Some Poor Dude Has Always Got It Worse….

Just a friendly reminder that there is some poor dude, someplace, who has it worse today than you do. 🙂

Some poor kid burning a field head (latrine) in Haditha, Anbar Province, Iraq. Dec 2006
Some poor kid burning a field head (latrine) in Haditha, Anbar Province, Iraq. Dec 2006

And, in years time, he’ll probably be a victim of cancer, terminal respiratory illness or organ failure due to the inhalation of burning feces. I doubt very much the government will ever own up to the cause.

So, both in the short term and the long term, you are probably better off than your current job makes you feel.

Peace.

“Bonfire at Midnight”

A good and dear friend of mine, Fareed, who had a great deal of influence in pushing me to address the spiritual desert, or maybe it was a wasteland, I was in, started me on reading the poems of the 13th century Sufi scholar and mystic, Rumi. I am sure many of you are familiar with Rumi’s works, if you are not, I encourage you to give his writings a read. I have found quite a connection with Rumi’s poetry, so much that I now keep a book of daily readings of Rumi’s next to my bed. Please don’t ask how often I am dutiful and consistent in my reading though… 😉

What has been most jarring to me, as I get to know Rumi, has been the sense of meandering, the sense of resignation, the sense of spiritual and emotional homelessness I find in his poems. I identify with those lost and lonely feelings, but I am reassured by Rumi’s confidence in the journey he is on and the courage he possesses, because of the strength provided by something greater than him and by his companion Shams, who was a light of mindfulness, peace and friendship.

Now I have many Shams in my life; yes that is a cheesy thing to say, but it is true. My progress forward is a testament to their strength more than mine, just as Rumi found his strength and confidence in Shams.

But to one of his poems.

The other night I was grabbed ahold by the first stanza of Rumi’s “Bonfire at Midnight”:

A shout comes out of my room

where I’ve been cooped up.

After all my lust and dead living

I can still live with you.

You want me to.

You fix and bring me food.

You forget the way I’ve been.

Was that not me? A life of lust and dead living? And is not the acceptance and forgiveness of me, by friends and family alike, the core and foundation of my recovery? Was not the fear of not receiving such acceptance and forgiveness the terror that kept me alone with alcohol as my only friend? Is not acting and living upon that acceptance and forgiveness the instrument that has resuscitated my soul and gifted me once more with a future?

Is such knowledge of that acceptance and forgiveness not a Bonfire at Midnight for me? Is it not a beacon to my soul and mind of a clear and sound determinant of life, peace and hope?`

What I love so much about art, be it written word or image, is the transfer of someone’s emotion, someone’s story, someone’s fear, affection, despair, joy, horror, beauty…someone’s life through centuries, societies and cultures to another person, who in turn, understands and recognizes himself in the artist’s message. About 800 years ago Rumi wrote the words to a “Bonfire at Midnight”. Today, half a world from Rumi’s land, in an age that would appear fantastical and magical to him, I share in Rumi’s joy and appreciate his gratitude.

There is something bigger than me in my life. There are also many Shams in my life.  I have no doubt today, on Thanksgiving, as to where my thankfulness lies.

Peace to you all and Happy Thanksgiving.

“Am I Taking Crazy Pills? It Really Says That!?”

That’s what my friend and fellow Marine, Joe, said a few months ago when I sent him the conclusion from a Department of Veterans Affairs study on veteran suicides that read:

“Killing experiences are not routinely examined when assessing suicide risk. Our findings have important implications for conducting suicide risk assessments in veterans of war.”

Seriously.

The VA’s sole purpose is to provide care to our Nation’s veterans due to veterans’ unique circumstances and experiences. How can the VA have not included “killing experiences” as part of suicide risk assessments of veterans? It is no wonder that at least 22 veterans are killing themselves each day, with 22 a day most likely being an underestimate as it is based on partial, incomplete and non-uniform reporting from only 21 states, or that more than 60% of veterans are not registered with the VA.

If your Thanksgiving travels, the weather or your family haven’t made you drive your head through the wall yet, then this VA study will.

Thoughts on Veterans Day

Of course I have a lot of thoughts on Veterans Day. It’s kind of hard not to, as you are basically hit with a torrent of gratitude, most of it applied with the same amount of care and specificity of a fire hose.

I wrote this last year, but it still encapsulates much of my feelings towards Veterans Day. I am less angry than I was a year ago, but that anger is still there and will always be. It is something I have recognized about myself and something I will have to manage the rest of my life.

A Few Days After Veterans Day

I get lots of notes thanking me for my service on Veterans Day. I am grateful and appreciative. My friends, both veterans and active duty service members, receive the same affections of respect and esteem and, of course, value those sentiments.

There comes a time, however, when a line is breached. I have difficulty receiving a message from a teacher thanking me for what I have done for my country. I blush at the hand shakes, emails, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets and banners from police officers, fire fighters, nurses, nonprofit organizers and volunteers, clergy, utility workers and good parents; people who do more on a daily basis for our nation than I have ever done.

Please understand me. What these men and women do everyday contributes more to the well being and welfare of this nation than anything done overseas over the last decade in our country’s name.*

I have no greater pride than in the Marines and Sailors I led in Iraq. They were consummate professionals: tough, disciplined and compassionate. They took care of one another, adhered to vague, illogical and unfair rules of engagement and followed, to the best they could, a mission even more vague, illogical and unfair. What they did, they did for one another and they would do so again. They deserve the admiration of a nation for their performance and their conduct in situations impossible to understand unless you were there. However, their performance in their duties must be divorced and recognized separately from the misbegotten and politically expedient narrative that we live in a safer America today because of an invasion of Iraq and an eleven-year occupation of Afghanistan.

What allows for this unquestioning acceptance of a patriotic and romantic yet specious narrative? Maybe it is the fear resident from the horror of the September 11 attacks? An act carried out by what history will detail to have been a band of mad-men and not a force worthy of a war or the designation as an existential threat. Maybe it is a form of collective guilt, shame or inferiority for not having served? This attitude within the American public has manifested itself in elected officials and prevents questioning, critical thought or oversight pertaining to anything military in Washington, DC. Maybe it is a fawning media? Desperate for ratings, pressured by competition and needful of access, the media has been easily suckered by the world’s largest and best-trained public relations machine run by the Pentagon. Maybe it is even a growth in the general knowledge and understanding of war by the American public? I mean, who needs a draft, because, thanks to video games: “There’s a soldier in all of us.” Whatever the reason, it is tragic and absurd that we confuse the hard work and selfless sacrifice of most veterans with overly simplistic, factually lazy and politically manipulative stories of freedom and liberty, of defense of economic prosperity, or of holding back barbarians at our gates.

I am quite certain Godwin’s Law is in effect as many read this, but for every analogy or comparison to World War II and Nazi Germany in modern American foreign policy discourse, a referencing of the tragedies of Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia would be more appropriate. For these conflicts are not just closer in time and generation, but are more similar in their substance and form, and in their loss and inconclusiveness, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than the Good War is to the Afghan and Iraq Wars. Do not be misled, we lost the Iraq War and we are losing the Afghan War. Not that either of those wars were worth winning, which, of course, is little consolation to the families of the dead and maimed.

Despite these losses; despite the disgraces of Generals McChrystal, Caldwell, Petraeus and Allen, all undone by vainglorious stupidity; despite the level of the Pentagon’s fiscal profligacy, one without equal in the modern world; and despite a suicide epidemic that only the satirical publication The Onion seems willing to take head on, the military is the most widely respected institution in the United States.

Veterans deserve a great share of the responsibility for such foolishness. For too long we have been placed on a pedestal, immune from criticism or investigation, in some cases receiving adoration and reverence approaching clerical or pontifical status among the American public. Have we, those no longer in service, met our obligations to those still serving and to those who will serve? Have we honestly and critically examined our most recent histories and reported, candidly, what we saw, what we did, what we accomplished, whether or not it was worth it, and what it meant?

Maybe it is too soon for such introspection. Many of the more poignant, sincere and astute recollections and summaries of war have been published decades after the homecomings. Perhaps it is just too soon for many of us. However, as a friend of mine reminds me, for veterans to not speak genuinely, but rather to silently and graciously accept accolades of unwarranted praise and glory, ensures propaganda lives on as history.

Maybe in time my generation will produce memoirists like Kotolwitz, Sledge or Fussel, novelists like Vonnegut, Heller or Mailer, or films like Paths of Glory, MASH or The Deer Hunter. With a few exceptions, most reporting of the Afghan and Iraq wars by veterans has been simply that: reporting. This absence of critical examination and of serious questioning of the wars by veterans has allowed for an infirmity to take hold within the American people that disallows for questioning warriors and, to the benefit of a few, expedites policies of perpetual war.

Thank you for your sympathies on the hardship of war, they are right and deserved. However, please truly consider the merit of crediting the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq for the continuing liberties, freedoms and welfare of the United States. I did not see any al Qaeda in Afghanistan or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, nor do I know many Afghans who are benefiting from Karzai’s kleptocracy or Iraqis who are grateful for the horrors of civil war. Rather than receive thanks undeserved, I would prefer we hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes and our failures. Until that time, I will read the below poem each Veterans Day. I have seen more of what it speaks of in war and its aftermath than I ever did of any freedom or liberty.

SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHESBy Siegfried Sassoon

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Letter to the Editor

Last week, the Washington Post was kind enough to publish a letter I wrote in response to a column by Tom Ricks, a former WaPo journalist and author. The letter is here:

Thanks to Thomas E. Ricks for his Oct. 27 Sunday Opinion piece, “Can the military learn from its mistakes?” I am glad such a prominent voice on military affairs is raising the question of the United States’ lost wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Mr. Ricks missed the forest for the trees.

The U.S. military has failed to win because it has engaged in civil wars whose causes and meanings are absent any U.S. concern; Iraq, of course, is a civil war of our own making. There is no strategy, and certainly no general, capable of winning a war whose foundations were as morally rotten as the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, or a war in which success requires the funding and fortification of a corrupt and illegitimate government such as the regime in Kabul.

We can continue to argue about troop levels, deify or defrock generals and debate strategies, or we can own up to the reality that war is a failure. Until we do, lives will continue to be shattered without gain.

Peace.

Cheney, Kilcullen and Captain Stubing Walk into a Publisher’s Office

I’m trying to utilize Buddhist practices in my life. The concept of Right Speech is one I like, but it is one I am really struggling with, and, sometimes, to be humorous, one I find necessary to disregard. Forgive me, I genuinely do dislike snark and want to be more effective in my communication, but I just could not pass this up:

In Barnes and Noble today I found a book by former Vice President Dick Cheney on matters of the heart, another on war by former counter-insurgency proponent and now counter-insurgency apologist, David Kilcullen, and one by the guy who played the skipper of The Love Boat, on love, or boating, or love boating, or whatever. Regardless, if I had to choose between reading a book on hearts by a heartless Cheney, both figuratively and literally, a book on war by a strategist integral in our failed war policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a book by the most famous pretend cruise boat captain of all time, I’m going with Captain Stubing every time. Every time, no doubt.

Actually, Gavin MacLeod’s book is a testament to his struggles in life, his alcoholism and his near suicide. Telling his story is a brave and noble effort and will help many more people than Cheney’s psychopathic, megalomanic and cowardly policies, or Kilcullen’s romantic fantasies of saving little brown people with smart war conducted by munificent white people. MacLeod is bringing peace to himself and to others, cutting through the lies of his life, and helping others to see and cut through their own personal lies and live fuller, happier and more peaceful lives. Cheney and Kilcullen’s books, and the lives they have led, in very stark contrast, stand to only perpetuate lies of compassion, war and, most disturbingly, the notion of compassionate war.

Peace, and again, apologies for the snark.

Cheney on matters of the heart, Killcullen on war, MacLeod on love: I'm going with the latter as the credible voice.
Cheney on matters of the heart, Killcullen on war, MacLeod on love: I’m going with the latter as the credible voice.

 

Pouring out that Bottle

I poured a bottle of Wild Turkey out in the VA parking lot this afternoon. It was a big bottle, a handle, $50 worth of bourbon. It had been in my car for the better part of two days, after I bought it at a liquor store off of I-85 at the tail of a long drive. I had convinced myself of the need for my old friendship with alcohol and was warmed by the opportunity to accept the comfort of the misery of remembrances that the alcohol would release. For so many years alcohol was my only friend, the only one I opened up to, the only one that allowed me to be myself, the only one I could acknowledge my failings, my guilt, my sorrow, my anger to.

I was excited to get back home. To sit in my living room, listen to my music, with all those triggers in so many sad and angry songs, and to drink that bottle. True friendship, true understanding, true tolerance. Alcohol would numb me, alcohol would accept me, alcohol would say it was ok. I was going to happily and eagerly throw my life, and my soul, back into a deep, black, cold hole. And I would revel in it.

But then I didn’t. The thought of an early dentist appointment the next day reminded me of my past life, where I would easily neglect such appointments and rapidly dismiss responsibilities to both myself and others. A timely phone call from my girlfriend and the quickness with which I lied to her, telling her everything was ok and that I was just going to watch football that evening, cut me open. Was I going to go back to that life? Hadn’t I given alcohol enough of a chance? Wasn’t over four years of self-medication and self-destruction enough of an opportunity for booze? My attempts to relieve my suffering through alcohol had failed. Without a doubt, alcohol had failed me. The bottle stayed in my car when I got home and I called Megan.

Next Friday, November 1st, will be my twenty-first month of sobriety, or attempted sobriety, to be honest and clear. It has not been easy and I don’t expect that handle of Turkey will be the last bottle I will have to empty indecorously down a drain, into a toilet or over a parking lot. But there is no other way.

The most important thing I have heard from friends, what my therapists have taught me, and what I have learned myself, is this process of recovery, this attempt to take my life back, is a long, hard, tortuous effort. Bad days come less frequently now, but they still do come, and when they do, they hurt. Faltering and falling down, but recomposing oneself and standing again, is the very essence of this process. Of course, it’s not possible on your own, you need others, like a psychologist who will tell you, very sternly, to pour that bottle out; and it won’t work unless you build a life, a good life, a happy life, one that is worth the struggle and separate from the distress brought on by your own personal history.

Last spring, a Vietnam Veteran in my group told me: “if I hear someone in church saying he doesn’t have the taste anymore for alcohol, then I know he either never had the taste or he’s lying.” My friends, that taste for alcohol doesn’t go away, its alleged friendship doesn’t ever make good on its promises, and its acceptance of your suffering is illusory and cruel.

Again, I expect to fall down again. If you are going through this process with me, then you most likely will too. But I know there are others to help me up and there are others who will help you up too, including you and me.

Peace.

Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

Jeremy Scahill’s politically important and emotionally exhausting film, Dirty Wars, is now available on iTunes, Netflix, Amazon and through a whole bunch of other video services that I have no idea how to access: Google, XBox, Playstation, Sundance…..

A few years ago, Jeremy interviewed me and a little bit of that interview made it into the film. We spoke for a couple of hours at a bar and Jeremy bought me a few beers. I had forgotten about the film until last spring when Jeremy contacted me about helping with the film’s roll out and having me speak at screenings.

I attended the film’s premiere in May in Washington, DC. Many of my friends attended, thankfully. As Dirty Wars deepened and darkened my mind with remembrances, my friends, almost all of them not veterans, were a buoy to me. It was a stunning and nauseating ninety minutes. I had to leave the theater at one point.

If you are surviving PTSD, depression and suicidality you do a good job staying away from triggers, trying not to let thoughts metastasize and take over your life; allowing the memories to remain just memories, not haunting or demanding action, but just present in your life, a part of your life, but not your life. But then you sit in a dark theater and you watch, listen and feel a story told so compassionately and so beautifully by a man who knows this story, which is also your story, so well. He lives it too. His film, his testament, makes you remember your obligations.

More than your story or Jeremy’s story, Dirty Wars is the story of thousands of nameless and voiceless men, women and children. Children of God, brothers and sisters in humanity, those who our wars are supposed to bring freedom and liberty to, unlucky bastards, whatever you want to call them, the truth is these people are suffering under an American political narrative of good vs evil and a policy of perpetual war that benefits a one trillion dollar a year national security Leviathan and those who enjoy and profit from the romance of war and the fear of terrorism.

Thank you Jeremy for witnessing and giving voice to those nameless and voiceless thousands, those mortal souls and their corporeal families destroyed by war, unknown to our society and ignored by our media.

Please watch Dirty Wars and please ask your friends to watch too. Give voice to the voiceless.

 

Dead Eyes in a Live Face, my friend’s poem:

My good friend, Fareed, was born in Afghanistan. As a young boy his family fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Fareed has returned numerous times to Afghanistan since 2001; in a variety of roles, all attempts to heal, both himself and his country. He wrote me this poem and sent it to me over the weekend:

Dead eyes in a live face

An orchard

Men

Women

Children

Playing

A garden of Eden

What sadness reflects in

Those once sunny eyes

back at

Our souls!

 

Who knew we would feel

Twenty thousand leagues

Under the sea of our souls

move within us

Telling us to hide our faces

And cry out to Zion

These orchard dwellers

In the garden

Of our Eden

They are us

And we are them.