We're losing each other, we're shoving each other away
By Bob Koehler on 7/9/2005, 8:50am PT  

Guest blogged by Robert C. Koehler

INTRODUCTION {by Winter Patriot}: If you thought there were no brave and honest journalists left in America, you'll be happy to know that you're wrong. Bob Koehler is living proof of that.

We are honored to have Bob with us for a bit of live blogging, but we are also richly blessed in that he has given us some fascinating reading.

In true blogger style, he sent these with the most recent piece first, the oldest last. But he'll probably forgive us if we walk you through them in chronological order. Our story starts here:

The Counter-Recruiters: All the charm of the draft — and then some

Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?

This flower-bedecked poster slogan from the '60s will surely be haunting the Army's "values stand-down" day on Friday, May 20, when the service branch's 7,500 recruiters and their COs take the day off for a little ethics force-feeding.

The Army's — the whole military's — desperation is showing. None of the four branches is meeting recruitment goals as a brutal, unpopular war drags on, and the recruiters, who are all under heavy pressure to snare two warm bodies a month for this lost cause, are getting outed in the media for appallingly unethical and illegal practices.

These practices, according to the New York Times, CBS News and other sources, include advising potential (bottom of the barrel) enlistees about how to circumvent drug-screening tests and create fake high-school diplomas, how to pass the physical (one overweight young man was given laxatives and the advice, "Don't tell your parents"), along with blatant threats and even, apparently, abduction.

Neighbors of Ever Jandres of Encino, Calif., recently wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. Howard Berman charging recruitment malfeasance and asking him to look into the 24-year-old learning-disabled epileptic's mysterious disappearance, Mark Crispin Miller reported online at News from Underground. A spokesman for Berman confirmed that the congressman is "very concerned" about the matter.

Jandres, who is Salvadoran and has a borderline low IQ, was apparently "befriended" by a local Army recruiter, who invited him to come with him to Arizona for three days to observe basic training. Five days later, his distraught mother (who speaks no English) got a phone call from her son, who told her, hysterically, that he was on a military base in South Carolina. He was now in the Army, he said, and wasn't allowed to stay on the phone longer than a minute. Family members' and friends' attempts to get any information from the Army have been fruitless.

We're fighting a war that many of the most ardent supporters want no part of, personally - any more than does anyone else of sound mind and the least claim on a future - so the recruiters are battling rationality itself as they struggle to sell inner-city teenagers on the glory of serving in occupied Iraq and signing themselves over to an organization that will essentially own them, body and soul, for the duration of their hitch or longer. Small wonder the recruiters are forced to bend, break and occasionally shatter the rules to get anybody to sign up.

However much ethical restraint they'll now be temporarily forced to incorporate into their basic spiel (no laxatives!), one thing's for sure: They won't begin telling prospective recruits the truth.

"We have to understand that one of the things that happens in war is, truth dies," said Ray Parrish, a Chicago-based counselor for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who left a well-paying job with full benefits to work with GIs returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

And he's hearing the same expressions of disillusionment, anger and betrayal that he heard when he counseled Vietnam vets and battled the VA to get them their rights. He's seeing the same shattered psyches, the same wrecked lives, the same post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The first vets over there are the ones having the worst time," he told me recently. "During the invasion part of the war, there was very little thought put into pulling the trigger and a lot of innocent civilians were being killed. The ones who pulled the triggers are the ones who are having the car accidents now."

Values stand-down or no values stand-down, the recruiters will not begin telling teenagers anytime soon about post-traumatic stress disorder; high vet suicide rates (among Vietnam vets, it has been estimated to be triple the number of names on The Wall); or today's equivalent of Agent Orange, depleted uranium, which, when breathed in, can devastate health over the long term and, especially cruel to young couples, cause birth defects.

Supplying this information is the job of the counter-recruiters, and the fact that they're out there is one of the most important stories of the war. The vets themselves are the counter-recruiters, telling the truth to high school students.

This is the way back from post-traumatic stress disorder - the way for shattered men and women to redeem themselves and rejoin the human race. "It's part of the healing," Parrish said. "That's what the vets are doing - making sure the recruiters don't sell at all."

Suppose they gave a war and nobody came? This is what we're witnessing, slowly, one wised-up teenager at a time.

We'll come back to The Counter-Recruiters in a moment, but first please read one of Bob Koehler's more recent columns:

The Spirit of Nazism: Supporters of American torture want us to cut them a little slack

When I was a kid and the worldwide horror at Nazi atrocities was fresh, I had no doubt that the only way the human race could climb from the pit they put us in was by letting the images of the concentration camps stamp themselves on our consciences forever, so that as individuals and as a nation what we stood for first was: Never Again.

Nazism, as I grasped it in my formative years, was a monster loose in the collective psyche, a live possibility of evil set loose by hatred and blind obedience (“we were just following orders”), which required a moral stand far, far in advance of the next reappearance of Der Fuhrer. Every instance of the dehumanization of one group of people or another had to be fervently opposed not because it was Nazism's full flower — the boxcars, the gas chambers, the Final Solution, the 6 million dead — but because this is how it all starts. This is the precondition for holocaust.

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois grew up in the same era that I did and learned the same post-World War II moral lessons, and his recent words on the floor of the Senate — the ones that set off such wailing and howling among the diminishing ranks of supporters of the Iraq war — reverberated with the shock and disbelief of a 10-year-old thumbing through a Life magazine photo spread on Auschwitz. His words were politically incautious; they were honest.

“If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control,” he said, referring to the torture and humiliation of detainees at Guantanamo, “you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings.”

The fury that ensued was rooted in a different take on the moral meaning of Nazism: that only its aggregate death toll matters. Because our kill count in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn't approach the number of corpses Hitler or Stalin racked up, Durbin has no right comparing torturers in American uniforms with those in Nazi or Soviet uniforms.

And just like that, the spirit of Nazism vanishes as humanity's warning signal and becomes instead a moral cover. As long as we keep our kill numbers sub-genocidal (only 100,000 or so), we can kick detainees to death for a good cause, bomb civilians, fire on journalists and storm hospitals. As long as our population of political prisoners held without charges in inhumane conditions — “chained to the floor, deprived of food and water,” as per the FBI report Durbin cited — is in the mere tens of thousands, our prison network can't be called a gulag.

If Durbin's comparison had truly been out of line, it wouldn't have generated such hysteria. It would have been worth a pitying shrug, a roll of the eyeballs. But it hit a nerve precisely because it was so dead-on accurate. The horror of our little war on terror is that we're behaving with the same lurid inhumanity that has, since the 1940s, been associated with Nazism.

Durbin was the courageous messenger bringing this news to the floor of the Senate. Republicans didn't shoot the messenger, but their demands that he “apologize,” retract what we said and abase himself were the political equivalent of doing so.

I must confess I have almost as little patience with the Democrats' making the same demand a few days later of Karl Rove, who at a GOP fund-raiser in Manhattan said liberals were wimps: “Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war. Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.”

Ha ha, Karl. Good one. Democrats on the Defensive (a permanent subcommittee of the DNC) tried to match the decibel level of the GOP howls a few days earlier. They failed, of course — they always do — but managed in the process to remind their constituency of one of their most egregious betrayals: their role in Congress' near-unanimous vote after 9/11 giving George Bush carte blanche to make war on the world.

Rove and Co. — including Bush in his Tuesday night speech at Fort Bragg, N.C. — are still trying to milk 9/11 for political gain, even as they evade the consequences of their reckless militarism and perpetuate the lie that the invasion of Iraq, planned well before 9/11, was a response to the hijackings.

I wish the Democrats, rather than trying to wring a political apology out of Rove, could have turned his words against him. He did belittle the values of many, if not most, of his countrymen, who following the terrorist attacks wanted not indiscriminate war against Islam but a compassionate re-evaluation of the use of force to achieve geopolitical ends. We ache for this all the more as we watch our military machine churn out more atrocities.

Two brutally honest columns, I thought. Some people thought different. As evidence, consider the following, which Mr. Koehler sent us just recently, and which, as far as we know, has not been previously published:

I've been wrestling for a while now with the extremely personal tone of some of my negative mail lately. It has always been my policy not to dismiss anyone's point of view when he or she takes the trouble to write to me, which can leave me emotionally vulnerable to their words. Lawrence Ferlinghetti once said, "Keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out." When I flub that dictum, it's not in the direction of closing my mind but losing my brains.

Here follow some letters on another recent column, "The Counter-Recruiters," which follows the letters. The letters I received in response to it, like those I got regarding "The Spirit of Nazism," were stingingly personal and are part of what fueled "America, America."

The first set of letters are an exchange with one guy, including my mild, let's-put-this-on-civilized-terms response, which was a total bust:

===

1A. I served in the Army, and now my son (Proudly) is serving in the Army. The next time you see the enemy (if in fact, he is YOUR enemy- which I question). Remember that the only thing that stands between him and you, is people like my son, who is brave enough to do the job that needs to be done.

When my son asks me about people like you I remind him that COWARDS need protecting too. Because I can spot a coward very easily, that is part of what we learn in the service. And I have to remind myself cowards need protecting too.

You are not fooling anybody, least of all the real men of this world.

B.G.

1B. Thanks for writing. I realize we disagree. The next step is to disagree without name-calling. Whaddya think?

Bob Koehler

1C. You don't realize that your the first guys to kick the USA and you would be the first run to run and hide. I have earned the right to call you names. You're a coward, I can spot 'em a mile away. YOu know it too. Don't worry, I'll leave you alone, it will be our little secret - your a coward, thus, cowed by real men.

Just be thankful there are those that are not cowed.

===

2. Your desperation is showing...the people in the military don't need to be lectured about the hardship of serving our country...we've done it...I spent 30 years in the Army and have two sons in now... Men and women will continue to serve in our military service so that you can continue to be the cringing coward you sound like. :)

Have a nice day

F.H.

COL (Retired)

US Army

===

3. Gee, I've missed hearing that old mindless "suppose they gave a war and nobody came" line. It certainly worked for the French in WW II, but only because people like my father, who fought and died in that war, believed that there are some things worth fighting for. I assume you are one of the hell-no-we-won't-go generation, which is unfortunate since it would be nice if you could live long enough to see what disparaging our military will do to this country. The sacrifice young Americans are making to preserve our way of life by building democracies in places where life is devalued and denigrated could, with the help of people like you, become meaningless and even foolish. "Innocent civilians" died here one September 11, in case you've forgotten, and as far as I know, they weren't killed by American soldiers. I wonder who will defend our country when our military crumbles. My guess is it won't be you.

V.T.

With all that background, we're in a fair position to appreciate Bob Koehler's most recent column,

America, America: We're losing each other, we're shoving each other away

I don't know who "Steve" is or whether he's really 6-foot-5 and weighs 265 pounds, but, whatever else can be said about him, he has to be credited with clarifying how bad things can get when dialogue breaks down.

As we wage war abroad, we seem to be edging closer to waging it at home as well: Red vs. Blue. It's kind of a game. Both sides play it and the media promote and indulge it - this mutual and, to some extent, willful misunderstanding of one another. It's just a short hop from there to denial of humanity and the fervent wish to terminate the existence of an ideological nuisance.

"I've run into you in the past. The next time will be a memorable event. Why? Because extensive reconstructive surgery will still not make you recognizable to your family members!"

This was followed by an obscenity involving my mother, in extra large type, then signed with a first name and the intimidating body stats. That's the entirety of the message.

The only indication of what might have set him off was on the subject line, which contained a reference to the column I wrote last week elucidating the moral context of Sen. Richard Durbin's comparison of U.S. torture practices to Nazism, Soviet gulags and Pol Pot. Retrieving the letter from my inbox was the low point of a Fourth of July spent in extended soul-searching.

I was doing that because I'd already gotten a lot of disturbing mail on that column, which I was trying to make sense of. Indeed, one writer had concluded a lengthy letter with that very suggestion: "I hope on this the Fourth of July weekend, you can do some soul searching and understand why your column is so insulting to all who have come to call themselves Americans."

Not all of the mail was critical. A great deal of it was supportive. But the common thread of the angry letters was that, by defending Durbin - by making the case that this country could go down a terrible path just as Germany did, and that the torture scandal may be an early warning signal - I was defiling the troops and trespassing on sacred ground. One writer said: "It was the most biased, hate America, leftist opinion I have ever read."

Again with the America reference. After reading enough letters with the same tone, the same invocation of this exclusive, mythical "America" - the America of purple mountains majesty but not of slave markets, Jim Crow laws or several hundred years of genocide against the continent's original inhabitants - I began getting the weird feeling that I was being expelled, excommunicated, from a church I had never belonged to.

Except, well, that's not entirely true. I do belong to the mythical "Church of America," by virtue of having grown up in it and been stamped indelibly by it. I also belong, of course, to the real America, sprawling, flawed, violent, multicultural. I'm dissatisfied with, yet fervently believe in, both myth and reality. The two of them together are a work in progress.

And this begins to get at the nature of the soul-searching that consumed my Fourth. As I read each damning letter, I could feel a tearing in my own breast. It's not that I mind having my views challenged or wince at debate. Usually I relish it, but on this day I felt that the stakes were higher than I could cope with. We're losing each other, we're shoving each other away - we citizens of the two Americas - and no good can come of this.

I thought about my daughter, who recently got back from South Korea and said to me that three weeks in that far more homogenous culture gave her a whole new appreciation for her country: America the Diverse, the world's Petri dish of racial and ethnic commingling. We've achieved, after years of struggle, a basic, street-level acceptance of superficial human differences that have bedeviled the human race, and kept it embroiled in preposterous conflict, for millennia beyond counting. That's something to be proud of.

Something has kept this country together through the shouting match of our becoming, and I guess I have always taken that "something" for granted - this sense, I suppose, that I have a right to be here and say my say with full-throated passion, and so do you. Why do I doubt this all of a sudden?

Perhaps because I've just gotten a glimpse of what a civil war would be like: two halves separating, each claiming full ownership of the treasure of wholeness.

Bob Koehler will be here to respond to the best of your comments and questions early on Sunday. Please join us at 8AM Pacific time, 11AM Eastern. This should be very interesting.

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