Episode 51: A lonely kind of honor
Sometimes the honorable path can also be a very lonely one.
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 51: A lonely kind of honor
by Steven C. Day
It was a particularly nasty evening outside as the gang gathered at The Last Chance Democracy Cafe for our usual Wednesday night festivities. “Attack-snow” is what Winston calls it: Those tiny, rock-hard bits of ice the cold wind sends slamming into your face like a load of buckshot from Dick Cheney’s shotgun. Useless stuff, totally unfit for snowballs or building snowmen, suitable only for turning faces red and crashing cars — utterly irredeemable.
And I was supposed to be out there in it.
Speaking of irredeemable things and Dick Cheney — forgive the redundancy — our beloved Vice President was visiting our fair city this very evening. A man surely destined to become the first VP in American history to be inducted into the Mad Statesmen Hall of Fame (actually the second, Aaron Burr’s already there), he was in town for one of the few things sufficient to tear him away from his secure location — a Republican political fundraiser.
A good friend of mine was organizing an antiwar, anti-Cheney and anti-Bush protest — all my favorite anti(s) rolled up into one. He was the sort of person I could trust to keep the protest civil and nonviolent, so I told him I might be there. Okay, I guess I actually told him I’d probably be there. But I’d overlooked the fact the protest was on a Wednesday evening, my favorite time at the café, when Horace, Tom, Winston and Zach sit down over drinks in the lounge and try to solve the problems of the world. I also didn’t know as I spoke to my friend, of course, that a mini-blizzard — let alone an attack-snow mini-blizzard — would be blanketing the town on the night in question.
Let’s see: A warm night spent with good friends, good food and good conversation, or a night spent freezing my ass off shouting protest slogans while being ignored by the media? Yeah, that was a tough call alright.
* * *
It was still early in the café. I had just gotten back from my normal Wednesday evening rounds picking up the guys to bring them to the café — all except Tom. He had a friend drop him off after finishing with his bowling league down the street.
Let me guess: It surprises you that Tom’s in a bowling league? Criminy, how many times do I have to say this? No matter what you’ve heard from Rush Limbaugh, liberals really do have interests besides eating sushi, running down NASCAR racing and reminiscing about our favorite Barbara Streisand memories.
Although, on the topic of liberal stereotypes, I will admit that pretty much all of us do love San Francisco. Speaking of which, the last time Bob (our most obnoxious conservative regular) came to the cafe, by prearrangement everyone in the lounge bowed to the west.
“What the fuck are you morons doing?” said Bob, displaying his usual charm.
Horace responded matter-of-factly, “Paying homage to San Francisco, of course, home of Nancy Pelosi.”
Bob just walked off shaking his head.
This particular Wednesday there was someone new in the lounge — a young guy, 22 or 23 at most. His hair, which was an unremarkable shade of brown, was cut short, military style. Although fairly short of stature, 5 ft. 5 in. at most, he was built like a tank, all muscle.
I was fairly certain he wasn’t one of the college kids who tend to drop in for short periods on Wednesday evenings to watch Horace, Tom and Winston “perform” (“The Three Wise Men,” as I call them, have become a bit of a legend at the local university): It was way too early for them — besides, he was sitting alone and the college kids almost always come in packs.
I soon realized I was wrong about him being alone, however, when I noticed Carl sitting next to him. The familial connection was unmistakable: Take the young stranger and add 10 years to him and you had Carl. Living just a few blocks away, Carl is one of our apolitical regulars. The Last Chance Democracy Café is simply his neighborhood tavern. The political stuff bores him. During football season, he often comes in on Sunday afternoons, when we typically turn several of the televisions over from the news networks to sports stations, has lunch and watches the games. Winston and lately Zach often join him.
“Hey, Carl,” half-shouted Horace, who had also just noticed him. “Come have a seat at the table. I promise we’ll talk sports instead of politics for . . . well, for awhile anyway.”
The wind outside had changed direction, sending the tiny ice bits stinging into the café’s windows, making the sound of gravel slapping into a car windshield on a dirt road. I thought about my friend and the other protesters out on that unprotected street corner. Then I shivered and sank just a little deeper into my comfortable seat at the large round table.
Carl hesitated at first. He gave Horace a quick wave, but his eyes stayed fixed in front of him. Then finally he slapped the younger man on the arm and gestured that they were moving.
“Horace, Tom, Winston, Steve, Zach,” said Carl as they settled into two open chairs at the large round table, “this is my brother Tad.”
I spoke first. “Tad, it’s really great to meet you. Your brother’s told us an awful lot about you . . . Mostly about how proud they all are of you.”
Tad mumbled a thank you, never taking his eyes off his beer. Both brothers seemed terribly ill at ease.
“I can tell you one thing,” Horace took over, “even though none of us here had ever actually met you we were all relieved when we heard you’d finally made it back stateside.”
Tad said, “Thanks. A lot of guys weren’t that lucky.” There was no emotion in his voice, pure monotone.
We knew from Carl that Tad, a machine gunner, had seen a lot of action during his deployment in Iraq, including being in the heat of the battle during the siege of Fallujah. Tad hadn’t told his family many details. But they knew he’d been in some serious shit. As his tour went on, with numerous delays in his unit being shipped home, he had become more and more distant from his family, writing less often and saying less when he did.
“You still in the service?” asked Zach.
“Yeah, well . . . yeah, I am.”
“For how much longer?”
“I planed to make it a career . . . like Dad, but . . .” Tad’s voice trailed off and he went back to staring at his beer, his face expressionless.
Carl broke the silence. “It’s okay,” he said to Tad, “they’re cool. You’re safe here.”
Tad stared at his brother for a few seconds, as though trying to get a fix on whether he could trust his words.
Then he said, “My unit’s being rotated back to Iraq.”
“Shit,” said Tom.
“I’m AWOL. I’m not going back.”
* * *
I was born in 1955. The draft ended in 1973. Given that they were drafting 19-year-olds, I missed it by one year. A lottery system, designed to make the process fairer, had been instituted on December 1, 1969. The lower your number (based upon your birth date), the more certain it was you’d be drafted (and sent to Vietnam). They continued to draw lottery numbers for awhile even after they stopped actually drafting people: I don’t remember precisely, but I think my number was somewhere around six.
If the war had lasted just a little longer, my ass would have been on a troop plane headed to a rice paddy in Vietnam.
Although that isn’t actually true, since I would not have gone. The Vietnam War was a mistake, immoral and stupid — something almost everyone realized there near the end and yet the dying continued — and I would have refused to go.
That much I know for sure, but I have to guess at the details. Most likely I would have tried for conscientious objector status, but the government was awarding CO status during Vietnam about as freely as a skinflint hands out bags of money. So what would have come next, jail, Canada, trying for a slot in the Reserves or the National Guard or maybe just hiding out?
I was young and idealistic and full of the words of Henry David Thoreau — cognizant that one of the duties of civil disobedience is supposed to be a willingness to accept the prescribed punishment for opposing injustice. So I might have gone to jail. But I suppose it’s at least as likely I would have chickened out and headed north.
I’ll never know, of course, because I never had to face the choice. Over the years, I’ve listened to lots of other people who, like me, never faced that awful decision, but who have, nevertheless, been more than happy to pass judgment on those who did: People whose biggest quandaries during their late teen years involved things like deciding whether to spend Friday night at the kegger at the frat house or using their fake IDs to troll the bars looking to get laid, self-righteously calling those who resisted the draft and fought against the war traitors and cowards.
I usually don’t argue with them. With people that small what’s the point?
* * *
We all just stared at Tad, dumbfounded. We knew from his brother — who talked about him all the time — that to his family, Tad was a soldier first and always, the latest of three generations of warriors. His father served twenty years, most of it as a drill sergeant; his grandfather fought in Vietnam; his great-grandfather was in both World War II and Korea. Carl had taken his turn too, but, the black sheep of the family, he decided not to reenlist after six years. So the family tradition of career service fell to Tad who, according to Carl, had never wanted anything else.
“I’m sure you went through some awful things over there,” said Horace softly.
Tad half-smiled, shaking his head slowly from side to side. Then with only the slightest hint of bitterness he said, “I guess you could say that . . .” He paused before asking Horace, “Have you ever seen a little girl . . . four or five years old, with half of her body blown away, but still alive, screaming for help and then dying as you stand there helpless? Have you ever seen anything like that?”
“No, son, I haven’t.”
“I have. You wouldn’t believe how much blood can come out of one small child.”
“That’d be a hard thing to live with.”
Tad started to speak, paused, and then started again. “What’s hard is when you’re the one who did it to her.”
The table became dead silent, almost like someone had turned the volume off with a switch. No one asked him to say more, but I guess he felt the need to tell the story.
“Some militia pukes who’d attacked our convoy retreated to a nearby house and opened up again. I fired until the guns went silent. When we busted in later, the militia were gone . . . they must have split, but the little girl and her family . . .”
Horace quickly filled the silence, “It sounds like you were in a no-win situation.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m okay with . . . I mean, I hate what happened . . . I have nightmares, but I’m okay with what I did. I followed the rules of engagement.” Tad’s eyes were glued to the table, but his voice was surprisingly strong. “If I hadn’t shutdown those guns we’d have been picked off one by one. That’s war. Shit happens. I can live with it. I can live with the rest, too. When the IED took out my buddy and the lieutenant in the Humvee in front of mine. That’s war too. You don’t become a soldier if you can’t take that stuff. No, it’s what I learned when I came home . . . that’s the part I can’t take anymore.”
“And what did you learn, son?”
Tad looked around the table, making eye contact with each of us.
“I learned it was all a lie. I read some stuff. Iraq didn’t do anything to us. We were the invaders.” The monotone was gone, his voice now filled with rage. “They said it was about weapons of mass destruction and the September 11 attacks, but that was all a lie. Then they said we were bringing freedom to Iraq. Tell that to that little girl. Tell her about all the freedom we’re bringing her and her family. Tell it to that other family we blew all to hell because they didn’t stop quickly enough at the roadblock. Hell, all we’ve done is to turn Iraq over to Iran and the militias. Tell that to my buddy. Tell him that’s what he gave his life for. It’s a lie and a crime and I’m not going to be part of it. I’m saying no.”
It felt like someone had sucked all the air out of the place.
But Carl spoke up again. “Tad came home to tell Mom and Dad his decision.”
“I’m going to report back . . . I’m no deserter. But I’m telling my CO that I’m not going. I’m refusing my orders.”
“You have to be dreading that talk with your folks,” said Winston sympathetically.
For the first time, Tad was showing outward signs of having to fight to maintain his composure. “I already had that talk . . . right before we came over here. Dad threw me out. He called me a coward.”
* * *
Okay, I’ll admit that I was rationalizing a little here, but another thing I was thinking about in maybe blowing off the demonstration was I’m fairly ambivalent about antiwar protests. While I think people should continue to peacefully protest this war, I’m not sure doing so really does much good in terms of real world politics. In fact, as Winston once said here, a fair argument can be made that the antiwar protests of the Vietnam era may actually have lengthened the war by polarizing the public.
Right now, the overwhelming majority of Americans are on our side about the war. We need to keep the heat on, true enough, but I seriously question how much good a couple hundred people yelling slogans out in a snowstorm really does.
Besides, the weather outside really, really sucked — or perhaps I already mentioned that.
* * *
Everyone at the table spoke more or less at once, telling Tad how sorry we were about the way his father had reacted.
“But you’re to be commended,” said Tom. “What you’re doing takes a lot of guts.”
“Count me in on that too,” said Winston. “If we had more people like you . . . willing to take a stand for what’s right, this world would be a much better place.”
“Hear, hear,” Tom added.
Winston wasn’t done singing Tad’s praises. “When enough people come around to your way of thinking, this madness may finally end.”
It was then I noticed Horace, far from joining in the congratulatory comments, was frowning disapprovingly, shaking his head back and forth and mumbling something. I started to wonder whether he disagreed with Tom and Winston. I remembered how Horace had lost his only son, Lester, in Vietnam. Although it wasn’t what I would have expected, maybe since his own son had followed orders and paid the ultimate price he was upset by Tad refusing to follow his orders.
But as I was about to find out that wasn’t it.
“No, no, no!” Horace shouted. “Stop it you two! Stop it right now!”
“Horace, what the hell’s the matter?” Tom half gasped. “What are you so upset . . .”
Horace cut him off by shouting a final resounding, NO! “Can’t the two of you hear what you’re saying?! You’re no different than the neocons cheering other people’s children into war! Do you realize what you’re encouraging him to do?! Do you?!
“Well . . .” began Winston.
“I’ll tell you what you’re doing,” Horace barreled ahead, blowing Winston’s words aside like so many leaves in a tornado. “You’re encouraging Tad here to do something he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life! You’re telling him to create a rupture in his family that may never heal! You’re telling him to go to jail! To face a dishonorable discharge and a lifetime of two-bit bullies calling him a traitor, a coward! How easy it is for old men sitting on their butts to cast judgments on the lives of young men . . . judgments they’ll have to live with long after we’ve turned to dust!”
Tom tried to break in, “Horace that’s not what we . . .”
“Shut up! Both of you just shut up! I’ve got no use for either one of you right now! It’s Tad I want to talk to. He’s the one whose butt’s on the line here.” And with that Horace’s voice became soothing. “So how about it son? Is it okay . . . I mean, if we talk for a minute?”
“Sure, I guess.”
“So have you really thought all this through, Tad?”
“Yes, sir, I have.”
“You know what it means . . . what it will mean to you for the rest of your life if you do this thing?”
“Because I’m not sure you really do.”
“No, I do understand.”
“Your family . . . except for Carl here . . . God love him, the rest may turn their backs on you.”
“They already have.”
“Maybe they’ll come around some day, maybe they won’t. And that may come to hurt more than you can imagine now.”
“It already hurts, but, yeah, I hear what you’re saying.”
“You’ll go to prison.”
“People will call you a coward and a traitor . . . Everything you’ve already done, already given to this country, won’t matter. They’ll still say it.”
“And it isn’t just today. Ten years from now. Twenty years from now. Thirty, forty, even fifty years from now this will still be with you. Still limiting what you can do, what you can become. Do you really understand all that?”
Tad stared at Horace with the intensity of a sniper about to pull the trigger.
“Yes, this isn’t something I’ve rushed into. I’ve thought about it a lot. I know the price. But I have to be true to my conscience. I can’t go back to Iraq and kill people in a war I know is wrong. How can I do that and live with myself?”
Horace sat quietly for a few seconds, then nodded. “You can’t. You’ve made the only decision possible given what your heart is telling you. I’m sure of that now. And I’m proud of you. Be proud of yourself, because it’s an honorable course you’ve chosen. But I’m afraid it’s going to be an awfully lonely sort of honor much of the time. So I hope you won’t mind my saying it, but I’ll be praying for you. And God’s speed.”
“Thank you,” is all Tad said.
After Carl and Tad had left for the bus station, Horace apologized to Tom and Winston, but they’d hear none of it. “You taught me something tonight, old man,” said Winston. Then we all talked about Tad for awhile, about his courage and about what lay ahead for him.
Then, as happens in life, the conversation went on to other things.
* * *
As we were sitting there, it struck me that there’s something wrongheaded about the way we Americans remember Vietnam: We tend to divide up the young men of that generation into two groups, as though they were complete opposites: Those who fought in the war and those who fought against the war. But I think that’s wrong. Even aside from the fact the two groups overlapped, they had something very important in common: Living in a time of great national trial, each group, in their own way, made the decision (or had it forced upon them) to become participants — to put their butts on the line, as, of course, many young women did as well.
No, I think the people who really stood opposite from the soldiers in that time were those who chose, instead, to cheer the war from the sidelines, and let others take the risks — a group that includes, of course, many of the very neoconservatives who played so large a role in creating our current national nightmare. You see, I don’t think it matters all that much, in the measure of a man or a women, which side you take in a time of national trial: What matters is whether you have the guts to take the field.
And with that — after one very long sigh — I grabbed my coat and asked Molly to close up for me later. I had a protest to go to.
January 11th, 2007 at 6:04 am
A lonely kind of honor. A Cafe episode about conscience and war…
Tad stared at his brother for a few seconds, as though trying to get a fix on whether he could trust his words. Then he said, “My unit’s being rotated back to Iraq.” “Shit,” said Tom….
January 11th, 2007 at 9:54 am
Lottery number #33….I was going to be drafted, no question about it….and I hated the war and I hated the military…but I enlisted anyway. Did that make me a hypocrit? In some minds, maybe it did. But what tipped the scales as far as I was concerned was my loyalty to my friends who were or who had served, some of whom were wounded and emotionally “messed up”. It was that feeling that if I didn’t go, another friend might have to take my place and the thought that the person serving in my place might be maimed or killed because I didn’t go was too much for me to deal with.
January 12th, 2007 at 1:19 pm
As a protester from way back, Viet Nam and this fiasco, I really liked this one. Good point, Steve, about those who cheer from the sidelines and let others take the risk. That kind of particiption is too easy to have much value.
I’ve read stories about some of those brave soldiers who are refusing to fight this immoral war and my heart goes out to them, for all the reasons Steve and Horace pointed out. Those men and women have my respect and I pray that the difficult, lonely and honorable path they have chosen leads them to a happy life.
January 12th, 2007 at 5:01 pm
My number was in the low 60s and I got called up, but I flunked the physical (bad eyes). Like Steve in the episode, to this day I’m not sure what I would have done had I been physically fit to serve. As Horace pointed out, and Hizzhoner underscores, the choices were complicated and very difficult back then. The situation was a lot more complicated, too, than you’d know from the current state of debate about how apt Vietnam analogies are to Iraq. We were not far removed from the Cuban missile crisis, and many people genuinely feared a Communist takeover. Many also found the domino theory at least credible, eeven if they also understood Vietnam to be more of a nationalistic than an ideological struggle. It wasn’t just the dirty f***ing hippies versus the all-American patriots, or the bloodthirsty warmongers versus the peace-loving members of the reality-based community. Then as now, it was hard to get a handle on what was really going on and what course forward to take. The more things change …
January 16th, 2007 at 4:44 am
again, Steve - great story
do you know the movie Europa, Europa, telling the story of a jewish boy, joining the Hitler Youth to survive?
There are situations - so unjust, so far away from the state of justice, where the wrongdoers so often are not made accountable, where so many people got guilty for ignoring their duty to demand justice, that nearly nothing goes right anymore - and then, the probability for a successful decision (a decision supporting your interests) tends to zero - or IOW: everything you do is probably wrong
there is only one way to avoid that - not to allow situations like that
but that’s hard in a world, where most people prefer to be apolitical - not to care about unjustice as long as it doesn’t hit them in the face
they don’t understand that justice can’t be ignored, just “lost” - everyone has to pay the price if you lose the most efficient way to interact in your group - you can’t allow only an “area of unjustice” where someone else lives - unjustice is like cancer. Either the body destroys it early enough - or it has to suffer horribly. The whole body, not only the few cancer cells..