Trial by Fire Hose

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

“This is America, get used to it.”

A generation ago — well, two, perhaps — such a comment, surfacing with malicious anonymity at a Deep South high school, along with Confederate flags, swastikas and scrawled references to “white power,” would have been meant as friendly advice to uppity integrationists and racial harmony types to shut up and wise up.

In the 1950s and ’60s, civil rights activists endured their trial by fire hose — and, of course, far worse — before they altered history and made an indelible point or two about justice. They were, in the main, nonviolent, but that doesn’t mean they were nice, or that they won a nation over with sincerity and loving smiles. They stood their ground and paid the price.

I reminded myself of this the other day, when I read about the grief and sheer boob-ignorance visited upon the “Peace Shirt Coalition” at Cocoa Beach (Fla.) Junior-Senior High School.

At the beginning of the school year, as reported by Orlando’s Channel 6 News, a group of kids began wearing T-shirts hand-decorated with peace themes every Thursday. They also put peace posters up on their lockers. Apparently such activities were controversial — like, oh, sitting down, while black, at a Woolworth’s lunch counter once was — and pretty soon people started ripping down the posters or defacing them with swastikas and those other overly familiar, bizarrely racist-edged expressions of hate. The school corridors became gauntlets of derision for the “peace kids” — some broke down in tears — and eventually a counter-group started wearing Confederate flags to school.

At first I could hardly manage a thought more articulate than: huh? But even as I felt a centrifugal spin of incredulity, anger and despair — how come people hate the idea of peace so much? — I also felt some deeper click of, oh yeah, this is how it is.

Then I thought about the young soldier I wrote about last week, Sgt. Brad Gaskins, whose severe post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by two tours of duty in Iraq, went unacknowledged by the military on his return and drove him to go AWOL. When he was interviewed, finally, by a psychotherapist, he made a comment I continue to find haunting, and which sends an echo through the corridors of Cocoa Beach Junior-Senior High School, whether the peace hecklers know it or not.

“He wonders,” wrote psychotherapist Rosemary Masters, “if God is punishing him because before he joined the Army he thought of war as something fun and exciting.”

If this is true, punishment is pending for a few others as well. Our collective emotional cauldron bubbles with fear and hatred just as it did 50 years ago. And we remain a victory-smitten, warrior-wannabe society, seduced and pumped up by the thought of loosing those emotions and gloriously having it out with some baddie, no matter how inanely B-movie the notion or how ugly the reality.

The peace kids innocently tapped into that cauldron. Thus a “Wage Peace” sign was torn down and replaced with “I Love America, Because America Loves War.” And ominously accompanying the outbreak of Confederate-flagwear at the school was the slogan, “This is America, get used to it.”

What a failure of education. Somebody needs to talk to these kids. Not me, but people like Brad Gaskins and other vets, who have internalized the hell of war, found themselves being eaten alive with guilt and unbearable memories and, far too often, have encountered official indifference and worse on their return home.

For instance, another story that recently went off like white phosphorous concerned wounded vets’ receiving bills from the Army for a portion of their $10,000 enlistment bonuses — because they hadn’t served out their full terms.

The Department of Defense, which a few years ago acknowledged (as noted in a 2003 article in the San Francisco Chronicle) that “it couldn’t account for more than a trillion dollars in financial transactions, not to mention dozens of tanks, missiles and planes,” was threatening wounded vets with interest charges on the “unearned” portions of their bonuses, at least until media attention forced an embarrassed spokesman to call the whole thing a “snafu.”

Well, this is America. Get used to it.

But at least that comment cuts two ways. There is a peace movement, and it won’t go away. This is also America. And when a few kids in peace T-shirts are able to scare up the undead racism of past generations and expose the deep irrationality that constitutes much of the public’s support of war, we may once again be witnessing the beginning of profound change.