With today’s episode, our Last Chance Democracy Café road trip comes to an end at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As Horace confronts demons of his own involving the death of his only son, Lester, in Vietnam, the rest of us are left to ponder the broader betrayal of two generations of American soldiers, including the one unfolding now in Iraq. And I find myself wondering: is it possible that in some crazy way, having nothing to do with the neoconservatives’ war goals, that some small element of good might still grow from this debacle.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 70: The Wages of Betrayal
by Steven C. Day
Wouldn’t it be ironic, if the neoconservative betrayal of this nation over Iraq turned out to be the very thing that revitalizes both progressive politics and our democracy as a whole?
And, no, even if that turns out to be true, it won’t begin to be worth the price.
Haynes Johnson wrote a book years ago about Ronald Reagan titled, Sleepwalking Through History. It seems to me that in recent years Americans have been sleepwalking through democracy.
Whatever fire for liberty once burned in the belly of the American soul, seems long ago to have grown cooler, if not cold. And, yes, I suppose a lot of why I feel this way goes back to the 2000 presidential election. Anyone looking at what happened objectively — from the suppression of minority votes all the way through the Bush v. Gore travesty — couldn’t help but conclude that the losing candidate succeeded in strong-arming his way into the White House.
And we let it happen. Oh, sure, rank and file Democrats were outraged, but what’s outrage without action? Look around the world at what happens in young struggling democracies where similar abuses are suspected: people take to the streets. Look at the courage of the Myanmar Monks in a very different situation involving human liberty, and the price they were willing to pay for it. But the only people who took to the streets of the United States in 2000 were a carefully orchestrated gang of well-connected Republican thugs whose goal — far from defending democracy — was to pervert it by preventing the counting of lawful votes in Dade County, Florida.
We the people just sat there and watched the pretender take office. I guess we didn’t care enough to do anything else.
Let’s be honest. For much of America, democracy lost its charm long ago: to many people it seems no more relevant today than a box of old 8-track tapes stored away in some long forgotten box in the basement. Less and less people vote; we don’t even bother teaching civics in many schools anymore. After all, what’s that got to do with giving kids the skills they’ll need to qualify for a job that will soon be sent to China anyway.
And what of growing citizens of a republic capable of informed democratic judgments? Please — that’s just so 1776.
Speaking of which, Thomas Jefferson once famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Fuck, I’d be happy if a few more people were willing to spill the few drops of sweat required to show up to vote, or perhaps risk the eye strain of reading or watching enough news so that a full third of Americans wouldn’t still believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
Yet, even as I paint this dreary picture, democracy in America is starting to show unmistakable signs of new life, as new voices and new technologies are slowly but surely transforming the process.
Why now? It’s about betrayal, of course — the betrayal of starting the Iraq War, the betrayal of a thousand lies and even the more recent betrayal by congressional Democrats who’ve abused the public’s trust from the last election by not more aggressively fighting to end the war. Betrayal cuts through apathy and boredom and leads to rage. And as the war goes on and the betrayal grows bitterer, rage will only increase. And for better or worse, rage can move mountains.
It’s happened before.
* * *
Horace, Tom, Winston, Zach and I had come to Washington, DC to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, of course. We’d crashed in a motel on the outskirts of town late the evening before, our grand journey from the Rocky Mountains to the nation’s capital finally complete. Dead tired, we skipped dinner. I was so fatigued, in fact, that even the freight train of Winston’s snoring, which once again rattled the cheaply constructed motel walls, didn’t keep me from falling asleep immediately and sleeping hard all night.
The next morning brought a warm, though not oppressively so, late summer day. It also brought a sense of foreboding.
Horace still wasn’t talking. He stared at his eggs at breakfast, intensely and without emotion, never touching them: looking at him was like gazing up at a levee holding back a storm surge. The wall blocks your view of the ocean’s attack, but still you know it’s happening — and somehow the not seeing makes it all that much more unnerving.
We planned to stay in the capital city for a couple of days to see the sights. Given the National Mall’s layout in relation to where we found a parking place, it would probably have made more sense to visit some other sites before going to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But given Horace’s mood, no one was going to have any fun on this trip until we exorcised whatever demons were haunting him. So, walking briskly past at least a dozen other monuments and noteworthy sights, we hurried to our primary target.
And then, almost without warning, we were there.
Oh, my God.
Has there ever been another monument in all of human history so perfect? So fitting to the historical setting? The long black wall, staggeringly beautiful in its simplicity, with the names of over 58,000 American martyrs chiseled into the granite: all are equal regardless of rank, each name spelled out with the same five-inch-high letters. High ranking officers and the lowest ranking privates, all standing witness together.
58,000 stories, each one screaming out to be heard: 58,000 potentially bright futures forever lost. Oh, my God. The awful silence: all the books never written, the children’s voices never heard and the joys never expressed. The waste. The lies. The unspeakable betrayal.
Lost in my own thoughts, at first I didn’t notice that Horace was walking ahead. There was no equivocation in his step, no doubt as to where he was going. This might have been his first trip to the memorial, but he’d clearly visited the search feature at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund before and knew exactly where he needed to go.
Lester’s name was on a panel about a foot above the top of Horace’s head. He reached up to touch it with his right hand, but his arm was shaking too badly. He tried steadying it with his left hand, but for several excruciating seconds he couldn’t seem to guide his fingers to the target. Watching him try was agony. But at last he did it — caressing the name below his fingers with the intensely of a blind man just learning to read Braille.
And just like that the shaking stopped.
It was almost 10 minutes before he brought his hand down. Then he stepped back a few feet and stared at the wall for another 10 minutes. When he finally turned around, he put his arm around Zach’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, son,” he said in a soft, thoughtful voice. “I know I’ve been in a foul mood.”
“No, it’s been fine. I mean . . .”
Horace gestured for him to stop. “Really, Zach, I’m perfectly capable of knowing when I’ve been a jerk.” An elderly woman dressed in black, her eyes transfixed on the wall, bumped into Horace, almost falling in the process. She apologized and moved on. “I’ll tell you what,” continued Horace, “let’s go over there where it’s more private.” He walked away from the wall onto the grass, going perhaps a dozen steps, his arm still draped over Zach’s young shoulder. The rest of us tagged along.
“There’s something . . . something about Lester and how he died I’ve never told anyone . . . not in over 35 years.” Horace’s voice was barely more than a whisper.
“Okay,” said Zach nervously.
“My son, Lester, was killed in Vietnam, did you know that?”
It was sort of an odd question, actually, given that we had all just driven halfway across the country to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial so that Horace could see Lester’s name on the wall: Horace was clearly emotionally drained. Zach responded respectfully, “Yes, I know.”
“He was killed when the helicopter he was in was shot down.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Horace’s voice cracked, “Well, here’s something you don’t know . . . You don’t know that it was my fault.”
“What?!” Tom blurted out loudly. “What kind of crazy talk is that?!”
“It’s true.” For the first time, a few tears were starting to trickle down Horace’s cheek.
Zach, sounding bewildered, asked, “But how? How could it possibly have been your . . .”
“It was just a few days before he was supposed to report for induction. He came to me, upset and crying, saying that he couldn’t do it. He was going to refuse to go. He couldn’t go fight in a war he didn’t believe in . . .” Horace’s voice choked up again, but he fought on. “He was right, of course. Hell, none of us believed in the war by then. It was 1970 and everyone knew the score. Nixon was just buying time . . . like Bush is today.”
“That was a hard time for the nation,” agreed Winston. “The war was tearing the country apart.”
Horace nodded, brushing the tears away roughly with his shirtsleeve. “So Lester was right. But . . . God forgive me . . .” More tears were coming. “God forgive me, I told him that he was wrong. I told him that he had to go. He was already starting out at such a big disadvantage in life as a black man in America. If he resisted the draft, he’d end up with a criminal record. He’d go to jail. With that on his record he’d never have a chance to amount to anything . . . So I told him he had to go. And he went. And he came back in a body bag. I killed him. I killed my son.”
“Horace, that’s crazy talk,” I half-screamed, almost panicked in my desire to convince him he was wrong. “You didn’t kill anyone. You did the best you could. It was an impossible . . .”
He put one hand on each of my shoulders, the big beefy hands of a man who had done hard labor for most of his life.. “It’s okay, Steve.” His voice, I suddenly realized, was almost serene. “In fact, for the first time in years, I really am fine. This is a sacred place, you know. This monument. This wall”
“Yeah, I guess it is,” I said, noticing for the first time that I was crying myself.
“I know I’m more religious than you, I guess than any of you . . .”
“But I’ve never believed that spirits visit from the dead.”
“But I’m going to ask you to try to believe something . . . even though it may seem to make no sense. I’m going to ask you to accept that as I stood at the wall I felt Lester’s hand touch mine and I knew I’d been forgiven. I know it sounds crazy . . .”
“No, it doesn’t, well . . .”
“It’s okay, I know it does. But I ask you to at least believe that I believe it, because I do. And because of that for the first time in decades I truly feel at peace.”
I stood there for what seemed like an hour, although it was probably only 20 seconds, staring into the eyes of the person who comes the closest of anyone still alive to filling the role of a father to me. And I knew he was telling the truth of what was in his heart. And for right then, anyway, that was all that mattered.
* * *
That night, lying awake in the motel room, I couldn’t stop thinking about the guilt Horace had carried with him like 100 pound shackles for all of those decades. He was wrong, of course. Lester’s death had never been his fault. He gave his son the best advice he could. But who among us would have felt differently?
That’s the thing about betrayals, like the ones in Vietnam and Iraq, there’s no limit to how far the suffering will travel: no statute of limitations on the pain felt by those left to live on once the liars’ dreams of glory have turned to dust.
But I also found myself wondering, as I watched the dust dancing across a small stream of light pouring into the motel room through the incompletely drawn curtains, whether betrayal, in some perverse way, may also be one of the essential manures of freedom. A wake-up call, if you will, reminding us that democracy is a self-service enterprise and that government of the people, by the people and for the people only works when the people are willing to make the effort to properly tend it.
Horace and Lester — father and son — faced with an impossible decision, did the best they could, knowing all too well that their best might not turn out to be good enough. Was Horace wrong to push Lester to go to war rather than face prison or exile in Canada? Did Lester make the right decision in deciding to fight in a war he thought was wrong, but for which his country demanded his service?
For my part, I don’t know — and to be honest, I don’t much care. Either way, they were the betrayed. And we as the nation in whose name that betrayal was carried out owe them both more than we could ever repay.
* * *
In many ways, the betrayal in Vietnam reinvigorated American democracy. Opposition to the war brought a whole new generation of progressive thinkers into the political process, helping to pave the way for progress on a wide range of issues from environmental protection, to women’s rights, to political reform. But there was no happy ending to the Vietnam War itself, as lack of discipline and lawlessness within the antiwar movement helped to turn much of the American public against it.
A fair argument can even be made that the antiwar protests of the 60s and early 70s — and most particularly the occasional outbursts of violence on campus — may actually have extended the war by antagonizing average Americans.
Today, of course, we face another great betrayal. And a new progressive grassroots political movement, this time built to a significant degree around the Internet, is blowing across the land, as public anger over Iraq keeps growing stronger. Meanwhile, “respectable” Beltway opinion stands baffled by the forces at play.
The opportunity for fundamental change, not only in ending this miserable war, but in building a more just society is considerable, but far from inevitable. It will take hard work, but also patience. It will take toughness, but the smart sort of tough that doesn’t offend people just for the sheer joy of offending them.
From talking with him, I know that Horace believes that we’re up to the job. And as for me, well, I’ll bet with Horace every time.
* * *
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 27 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright 2007, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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