Last week, I rented the military movie "Rules of Engagement," starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones. Watching it, I was flooded with thoughts of my stepfather.
While the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking out against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Pops was in the jungles of Southeast Asia, serving in a tank battalion. He saw some real hot action. In fact, he's partially deaf in one ear because of a mortar attack on his unit.
After the war, he never spoke about his tour of duty in any detail - not with me anyway. And I didn't pry much either. I figured "war is hell" and I could understand someone not wanting to expose private demons.
But that didn't silence the intimately intertwined questions that have haunted me ever since I was a child: Why is there starvation in a world with plenty of food? What explains vast poverty in the face of awesome affluence? How can anyone speak meaningfully about freedom on a planet plagued with inequality - a social order held together with a mind-numbing amount of violence and deceit? Might there be a clue, or possibly an answer, in Pops' Vietnam experience?
Now, these deeply personal social puzzles weren't tackled in "Rules of Engagement." And that's fine. The movie was about a different ethical dilemma. It was about a Vietnam War hero, played by Jackson, who went on to become a distinguished career military man.
Jackson and his unit were sent into some Middle Eastern country to rescue an American diplomat and his family who were trapped in a U.S. embassy by a hostile group of Arab protesters. (Predictably, the movie depicted Arabs in typical racist fashion, giving no mention of the grievances behind the protests, leaving intact the stereotype that most Arabs, even the women and children, indiscriminately hate Americans for no good reason at all.)
During the rescue mission, a number of "radical Muslims" shot and killed several of our boys. This "unprovoked" attack convinced Jackson to order his men to return fire. The obedient soldiers mowed down all 83 protesters in the vicinity, including unarmed women and children.
Because of the PR problem it created for U.S. foreign policy planners, a national security advisor spearheaded an investigation and court-martial proceedings against Jackson that included the withholding of crucial evidence - video footage of "terrorists" shooting from among the crowd, which would have, the viewer is led to believe, justified the atrocity.
There were some memorable lines in the flick. During one of the more dramatic courtroom scenes, Jackson says: "Innocent people always die." The next logical question was not even raised: why do the lives of "innocent people" count less than those who are killing them? "It's not murder. It's combat," said Tommy Lee Jones' character, in defense of Jackson's action, as if he hadn't just uttered a mere rationalization, which is something different than justification.
Even though he was not the high-ranking decorated professional soldier that Jackson portrayed, I could see Pops in that role - a brave soldier, serving his country. So you see, I could never morally condemn soldiers who believe they are fighting for freedom.
"It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our breasts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent," Gandhi explained.
Unfortunately, our foreign-policy planners have uncritically accepted a false dichotomy: fight or flight. There is a third alternative. It's called nonviolent political action.
"What is wanted is a deliberate giving up of violence out of strength. To be able to do this requires imagination coupled with a penetrating study of the world drift. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will," Gandhi said.
This pitting of one's whole soul against the will of a tyrant, Gandhi cautioned, "never implied that a nonviolent man should bend before the violence of an aggressor. He was not to return violence by violence but neutralize it by withholding one's hand and, at the same time, refusing to submit to the demand."
"Utopian", you say? Some philosopher once said: If it exists, it's possible. Don't you think we owe it to people like my Pops, and the "innocent people (who) always die" in combat, to re-evaluate, not the rules, but the methods of engagement?
I do. Happy Veterans Day!
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columnist.
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