Thursday, May 16, 2019

Masters of War

Voices at War

    I always thought the corruption of its youth a vague notion for Sparta to condemn Socrates to death. Socrates, a beloved philosopher and teacher, took matters into his own hands by ingesting poison and terminating his own life. Completely accurate, maybe not, but it’s generally what most people accept.
     Today’s evangelicals and the homophobic like to argue, as a homosexual, Socrates was corrupting the youth by encouraging homosexuality. We know this is bunk since homosexuality was readily accepted by the elites of Socrates’ day and even among the Romans. So, what was the corruption?
     War has been on my mind, nearly every day since I returned from Vietnam in 1967. In my semi-autobiographical novel, Shifting Loyalties, I attempted to capture some of my experiences and those of my friends, many, like me, who will always carry physical and mental scars, so much more for the families who lost sons during that conflict. Oh, we veterans of Vietnam can pretend everything is fine. We can fool those around us, maybe even ourselves, but it’s there. It’s always there.
     So, it made complete sense to me when I heard a philosophy scholar argue: Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth, in a time when wars lasted fifty to a hundred years, for encouraging Sparta’s youth to holler at the Masters of War, “Hell, no, we won’t go!”
     In his play Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ women characters grew tired of watching the Masters of War send their sons and husbands off to die in enemy lands. But the Masters of War, those “who build the big guns”, are wily, even as they “hide behind desks”. Operating in secrecy, they manipulate the media and the public, who enthusiastically, and patriotically, send their youth off to the slaughter as if it were some major sporting event. After all, there seems to be some great truth in the saying, "Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings." Ultimately, war is profitable, what the Masters have dubbed as our “national interest.”
     So, how did Aristophanes’ mothers and daughters stand up to the Masters of War? They withheld sex, weakened the men, and took over the armories to win their cause.
     Today, the USS Abraham Lincoln and a fleet of American warships are headed towards the Mediterranean Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, Iran in the crosshairs. Are the Masters of War at it again?
     We know the Masters of War lied to the American public about every war and conflict since Vietnam, leaving behind a wake of death and destruction, world instability and mountains of debt, ironically, China and the House of Saud hold the biggest IOU's.
     Investigating George W. Bush’s newly created Office of Global Communication, after the invasion of Iraq, reporter James Bamford wrote, “Never before in history…had such an extensive secret network been established to shape the entire world’s perception of a war.”
     That’s right. What really happened leading up to and during the Iraq war was either invented, fraudulently reported, or not reported at all.
     The public never heard how “an Abrams tank plunged off a bridge into the Euphrates River on the west side of Nasiriyah, drowning S. Sgt. Donald May, Lance Cpl. Patrick O’Day, and PFC Francisco Martinez-Flores” (Jon Krakauer, Where Men Win Glory, p. 208.). Or, how “a firefight broke out at the intersection where [Jessica] Lynch’s convoy had made its fateful wrong turn…. In the ensuing confusion, one Marine unit attacked another Marine unit, wounding thirty-seven Americans, some critically…. (Krakauer).
     As soldiers say during war, “Shit happens.”
     However, when the Masters of War manipulate the public with “alternative” truths, that’s an entirely different matter. The Masters of War create heroes, like Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, to stir up public patriotism and zeal for its warriors, when in reality, it is simply men and women following orders and trying to save themselves and their friends in difficult to dire situations often created by their superiors.
     Lynch never picked up rifle and held off enemy soldiers, as reported. Iraqi doctors attended to her injuries and treated her humanely in the hospital after she was, reportedly, captured. Doctors said no one ever considered her a prisoner of war. Even her rescue was a military media ruse used to whip up U.S. hysteria against Iraq.
     Krakauer's exhaustive investigation revealed how former NFL star-turned-ranger Pat Tillman was accidentally killed by his own friends, and not while he was doing anything extraordinarily heroic. The Army invented an elaborate, heroic hoax to hide the truth. Even some of the soldiers who shot Tillman were rumored to have lied about what happened.
     The Army conducted an investigation, only because Tillman’s family demanded it. The Army released a public statement: “…it was merely a coincidence that Army personnel falsified documents, withheld information, and violated regulations ‘up and down the chain of command’…. There was no coverup.”
     In the early 90’s, while teaching a Chicano literature course, I had my students read Charlie Trujillo’s award-winning book Soldados. I remember a Vietnamese-American student commenting, “I never knew Chicanos had fought in Vietnam?”
     I tried to hide my surprise--and dismay. This student was born and educated in the States and had no idea Mexicans had fought in Vietnam?
     How could American education, somewhere down the line, not teach her that the first American pilot captured in Vietnam was Everett Alvarez, a Mexican-American from Salinas, California, and, the last Marine out of Vietnam, and only after insuring he’d gotten everyone into the last choppers during the fall of Saigon--including his fellow Marines--was MSgt John Valdez of San Antonio, Texas?
     If this student thought no Chicano-Latinos had served in Vietnam, how many other Americans thought the same?
     At the time, Charlie’s book was one of the few written by a Chicano who had served in Vietnam. In 1989, Joe Rodriguez had published his well-received Vietnam novel, Oddsplayer, but little else about Chicanos and the Vietnam War existed on bookstore shelves or college libraries.
     Published in 1986, Medal of Honor recipient Roy Benavidez’ book, the Three Wars of Roy Benavidez barely made a blip on the literary radar, yet his experiences were some of the most harrowing of any soldier who served in Vietnam, a true hero.
     In mainstream books and movies about Vietnam, Chicanos were often ignored, except for John Leguizamo’s embarrassing role as a prayer-spouting, rosary-carrying Latino in the movie Casualties of War, where the principal scene is soldiers raping a young, Vietnamese woman.
     In U.S. media, it was as if Anglo-Americans and a few token African-Americans carried the bulk of the war on their shoulders. Yet, in Vietnam, wherever I served, I saw Chicanos, African-Americans, and Puerto Ricans in large numbers. I even recall times when Puerto Ricans hung out together because they spoke only Spanish.
     When I first started college in 1970, barely a year out of the Army, I found Omar Salinas’s poetry book, Crazy Gypsy. On page 64, the poem, “Death in Vietnam” leaped out at me. Certain lines stay with me, even to this day: “another sacrifice for America/ a mexican/ his beloved country gives homage/ and mothers sleep in carboard houses,” and the clincher, “the sacrifice is not over.” Today, I think, not by a longshot.
In the War and in Protest
     In 1990, I met Leroi Quintana, whose short poetry book Interrogations gave me some hope that Chicanos would finally tell our side of Vietnam. My book was published in 1995, exploring a group of soldiers before, during, and after the war. Then came George Mariscal’s epic Aztlan in Vietnam a collection of stories, essays, and poems, both about and against the war, but all with Chicano voices, and in 1999 Joseph Ramirez’ A Patriot After All, brought some relief to the literary drought. Alfredo Vea’s powerful God’s Go Begging, a story mainly about a Chicano attorney suffering from the war’s memories moved the genre into the mainstream as Penguin published the novel.
     The burden most of us writers and artists carried was to avoid glamorizing war, especially that war, but to remain true to ourselves and to friends who never returned or who returned never to be the same. To Chicano scholars, I suppose, we were suspect. We had bought into the lie. We had failed to protest the dictates created by the Masters of War.
     Yet to us, we'd followed a long tradition of Chicano warriors, from the beaches in the Pacific Theater to the deserts of North African and the long, fertile fields of Europe. If anyone followed tradition, we did, to our own detriment. So, it is understandable why in in the 1970s and even in the '80s, Chicano faculty would eschew our books, for fear of contaminating impressionable young minds. Kids have the uncanny to ability romanticize--even horror, as we see in the today's video game world.
     Though, finally, the most comprehensive scholarly study into literature of Chicanos in Vietnam did not come from Chicano(a) Studies departments or a Chicano Literature professor but from an intrepid young Spanish scholar working on her Ph.D dissertation at the University of Valladolid, Spain, in 2002, Dr. Berta Delgado Melgosa. Corpus De Novelas Chicanas Sobre La Guerra de Vietnam: Fases De Su Analisis Textual is a groundbreaking study she published as a book: Ni Aguila Ni Serpiente: La Guerra de Vietnam como topico literario en la narrative chicano contemporanea, covered not only Chicano Vietnam novels but various degrees of how Chicano scholars looked at Vietnam from the 1970s forward.
     Many of us who served and wrote about our Vietnam experiences thought, perhaps, naively, that the United States would learn from past mistakes, like the death of 55,000 Americans would be enough, or at the very least, the American public would question any saber-rattling coming from the halls of Washington, from the desks of the Masters of War.
     What we’ve learned, instead, is that the Masters of War in Washington will not send their sons and daughters to fight and die. As long as they can send the working class and the poor to fight our wars, just or unjust, we will continue to turn on the television and watch American warships speeding toward foreign shores as the Masters carefully massage the rationale and whip the American citizenry into a patriotic frenzy.

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