The Little Boy

It was a difficult night, two months ago, although I’m not sure why. The Senate, as expected, declined to convict President Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors. I’d known this would happen for weeks, because Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, said, prior to the trial, that’s what he and the Republicans intended to do. Still, the actuality of Trump’s acquittal touched something deep inside of me. The Republican men and women in the Senate finally and irreversibly abandoned the Constitution. They did not act for the benefit of all Americans; rather, they acted to protect the privileges of one man and, by extension, their own.

When I read that the “not guilty” verdict had been rendered, I cried. It wasn’t a great sobbing cry, but there were tears in my eyes. The die is cast, the game is over, and the American republic has ceased to exist. That’s when the image of the little boy rose in my mind. He’s me, at six or seven years old. I’m watching my dad raise an American flag. I have no idea of the occasion, or even if the memory is real, but I do know that my dad was very proud of America. Like any six-year-old, I looked up to my dad, and his opinions were my opinions, so I imbibed a great respect for the Norman Rockwell image of the United States. Far more than I imagined, the little boy held onto that respect even as he receded into some far corner of my mind.

As I grew older and studied American history, my opinions began to diverge from those of my dad. I then spent 11.5 years on active duty in the Air Force, mostly during the Cold War. I worked as a missile systems analyst on nuclear armed Minuteman III, Peacekeeper, and Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCM). While in the Strategic Air Command (SAC), I had plenty of time living at Ground Zero to ponder contrails over the high plains of Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. If a nuclear exchange began, I would not survive. When I transferred to GLCM, I spent many, many hours on alert in MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) gear during USAFE (United States Air Forces, Europe) and NATO-wide (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) exercises. Inevitably, we were killed.

After the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) Treaty scrapped GLCM, I was desperate to remain in England, so I cross-trained to become a military historian. I was assigned to the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at RAF (Royal Air Force) Alconbury. The mission was changing, however, and not long after I was assigned the unit was re-designated as the 10th Tactical Fighter Wing. The RF-4s flew away, replaced by several squadrons of A-10s. One thing that didn’t change was USAFE exercises, although my vantage point did. Instead of sitting on alert with four GLCM missiles, I now sat in the wing command post, observing and recording the actions of the wing during exercises. The A-10s flew to Germany to battle Soviet tanks in the Fulda Gap; few returned. After three days or so, there would be no base to which they could return, because RAF Alconbury would, by then, be destroyed.

I would go back to my office and begin to organize my notes into a narrative for the classified quarterly unit history I produced. It quickly became clear to me that a repeatable pattern was evident: most U.S. forces would not survive the initial attack. Yet, we continued to forward deploy, continued to exercise as if we could do anything other than slow down an attack. We were on a suicide mission and the generals and politicians were okay with that.

My regard for the American system of worldwide governance declined sharply. It was designed to kill me and my kind, whatever flag we found ourselves waving, so that a few wealthy people could survive. In my mind, Picasso’s Guernica replaced Norman Rockwell’s image of America.

One defining moment for me near the end of my time in service was Operation Desert Storm. I’m not a combat veteran, but since I was stationed in England at the time, I helped provide support to C-130 planeloads of soldiers transitioning to and from the Middle East. The planes would land at all hours of the day and night, and tired, quiet soldiers would deplane for a few minutes to stretch, drink coffee, and eat doughnuts. There was no sense of jubilation during the build-up of forces or when the soldiers returned victorious. There was nervousness going and a sense of relief on the return. However they felt when they enlisted, these were young men and women who knew they might soon die, perhaps in horrible ways, if Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons. Occasionally, someone would nervously ask if Kuwaiti oil was worth it.

Like everyone except the Iraqis and the coalition forces waiting to invade, I experienced “shock and awe” via the grainy night vision images provided by CNN (in my case, mediated through the BBC). I spent the night in my lounge (living room) in my off-base semi-detached watching the attack unfold. It quickly became clear to me that claims of precision bombing were false. The targets were embedded in Baghdad neighborhoods full of residential homes and families. Civilians, in other words, were not merely “collateral damage,” they were part of the target list. Any Just War notion of protecting noncombatants, or of proportionality, were ignored.

I left the Air Force not long after the war ended and traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for the Red Cross, setting up training programs for the residual forces in the area. Those remaining in theater had mostly acclimated to peace time, but I do remember one telling incident. One afternoon, I was sitting with my students in a small conference room in a compound occupied by Americans. A helicopter flew overhead and, coincidentally, a truck backfired on the street in front of our building. Every person in the room sat up straight, eyes wide, alert, listening. The moment passed and my students laughed, but it was clear to me that war had changed them, perhaps in ways they did not yet understand. Was Kuwaiti oil really worth it?

I spent several years working for the Red Cross, primarily on military bases. I then made a big transition to high tech corporate America and received a different kind of education. My views on America continued to diverge from those of my dad, and my ten or so years in the belly of the capitalist beast made me anti-imperialist and a socialist. After 9/11, I became active in the anti-war movement, traveling to Washington DC for a march in 2003, and participating in many local actions. The empire was out of control.

I thought Norman Rockwell’s America, the America so loved by my dad, had long abandoned my mind, but the conclusion of the Senate impeachment trial proved otherwise, and I find it ironic that I would respond so strongly to the spectacle of Republicans casually tossing aside the Constitution. I’m a socialist committed to changing the economic and political structures of America, up to and including the Constitution. But to see one of the foundational documents of America, however flawed it certainly is, thrown in the trash bin to please an autocrat, struck me emotionally as a step too far. And so the little boy rose up.

The Little Boy

It was a great moment of clarity,

A little before 6:00 pm on a Wednesday,

When parents, just home from work,

Fed the kids and tried to marshal the energy

For another evening of homework.

A great moment in which everything changed,

And everything remained the same.

A happy blond-haired little boy appeared

Suddenly, from some convoluted space in my brain,

Where, long ago, he had obediently receded

From the grown-up world for his own safety,

A carefully preserved stuffed rabbit made real.

But the little boy no longer appeared happy –

He looked as if he had a troubled heart.

Everything changed, changed utterly,

But there was no terrible beauty born.

There were no noble sacrifices for freedom,

For freedom had been sacrificed to faux nobility.

The little boy could not speak, but his sadness

Murmured question after question,

Why, why, why, why?

There was a time when he believed

In the shining city on the hill,

In the innate goodness of the people,

In the nobility of the American Experiment,

In the justice of the Declaration of Independence,

In the rightness of the Constitution,

In the sacredness of the Bill of Rights.

When the little boy began to understand

The world of adults was something different than

The world of little boys, he receded into memory,

Carrying with him his innocence and those sacred beliefs,

Protecting them in the deepest recesses of heart and mind.

For the world of adults was something grasping and violent,

Something evil that did not respect sacred honor.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of the genocide of Native Peoples,

He learned of the enslavement of Black people,

He learned of Jim Crow,

He learned of the theft of colonialism,

He learned the maniacal lust for a capitalist empire.

He learned that murder by government decree requires no absolution.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of the forced relocation of Native Peoples to barren land.

Dying, crying, dying, crying, dying along the trail.

He learned of the theft of more land and people from Mexico.

He learned of colonizing Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

He learned of Philippines massacres and the Haitian slave’s moment of freedom.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of a great Civil War that transmuted

Chattel slavery into the degradation of Jim Crow.

He learned of the ferocious cruelty of unfettered capitalism.

He learned of the power and peril of union strikes,

Of men and women struggling and dying and winning

And losing and struggling and dying and winning and losing.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of women marching and marching and marching,

Jail and scorn and indignity, the dull patronizing sameness

Year after year after year after year.

Women pushed and pushed and pushed

Until the hysterical male walls were breached and

Women could vote.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of Flanders Fields and trenches.

He learned of foot rot and going over the top.

He learned of machine guns and tanks and rickety planes.

He learned of futility and artillery and the mass slaughter

Of helpless men dying for empires that despised them.

He learned of Gas! Gas! Gas!

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of jazz and flappers and bootleggers.

He learned of unaccountable wealth and small minds.

He learned of October 1929 and the descent in misery.

He learned of facade of capitalism and the lies of its great captains.

He learned of soup kitchens and bread lines.

He learned of Hootervilles and hobos and apples.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of another great war, of firestorms in cities.

He learned of concentration camps in America.

He learned of a terrible weapon, a bomb,

So terrible that lives vaporized from memory.

So terrible it was used only by the great defender of democracy.

So terrible on the shining city on the hill.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of cold war and hot wars,

So many hot wars in so many places.

He learned of Mutual Assured Destruction,

Madly designed by the best and the brightest.

He learned the Domino Theory lured men

Into hubris and transformed peasants into Death.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of Joseph McCarthy and Red Scares and

How little freedom of thought and exploration and

Speech is valued. He learned of the presumed right

Of capitalists to enrich themselves anywhere, anytime.

He learned that government largess was for the rich

But laws and prisons and low wages were for the poor.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of rioting in the streets.

He learned of protests in schools and colleges.

He learned of the Chicago Seven.

He learned of the murder of militants as they slept.

He learned of a president’s lies and betrayal.

He learned of the final Huey lift off from the Saigon embassy.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of the descent into madness wrought by the Great Communicator.

He learned of the dangers of Christians lusting for power.

He learned that Republicans have no principles.

He learned of the cowardice of Democrats.

He learned that anything and everyone

Can be sacrificed on the imperial altar of capitalism.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned of Black men and women rising up

Marching, sitting, organizing, sacrificing, praying,

Beaten, attacked by dogs, cracked skulls,

Jails and a letter and buses and soda counters and churches.

He learned of gunshots. Gunshots, gunshots, gunshots.

He learned that a terrible beauty was indeed born.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned that poor men die in rich men’s wars.

He learned of the Pusan Perimeter, the Mekong Delta, Tora Tora, and Fallujah.

He learned the bitter taste of defeat and the ecstasy of murder at May Lai.

He learned of torture in Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay.

He learned Americans citizens can be assassinated by drones.

He learned that three Presidents of the United States are war criminals.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned that economic inequality breeds fear and resentment.

He learned that white people believe themselves superior to People of Color.

He learned that the sons and daughters of immigrants hate new immigrants.

He learned that concentration camps are acceptable and turn a profit.

He learned that violent rhetoric means bloody massacres on the streets.

He learned — Oh, how he learned! — that Christians cannot be trusted with power.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned, on January 31, 2020, and again on February 5, 2020,

That evil men and women occupy the highest offices of the land.

He learned there is no sacred honor in the House or Senate.

He learned that Republicans and Democrats lust only for power and money.

He learned that voting rights are fungible, and money is speech.

He learned that the war budget is the answer for everything.

With the little boy gone, the adult learned.

He learned that the American republic no longer exists.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are abandoned

In favor of the whims of a few old white men.

He learned that he is ruled by a vulgar and venal king.

He learned. His heart is heavy. What to do? Silence.

He learned. He cried. He learned. He cried. He learned.

And then, just before 6:00 pm, on Wednesday, February 5, 2020,

The little boy came back. He looked sadly at the adult

And then began singing, “My Country ’Tis of Thee…” He sang louder

And louder, shouting as he grew taller and monstrous. “My Country ’Tis of Thee…

Dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal! … Sweet land of liberty…

Give me life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! … The government shall not abridge…

I pledge my sacred honor! Damn you! Damn you! Damn you all!”

The little boy’s heart grew larger and larger,

Filling his chest and throat until he could no longer sing.

He stood there in silent rage, breathing a ragged tattoo

Of anger and sorrow and anger and sorrow and anger.

Then the adult heard a strangled cry and watched

The little boy’s heart’s final beat before it burst

And the little boy died in the darkness of his country.

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