Saturday, April 26, 2008

Déjà Vu All Over Again

This is what the back of my minivan looks like – what you might have seen if you were tailgating me on I-95 over the holidays as I made my pilgrimage from Miami to the area south of Orlando to visit family. It's a drive I've been making at least once or twice a year for decades. But this time for some reason – maybe just because my A/C was broken and I had to roll down the windows – I found myself having a serious experience of déjà vu.

Back around 1970 I owned a similar though larger van. It was even the same color, white. In fact it was big enough that I lived in it, or out of it, for a couple of years. I built a pair of wooden bookcases into the sides and made myself a little desk of mahogany (which I still own). Some square cushions served as seats during the day, and at night, along with a sleeping bag, as a mattress. A propane stove allowed me to heat canned food and make tea.

In those days air-conditioning was still something of a luxury in a vehicle, like an automatic transmission. So naturally I had a three-speed stick shift and no air. Then, as now, the hot Florida wind rumbled in through the windows and blew my (then longer and less gray) hair. Then, as now, something about the van testified to my objection to war. And then, as now, the country was mired in a conflict that seemed to have no end.

Iraq is different from Vietnam, of course, as it is different from Afghanistan, and as Vietnam was different from Korea and World War II. But the disease of war is ever the same, a malady that afflicts the aggressor and defender alike, both the strong and the weak, the victors and the vanquished, and those who only stand innocently by.

Then, as now, I had reason to fear hostility from some of my countrymen for my opposition to war. Sad to say, it is still far from a universal view. The early 70's were still the era of “America, Love It or Leave It” and “Better Dead than Red.” My long hair and mustache were all it took to identify me as one who believed that love of country might manifest as hatred of its policies and a desire for change, and that “reds” might be interesting partners in a political discussion. Had I got caught in a backwater town full of John Birch Society members and cornered in a dark alley, my appearance alone would have been all that was necessary to insure I was beaten up and ridden out of town, maybe even murdered like the unfortunate bikers in Easy Rider.

But I was younger then, perhaps more threatening because of my refusal to serve in the military. Those were the days of the draft, and this is now the time of the “professional” army (something the Founding Fathers tried hard to avoid) that supplements itself with professional mercenaries. Now I'm of an age where I'm not expected to serve, only to cheer the troops along and to pay my share of the staggering cost--now estimated at some 400 million dollars a day.

I no longer look out of place in a crowd. My beliefs would be invisible were it not for those telltale stickers on the rear door of the van. Some drivers have actually complimented me on them, and once a woman even rolled down her window to ask where she could get some. One comes from FCNL, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker-funded political lobby. Another comes from a local group called Miami for Peace. And the old reliable peace sign was clipped off the end of a longer strip that originally contained the phrase “Back by Popular Demand.” (Speaking of déjà vu!) But all that was too involved to yell out to someone in traffic, so I answered with a single word, “Quakers!”--trusting that she could track them down online.

Not everyone is so sanguine toward these sentiments, however. Back when we still hoped the invasion of Iraq could be stopped, I attended a protest rally at Bayfront Park. Two young men of military age--not in uniform, but possibly already in the army to judge from the cut of their hair --approached the crowd with such obviously hostile intent that a police officer intervened to explain things to them and direct them to the far side of the street. Not to be easily deterred, the pair got in a taxi and cruised past us shouting, “WAR! WAR! GO TO WAR!” in voices suitable for a parade ground.

So the hostility is still there in some, and I still wonder how to confront it if challenged. After a protest in 1968 where everyone wore black armbands, I was accosted by a belligerent drunk who demanded to know, “What's that on your arm?” This was a purely rhetorical question, as he clearly knew what it meant, and only wanted me to admit outright that I was one of those commie-pinko-hippies threatening to destroy American life as he knew it. Tongue-tied by the futility of discussion, I simply said, “I'm in mourning,” and went on my way.

Could I do any better now? What would I say if my flagrant bumper stickers caused me to be challenged at a rest-stop by some irate neo-fascist who was upset that my opinions seemed to demean either his own military service or that of his friends and relatives, or simply to run counter to his rage at “those people” in far corners of the world?

I've thought about it, and I think I could say, “I believe that since the time of the Old Testament we have been commanded not to kill. And I believe that when Jesus told us to love one another, even our enemies, that it was a piece of advice we were supposed to follow.”

My imagined adversary might not be a religious person himself, but I can pretend that he grew up in a rural town surrounded by such people, and that long experience would have taught him to defer to the weight of their collective opinion whenever the name of Jesus was invoked. So I imagine him falling silent in the face of this simple statement of principle.

Would this be cowardly of me? Would I then be taking refuge behind this long gone but still powerful figure, like someone jumping behind a stronger friend in the face of a bully? Maybe. But I'd rather think I was following the example of a revolutionary, one whose fondest aim might have been to give us the courage of our convictions.

“If anyone questions you,” I can hear him say, like an older and wiser brother, “this is what you can tell him. And tell him I said so.”

Or, in the simple words of 1970, “Peace, man.”

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