Saturday, February 28, 2009

Emails about respect for military service people

Of late, it seems that many of my conservative friends and family have seen fit to forward me all sorts of stuff about respect for those who have served and/or are serving today in the military.

I’ve written at some length about my military service elsewhere, so I shan’t repeat all that here. Suffice it to say two things. (1) The views of service people vary considerably from one to the next – there’s no simple way to distill how service people feel about the military and their service within it. In particular, people sending me these emails seem not to grasp how I feel about these topics. (2) My opinions about this are definitely the result of my having been called to service in the time of an unpopular and unnecessary war – in Vietnam.

For a long time, my service in Vietnam was something I felt ashamed of, primarily because I chose the path of not actively opposing the Vietnam War by either refusing to be drafted or by leaving the country for Canada. I felt shame precisely because even before being called to service, it was evident to me that this was a bad war. Allowing myself to be drafted and going into the Army was an act of cowardice – I was afraid to make my actions consistent with my beliefs – a form of hypocrisy. With time, my attitude about my service has changed somewhat. I've forgiven myself for my fear. While I maintain my belief that the Vietnam War was a tragic mistake for the US, I’m no longer ashamed of having done my duty for my country when it called – like my father before me, and my son after me – in a war on foreign soil.

I don’t resent anyone who managed to skate out of military service in a foreign war, but only insofar as they don’t become “chicken hawks” – those who favor US participation in foreign wars so long as they themselves aren’t called to serve in it. I hold all chicken hawks in complete contempt. If you’re not in the ranks volunteering to do your duty in such a war, then you have no right to ask anyone else to make the sacrifices you’re unwilling to make.

Because the Vietnam War became an unpopular war, many of us who served in the military at the time were subjected to various forms of disrespect. It was a bad time to be a service member. In recent years, it seems that civilian attitudes toward the military have changed dramatically, even including civilians who might oppose US participation in a foreign war. The phrase is “You can hate the war, but you shouldn't hate the warriors.” I believe in that principle, and I certainly don’t need an onslaught of email forwards espousing this position to influence my decision to follow that admonition. Whatever we might think about the political basis for a war on foreign soil, we should honor the sacrifices made on our behalf by our young men and women.

However, I believe we also should honor the sacrifices made by people whose beliefs cause them to refuse military service. From where I sit, conscientious objectors reflect the high ideals many of us claim to have. If, as has happened in the past, they’re prosecuted for their beliefs, then even though we may not believe as they do, we should honor the courage of their convictions.

Obviously, I already believe we should honor all those who served our country in all foreign wars in the past, popular or not. I need no email message chiding me to have respect for WWII and Korean War veterans. I understand them a lot better than many of those who’ve sent me these emails but who've never served in the US military.

Frankly, I’m more than a little tired of receiving these email forwards. Many of them carry implicit messages with which I definitely disagree. For instance, although burning the American flag is something I would never do, it’s my opinion that American service people gave their lives to protect the right for Americans to express themselves freely. Burning a flag is a symbol of protest, and it shouldn’t be considered a crime, ever. If we get to the point where a symbolic act becomes a crime, then the sacrifices by our service members in the past will have been in vain. Freedom of expression is, perhaps more than any other principle of American democracy, the most precious of our rights here in the USA. I’m quite willing to let anyone with beliefs and viewpoints different from my own express those opinions, but I’m becoming concerned about the belligerence and implied violence against those with different beliefs that often lurks just below the surface of many so-called “conservative” Americans. Expression of opposition to government policies and activities is a necessary component of American democracy and is at the heart of what is good about the USA. If you don’t like what I say, then you’re free to disagree, but you should be willing to defend my right to say it – anything less than that is pure hypocrisy.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


"Chuck's Chatter" is a reincarnation. When I was in high school, I was privileged to have a sports column. In that column, in my high school newspaper's sport section, under the title of "Chuck's Chatter" (with a by-line) I once wrote the following editorial:

Willowbrook's physical education program is one of the finest in the state. This can be attributed to the excellent coordination between a program of physical development and application of certain skills to sports and games.

This idea leads the students to realize that physical health can be fun. Certainly this is in keeping with the president's fitness program.

However, do broken limbs also support this idea? Do cracked digits and smashed noses encourage healthful recreation?

Such deplorable accidents happen daily in the sport of speedball. In this sport, the object is to kick or carry a ball into an end zone guarded by a goalie. In the attempt to gain possession of the ball, heavy blocking is responsible for many of the injuries sustained. There are rules against clipping, or hitting from behind, but they are often disobeyed and overlooked. Broken arms and fingers can be the result.

During the confusion of the attempt to get points, often the ball is kicked with great force into the faces of the players. In addition, the players often strike each other accidentally, with the result that noses are smashed and eyes are blackened.

Often while scrambling for the ball, a boy gets kicked hard in the shin with consequent cuts, bruises or sprains.

The number of serious injuries over the years is larger than it should be. These injuries are the fault on no one person in particular, the blame falling on the game itself. The lack of equipment plus an inadequate number of teachers to watch the progress of the game also contributes to the danger. These factors prevent speedball from being a safe high school PE sport. It should be discontinued or modified to make it safer.

This column followed from my having a broken thumb after being clipped in the course of a speedball game in PE. I didn't imagine that my criticism would create a firestorm of response from the PE teachers, resulting in a "retraction" in my column in the next issue of the paper:

A final word on my last column. The accidents which have happened are not daily occurrences. This was an error on my part.

This was my first, but not my last, experience with the "powers that be" within a bureaucratic system. I suppose I was unhappy about what happened to me in my PE class, and I know that other students were injured in speedball, as well - but I had no idea that the system wouldn't respond well to criticism by a high school student on the basis of actual occurrences. I was forced to "retract" my comments, although I managed to make my retraction somewhat muted over what was originally demanded. In effect, my retraction wound up being close to a "non-retraction" if you read it carefully. The PE teachers apparently were satisfied, and didn't realize how carefully I'd worded that apparent retraction. PE teachers in high school aren't known for recogition of subtleties in wording.

My lack of respect for arbitrary authority springs from this (and other) experiences. To me, respect is earned, not just a function of someone's position in a hierarchy. My views on this haven't changed in 50 years.