie and radical. Part of my semi-official costume involved wearing an old US Army shirt bedecked with peace symbols and protest buttons. Early in the winter of 1967 I was at a party when a soldier on leave from Vietnam asked me where I’d gotten the shirt, if I’d actually served in the Army, and if so, with what unit.
When I told him I’d never been in the Army, he said with firmness but no particular menace that I shouldn’t be wearing any part of the uniform, that it was an insult to those who did so legitimately. I tried to be my usual flippant, smart-mouthed self, but it wasn’t working. It was easy to shout insults on protest marches when surrounded by thousands of my comrades, but face to face with this fellow’s quiet dignity and courage, I could feel nothing but ashamed.
That’s when I began to develop what I’d like to think is a more nuanced but is possibly just a more confused view of war and soldiering. I didn’t stop protesting the Vietnam War, nor the several that came after it, but at the same time, I began to develop a greater appreciation and respect for the men and women who, for a variety of different reasons, put their bodies and souls on the line to wage those wars.
I say “began” because as recently as the early 1980s – when, as far as I can recall, there was not even a war going on, I shouted vile insults at some soldiers parading through San Francisco during Fleet Week. I knew they were powerless to break ranks and come after me, so I felt emboldened to accuse them of everything wrong with society in general and the American government in particular. But once again I wound up feeling ashamed of myself. The soldiers might or might not have been misguided in their reasons for joining the military – by this time, the draft had ended and everyone in uniform was a volunteer – but doing what they did exhibited far more courage than a loudmouthed pothead standing on a sidewalk in downtown San Francisco ever had.
I was reminded of this last week during a brief visit to my old stomping grounds in Berkeley, when I saw a car adorned with a dozen protest stickers expressing variants of “Stop The War” or “Bring The Troops Home Now.” The car and the stickers were new, but the slogans were timeless; I’ve been seeing them on bumpers and placards ever since I first arrived in Berkeley in 1968. Over the years there have been times when I’d wonder which particular war they meant to be stopping, only to realize it didn’t matter, that there was always a war somewhere, even if I wasn’t immediately aware of it. “End This Endless War” is a slogan that I’ve begun to see in more recent years, and while I can appreciate the sentiment, it can sometimes call to mind Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One, who, asked what he was rebelling against, countered, “What have you got?”
Visiting Berkeley, where everything seems to be seen only in profound black and white, can produce such jaundiced views in a guy, but back on the East Coast, I’ve reverted to my normal antiwar self. Except that to me it never seems quite so simple and clearcut as the “end the war” and “bring the troops home” protesters would have it.
Granted, there are any number of wars, past and present, that should never have started, George W. Bush’s disastrous incursion into Iraq being among the more obvious. I feel bad that I didn’t more actively oppose it at the time it was being launched, not that its architects would have paid any more attention to me than they did to the millions who did march and protest. Quite apart from the immorality of unleashing such havoc on a nation in pursuit of a muddled and ill-conceived purpose, Iraq along with Afghanistan may prove to be the double whammy that will prove the undoing of America itself, just as every past empire has finally been undermined and felled by overreach and hubris.
Be that as it may, as I type these words in the dark hours before dawn, deep in deepest December, hundreds of thousands of men, women and even children are out there in the night, underdog soldiers all of them, regardless of who or what they fight for, regardless of what if any uniform they wear. I can’t even comprehend how terrifying it must be to live with the awareness that at any moment bombs or rockets or mortar fire might rain down and change forever or simply end the only life they’ve ever known.
It’s one reason I couldn’t imagine ever being president: I don’t think it’s possible to govern a great state, even a relatively benign one, without at times giving orders that ultimately result in people getting killed. It’s easy for those of us who hold no real power – or politicians campaigning for but not yet possessing power – to proffer glib unilateral solutions, but war by nature is never unilateral. Withdrawing troops from one side of the struggle may end the struggle but not necessarily replace it with anything we could recognizably call peace.
Sometimes refusing to fight is heroic; at other times it’s suicidal. Orwell pointed out quite eloquently how British pacifists during World War II were, no matter how noble their principles, effectively siding with the Nazis. We face no such existential threat today; an immediate and total withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan would not result in our being overrun with Sunni insurgents or Taliban rebels, and it would save many American lives.
The outcome wouldn’t be so salubrious for citizens of those unfortunate countries; many of them would die in the civil conflicts that would follow, and many more would suffer indignities and repression worse than they’re saddled with today. That’s not meant as an argument for American forces staying in those countries indefinitely or at all, just a recognition of what seems to elude the grasp of militant hawks and doves alike: it’s not that simple.
I devoutly wish every soldier from every side could be home with his or her family tonight; sadly, I know this is not going to happen, now or perhaps ever. Barring that, I wish them safety and comfort and peace, things that they must experience, if at all, in brief intervals. Only time will tell which if any wars were just, and whether the “right” or “wrong” side won. But the soldiers themselves don’t enjoy the luxury of such philosophical discourses; they are too busy fighting, not just for nations great and small, not just for “freedom,” whatever that may come to mean, but for the bare facts of staying alive and unmaimed.
No sane person would envy them their lot, even if in many cases they voluntarily embraced it. Similarly, no sane person could fail to see their character and courage, no matter how little or how much one might agree with their cause. War itself is the enemy; the soldiers who wage it are as much its victims as its perpetrators. Until such time as we find true peace and true justice for all, may every bullet miss its mark, every bomb fail to explode, every field be free from battle, and every fortification no longer needed. Thank you for your service, brave fighting men and women, and may you live to fight no more.