A Conversation With Doug Rawlings, Part Two

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This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.

SeekingRedress (SR): You say, “the Vietnamese people suffered greatly at our hands. Millions lost their lives, hundreds of thousands still suffer from the ravages of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance just waiting to be touched and set off.” This really hits me hard, for several reasons. One is that I have been reading about and researching the Hmong people of Laos since high school, the effects of our war on them and their own refugee crisis that happened when we left SE Asia. And, of course, we are facing a new refugee crisis in the middle east and Europe, and since the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, this has become a raging debate here in the US. There seems to be so little compassion for these people that suffer from our military interventions. Why do you think that is? How can we address it?

Doug Rawlings (DR): I think one of the weaknesses of our culture can be found in an educational system and a religious milieu that does not nourish empathy in our young people and certainly in all generations. I believe we are born with empathy—the capability of putting ourselves in another’s shoes—but that capability has to be worked on, allowed to mature, and then be nourished throughout our lives. Then we could indeed imagine what it must be like for Syrian mothers and fathers, fleeing war torn areas, as they struggle to protect their children.
Of course, another reason is the obvious one—very few US citizens have ever witnessed war as the victims of prolonged bombing campaigns. So it takes education, especially provided by veterans, to nudge Americans into a frame of mind that actually includes others rather than just themselves and their families. (Emphasis added.)
I am also currently under the influence of Naomi Klein’s recent book, “This Changes Everything” that ties self-serving corporate capitalism to the devastation of our global environment while also impoverishing large swaths of people. She points out that the US military that is often employed to protect the interests of ‘extractivist’ corporations is the largest polluter in the world. So we as a people, as US citizens, must work locally, as well as globally, to lessen our negative impact on the world. Finally, I urge all citizens to volunteer their services at their local VA hospitals, to witness firsthand, some of the damage done by war, but also to actively help in the healing process. Compassion can begin at home and then widen out from there..

SR: During the war in Vietnam, America saw huge protest movements. In the run up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, we again saw a wave of protests. But it has been largely silent since. Why do you think that is? What do you think it will take to pull Americans together to stop this increasing militarism and corruption of our current leaders?

DR: I think that for some reason Americans have lost the capacity to become engaged in a social movement for an extended period of time. Think of the movements of the past—the abolitionists, the suffragettes, the civil rights activists, the anti-war activists, the feminists, the nuclear war resisters, etc. I do have hope that real concerns for the environment are galvanizing people to act and that their actions will indeed build into a movement that politicians cannot ignore. I have to say, though, that the current two party system in this country does not inspire me—mainly because both parties are deeply beholden to corporate interests. What scared ‘the man’ during the Occupy Movement was the whiff they got of the counter-culture movement that rose up during the sixties. People involved in these movements just took themselves completely out of the system and created their own lives, lives that were full and satisfying. It took the popular media years to co-opt that pulse in American life back in the sixties. I also believe in the social equivalent of evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of punctuated equilibrium. He used the notion to explain that evolution is not a gradual process but a process that involves real spikes and valleys. So just when it looks like our society is doomed, I hope an uprising will take place to change everything. We just have to keep working to have that uprising take place non-violently. As far as we in VFP (Veterans For Peace) go, I think our major contribution might be in convincing rank and file soldiers that they do not have to participate in the corporate militarism wracking this world. I think there have been tens of thousands of soldiers applying for conscientious status since 9/11. There are also countless deserters from the military floating around, looking for a moral anchor, whom we can help and protect. Finally, I think we can pull together when we wake up to the plantation system we are currently serving—we do not have to be violent, nor do we have to sacrifice the good life—we just have to work together communally and locally welcome others into our communities who share our values. Gandhi knew that the most powerful tool to thwart colonialism was to disengage with it completely. We can work on doing the same with corporatism. (Emphasis added)

SR: What do you think is driving us into this increasing militarism? This constant state of war?

DR: Our fear that our current level of over-consumption will be threatened and taken away from us. Add in a touch of good old American ‘exceptionalism’ and you have a lethal mixture. And, of course, don’t underestimate the power of the advertising industry. I have to admit to being an avid football fan, so I weekly expose myself to the rant and militaristic glorification that surrounds these games. Note: a recommended read is the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. The author nails it in this book. We cannot allow ourselves to be manipulated by this “soma.” (see Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.)
So, look at this vicious cycle—our imperial military (really, we are in the belly of an empire) needs oil to fuel its grand machine, so it must guarantee that oil reserves are protected, so it must occupy other countries to ensure that the flow continues. And now that technology allows us to send in robots (i.e., drones) so that our young soldiers are kept out of harm’s way for the most part, we can sit back and enjoy the fruits of our whiz bang wizardry. For a while. But the chickens will come home to roost—suicide bombers with nothing to lose because we have destroyed their futures. And, of course, the threat of such terrorism fuels even further the fear that war mongers (and munitions makers) use to keep people at bay. Here’s a related poem:

On War Memorials

Corporate America
be forewarned:
We* are your karma
We are your Orion
rising in the night sky
We are the scorpion
in your jackboot

Corporate America
be forewarned:
We will not buy
your bloody parades anymore
We refuse your worthless praise
We spit on
your war memorials

Corporate America
be forewarned:
We will not feed you
our bodies
our minds
our children
anymore

Corporate America
be forewarned:
If we have our way
(and we will)
the real war memorials
will rise
from your ashes

*The ‘we’ in this poem are Vietnam veterans and their friends who believe war is immoral, unjust, and plain stupid.

SR: The final two paragraphs of your essay are really powerful to me:

It deeply saddens me to see that our nation’s self-perpetuating war machine is cranked up and once again running in high gear. Here in 21st century America, there is an insidious, self-serving faux adulation at play, one that has been fed on steroids, to turn every soldier automatically into a “hero,” so every poor soul coming back from his or her war (and, oh yes, we do own those wars) can’t even cuddle up with a loved one and speak the truths of his or her experience for fear of tarnishing the thread-worn mantle of hometown hero.
This is by design. Unscrupulous politicians use returning veterans as the emotional equivalent of human shields to deflect the public’s frustration with disastrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Heaven forbid if these new veterans would ever join us old namvets and stop the palaver about valor and heroics for a moment to acknowledge the grotesqueries of war. Think of how the munitions factories and war colleges would all have to shut their doors. And people would have to publicly thank teachers, nurses, doctors, maintenance workers, police officers for their service. Imagine that.

You’ve already mentioned some things, but can you offer some solutions, some ideas, of things that we can all do in our day to day lives to end our support of the corporations (“munitions makers”) and politicians who are running our country right now?

DR: We have to accept more personal responsibility for our actions and become more educated, more conscious of how our lifestyles impact others. Klein talks about ‘sacrifice zones’ in her remarkable book—i.e., for most of the privileges and luxuries we enjoy in the western world, a group of people have been forced to ‘sacrifice’ their comforts and their lifestyles to accommodate our rapacious corporations. As Marine General Smedley Butler, two time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, remarked: “war is a racket” whereby the military protects the corporations. In addition to that, we have become a nation whose economy is dependent on war manufacturing. For example, we have become the number one exporter of small arms. As we collectively wring our hands about the slaughter of innocents around the world, we should take a moment to see where the weapons the so-called terrorists are using are made. So what we can do is look for weapons manufacturers in our states and begin encouraging them to shift their production from weapons to infrastructure projects. That is not as far fetched as it might seem—military contracts are notoriously fickle and most war production is not as labor-intensive as infrastructure production. So an economic shift to peacetime production could be a win/win situation for everyone. We just have to do our research and then make a commitment to maintain pressure on local and state politicians.

SR: We are approaching the 2016 election. Do you see a solution there?

DR: I waver back and forth. Most of the time I am fed up with both parties—the Republicans have become a dangerous joke, and Bernie sounds good most of the time but then his support of Israel and some military adventures causes me pause. And Hillary is a real war hawk who scares me. Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party is the most competent and politically savvy of the bunch, but she doesn’t stand a chance with the system we now have in place. So I think we need to work on local and state politicians to push back against the militarists. When it comes to the actual election day, I will probably vote for the candidate who is not a Republican because I can’t contribute to letting any one of those clowns win the day.

SR: I am really concerned about the things we are taught, and not taught, about history today. You are currently involved in a project that is addressing the way the historical narrative about the war in Vietnam is portrayed. Will you tell me a little bit about Vietnam Full Disclosure?

DR: Thanks for asking. Unfortunately President Obama has dedicated $65 million for a Pentagon scheme to “commemorate” a series of fifty year anniversaries over the next decade focusing on the Vietnam War. The Pentagon purports to be the ultimate source for young people to turn to if they are studying the war. We have found their website to be woefully inadequate, mainly because it provides only a superficial context for most events, pretty much ignores the plight of the Southeast Asian people caught up in our war, and almost completely ignores the significance of the anti-war movement. We are convinced that their motives are not to be purely educational, but that they want to sugarcoat this war and make it more palatable for young Americans so that it loses its significance as a real “canary in the mine” (as in, “look what happens when we bring our military into a civil war, when we choose to side with the over-reaching landlords, when we sacrifice our own young soldiers in an immoral war”). We believe their intent is to put this war in what they consider to be its rightful place, so that they can wage more wars like it. And the insidious part of this enterprise is that they are couching their efforts in the terms that make it sound as if they are finally giving us Vietnam veterans our due. Hogwash. So we have mounted our own website at vietnamfulldisclosure.org  as a resource. We have developed our own timeline, and asked for articles, art, music, personal narratives, and historical accounts to flesh out what that war was really like. And we pay special attention to the Southeast Asian perspectives as well. Finally, we have put together a series of teach-ins around the country and will continue to do so for the next decade. We would love to collaborate with high schools and colleges in this endeavor.

SR: I love this. I encourage everyone to check out this website, and to share this! I’ll be looking into the teach ins more, and the idea of working with schools, because I think its critical RIGHT NOW to make our youth aware of the truth about war, since they are inheriting this increasingly scary mess.
Are there any current or upcoming events you would like to bring to my attention, that I can share with readers? Also, is there somewhere you would like to direct us to see more of your writing?

DR: Well, one event that holds a special place in my heart is our annual Memorial Day letter writing campaign. Last year we sent out a request for people to write a letter to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. (The Wall). We asked them to speak directly to the names on the memorial. We received 151 letters and 32 postcards, each expressing a heartfelt response to the war. Some were written by medics who directed their pain towards those on The Wall whom they could not save; some were written by the children of veterans; some were written by military deserters who fled the US rather than serve in the war; some were written by conscientious objectors; some were written by partners of those who died. Almost all of the letters shared one theme—the authors were deeply dismayed by the futility of that war. In any event, on Memorial Day, we placed those letters and postcards at the foot of The Wall and encouraged passers-by to read them. We witnessed some very moving encounters with these words. Then, a few weeks later the National Park Service contacted us and asked to put some of the letters on display. So, we will be asking for a thousand more letters this year—please write one.
By the way, if anyone is interested in my poetry, I have two collections published—Orion Rising and A G.I. In America—that can be purchased through Lulu.com. (Just go to their bookstore and then to their poetry section and put in my name.

SR: I am just going to include the link here.
Again, I want to thank you, this means so much to me to be able to share your thoughts and ideas. And some of your poems, which I find to be so honest and moving. I sincerely hope that people will consider what you’ve said, and spread the word!  Here is one more of your poems, which I think says a lot:

Unexploded Ordnance: A Ballad

for Chuck and the thousands of Vietnamese who are working to undo what we have done.

So I was maybe all of twenty-one
when they whipped me
into some kind of soul-less shape
Yet another one of America’s
weeping mothers’ sons
Sent forth into this world
to raze, pillage, and rape

And now it’s coming on
to another Christmas Eve
And songs of joy and peace
fill up our little town
How I ask myself
could I possibly believe
I could do what I did
and not reap what I had sown

In that land far away
from what I call home
A grandfather leads
his granddaughter by the hand
Into a field where we did
what had to be done

They trip into a searing heat
brighter than a thousand suns

 

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