Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Terror

1/17/2018

If a man with a handgun openly displayed on his hip walked out onto the main street of Dodge City when the town’s cops were Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, that man was subject to being shot dead on the spot by the marshal or his deputies. How have we come to the place where a disturbed teenager or ‟lone wolf” nutjob with a history of domestic violence and mental illness can carry a weapon of war into a WalMart or a public school? These sorts of incidents would never–NEVER–have happened in the days when I was plinking tin cans with my homeboy buddies back in the early 1960s. Later, I lived on the mean streets of New York City’s Lower East Side in one of the Big Apple’s truly dark periods (late 60s and early 70s). I saw a man felled—probably murdered–by a knife-wielding gang, and I can remember many episodes of running my ass off on my way home from work to get into my locked front door before a band of bad guys could catch me, hurt me, and take my money. It was a tough time in the big city, but in my years in New York, I never ever heard a gunshot. Today, in my quiet, peaceful hometown of Richmond Virginia, I wake up nearly every day to the news that some toddler, or school kid or grandma was shot down in their front yard in some neighborhood a few blocks away. I hear the nearly nightly rapid-fire discharges of 9-mm pistols with high-cap magazine issuing from the windows of cars cruising down the streets of my quiet Victorian neighborhood. Teenagers are gunning each other down daily.

I have no issue with a human being exercising their natural right to protect themselves and their families with a firearm, but since the 1990s gun owners and freedom lovers have been absolutely brainwashed into thinking that the right to keep and bear arms is meant to be totally unfettered, completely unregulated, and that is the result of the National Rifle Association’s dance with the Devil; that is, the firearms industry and its very deep pockets. Our individual freedoms do not grant us the rights to impede others’ pursuits of life, liberty and happiness by sentencing our entire country to an endless round of terrorism from unstable people armed with weapons of war.

I bought my first firearm in 1962 with the help of the NRA through its joint program with the U. S. Government known as the Civilian Marksmanship Program. The gun was a Springfield rifle, model of 1903, a Government-surplus weapon of the type that would be carried by ‟doughboys” when they went to fight ‟over there” in The Great War. It took my teenage body a bit of work before I was strong enough to carry all that steel and walnut, and to not wince at the punishment my shoulder was subject to when I fired a 30-06 round at a target.  My second gun was also from government surplus. It was a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, Model of 1911. My Navy ROTC unit armorer, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, worked on my pistol, exchanging parts from our armory, to make that gun more suitable for me to use when firing in competition against the shooting teams of other universities. It was good enough that I won my event against the team from the Air Force Academy!

As a teen and a young adult, I loved shooting and shooting sports. I never hunted anything, although that same Gunny once took me on one of his favorite forays careening around the New Mexico desert in a jeep shooting at jackrabbits with a pistol.  I didn’t care to kill anything, but I enjoyed deploying the power of the gods to smite soda bottles and cans at a distance. As a young soldier and husband awaiting the birth of my son, I was assigned duty on the machine-gun training range at the Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. There my job was to help maintain safe practices on the range as trainees learned how to operate the potent M60 gun. The day I arrived at my new unit in Vietnam, I was handed my new ‟best friend,” the enormously heavy and awkward (but highly lethal and accurate) M14 rifle. I was also asked about my experience with the M60 and was immediately assigned duty as machine-gunner for my combat engineer platoon.

Both the M14 and M60 use the same 7.62mm NATO ammo: a hefty 30-caliber high-power round. I found myself going out on missions armed with a heavy rifle, an even heavier machine gun, at least two 20-round magazines of ammo for the rifle, two bandolier belts of ammo for the machine gun, a beefy tripod on which to mount the gun, and at least one box of additional ammo belts to feed the gun in case of enemy ‟contact.” The only good thing about being in command of such enormous firepower was that I had an assistant gunner to help me, and we went on our missions in the backs of trucks. While I always felt incredibly fortunate to be in a combat engineer outfit rather than infantry, at least those weary foot soldiers got to carry one of the new-fangled very lightweight M16 rifles which shot the relatively speedy but tiny 5.56 bullets.

Months later, I was transferred to a new job at battalion headquarters, where I worked in the ‟S4” yard, the heavily secured zone where combat-priority materiel were stored. I often found myself being the sole person on night duty at the yard. There was a .45 auto pistol in a holster and web belt that hung on a hook inside the S4 tent. My immediate superior, a staff sergeant, asked me if I knew how to use it. I told him about my NROTC shooting squad days and he encouraged me to wear that pistol and shoot anyone who tried to come around and ‟requisition” materiel from the yard without proper paperwork, even if it was ‟the colonel himself.” Occasionally I had to drive out into ‟Indian Country” accompanying a truck loaded with construction supplies for building helicopter landing zones or forward artillery fire bases. The sergeant encouraged me to carry the pistol in those cases.

I was very fortunate in that my year of duty in the war zone was relatively free of serious combat episodes. Our base was routinely rocketed and mortared. Our trucks were peppered with sniper fire. We had to search, find, and disarm booby traps—what today would be called IEDs—along the roads we travelled, but heavy firefights were not part of my experience. Nonetheless, I know for a fact that my having been armed and trained with both an automatic weapon (the M60 gun), and a semi-automatic pistol (the 1911) saved my life and the lives of others.

Once I was out of the Army, I had no interest in owning a gun at first. I was trying to find a normal life with my family. Besides, I was living in New York City, and guns were just not available, and the consequences of being caught with a firearm were serious. Eventually, I tired of city life, moved to the Virginia countryside, and renewed my old love of shooting. I reunited with the NRA by joining up so I could read the monthly editions of The American Rifleman magazine. The NRA had always been a patriotic and somewhat conservative organization, but its primary focus was marksmanship, gun safety, and education.  In the late 70s this began to change. Rather than simply informing members about various state, local and national laws or proposals related to gun ownership and shooting sports, the NRA transformed itself into a lobbying organization. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the NRA became more and more extreme in its efforts to affect legislation and advocate for the complete freedom for citizens to own all sorts of firearms while fighting any efforts at regulation or restraint. Their political stances moved very sharply to the right, and they became an unabashedly partisan organization.

I could no longer read The American Rifleman without becoming furious. The drumbeat set up by The NRA was quickly reflected in all the gun press as enthusiasts’ magazines, technical journals, shooting-sports reviews and other gun-related media began reciting often nasty partisan and contemptuous language ridiculing anybody or anything vaguely to the left of center and promulgating paranoid conspiracy theories of upcoming gun-grabbing forays by Democratic leaders. It is in the writings of many of the gun magazines of the 90s that I find the beginnings of the ugly ironic rhetoric that we now associate with the sort of alt-right ‟deplorables” who gang up on any internet ‟snowflake” post that might favor gun control, women’s equality, civil rights, or common decency. While it is certainly the case that much of the incivility in today’s rightist language is clearly a desperate reactionary response to advances of the past few decades in the civil rights of people of color, women, GLBT folks, and immigrants, the pattern (and patter) of the discourse is one that I feel was presaged and shaped by NRA’s CEO Wayne LaPierre and his take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises, philosophy beginning in 1991. This was the very approach taken by the GOP’s Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich beginning in 1995, and it has remained the dominant attitude of the American right ever since.  It is the dangerous and tiresome song that is sung by ‟gun-rights” activists every time another mass murder takes place. Gingrich is a lifetime member of NRA and a longtime fan of LaPierre. When we look around today and see ourselves swamped by the powerfully divisive nature of our contemporary politics, I believe it began with Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker, and his strategy came straight from the the pro-gun-lobby strategy of NRA’s LaPierre.

I cannot go to WalMart and purchase an M60 machine gun. The laws of the United States do infringe my right to own a machine gun. They just make it expensive and very difficult to do so, and they require a strong measure of accountability on the part of those who choose to own such weapons.  I guarantee you that, even though I am trained and experienced in the use of a machine gun, I cannot own one and would be subject to some deadly consequences at the hands of law enforcement if I tried to carry one in public. An AR-15—the civilian version of the M16 military assault rifle—is the weapon of choice by most mass murderers in America these days. (That said, they could be equally efficient in affecting their evil intentions with a much cheaper and arguably less finicky Kalashnikov AR-47 or one of the many variants easily purchased any day in our country). The difference is that the machine gun is fully automatic while the assault rifles are simply semi-automatic. 

The M60 can fire 600 rounds a minute, while the AR-15 can only fire about 90 rounds a minute in the hands of an average experienced shooter with 3 loaded 30-round magazines. Obviously 600 rounds a minute in a crowded ‟soft target” situation could do unimaginable carnage before the barrel of a machine gun overheats or the ammo runs out. It is unimaginable because it has never happened. Not in America. The ‟right” to keep and bear machine guns has been effectively infringed by the government, as it should be. Is a fire rate of only 90 rounds a minute so much more acceptable? Isn’t Congress an eensy-teensy bit allowed to infringe the rights of some gun owners sometime? I would love to be able to ‟plink” with an M79 grenade launcher and I really enjoyed learning how to fire a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher with a High-Explosive Anti-Tank rocket at an old tank hulk back in basic training or A.I.T.  Weapons of war can be fun, but, alas, my right to keep and own such toys have been infringed by Congress, and I can’t play soldier in my back yard.

This notion that gun-owners’ rights are absolutely not infringable is a very new thing. It has nothing to do with the history of firearms in this country, nor is it something that was ever conceived by the authors of the second amendment. It did not come about until hardcore reactionary nuts like Wayne LaPierre and Newt Gingrich got their grips on the country’s conservative politics. This is nothing but libertarianism taken to its most absurd limits, and it is not a perspective that was shared by any of our country’s founders. It is certainly correct to say that the second amendment was designed to protect individual communities and states from despotic leaders. Remember that tories and British troops quartered themselves on American colonists’ farms and in their houses and seized their firearms and their provisions. The second amendment assured citizens of the young new nation that they could keep their muskets. It was never intended to mean that any citizen of any sort in any instance could wield the power to murder dozens of other citizens in a moment. This is a perversion of our nation’s sacred Bill of Rights by fanatics, and it must end now.

To my libertarian, freedom-loving, unlimited-gun-rights-advocating friends, I beg you to invoke your better sense and drop this idiotic facade of unrestrained firearms rights being somehow woven into our historic fabric as a free people. That is bullshit and you need to stop consuming it. It is killing our children and grandchildren, and it is destroying our country. The terrorism of mass murder continually moves us closer to, not further from, authoritarian rule and the loss of more personal freedoms. Your AR-15s are much more likely to be seized with each new homicidal horror, and it won’t be by snowflake liberals. It will be by your neighbors when they are sick to death of this idiocy, or by some ‟law-and-order” autocrat who can’t tolerate dissent or resistance by mere citizens. Please support strong, appropriate gun laws everywhere before we no longer have any liberty left to protect.

 

 

Just Like a War Zone

First published in my memoirs volume, Warbaby, Talking About My Generation.  This was written in 1998 at a time that I was in the process of confronting the realities of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This blog post is being published 18 years later. I can scarcely remember how I felt back then, and for that I am eternally thankful.

 

June 2, 1998. Two days ago the little town of Spencer, South Dakota, was reduced to rubble by a tornado. Today I listened to someone on the news who flew over Spencer remarking that the remains of the town looked “just like a war zone.” It’s a common phrase used to describe disaster areas. When we want to convey the utter devastation of a place, whether Spencer or the South Bronx, or Detroit after the ‘67 riots, we say it looks just like a war zone.

In my profession I have had many occasions to study hundreds of Union and Confederate photographs of Richmond, Petersburg, Fredricksburg, Mechanicsville, Hopewell, Cold Harbor, and other towns and countryside locations of Virginia taken during, or immediately following, the Civil War. Most of these photos depict landscapes so strange as to be surreal. Looking at familiar hillsides and roadways where I drive and walk routinely, I am disconnected from them by the depth of their devastation. Scarcely a tree stands. Grass doesn’t grow. Fields lay wasted and roads rutted. It all has a trampled, abused appearance. In many of the pictures there are people—haunted, defeated, exhausted people. Often bodies lie about the landscape, twisted in forms that no living shape could take. My home, Virginia, appears in ghostly form in prints from Mathew Brady’s glass plates. It looks just like a war zone.

This laying waste to a country shocked me as much as anything else in Vietnam. When I arrived in An Khe, the place looked like something out of National Geographic. Within a matter of weeks, a few months at most, it looked like some burned, tortured, brimstone-poisoned, post-volcanic landscape. I no longer noticed anyone in the fields with their buffalo. Bicycles were rapidly replaced by motor scooters driven by slicked-up pimps with decked-out baby-sans on back. Tea houses gave way to opium dens and whore bars and black-market stalls.  Trees and bamboo thickets were cleared by the thousands of acres with defoliants, bulldozers, rome plows, even napalm.

Villages became prisons for pawns needing not to be pacified, but, rather, to pacify both Uncle Sam and the VC in order to prevent their being laid waste. The economy was trashed. The culture was deeply wounded. The fields were flooded when the rains came because nobody was tending to the canals and sluices of the paddies. Roads became impassible because they were so deeply rutted by convoys of military vehicles day in and day out. Where we kept the roads paved, they became nearly useless for a passer-by who could be caught in the crossfire of those who fought to control the roads. Market days with their trips to neighboring towns disappeared. Holy days with their pilgrimages and temple visits vanished. The towns and temples themselves were often lost, or appropriated for other purposes.

As the trees were removed the thin topsoil that sustained the fields washed away in monsoon rains leaving behind the gullies, eroded, blood-red laterite of sterile tropical subsoil. When the rains stopped, any useful soil quickly baked to iron rust or blew away in the wind, depositing itself in the eyes, mouths, and hearts of anyone trying to live in that newly barren country. Families, communities, congregations, parishes, neighborhoods, and nations were swept aside by politics and war. Even the social, cultural, and spiritual landscape looked just like a war zone.

I have enjoyed hearing the stories of those who have traveled back to Vietnam, and to see their photo albums and slide shows. Many say that it is great to walk the vaguely familiar streets of Vietnam with a thriving and proud culture growing new in what was once a wasteland. But there remain many booby traps and mines. The forests and soil are saturated with poisons. Whole regions, populations, language groups, and ethnic groups have disappeared, been removed and shifted, resettled, and reprogrammed. Children have grown up scarred, physically and psychically mangled by war and its ongoing, inter-generational effects. I have not been back, but I need only think about my scant memories of Vietnam to know that, despite the changes of thirty-one years that have passed since I was there, many more lives will pass into the earth before that place is healed.

I was not so stupid or innocent as to think that my tour of duty in Vietnam would be a picnic. I was scared to go. I didn’t want any part of killing; even less of being killed. But, I thought, we are there to do some good. Maybe it is wrong-headed. Maybe, I thought, if elections were held, Ho Chi Minh might win. Who knows? But we would do what we could. We would purify the water, improve the agriculture, cure diseases, teach democracy, and point the way to prosperity. Okay, maybe I was naïve, but I don’t think I was alone.

So what is it that has taken the place of naïveté? I am not sure. Basically I am a sane, healthy, functioning human being with a life I am thankful for. But when I look into certain recesses of my mind all I can see are child prostitutes, hungry people, dead or crazed comrades, and ravaged countryside. When I try to make sense of it, to write it all off as an aberration, of politics gone awry, of a flaw of the human spirit that sometimes manifests itself on earth, I am brought up short. I think: This is me. This is my doing. This is the way we “helped” Vietnam. There is no arrangement or reason or meaning to it. It’s just death and disorder and boundless havoc. When I try to view my own past, it is as ghostly strange, lifeless, and unfamiliar as a Mathew Brady photograph. It looks just like a war zone.