Early one Saturday morning, a couple months after the start of the ground invasion of Iraq, former Army pilot Jim Fielder poured a cup of coffee, lit a cigarette and sat down with a newspaper at the kitchen table. He soon came across an article about the death of his cousin, Aaron Thompson.
Jim read closely, then sat back in his chair, and stared at his burned out cigarette.
He was killing himself he knew, smoking these things. It would have to stop. It could not stop soon enough.
But he reached for the pack, lit another, sipped his coffee, and reread the article.
It would have to come first, he decided, the article. Well, it wouldn’t have to, but it was going to. The road to hell, he remembered someone once saying, was paved with as many bad intentions as good, probably more. Or call them, careless resolutions. The cigarettes were killing him, Jim knew, but something else was gnawing at him at the moment too.
The road to hell – he had seen a bumper sticker the other day – is paved with Republicans. With a marker, Jim had wanted to add: and Democrats. On so many issues.
Jim read the article twice, downed the remaining cup of coffee, took his pack and lighter, and went for a walk through the city.
He returned much later from a bakery with sweets for his wife, but she had gone out.
Jim found an old tape recorder with some tapes in the basement. It worked fine when he put new batteries in. He drove to the high school stadium where he had played football decades ago and climbed nearly to the top. Far below, a group of boys ran sprints during track practice. Jim sat down, turned on the recorder and spoke –
“I’ve got what I can tell. Maybe it will be good for me to talk about.”
Jim lit a cigarette.
“I’ve got something to say, is all – about Aaron and the military and the world.”
“Wrestling and football did not make me a killer. I don’t think it did. Not the way some might imagine.”
“Are you a killer?”
“I did not work for the Red Cross, okay? Aren’t we all to blame, to one degree or another? Come to think of it, I did fly aid personnel around from time to time, from Vietnam on. It wasn’t wrestling that led me into the military, I’d say. Or maybe it did a little. If anything, it was college that drove me there – or elementary school, and the rest. I don’t know. I wanted out of the classroom, out of any normal office-type future, that’s for sure. When I saw on campus the same old games you had to play to do well in the classes, I got focused quick on making it to Flight School. I played the games, did what I was told, whatever it took to get to what I figured I needed for my career and paycheck and life. Vietnam was a part of all that, a job and life, and proving myself. The guys who did a lot of the gun work in the military, a lot of them had sports backgrounds, but many did not, including some of the most avid. All you needed was the will to be tough. Others were plain frightened, and felt compelled to go along.”
Jim watched a javelin wobble and arc across the field below. It seemed to take off from the boy’s arm with little effort and land and skid with scarcely a sound.
Jim stubbed out a cigarette and lit another one. “I need to quit this too. I’ve got a beautiful wife, my god. Second wife, young. My other kids, first wife, are grown now and making it. My current wife is the love of my life for real, I’m telling you, and I don’t want her to outlive me by twenty years. Hell, by forty years. She’s going to outlive me twenty easy, I hope. So I’ve got to quit these smokes. I need to figure out how to quit years ago.”
Jim stared across the field.
“That was some article in the paper. You don’t see it much, someone put it so clearly – the criminality of the US invasion of Iraq. I surprised the editor and publisher allowed it. Maybe because the author was quoting someone else. The author probably couldn’t have written that herself, couldn’t have got it published. If it was anyone but the brother of a dead soldier saying all those things, speaking out like that, not much of that article runs in the first place, I bet. Most of that kind of news I have to get from small independent magazines and journals, different organizations.”
Jim watched another javelin fly and skid.
“When I first started to get wise to the bottom line, I began moving around, traveling as much as I could in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, quizzing reporters on what they had seen, what they tried to get published and didn’t, what actually got published and what got edited out. Do you know the US press kept the bombing of Cambodia secret for a year? Not because all of Indochina didn’t know about it, but because the US public might likely not have been too thrilled. More recently they’ve underreported the US bombings in Iraq too, a lot of civilians die in those – never mind the wounded and disfigured. But while in Vietnam, I turned to books on US foreign policy reading as widely as I could given the war conditions. I went through texts on the history of Indochina and while on leave stateside collected pamphlets and articles dissenting from the war on moral grounds mainly, as opposed to tactical. I smuggled some of these back to Vietnam to study, and then the day my commanding officer and a spook confronted me in the barracks I was ready. I had seen intelligence following me for weeks so I burned some of the anti-war books and threw the rest into the latrine. My gear was searched and they came up with a paper I was writing, titled ‘The Enemy Within’ – a kind of philosophic critique, a criticism against the anti-war movement written with the idea of covering my research. Nothing came of it, and I never got that manuscript back. I had been thinking of the spooks long before they were thinking of me. I mean those guys are so indoctrinated that it wasn’t too hard to keep a jump ahead. They didn’t have the capacity to get me, despite their education, or actually because of it. Their education in ideology. But hell, the ideology got me too. You can think as quick as you want but if you don’t enable yourself to see and hear the world around you and go looking for it in the first place you’re just spinning on nothing. I mean you can think you’re a holy man fighting a holy war or a nobleman fighting the glorious fight never noticing the Attila the Hun type policy you carry out. Never noticing yourself. I mean it’s grotesque. I was caught up in it too, though maybe not as bad as some of the guys. I tried to keep my own mind, figuring it would help me stay alive, help me prosper, realizing early on that it would always be a struggle, always take work, that it was always an open question as to whether I was in touch or not. I’m a survivor. If I was going to risk my life terrorizing and slaughtering the peasant societies of Indochina I would do it free of self-deceit, take full responsibility for the reality, the devastation, the napalm, the bullets, I would fly deep into the heart of darkness and bomb with my eyes wide open. I would be made neither ignorant, nor fool, nor zealot, nor dupe by the military, the government, the media. And so I felt I kept my sight, even gained vision during the war. I was an exception, I thought, while others were overwhelmed, blindsided. Clueless. I figured my one responsibility was to know what I was doing, know what was going on around me. And since it all seemed unstoppable, it didn’t matter whether I went along or got out. I mean, it seemed the war was an irresistible disaster like a natural phenomenon given the immense power and commitment of the United States. We were fighting poor farmers who plowed with water buffalo. Millions of Indochinese would have been killed with or without my participation so it didn’t matter, I didn’t matter, I was utterly expendable and so was able to go on focused and strong, if haunted, while farmers were blasted out of their fields, and teachers and children bombed out of their schools, and babies blown out of their swaddling clothes. A meaningless cog in the machine of my country is all I thought I was. It’s not like I was dropping the bombs and the napalm myself. And I hardly did any shooting on the ground either. Mostly I was the supplier, so I felt removed. I felt in the end it could not be said I was actually the murderer, because I wasn’t directly. I wasn’t pulling triggers. I thought you can’t stop a blizzard with a peace sign. I flew supplies on tax dollars, at the request of the government, with the complicity of corporate America, the corporate media, manufacturers of all sorts. Same thing today, with the ongoing attack against Iraq, and the occupation. We were all involved and still are. Lots of people pulled lots of triggers and so one trigger meant nothing. I thought I was completely replaceable.”
“You could have been working against it.”
“I kept my sanity by thinking I knew what was going on, by knowing what I was doing – if not what it fully meant to do it. Two different things. I could have refused to fight entirely and been hauled off to the stockade, been court-martialed and criminalized, you know, and that might have worked, eased my conscience and all, but who would have benefited? No one that I saw. I defended myself by struggling to seek out the truth, refusing to flinch from the nature of the job, the moral vacuum of the war. I judged I had personal integrity that way. I was honest, a friend enough to fellow soldiers, never failed in my job. A good man.”
“You thought that counted for more than it did.”
Jim stared across the stadium as if in a trance. He closed his eyes, and his voice softened.
“Maybe it’s hard to understand what I thought I accomplished, what I believed I knew and accepted virtually alone among my fellow soldiers in Vietnam and afterward in Central America and around the globe. I thought I knew better than others, I thought knowing was good enough, since nothing could be changed. I thought the soldiers were unlike myself in this way, in their inability to know reality from illusion. So many of them, I believed, were either ignorant or duped or in denial or cruel. They were regular kids, many of them, from impoverished backgrounds, or they were middle class professionals, plus the zealots eating and spouting bullshit and internalizing US propaganda like a stake they drove into their own guts and mind and blasted outward. Even the cynics seemed blind to the horrific nature of the war except in relation to their own danger. But acknowledging the full truth – aside from making me feel sort of ghostly – defined me, I felt, gave me a measure of self-respect because I believed I knew the total horror and did not lie to myself, did not ignore the real nature of our actions, the acres of blood on our hands, the poisoned shattered lands and massacred people. I think I was somewhat unique in that, unique in the intensity of my belief that what was going on was wrong and nothing could be done about it. That’s it. I wonder how many of the soldiers really did not know the nature of what was going on. I don’t know. I think most of them were ignorant, confused at least. But maybe not. Many knew a good bit the real score, especially as the years went on. Some refused to fight. They saw what the score was. And the responsibility lies higher up. I was just doing my job. It wasn’t a world I would have created or one I preferred, but what could be done? So, yes I went along in the slaughter. I admit that. Hell, I try to broadcast it now – to air the hideously dirty laundry, to expose it for anyone to know and learn and act. Yes, I did my horrible job. But I went along in deed not full belief, and I thought that made me special, I thought that made all the difference for me personally. I thought it got me off the hook. Indochina, the land, the people, it was all totally wasted but as for myself I believed in my gut I was saved by seeking out the truth of the situation, by gaining a handle on reality, by knowing it in face of propaganda from all sides, by not flinching in face of my real position on earth.”
Jim’s gaze remained fixed on the field and athletes below.
“You could have been doing something that might have helped keep guys like Aaron Thompson alive. Let alone the Vietnamese.”
“So might we all. And now Attila the American has invaded and occupied Iraq. And done wrong all over the place. I mean this is our country – we’re responsible for it, for its actions, are we not? We should know fully what goes on and do something about it.”
“Whose side did you think you were on, knowing what you did?”
“My own.” Jim lit a cigarette and waved it like a wand. “I thought that truth alone, owning it, was power enough to justify and preserve life, my own mainly. Not that truth is worth much when pitted against money, guns, and the propaganda that seems to breed invisibly throughout the culture – in the schools, churches, businesses, in the corporate media, in government. Whatever good gets done, the lies facilitate the flow of dollars to the top, and thereabouts. There’s no conspiracy, just an intricate makeshift design – millions of people who scarcely know they’re working together to make the world what they don’t know it is, or feel they can do nothing about. And the privileged seem like they would rather see the world destroyed than see it saved in a form they can’t rule. Not that they actually think this, for the most part. They just act on it, and tell themselves convenient stories, rationalizing like anyone that they’re as benevolent as seems fit in what they see as a threatening world. They’re scared and vicious, these fine people, or they just don’t care. Plus, they’ve fooled themselves, and plenty of others. But Indochina knows the truth. And the impoverished regions and pockets of America know reality too. Sure, some people are fooled there too. And people throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America. I was right in the middle of it. And Eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union know. As do plenty of first world populations. Unconsciously at least they know. People know their own destruction. Propaganda can make you blind to some of the facts some of the time but what you feel in your bones, blood, brain – the marrow disintegrating, the flesh starved, your body your baby dying, your health poisoned, your mind hollowed, your life fragmented, isolated, decayed – that’s the truth for those who suffer, and propaganda cannot touch that, even if it can fool you into thinking nothing else is possible, or even desirable. Still you know. You know you are living and dying in the apocalypse, your own point of destruction, private or public. And many of the privileged and powerful know it too when they care to. But rulers, for the most part, can hold the apocalypse at arm’s length. To them, another man’s daily apocalypse has almost always been more or less sustainable, and richly rewarding. Just because you know the truth in your bones doesn’t mean you know anything about changing the situation. You don’t know much more along those lines than the next guy. People are isolated. That’s what makes the set-up so potent – everyone is placed at each other’s throat, teeth bared, a dollar bill in between. And people can often be duped and seduced by big lies at critical moments as surely as infants can be handed lollipops laced with carcinogenic colorings, you know, red dye #5, blue dye #8, cancer of the throat. Lollipops for the brain. And the flag and big stick waving in the background as backup. Even if people know what’s going on, how wrong it is in a lot of ways, are they capable of getting together to do anything about it? How can they? What is there to draw them together now that they are competitors for life, trapped in a money society with little or no money for the work that they can see needs to be done? Little or no money for the struggle. That’s how the system works. So you can know all you want, but what can you do to reach people, communicate, share information and ideas, apply pressure for change? How can it be done without money? Money is what took me personally to Vietnam, to Central America, all around the world, the same motivation that drives Business America and its military to all corners of the world. Where is the money that will afford the opportunity to reshape society in the interests of the people rather than the profiteers? Where is the motivation that will make people proud and serious about this work? You need pride, I guess, and right now it seems so much is on the side of money, on the side of the flag, god, nation, football, status, you-name-it. The nation, especially, its myth. You try to keep some perspective on pride, to not let it manhandle you. Problem is, the nation doesn’t stand for the people – it stands for a top tier of bank accounts. So much of everything we have been raised or trained to be proud of serves those interests. That’s not our nation, not really, but it’s the nation that has been forced upon us. They say pride goes before the fall, but blind pride is the fall. It’s like loading ignorance, heavy as lead, into a cannon and blasting it out all over the place. That’s the point of nationalism, the effect of faith – to instill blind biased pride, and there’s little more dangerous than that because it means decent people can be organized to act on what they believe to be good reasons to do absolutely horrific things, especially at a distance – 4 million Indochinese slaughtered, a million plus Iraqis dead due to economic sanctions and bombings, at a distance. It means decent people can be organized even to wreck their own country, their neighbors, themselves. If we could only see it to know it. If we only cared to look a little more closely, broadly, whatever it takes. If we only cared to speak up, to act.”
“I lost my whole life to it. Think of that.”
“I mean, what was I doing transporting munitions for the slaughter in Vietnam, and then going from one point of massacre to another, all the while based out of the US? It wasn’t like I was usually smack in the gore but I should have been. It was like I was standing at the portal of some vast torture chamber taking in live bodies then flinging out skeletons one after the other, like some loyal shock troop in a monstrous regime. Sure, it was professional flying planes, but I might as well have been in some endless sewer or foul cavern, wading through a river of excrement, striding resolute against blood and sludge rising up my thighs while all around me good professional people moved like brainwashed trolls and mutant rats through tunnels that reached around the globe from the hot fields of US training grounds and tomb central –
Washington DC. That was me. And we were cheered on by official America and some of the misled populace. And the scariest people of all directing, controlling, orchestrating this from on high – more mutant and more troll-like than anyone. This is a great country in so many ways. But we are champion deniers of our vicious side. Just like the Greeks of ancient times. I was so in the thick of it then that I ask myself now, who am I and what can I be to the human race at this point? Who are we? More than monsters, surely. Didn’t I know better? Thought I did. I whored myself to capitalize, I pimped my planes, and the main tricks were named Assault and Terror. And so I got what I wanted – money, power, identity, adventure, status. And pride, too.”
Jim focused on the burning tip of his cigarette.
“I thought I was something special. I did and I didn’t. I wanted to be. Back in the day, after high school, a goal of mine was to walk into a room in a crisis situation and at least once in my life be looked to as the best man for the job that needed doing that moment. To have and to hold the respect of everyone. I cared too much for that, maybe. Vietnam cured me, I thought. Then I simply wanted to survive and prosper, and soon that was all I cared about – virtually nothing. Nobody’s respect meant a thing – though I was respected in my own circles, it seemed. I thought I was special all on my own – let the world go to hell. It looked like it had. A fixed sense of superiority is what I felt, based on my knowing the hideous reality of the wars, a perspective that provided me an edge walking into any room anywhere in or out of the military.”
“And today? Who are you today, Jim Fielder?”
“I’m telling what I can tell. In November I’ll stand again with the priests and nuns against the School of the Americas in Georgia. I’m a piece of work, is what I am, today.”
Jim watched practice for a while. He turned off the recorder.
He gazed beyond the stadium, and past the edge of town to the world beyond. He continued to wonder what story he had just told, and whose. And he began to wonder what more he might do as well.