jason christoper hartley

May 3, 2006

This War Is Wrong, But Protest Marches Are Lame

Filed under: News & Politics — Jason Christopher Hartley @ 1:50 am

For quite a while now I’ve felt that invading Iraq was a colossal mistake and we should have never done it. When I deployed to Iraq, I felt the whole thing was dubious at best, but I’ve never been one to take a stand politically, one way or the other. The basic defense I had always taken for my political apathy was that I was above the quagmire of political arguments. The truth is, like most Americans, I just plain never cared.

I don’t feel bad about having never cared about politics. The reason our country was founded was for the pursuit of happiness once life and liberty were assured. For most my life, that’s exactly what I’ve done, to one extent or another, just like everyone else. I just wanted to be happy.

I’ve never had any interest in being a political wonk or news junkie. The simple explanation is because I’m a lazy dreamer. My head is in the clouds more than ninety percent of the time. To concern myself about anything outside the realm of my own fantasy, is just too, well, depressing. To maintain my insular contentedness, I had to do what Joseph Conrad taught us to do in The Heart of Darkness—look away.

It is virtually impossible to not know at least something about some of the current issues in the world, or at least some of the issues within our own country. Yet somehow it seems most Americans are aware of very little. We’re immersed in media coverage of war, genocide, and disaster. And thank god for that immersion, because it’s this very stream of ceaseless information that is its own anesthesia. How many times can you utter the phrase “Thousands Found Dead” before it sounds meaningless?

Having fought in Iraq, I am often asked for my thoughts on the subject. And having written a book about it, I found myself in a position on many occasions where I knew I needed to think of some intelligent-sounding answers if I didn’t want to make a fool of myself on television or radio. What this did was force me to reflect on my experiences, read the news to have timely anecdotal material, search my thoughts for an opinion, and find a way to articulate that opinion. In short, it became necessary to answer questions for myself that I had been indefinitely deferring.

The idealist in me says that from a moral and ethical standpoint, it was wrong to invade Iraq. The pragmatist in me believes that the end can justify the means. If in the end Iraq becomes a flourishing and legitimate democracy, sending ripples of democratic thought throughout the Middle East, eventually withering the deep roots of ancient hatreds and ending the abuse of human rights, then I could possibly overlook the means required to achieve it. I have to believe that our administration must have been thinking along these lines when then decided to invade. They were exuberantly optimistic about the outcome, a.k.a. drunk on their own arrogance, yet now somehow continue to doggy paddle through the blood of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians while muttering, “Stay the course.” I am proud that we have a country with leaders who aren’t afraid to dream big, but I am ashamed that none of them had the moral fiber to question why the dream started out with “Okay, so first we find an oil-rich sovereign nation to invade for reasons to be fabricated at a later date…”

Anyway, these are the things I think about since I’ve been back. I struggle to decide what the hell I’m supposed to do with these feelings. If asked for my thoughts, I have no problem sharing them, but I lack the conviction to proffer my opinions unless solicited. I could be doing so much more, even if only to publicize my book, but I don’t because I feel exceedingly uncomfortable about taking a stand, presenting a message, or establishing an agenda. I struggle to find a balance between being both a responsible citizen and a good soldier.

* * * * *

On Saturday, April 29, 2006, a march took place in New York City to mark the third year of the war in Iraq. I suppose you could say it was an anti-war march, but if you look at all the groups involved, it was pretty much an anti- and/or pro-[insert cause here] march riding on the coat tails of an anti-war march. Basically, a few hundred thousand bleeding hearts blocked traffic in Manhattan for a few hours while they walked from Union Square to Foley Park down Broadway. Having a newfound (or newly-admitted) liberal mindset, I thought I’d check it out and participate in my very first protest.

I had met Camilo Mejia and Jose Vasquez of Iraq Veterans Against the War at a panel discussion Camilo was part of in the city a few months earlier. Although I disagreed with some of their key beliefs, I was impressed how he and Jose both seemed to be thoughtful and intelligent about their dissent. Jose in particular gave me the hard sell, trying to convince me to join IVAW. I told him I agreed with him on many issues, but that I strongly disagreed with the idea that the troops should be withdrawn from Iraq immediately. Jose and Camilo have filed for conscientious objector status with the Army, both refusing to fight in Iraq. Camilo spent seven months in jail for desertion after refusing to return to Iraq after his two-week leave in the states. Although the IVAW doesn’t required it for membership, another thing I told Jose I could never be is a conscientious objector. Despite these two barriers, I felt that there were other valid issues we agreed on, namely the fact that we went to war with Iraq under false pretenses.

My roommate Matt, who served with me in Iraq, is also quite politically liberal, especially for an infantryman. We both spend a lot of time bitching about our despotic administration and we both laugh our asses off during the Colbert Report. We had entertained, on occasion, the idea of attending a protest or something similar and when I told him on Friday night that I was thinking about going to the march in the morning, we argued it back and forth for while, then decided that if for no other reason, we should do it for the experience.

* * * * *

The Metro North train left Poughkeepsie at 9:33am. I’d done a little research the night before and found that the 9:33 train had been dubbed the “Peace Train”. A guy by the name of John Hall was walking down the aisle of the train, campaigning for congress as a Democrat. Smart move actually, campaigning on the Peace Train. I spoke to him for a few minutes before we got off the train. I told him I had a blog and asked him if it would be alright if I took his photograph. He agreed and I snapped his photo. I noticed he had a lot of dirt in his ear. Q-tips are for the whole ear, not just the ear canal. I tried not to hold this against him. He made small talk:

“Nice camera ya got there.” I have a Pentax Optio S. I bought it before I left for Iraq. It fits perfectly into an Altoids tin.

“Yeah, it’s a good little camera. I carried it every day I was in Iraq.” I paused. I had just dropped the Iraq card pretty hard. He didn’t jump on it. I waited a second longer. “Yeah.” I looked at my shoes.

“So where were you?”, he finally asked. Haha! Forced him into that one! He definitely was wary of getting into a conversation on the topic. Why, I’m not sure, but it was interesting to watch him squirm. Another passenger who had been eavesdropping jumped into the conversation to throw in, “I’m sorry to butt in, but I just want to say that although I deplore this war, I respect the troops. Thank you.” I thanked him in return and we all nodded in agreement, as if we were talking about the weather.

The conversation with John Hall quickly returned to the protest and he told me how questioning things is such a big part of being American that the national anthem is nothing but a series of questions: “Oh say can you see?”, “Whose broad stripes and bright stars?”, “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” It was a very interesting point and I liked it. I decided I’d have to spend some time thinking about that. (Later that night while researching the Star Spangled Banner, I found that the first verse is the most interrogative, the second and third less so, and fourth is fully exclamatory. After learning this, all I could think was, The national anthem has four verses?)

Matt and I spent part of the trip discussing a new infantry scout platoon being formed, based out of Manhattan. Jeff, one of our platoon sergeants in Iraq, a wonderfully war-happy madman, would be running it, and Matt said he had it put into writing that he’d lead the platoon only if he could have a rigorous selection process before allowing anyone in. Matt reenlisted for a year after we got back from Iraq, but regretted almost every day of it. His year ends in less than two weeks, and he still is thinking about staying in. Maybe he’ll do another year in the Army, or sign on with the Air Guard for a stint to pogue-out and take advantage of the tuition assistance. Or maybe he’ll take that Triple Canopy job he’s been deferring for months. Or maybe he’ll just get out. Or maybe not. He can never seem to decide.

We got off at Grand Central and caught the 6 train to Union Square. Actually, we caught the 4 train, but it was making local stops and wouldn’t be passing into Brooklyn due to construction, so it was actually just like the 6. Details like this aren’t important, but I hate fudging the truth. Actually, I fudge details like this all the time because it’s totally distracting otherwise. Writing about subway changes really fucks up the flow of a story, ya know? We took the subway to Union Square. The 6 used to be my train. It stops on Spring Street where I used to live. So I like to say that we were on the 6. But if I say it was the 6 when it was actually the 4, then I might start changing other details like how the three hours I spent in jail felt like three months because I was such a pussy, so I might as well just say it was three months to properly express the emotion of it. Then the next thing you know I’m sitting on the couch across from Oprah, taking her shit, when I should just be defending my fabrications by quoting Russell Crowe from Gladiator, shouting, “Are you not entertained?”, then cutting Oprah’s head off with two swords, like scissors. Blood would spurt out of her neck like a garden hose, and her headless body would collapse into an awkward position on the couch, but not so awkward compared to the time Tom Cruise jumped on it.

As we walked to the assembly area above Union Square, I noticed one of those little NYPD traffic cop go-carts with an “FDNY/NYPD 9-11 Never Forget” sticker on the back of it, only the FDNY part of the sticker had been cut off. I love how tragedy brings people together until it doesn’t.

We found the area where the veterans groups were gathered, but they looked to be mostly Vietnam-era vets. This was fine, but we were hoping to maybe find guys more our age. We walked to the front of the assembly area where we found a bunch of guys wearing desert camouflage. It was the IVAW guys. The VIP group was nearby and a speech given by Al Sharpton or maybe Jesse Jackson could be heard over the loud speaker. The IVAW guys were arguing with a group of cops, but what about, I don’t know.

I scanned the group and found Jose Vasquez. I figured I should say hi to him, but then I thought maybe I shouldn’t. What if he asks me to march with these guys? What would I tell him? That I was afraid to? That I came all this way just to say hi, but I’m going to go march with the Vietnam guys, or maybe the Raging Grannies, or the Imperialism Is Bad For Children group? I finally just made my way through the throng and greeted him. We spoke briefly and he introduced me to some of his guys. The group was pretty diverse. Marines, soldiers, airmen, males, females, old guys, young guys, white guys, and Latin guys.

Matt and I deliberated. We came to the march to show by our presence that we were disgusted with our administration. So which group should we walk with? What happens if we run into someone we know? A huge portion of the guys we were with in Iraq are cops, and there were an abundance of cops from all the boroughs working overtime. How would we explain being in a protest? I figured, Fuck it, we might as well just walk with the IVAW guys. They were at the front of the march, just behind the VIPs, so what better way to experience it than being the tip of the spear, or at least the group most likely to get eggs thrown at them.

* * * * *

Before I deployed to Iraq when I was attending school at SUNY New Paltz, I had a lot of friends who were lesbians. These girls were heavily involved in women’s and gay right organizations on campus. I had agreed to perform the only male monologue for the school’s production of The Vagina Monologues and I needed to attend a meeting with the other performers. Since most the girls who were performing were also a part of the Gay-Lesbian Alliance on campus, they decided that the Monologues meeting would be a part of that week’s GLA meeting.

Understand that I am in full support of gay rights. In fact, I think it’s stupid that there even has to be the term “gay rights” since “human rights” (something we all pretty much agree on) implies gay rights. If two people want to have sex, get married, be in the military, or adopt kids, their sexual orientation should be a non-issue. The world could always use more love, so why should we try to limit how people choose to express it?

But I have to admit that being in that meeting made me uncomfortable as hell. Why? Because despite all my rhetoric and believing that I was open-minded, I just couldn’t get over my fear that someone might think I was gay if they saw me there. It didn’t even make any difference to me that there was only one guy at the meeting or that my bisexual girlfriend sat in my lap for half the meeting. The feeling I had in that meeting was very similar to how I felt standing with the IVAW guys.

Once the march was underway, there were times when onlookers clapped. I even saw a female cop clapping. This made me feel good. I was reminded of the days after September 11 when groups of people would clap when they saw soldiers. I realized I had now marched twice in the streets of Manhattan. But mostly, the march was just painful. One of the IVAW guys held a megaphone while another guy shouted chants into a hand mic. Most the material he used was recycled Vietnam War chants and boot camp cadences. The megaphone kept cutting out and he sometimes forgot the lines. There was lackluster enthusiasm from those chanting along and sometimes there would be two different chants going on at the same time. I don’t like calling cadence as it is, and there was no way in hell I was going to chant along in this circumstance. As we walked by the enormous digital clock on the building south of Union Square, one guy announced through the megaphone that that was the “debt clock” and that the Iraq War was to thank for the ever-increasing national debt. I wanted to tell him, “Look at your watch. Now look at the clock. Coincidence?”

There are two things that I’m fairly anal about: the flag and the wear of the uniform. If I see a flag hung improperly or ragged and dirty, I’ll tell someone who I think can make the correction. I don’t like to starch my uniform, but I always try to have it ironed and worn properly when I’m out in the public. This is largely due to military brainwashing, but I think it’s a simple way to show respect for the country and the Army. Because of how I feel about the wear of the uniform, it brought me great discomfort to see the members of IVAW wearing their desert camouflage uniforms protest-style: unbuttoned with t-shirts underneath and adorned with medals, badges, and pins. One guy was overweight and his uniform blouse barely fit. Another guy looked like he hadn’t served in the military since Vietnam, yet was wearing the new digital camouflaged uniform which I haven’t even been issued yet. I realize the idea is to not look like an actual soldier for both practical and legal reasons, but it still pained me to see a uniform I am very proud of worn by guys who looked like they were extras on the set of Forrest Gump.

The more I walked behind the fat airman and the guy in the ACUs with the missing teeth and all the other guys wearing ironic rockstar sunglasses like this was all just some joke, the more disgusted and ashamed I became. I wished that I was walking alongside General Batiste, my division commander in Iraq, and General Zinni, and all the other recently-retired generals who have called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. I wanted to march with people who felt the way I did, but who looked and acted professional and dignified. I was walking in a march led by Al Sharpton and Susan Sarandon, for chrissakes. It’s no wonder our administration and people at large don’t take protesters seriously—they look and act like clowns.

Matt looked like he wanted to say something, but before he could I said, “Yeah, I know. I’m asking myself the same thing. What the fuck are we doing here? Next chance we get, let’s duck out of here.” As we continued to walk, we slowly drifted toward the left of the street, then onto the sidewalk, then we skulked away to a Spring Lounge for a few afternoon beers.

* * * * *

Here are some photos from the day:

[John Hall for congress]
John Hall, running for Congress in the 19th district of New York

[Matt in Grand Central]
Matt in Grand Central

[NYPD: Forget the FDNY]
“Never Forget”, unless you’re an NYPD traffic cop, then “Forget the FDNY”

[18th and Broadway]
protesters gathered on Broadway waiting to march, here at 18th street and

[Veterans for Peace]
Veterans for Peace

[freaky protester]
many protesters are just plain freaky-lookin’

[Russian TV]
Russian TV, interviewing a protestor

[Iraq Veterans Against the War]
Iraq Veterans Against the War

Jose Vasquez (on the right) with another member of IVAW

the view from within the march, east side of Union Square

this airman’s uniform is looking a bit tight

[the VIPs]
Jesse Jackson, Cindy Sheehan, Al Sharpton, and Susan Sarandon

[The Shocker]
The Shocker

[Peace and Justice Festival, Foley Square]
Peace and Justice Festival, Foley Square

[bandana girl with a hoola-hoop]
bandana girl with hoola-hoop

[establishment, background; anti-establishment, foreground]
establishment, background; anti-establishment, foreground
My message to these guys: Hey, I noticed you ran out of white paint to finish outlining the black letters of your hobo 1980’s anti-nuke sign. Learn to plan ahead you lazy unoriginal idiots.

[protest signs in trash]

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