Friday, September 28, 2012

Our Hearts of Darkness

There are moments in life when the darker side of human nature makes itself known in the everyday and the commonplace. At these times, long held assumptions about human decency can vanish in an instant and leave us with a clear-eyed, but disturbed sense of reality. It is the moment when, with the sharpest vision and presence of mind, there is no doubt that what we have just witnessed is ugly and true at the same time.

While waiting for my delayed flight from Tampa to New York, sitting in the boarding area in my usual heads-down reading posture, I was briefly interrupted as I saw a wheelchair come into my peripheral field of vision. Some rapid-fire, automated memory mechanism wordlessly communicated to me that it was the usual and often-seen senior citizen being helped along to our gate. The mechanism was wrong. As I raised my head I could see that this was a young Marine, sitting ramrod straight in his military-issued wheelchair, legless from the hips and showing the remnants of third degree burns on his deeply scarred arms, the right one badly disfigured. Prominently centered on the back of the chair was the Marine Corps insignia and around it the words “Purple Heart Veteran.”

I had just had a long discussion the night before with a business colleague from California about war and US foreign policy and was in a circumspect mood. I had expressed my deep frustration with the lack of awareness of most citizens of the depth of trouble that war brings. We discussed the chronic under reporting of civilian casualties, the rampant illegality excused in the name of “protecting our freedom,” the monstrously large defense budget, the devastating costs to our veterans and their families, the continuing escalation of international conflict and the recent NYU-Stanford Law School collaborative study on the devastating human toll of the current Drone War in Waziristan, Pakistan.

Overcome with emotion, it took me several minutes to compose myself enough to approach and offer this young man a smile and a “thank you.” It was obvious that he was avoiding eye contact with people, including the flight attendant who was speaking to him with kind, gentle words and gestures of assurance. I thought she was an angel.

As we boarded the plane, the first class section was full and all were seated, many gazing at me, the 6-foot tall man standing before the galley. The young Marine was already seated in the coach section. I looked at the Angel and she looked at me. Our eyes locked. In a strong voice I said, “That kid belongs in first class, someone should give up their seat.”

I turned and looked at my fellow citizens seated in front of me and heard the flight attendant second my motion and also state that the young man was only 23 years old. She said, “I know you’d give up yours.”

“Of course.”

I thought, that’ll do it and stood for a moment longer. Everyone either looked away or looked down. I gazed ahead and at the young Marine and could see that he must have heard me. He looked down as well. With everyone in my view looking down, warrior and civilians, I felt my heart begin to race with waves of injustice rising in my gut. Before I could utter a second louder protestation I thought of the young man. This was about him. It was also about respect. Creating a scene would embarrass him I thought and would be an affront to his dignity.

He had not asked for a better seat and had lived, seen and experienced things that none of us could even imagine. No burden lay with him. It lay only with my fellow citizens and me. I moved on slowly to my seat. I could feel the massive weight of what just happened hanging in the air. Was I the only one feeling it? Could others escape away into their iPhones and newspapers? Did they not at least momentarily reflect? Did no one at all feel compelled enough, even after some moments of uncomfortable soul searching, to simply get up out of his or her seat? Such a simple and utterly modest sacrifice….

As we flew to New York, the flight activities proceeded as typical flights do with safety announcements and basic drink service. The young soldier and his circumstances occupied my mind the entire time. I began to weep. I could think of nothing else. I peered forward looking for the top of his bright blond crew cut. Did someone finally give up their seat? Yes, perhaps I missed it. Someone did the right thing.

As the flight attendants serving the Coach section made their way back to me, I ordered club soda and peanuts. I had been wiping tears away from my eyes and trying not to allow my emotions to overtake me. As my flight attendant, a man of military bearing himself, poured my drink I asked, “did someone finally give their seat to that young man?”

“No, no one.”

“He’s only 23-years old. He was a Minesweeper. Lost part of his arm too.”

I looked up at him and he could see that I had been crying. ‘What the fuck is wrong with people?,” I asked. I hadn’t expected to blurt out vulgarity and for a moment, felt a little embarrassed.

Slowly, he shook his head.

The angel flight attendant who was now serving first class moved back down the aisle toward us. She hurriedly asked the man serving my drink, “Do you have any vodka? I need five. They’re all drinking it and I’m out.” He reached below his cart and pulled out five bottles and she took them away.

I do not know what the conscience of another is. I can only speculate. I see so many bumper stickers reading “Support our Troops,” that I have been led to believe, perhaps naively, that most people really care about them and understand the meaning of their sacrifice.

Faced with a choice, I opt for the notion that at least some of the folks ordering drinks, were doing so to quell an uneasy feeling that had overcome them.

Perhaps they weren’t aware of what was making them uncomfortable and sometime later, it would become apparent. And then, with the full measure of time and distance between themselves and the young Marine they would come to realize that they had made a terrible mistake. That something which seemed trivial was actually profound; that the silent young man with the Purple Heart lives a life that is defined by sacrifice. That when given the wonderful opportunity to make the most meager sacrifice for him, to offer him their gratitude, their love, the simple recognition that they were grateful for his service and their own lives of luxury, they did nothing.

And that in this awareness, they will grieve for this soldier’s physical loss and emotional suffering and the many more like him and those who have died. And perhaps they will grieve as I am for a country that has lost its way in a culture of self-centeredness and willful ignorance of its own heart and soul.

It is in our best interest to hope for the emergence of the non-selfish parts of our character, in others and in ourselves. At times like this, it is difficult to make such a leap of optimism, but I have to believe that what is good in all of us only needs to be touched by awareness to make it operative in our lives, that our hearts of darkness can become hearts of light.

Friday, September 28th, 2012


  1. Kevin, this piece is so full of heartfelt compassion and good righteous anger, it's a powerful read. It moved me. I love your big, generous heart. Feeling for that Marine as an injured individual is at the core of my response, but I also have mixed feelings. I stop short of feeling that he deserves that compassion because of his sacrifice for our sake. Let's not forget that he volunteered to participate in an immoral war, the most evil crime ever perpetrated. And for all I know, he is/was a gung-ho killer. I did not ask for him any sacrifice. I would feel soldiers are truly heroic if they would stand up to their corporate overlords and refuse to kill. Or better yet, just don't sign up, now that there is plenty of evidence available that there is no valid reason for these wars. Without soldiers there could be no war.

  2. Brent, I understand your being of two minds on this. There is a distinction between recognizing the Marine's service as a duty, a well-intentioned and honorable duty and the circumstances of that duty as determined by powerful, elite policy makers. I accept Chomsky's thesis that we live in the age of “manufactured consent.” Howard Zinn has written extensively about the fact that citizens do not choose to go to war, government officials do. Citizens need to be coerced and the use of propaganda is always there. This can mean that service members and the public at large are deceived and that wars that are unjustified and illegal can be thoroughly positioned as justified, moral and legal in the public consciousness with full support of media organizations, think tanks and the Council on Foreign Relations. For example, we now know that in May of 1945, William J. Donovan, Director of the OSS had written memoranda to Truman directly communicating Japan's willingness to cease hostilities and surrender. We also now know that Eisenhower strongly objected to the use of an atomic weapon on MORAL grounds and made this clear directly to Truman and that Admiral William Leahy thought and stated that the bomb's use was an act of barbarism as did Undersecretary of the Navy Ralph Bard, who resigned when it became clear that Truman was to go ahead with the bomb. Several military advisers and generals advised Truman that an invasion was unnecessary, as the Japanese were planning their surrender….

    Despite all of this Truman dropped the bomb twice killing by conservative estimate, 225,000 civilians. It has also become clear from publicly released documents (see “Atomic Diplomacy,” Gar Alperovitz, latest edition) that a motivating factor in dropping the bomb was intimidation of the Soviet Union. In the minds of most Americans the bomb’s use was justified, since it “saved 1,000,000 soldiers lives” by preempting an invasion. This has become standard history. But the facts I just stated are public record. To this day, virtually none of the public knows them and the media organizations have no interest in pursuing these facts or their meaning to our history. If servicemen and women base their decision to serve on established facts and these facts are untrue but not knowable as untrue, are the service members dishonorable? If the American public STILL doesn't know the facts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sixty seven years after the fact, how much more misinformed are they about Iraq? Afghanistan? Waziristan? Yemen?....

  3. ….With regard to the uncertainty of the warrior’s actions in the field, this uncertainty should not lead to disdain as presumed guilt, nor should the uncertainty color ones decision to treat the subject with respect and compassion. I submit that it is possible to hate war, but love the warrior and to accept that the sacrifice made, was honorably made for "us." In every war there are atrocities, bar none. There are documented cases of our Troops committing them in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must not look away, but we should also not ascribe collective guilt to the many dedicated service members, who have been deceived by the leaders whom they have sworn an oath to serve. On the contrary, we should pay close attention to their needs as they attempt to recover from brain trauma, PTSD and physical wounds. The crime is doubly wrong.

    “Liberals” as in the Democratic Party booster variety, need to acknowledge their intellectual dishonesty. The big lie is that Republicans are warmongers and Democrats are not. The public record is there for us if we open our eyes and look and this is the problem. The Net and alternate media is changing the game and I am encouraged.

    Wars of aggression are never justified (or legal). But when an Orwellian media/government system creates justification, the truth dies and the information that could awaken the conscience of an erstwhile Marine is not available. But there is light. The story of Pat Tillman reveals that he seems to have figured out that the war he was engaged in was unjustified and he was planning to meet with war-critical intellectuals when he returned from his tour, to try to learn more. He never made it home.

    The level of pre-war activism I see with regard to Iran encourages me and I think it is making it more difficult, politically, for a war of aggression against them to take place. It can still happen, but I think now we have a better chance of derailing it if enough Americans stay involved and focused on facts. Progress is slow and painful and war sets it back every time.

    Sorry for over-answering your thoughtful comment, this is probably preachment to the choir.

  4. Kevin, I think you're awesome. Heart and mind in wonderful balance. Thank you for these replies.

  5. Oh my, this reflection of what you experience and saw, has brought tears to my eyes. My heart goes out to this young man. Yes, I would have given up my first class seat. I am torn - because I am concerned about the well-being of the men and women who serve in the military yet I do not support the wars this country has participated in for the "freedom of this country." Partly because, my mother's family lost most of their men (brothers, uncles, cousins) in WWII and Korea wars - me losing an opportunity to know great-uncles; leaving my grandmother with a broken heart to have lost all her brothers.

    I serve as a board member of a non-profit organization, providing basic necessities (food, shelter), advocacy and transportation - the organization have vets who have served and are shattered. My anger swells because not much is being done for our younger vets. Two incidents of personal/professional friends' sons (between 26-30) who both committed suicide shortly after arriving back from recent wars. There is no conversation in the communities or organizations to address our lack of sympathy or compassion (as a whole). There are those of us (not enough), who gingerly ask what can we do to help; sometimes, they want us to listen, so we do. Many times, I cry.

  6. Barb,
    I share your concerns. It seems as though the folks who are paying attention have family members or friends affected by combat experience.

    I volunteer and do board work locally with our homeless services agency. The VA is throwing money at the homeless Vet problem and at the screening level, the military service question is asked so that available housing and service programs can be triggered. The VA in our neck of the woods also has counseling and housing support through Montrose Veteran's Hospital. Also we have homeless outreach in our county, but despite all of this, there a lot of folks we are not getting to. People have no idea how extensive the PTSD problem is. I think I'll be writing more about this.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and concern.

  7. kevin,
    Thanks for sharing the experience nice article..