The New Order

        Ruey had left early for a morning class. I had the day off from substitute teaching. The radio was on in the kitchen, and it sounded like there was actually going to be war with Iraq. I turned it off. I ignored the ants all over the kitchen counter—killing things before meditation didn't seem right, and I had resolved to get back into meditating every morning, starting today.
        First I did some yoga to loosen up. Next I lit incense and opened the window slightly, as Ruey had taught me, so that God could smell it. I bowed three times. Then I sat on my black cushion. My mind was racing, so I tried to mentally recite the Prayer of Saint Francis to help quiet—or at least focus—its incessant chatter.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith . . .

God, my ass is killing me. This cushion feels like it's made out of cement!

Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light.
Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled,
As to console . . .

What comes next? Fuck, I've said this a million times; why can't I remember it? I'll do Yeats' "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Do people get that part?

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .

I wonder if I should be saying this when I'm meditating? It's a very dark poem. Follow your breathing. The whole point of meditating is to clear your mind. Now it feels clear, but I'm thinking that it's clear so that means it's not clear. Breathe. Breathe. My legs are already falling asleep . . . .

       I forced myself to finish mentally reciting Yeats' poem. It didn't seem right to leave it unfinished.

The best lack conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

That's me. The worst.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Saddam Hussein?

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

I'm really spacing out; where was I? Oh, yeah.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

       After thinking about a beast slouching to Bethlehem, I may have fallen asleep for a while, but years of experience had made it possible for me to sit with my back erect and appear to be meditating even when I was dreaming. I got up from my cushion and bowed my head to the cold floor and waited for my feet to wake up enough so I could walk.

       Ruey was at the community college studying English. She'd left me some Chinese food from the restaurant where she worked, and all I had to do was heat it up. I noticed a horde of ants marching in a dark, meandering column from the trash bag on the floor up to the kitchen counter top and through a crack beneath the window.
       Immediately the idea came into my head, fully formed, to get my BIC lighter out of my backpack and burn the ants. I felt like a general who had a chance to fight a decisive battle, to inflict such huge casualties on the enemy that not only would I win the battle, but possibly the war. I felt a childish excitement.
       An instant before I flicked my BIC, I remembered my bourgeois New Age hippy scientific Christian Buddhist pseudo-morality and felt . . . guilty. I thought: You will be burning God with your lighter. It will hurt these ants as badly as it would hurt you. You're just bullshitting yourself that there is a need to get rid of them. If you kept your house clean, they'd go somewhere else and you wouldn't have to be Hitler of the Ants. Their size makes it seem all right. You'd never hurt a cat, but you would hurt ants. If you watched them suffering through a powerful magnifying glass so you could see their reactions, you might not be so quick to torture them.
       But then other members of the board of directors in my mind countered: You'll never get rid of these ants if you let them run free all over your house. If you kill a few thousand of them, they might not be such a problem from now on.
       At this point, the governing body of my mind heard a roar from the inarticulate masses, from instinct, from the reptilian part of the brain that never evolved away as evolution added subsequent layers of cerebral material. If this roar could have been translated into words, it would have said: We want to kill these ants with the lighter. We need to. It will be fun. We demand that you let us do it.
       As is so often the case with humans, the reptilian part prevailed, but only for a short time.

       The slaughter was not as dramatic as I had dreamed it would be. I had envisioned thousands of ants vaporizing under the fire of my mighty flamethrower. I only got a few hundred, and they suffered and kept walking or turned into little black corpses on the wall and floor, which were more bothersome than the live ants—they couldn't walk away like the survivors did when I finally took the trash bag out.
       So now I was in the unenviable situation of having sinned against God in such a way that I'd either go to hell later or have bad "instant karma" things start happening to me right away, and I didn't even get anything good out of it. Some men sell their souls for awesome success in business or great power over others, or even to commit blissful adultery with their beautiful secretaries, but all I got was some sadistic pleasure and a whole bunch of little charred bodies to clean up.
       I started thinking about karma and hell. If God or the Devil (I wondered if they were both the same entity) were very tricky, the punishment could be postponed indefinitely. I could be allowed to spend the next two years in happiness and comfort, only to have my whole life suddenly shattered by the onset of cancer. Or more appropriately, maybe I could be horribly burned in a fire.
       Of course the next thing I contemplated was redemption. How could I pay for the crime against life that I'd just committed? Feeling guilty about it wouldn't be enough. The Catholic Church has redemption down to a science, but I could never believe that confessing to a priest and saying prescribed prayers could balance the karmic books. Maybe if I became a totally good person from now on! But how does one do that? I decided that whatever system of repentance I used, I'd probably continue to do cruel things.

       Even though it was hours away, I set the alarm on my digital watch so I wouldn't miss Tom Brokaw doing the news. I settled down with a cup of sweet herb tea and read a couple of newspapers that were starting to take over the floor of our room so that I could put them in the recycling pile and be rid of them. I liked the charts comparing the relative strengths of the Iraqi and United States armies. The "Crisis in the Gulf"—I marveled that the media had so quickly agreed upon a name for the almost-war—was just beginning. (My brother called me on the phone: "They named it!") I ended up spending the whole day reading the paper and watching the "Crisis" unfold on CNN.

       My watch beeped and I switched to channel 4.
       Tom started lisping out the news. I wondered how a guy who lisped could make $2,000,000 a year reading words from a monitor, but I also knew the answer: He looked and sounded like Everyman, like a Good Dad, believable and respectable.
       Every ten minutes, there were several commercials. Call me paranoid, but I think there was a reason for showing a Raid commercial right after Tom discussed the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, calling him a "bully" for invading Kuwait and for holding Westerners as "detainees."
       "I killed them, and I'm glad," said a resolute young housewife standing in her kitchen. The scene changed to a computer-animated human hand holding a can of Raid roach spray, spraying a computer-animated roach running on a kitchen counter. The cartoon roach mechanically rolled over and died. The commercial cut back to the housewife in her kitchen. "Their kind deserve to die," she said. Tom got us angry and made us feel like solving a problem, and then the commercial gave us a problem that we could solve, by killing, by killing creatures that didn't deserve to live. Were we to make a subconscious transference to Arabs?
       So now the military forces of two powerful nations were poised on a border, ready to spray each other like roaches. The men kind of looked like roaches when they put on their protective gas masks and rubber suits.

       Ruey and I rented part of a home in a nice neighborhood in the Hayward hills, across the bay from San Francisco. Our next-door neighbors were Steve and GiGi. They were beautiful, affluent, and young. With their pretty blond children, they looked like a car commercial.
       Steven was a sales rep for Lowenbrau beer. He worked his way up from driving a beer truck. He looked athletic and self-assured, with curly brown hair, light eyes, and a ruddy, round, youthful face. Steve looked like he knew what was going on in sports. Sometimes he sat momentarily on the new redwood deck jutting out from the side of their two-story home. He played guitar a little—Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, and Eric Clapton. He drove a nice company car.
       GiGi was a cute, blue-eyed blond on the edge of being beautiful. She had gorgeous long legs which she showed off in jean mini-dresses and little shorts. She had a big smile and a high-school voice. GiGi said "like," "ya know," and "he goes" (instead of "he said") a lot.
       I really wanted to hide a microphone on the end of a low branch that extended from the tree in our back yard to the window of the kitchen where GiGi talked on the phone, fed her kids, and argued with her husband. Sometimes, while recycling the bottles and cans Ruey would bring home from the restaurant, I listened beside their new redwood fence. But I was always afraid that somebody in one of the upstairs rooms might notice that I was eavesdropping, so I hurried up with my work and got back inside the house.
       I wanted to have a hidden video camera in their bedroom. I was consumed by curiosity about this couple living the American dream. What do they do in bed? How do they talk to each other? Are they always superficial? How do they relate to their children? What do they say about the "Crisis in the Gulf"? I thought that if I understood these people, I would understand the future, my future, and the destiny of the United States.

       My first real experience of war—outside of watching it on TV—was when I saw a wooden leg hanging on the wall inside the garage of a neighbor who lived down the street. I was about eight or nine, young enough to touch it right in front of the man who owned it. I was amazed that it actually had toes, wooden toes. It seemed like kind of a sad thing, but I was too young to feel sad about something like that. I asked him about it. He said he was a paratrooper in the war and that he had lost his leg. Somehow I knew it wasn't cool to ask him any more questions. I could see that he was standing on two legs as he tinkered at his workbench, so I guessed that he had on another fake leg and the one on the wall was a spare. I guessed that maybe he had on a more modern one with toes that bent.
       My second experience of war was listening to my sixth grade teacher read us gory, glorious stories about the Green Beret fighting communists in Vietnam. An American soldier would get blasted right out of his boots by a mortar shell and be hurled into the air, only to land on his bare feet and keep running, firing away with his machine gun. My teacher had lost one of his lungs in Korea. He thought it was a lung well spent.
       My third experience of war was asking my mother about the Vietnam War. She told me it was wrong. She told me about peaceful ways of settling problems. I learned from her about Gandhi and how he would fast and get himself arrested because others were starving and oppressed. I remember we were sitting together on a big chair and she had her arm around me. It wasn't until years later that I finally figured out what my mom had meant when she said that Gandhi could feel other people's hunger.
       My fourth real experience of war was when my father sent me on a mission to find banana leaves he needed to test a foliage-penetrating signal flare he was developing. My father was a research chemist and project manager at an explosives company on the outskirts of Los Angeles County. The flare was for pilots shot down over Vietnam. It was supposed to blast up through the thick jungle canopy, cutting through leaves along the way. I was in junior high, and I had one of those Stingray bicycles with the little wheels and a long seat so you could ride double. I rode through the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley gathering banana leaves, doing my part for the Vietnam war effort.
       The Air Force had contracted with the company that my dad worked for to have a large metal tower built somewhere in the Mojave Desert, an hour east of L.A. Several layers of banana leaves, some of which I had actually gathered, were stretched and secured in special holders at the top of the tower. I wasn't allowed to go to the testing, but I heard all about it. My dad brought home two expensive new multi-channel walkie-talkies that were used for this project and let us play with them. I still have them. I don't think the flares worked, but the Air Force had a lot more money to pay my dad to go back to the old drawing board.

       My dad described the ordinance he was working on from week to week as our family ate dinner. Sometimes he illustrated his points on a chalkboard he had installed by his place at the dinner table. One night, right at the table, he produced from his pocket some things he called fléchettes. They were little metal darts with fins on them, like little rockets, stamped in a special machine from regular nails. He drew a land mine on the chalkboard, showing us the small explosive charge it contained that lifted it from the ground when it was stepped on by an enemy soldier. Inside of the mine were hundreds of the little metal darts. Once the mine lifted about two and a half feet off the ground (the average height of a Vietnamese man's genitals, my dad explained), a larger charge would go off, sending the darts flying in all directions, two and a half feet off the ground. He said that this was a heavy psychological deterrent to a Vietnamese soldier thinking of crossing a field that might be mined.
       Later I learned that the North Vietnamese didn't have the medical facilities to remove the fléchettes from deep inside the bodies of the men, women, and children who were hit by them, and that the wounds they caused would fester and hurt for months, sometimes killing the victims, sometimes not.
       My father was such a good teacher that I could see vivid pictures while he spoke. When he explained napalm, I could see the burning jellied gasoline sticking to a man's skin as he tried in vain to get it off his body. I could see the skin blistering.
       My fifth experience related to war was when my dad bought a cool, 14-karat-gold peace sign tie pin to wear on his ties at work.
       My sixth experience of war was when my parents took my two brothers and me to an antiwar demonstration. I remember that we wore black arm bands and marched through a military cemetery that had thousands of identical white crosses.
       I saw new graves of soldiers who had just died in Vietnam. The graves didn't have crosses yet, but pushed into the freshly dug earth were stakes holding small battleship-gray metal frames for the names of the soldiers. The paint was chipping off the frames and they were rusty. An old typewriter had been used to type the soldiers' names on cream-colored index cards, which were covered by transparent plastic that had been used many times before and was beginning to yellow. I took a picture of a grave and marker with the Cannon 35-millimeter camera my uncle had lent me.
       My uncle wouldn't be needing his camera for a while. My seventh experience of war was seeing my big uncle—my macho, former low-rider, kind of scary uncle, who was always too rough with me when I was growing up, my role model for how to walk and act cool in L.A.—going off to war. He was a sergeant in the Air Force and he was wearing his dress uniform, which was pretty impressive. He was crying like a little boy as he prepared to walk down the passenger loading ramp into a United Airlines flight to Vietnam. His mother was crying and so was my dad. I was still in junior high and I was surprised at how everyone was acting. I wasn't very sad.
       My eighth experience of war was listening to Uncle Glenn's tapes from Vietnam. His tapes were very interesting. He lived in Saigon with a sweet young prostitute. He was in love with her. Uncle Glenn was an electronics technician, so he didn't have to fight. He just fixed radio equipment. His experience of the war included having sex with many Vietnamese women, getting hepatitis, and smoking a lot of marijuana.
       My ninth experience of war, listening to Uncle Glenn's tapes, led to my tenth, which was finding some incredibly good marijuana hidden in my parents' bedroom. Something Glenn said on a tape gave me a hint that he had sent some to my dad. I searched through my dad's closet and found it, just as he'd mailed it, packed into the spout of a beautiful tea pot. (I remember that the tea pot came in a padded basket intricately woven out of colorful electrical wire stolen from the U.S. military by a Vietnamese craftsperson.) By this time I was a freshman in high school, and I was smoking marijuana whenever I could get my hands on it. But the kind of dope my friends would come up with and share with me was weak. It was Mexican leaf that you had to smoke two whole joints of to get high. We always had sore throats from it. I remember we used to ask each other, "Do you feel it yet?" My cousin Cliff always felt it. "I'm getting a buzz already," he'd say, but I never believed him.
       It was with Cliff that I smoked the first joint of "pot" that I "pinched" out of my dad's "stash." When we started to "come on to it," we felt our hands leave our arms. We became paranoid, afraid to be alone, overwhelmed by the smallest details. Closing our eyes was impossible; it would have been a one-way ticket to spin-out land.

       I'm out of fingers, so won't tell of my eleventh, twelfth, or one hundredth experience of war; for me, everything after smoking my dad's good pot was influenced by war; everything was an experience of war. Who I am was influenced by the hippie counterculture, which came into being largely as a reaction to the war. I partook of the drugs, religions, sexual behavior, and eating styles spawned by this counterculture. The quality, or lack thereof, of education I received, compared to what it could have been, certainly resulted from the bleeding of our national wealth into a costly war, at least as much as it resulted from my being stoned a lot. The kind of career I chose—that is, not to have a career—when I finally decided to go to junior college, was a war experience. I chose to be a revolutionary against my own government!
       I determined at that time in my life, at age 24, that this was actually the most practical, logical, pragmatic career choice available. I used to argue with other students at Chabot Community College: "What good is it to become a stock broker if we all get wasted in a nuclear war three years from now and there's no stock left to sell and no people left to buy it?" 15 years later, those guys were probably stock brokers, and I was a substitute teacher. Their houses were warm, while the converted apartment Ruey and I lived in was cold.

       Another person who made the career choice to become a radical while attending classes at Chabot Community College was Erik Larsen. Unfortunately, he made this decision while he was in the Marine Corps Reserve. While the world was waiting to see what George Bush and Saddam Hussein would do next, Erik, because of his great speaking ability, became the most prominent soldier to speak out against U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. He had begun the process of becoming a conscientious objector before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, because of his dawning recognition that the Marines were no longer about honor or justice. He was sickened by the chants the troops were taught to recite in boot camp, and even more so by what he learned in college about U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam, Central America, and Panama.
       A local political group held a meeting for people to discuss the possibility of war with Iraq and what we could do about it. That's where I met Erik. While waiting for the meeting to start, I noticed Erik and did a double take. I walked up to him and said, "I just saw you on TV this morning. Aren't you Erik Larsen?"
       Erik's speech to the gathering about the situation in the Persian Gulf was simple yet powerful. He was comfortable fielding questions, and quite relaxed, even though he knew he was days away from being imprisoned. After the meeting, I had a lot of questions for him. We walked to the local microbrewery and had a few beers.

       Erik agreed to speak at a meeting I arranged at Logan High School, where I worked as a substitute teacher. About 50 students and five teachers showed up. There were two newspaper reporters. The students were on the edge of their seats as they listened to Erik's stories about the military. He sang some of the Marine Corps marching chants for them. One went like this:

Rape the town and kill the people
That's the thing we love to do
Rape the town and kill the people
That's the only thing to do
Throw some napalm on the schoolhouse
Watch the kiddies scream and shout
Rape the town and kill the people
That's the thing we love to do
Napalm, napalm
Sticks like glue
Sticks to the mamas and the papas
And the kiddies, too

       His decision to become a C.O., he said, was made after the six Jesuit priests were killed and de-brained by the U.S.-backed ARENA government in El Salvador.
       He retold a story, told to him by some of his Marine buddies, about how they had been instructed to hide the bodies of dead Panamanians after George Bush's bombing attack on Panama, Operation Just Cause, in 1989. Erik described Marines putting bodies in black plastic bags, loading them into jeeps, and taking them to open-pit graves; he discussed his feelings about this. He explained a little of the history of European and U.S. involvement in the Middle East and how the United States "military-industrial complex" was desperate to create a new enemy now that the Cold War was over.
       The students were sympathetic to his cause, but the general consensus was that since he had signed a contract with the military, and since he had received training, medical benefits, and money for college, he should honor his contract.
       The high school principal had insisted, when I was filling out the forms required to have a guest speaker, that both sides of the issue be presented, so Erik debated with a young teacher who was in the Air Force Reserve. This teacher said that when you join the service, when you sign that contract, you'd better take it seriously. It's like getting married, he said, not something to be gone into lightly or escaped from just because you may not agree with exactly what's being done. He went on to defend American involvement against Iraq, saying things such as, "What would have happened if we hadn't stopped Hitler?" He was a pretty weak speaker compared to Erik.
       During the question-and-answer period, I raised my hand and addressed the pro-war teacher: "I'm going to ask you a question that may sound absurd, but maybe not so absurd if you consider the 3,000,000 dead in Indochina, the 70,000 dead in El Salvador, and the 500 to 1,000 recently killed in Panama. If an 18-year-old man joined the German army at a time when Hitler was helping the economy and building new roads, and then, two years later, he found out that Hitler was using the military to round up Jews and kill them, should this young man continue to honor the contract he signed with the German army?"
       The teacher turned a little red, but managed to answer. "The United States always tries to do the right thing," he said, "and we always bring our war criminals to trial." He mentioned Lieutenant Calley, the officer charged with the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. His argument was weak; Lt. Calley was just a scapegoat for the hundreds of lieutenants who burnt villages and slaughtered innocent women and children over there. But I didn't answer him. It was a meeting for the high school kids, and I didn't want to get the other teachers in the room too excited for fear they might take over the discussion.

       What I had said was paraphrased the next day in the last paragraph of an article generally unfavorable to Erik in the San Jose Mercury News:

(November 15, 1990)
But Larsen got his share of support, too. Substitute teacher Jeff Syrop cited what he said is a common criticism in Hayward of Larsen—that he failed to live up to his contract with the Marines. He likened that to an 18-year-old joining the German military, only to discover two years later that he would be expected to aid in the extermination of Jews.

       I was at Logan High on January 16th, 1991, at three in the afternoon, when a rally sponsored by our World Events Club was being held outdoors in the school amphitheater. (When we founded the club a couple of years before, the students and I were afraid to call it the World Peace Club for fear that the school administration wouldn't allow us to meet on campus; we might be considered too political.) The purpose of the rally on this afternoon was to discuss possibilities for a peaceful settlement of the conflict with Iraq, the pros and cons of protesting, and whether our country should start the war now that Bush's January 15th deadline had passed. There were about 75 students, 10 teachers, and two administrators present.
       Both sides of the issue—to attack or not to attack—were expressed by students and teachers as two cordless microphones were passed around from person to person. A Mexican-American teacher took a mike and talked about how he had felt about the peace protests going on in the United States during the time he was fighting in Vietnam. He said it was like playing in a football game and suddenly seeing all of the fans on the home-team bleachers getting up and leaving. Some of the kids who had previously considered themselves peaceniks were buying into this.

       There were a couple of teachers who spoke at length just to hear their own voices over the loudspeakers and to show off for the other teachers; I'm not sure what exactly they were talking about. One seemed to be saying that there were different rules for big countries than there were for small countries, and that Saddam Hussein had no right to commit atrocities even if George Bush did.
       A couple of ignorant, inarticulate boys talked at length about how they wanted to join the Marines to support our troops. "My country might not always be right, but I believe we should serve our country. We gotta support our boys, 'cause if there wasn't guys brave enough to fight for freedom, then we might not be the greatest and freest country in the world. Those people in Iraq, ya know, they don't have a choice, and like, all those protesters don't know how good they got it. They should go and live in Iraq for a while and see how they like it. I'm going to be an infantryman, and, like, I'm afraid of dying and stuff, I mean, I want to have a family and I don't want to die before I really even like get a chance to live, ya know, but if I don't fight, there might not be any country for my kids to live in . . . ." I noticed one of the school's vice principals look down at his beeper and get up to leave.
       Finally, one teacher spoke eloquently for peace, but it seemed to me that what she said was not only over most of the students' heads, but the teachers' as well.
       In situations such as this, I usually try to form one very strong statement, a large-size paragraph in length, in an effort to blow away what I think is the idiocy of the speakers who have gone before me. This time, though, I thought that there was such a paucity of logic and such a plentitude of vacuous thought being shared, that I was almost resolved to keep my mouth shut for once in my life. But finally, I came up with my statement and turned it over in my head a few times so that I could speak forcefully and clearly. I raised my hand and motioned for a microphone, and one was passed from hand to hand towards me. Right when I had the microphone in my hand, the administrator who had left to answer a page came walking back into the amphitheater with a quick, purposeful stride. He grabbed the other microphone and said, "I just got off the phone with my wife. They just announced over the radio that there is a squadron of jet bombers over Baghdad and that the bombing has started."
       I sat there dumbfounded, looking at the expressions on the faces of the people at the meeting as many of them experienced their first beginning of a war. One teacher, the Air Reservist who had debated with Erik Larsen, looked the most upset and scared of anybody there. After all my study and preparation to be a revolutionary, there I sat with a microphone in my hand, and I was silent.
       One of the students had a portable radio. I placed the microphone next to the speaker. We could all hear the war starting. One by one, people got up and quietly left.
       The teachers and most of the students didn't notice that a newspaper reporter, oblivious to the fact that war had begun, had just arrived to cover the meeting. Earlier in the day, the principal had gotten wind of a mass student walkout in protest of the January 15th deadline for the beginning of war. He headed this off by getting on the school PA system and telling all the students that there would be a rally after school, sponsored by the World Events Club. A history teacher had called the local newspaper, thinking that this might be a newsworthy meeting.
       A few stragglers and World Events Club loyalists had stayed behind to have a "radical" discussion with me, the school radical. I spotted a couple of them talking with the reporter. They were telling him how disappointed they were. They realized that they'd been tricked by the principal to sublimate their planned seventh-period antiwar demonstration for this tame rally.
       The reporter was happy to see me. At least he'd have one teacher to interview, even if I was only a substitute teacher. He scribbled in his little notebook as I spoke about the meeting and how strange it had been to learn of the war starting right in the middle of it. But when I began speaking of the importance of protest, of it being more important to support the kids who had not yet joined the military than the ones who had knowingly signed a contract to commit mass murder at the will of George Bush, his eyes glazed over and his pen stopped in its tracks.
       I continued speaking—hoping, I guess, that the reporter would have a photographic memory and a change of heart—about former CIA director Bush arranging with Iran in 1980 for the continued captivity of the American hostages so that Carter would lose the election to Reagan, about the hostages being released the moment Reagan put his hand on the Bible to become President, about the missiles and other weapons Bush had promised and delivered to Iran.
       Now the reporter was looking very impatient. I went on anyway, showing off for the couple of students who hadn't yet wandered away: "Congressional law was broken to give money to the Contras to kill thousands of Nicaraguan peasants. Reagan and Bush paid for the killing of 70,000 farmers in El Salvador with our money! Bush killed 1,000 civilians in Panama in order to arrest one man who used to be on his payroll! Two of Bush's sons are under criminal investigation for using their names and influence to rip off American taxpayers to the tune of millions of dollars—Zeb Bush in the HMO medical scam in Florida (which the media has ignored) and Niel Bush in the 'Savings and Loan Scandal.'"
       Now the reporter was looking at me impatiently as if I were a mental case. I was shaking a little and my right eye was twitching, which didn't lend credibility to my speech. I fixed him with my eyes, daring him to walk away, which he did anyway. "All these people wrapping themselves in the flag and getting a hard-on for war are going to be chumps, and I can't believe they don't see it. We're going to be a nation of chumps!" I called after him.
       The next day I read the article he wrote in the Argus News, in which he gave me two paragraphs. Here they are:

Jeff Syrop, a substitute teacher who joined the after-school discussion prior to the bombing, said it was ironic.

"It was really strange to be discussing it and then hear a radio broadcast tell us that what we were just discussing had happened," said Syrop, 37. "I'm sickened by it."

       Fair enough. The front page of this newspaper had a full-color map of the Middle East with Iraq in the center covered with red arrows and orange stars representing flight paths and bombing sites. The headline in huge letters read "BULL'S EYE!"

       Tom Brokaw's news show, "The Crisis in the Gulf," became "America at War." Tom must have known it was coming: NBC had new theme music already written and recorded and all of the elaborate "America at War" graphics had already been made before the first missile was fired, before the first bomb was dropped. Ruey noticed: "It's the same song but they're playing it slower and more serious."
       As Ruey and I were eating dinner at La Imperial in downtown Hayward, all eyes were on the TV at the end of the restaurant. Usually tuned to sports, the TV now showed the bombing of Iraq. When the screen showed bombs falling and exploding over Baghdad, several men stood up at their tables over their super burritos and Dos Equis beer and cheered loudly. A video of a "smart bomb" homing in on its target and exploding brought more shouts and cheers, exactly like a big touchdown by the 49ers.
       "Welcome to America, Ruey. What does an ingenuous Taiwanese girl think about this country?"
       "Insane is my answer. Selfish," she said.

       I read some essays written by eighth graders in a class I was substitute teaching the next day. "If my uncle gets killed over there, Saddam Hussein is going to have a strange feeling in his ass. That's because I'm going to go over there and shove a grenade up his ass." Another student wrote about how one of the first things Bush said after becoming president—that now, nobody could make him eat broccoli. "What a childish, psychopathic thing for the leader of a great country to say," he wrote. He cited a bumper sticker he'd seen which said, "If war is optional, it's murder."

       After my initial act of ant genocide, using President Johnson's logic that once you've gotten blood on your hands, you might as well finish the job, I engaged in another ant massacre, this time shooting them with water from a yellow plastic squirt gun molded in the shape of a machine gun. A few days later, I tried my hand at chemical warfare, using some Windex spray on the troops. This was months before the "shooting war," Desert Storm, actually started, when our operation was still called Desert Shield. Our troops and troops from France, England, and other countries supporting the UN action were camped out in the desert, protecting Saudi Arabia and waiting to see if Saddam would willingly withdraw from Kuwait. I told my friend, Richard, that God had singled me out and was watching my treatment of the ants, using me as a test case to see if humans were ready to finally do away with war. I suppose that after my third ant massacre, God realized that humans still enjoy cruelty and slaughter. Perhaps then God caused George and Saddam to do the crazy things they needed to do to put a war into motion. Now that war had started, I no longer killed ants. I wanted to be a good example of a loving human.

       I was more interested than ever in the behavior of my neighbors, Steve and GiGi. GiGi's younger brother, just out of high school, had been staying with them while he looked for a job. I saw GiGi in front in her cute pink shorts, watering her lawn. "I haven't seen your brother lately. Where is he?" She answered that he'd joined the army and that he was in the Persian Gulf. I could tell it was a difficult subject for her, so I didn't press for any more information. But I wondered about what he was experiencing and how it would affect GiGi if he died. Did his eyes get burned during gas mask training? Did he have nightmares during boot camp? Is he safe now? Will he be captured and tortured?
       At first, Steve was willing to talk about the war on our chance encounters at the mailbox or picking up our newspapers from the driveway. Now it was just "How are you?" "Pretty good. How are you?" "Just fine." One thing to their credit is that they didn't fly an American flag on their house, and they didn't put up any yellow ribbons, either.
       This was understandable. Almost everyone who could afford to live in this nice neighborhood in the hills had graduated from college and had become materially successful. These people were a little more politically aware and perhaps a little less susceptible to media manipulation than the working-class people in the flatlands.
       Suddenly, the poor and middle-class neighborhoods in the Hayward had sprouted American flags and yellow ribbons. Trees, telephone poles, and lamp posts everywhere were bedecked with yellow ribbons tied in bows like bows on a little girl's church dress. Small American flags and yellow ribbons were flying from car antennas, and some of our more patriotic citizens installed actual flagpoles waving full-size flags from the back of their pick-up trucks. Construction workers, teachers, school kids, checkers at the supermarket, everybody seemed to be wearing little yellow bows pinned to their shirts with little American flag pins.
       At this point in time, I would have been afraid to wear my dad's old peace sign tie tack in public.

       The air attack had been going for a month, and it was still called a war, even though there was almost no opposition to "Coalition" bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Since the media were being censored by the military, I could only guess, but after almost a month of "carpet bombing" Iraqi troops with fuel bombs and conventional high explosives, I guessed that tens of thousands of men had been incinerated as they cringed in holes and underground bunkers or cooked to death in tanks and personnel carriers.
       This war reminded me of the time years ago when a roommate, a fat woman who kept a very clean house, spied a roach on the kitchen counter and sprayed it. The roach just kept walking even though my roommate was practically drowning it with Raid. I could see a cloud of Raid mist covering our dishes in the dish drainer. Later, when she wasn't looking, I washed all the dishes again so I wouldn't get cancer.

       It was a cold winter, and, speaking of insects, the ants were still with us, conducting maneuvers in our kitchen. They were all over the place. After the war started, though, I treated them as honored guests. Hey God, look at me! Are you watching, God? Look, I'm not cruel anymore!

       Bush had taken to calling the coalition of nations he bribed, blackmailed, and bullied into supporting the UN Security Council measure authorizing force against Iraq, the "Allies." Reagan took us back to the 50s, and now Bush, that crafty time traveler, had taken us back even farther in time, to the 40s, complete with Allies, Hitler, amphibious landings by the Marines, and words that Americans hadn't heard since World War II, words such as "sortie" and "scorched earth tactics."
       "Allied" casualties were very light indeed. So far, most of the casualties had been from "friendly fire." According to the media, there were days when not a man on the Allies side was lost. In Israel, there were very few deaths from Saddam Hussein's overgrown bottle rockets, the Scud missiles which were pointed towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to fly until they ran out of fuel and crashed, usually missing their targets. Most of the Israeli deaths were from fright.

       It was a relatively safe time for the ants at our house and for the Allies, but it didn't feel safe for me. It was during the last days of the "air war" that I waited for the results of my HIV test.
       The technician at the county hospital stabbed my arm five times before she finally got blood; my arm was bruised for days. After getting some odd rashes on my face and having a sore throat that wouldn't go away, I started to get paranoid about having AIDS. But maybe my poor health was related to the stress I was feeling about the war. Also, because of the war, I became more aware of my fragility as a human. Ruey and I lived on the Hayward Fault, known worldwide as one of the most active and dangerous possible sites for a great earthquake. A 7.0 or greater quake was scheduled to destroy our neighborhood some time during the next 20 years, in geological time, about half a second.
       This was my war as much as it was the war of the politicians who put it into motion and the people who supported it. My taxes went towards the reality we were creating for young men forced to serve in Saddam Hussein's military. I pictured an Iraqi guy sitting in a bunker. Suddenly there is a huge blast and concussion. When he regains consciousness, he can see the shiny white of his own exposed ribs. His friend is lying beside him dead.
       When he described what it was like to see Iraqi troops in Kuwait from his plane, Marine Lt. Col. Dick White said: "It was like turning on the kitchen light late at night and the cockroaches started scurrying." Our leaders were getting ready to start the "ground war." It was taking too long to exterminate the roaches, so now we had decided to go into the cracks and walls to get them.
       Now our men, too, would have the chance to see their own bones exposed and to be splattered by the blood and entrails of their friends.

       Like I said, as a kid I wasn't saddened by my "war experiences." I actually enjoyed violence. I used to shoot real arrows up onto the top of the elevated freeway looming above our backyard in L.A. and listen for the metallic sound of them hitting cars. BB-gun wars were a favorite pastime of my brothers and I, stalking each other through the trees on the side of the freeway. Sometimes we'd become allies and shoot at the windows of the "old lady's house" down the street. But during the Persian Gulf War, I was very sad about war.
       I was embarrassed, too, because I'd waited for Bush's deadline, January 15th, like a kid waits for Christmas. I was against the war, but I was excited about it too. If it started, it would be my first war.
       I kind of got stoned and missed the Vietnam War. Although I had long hair, played Bob Dylan songs on the guitar, and knew about some bizarre ordinance used against the Vietcong, I really didn't know anything. The names of the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, or the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Nope. The history of Vietnam leading up to the war? Nope. Yet as far as I knew, my life was on the line—I came of age to be drafted while the Vietnam War was still being fought.

       I do know a lot about the Persian Gulf War. (Apparently, that's what history, at least our history, has decided to call it. It was over. The "ground war" turned out to be a combination turkey-shoot and round-up. Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and expert on U.S. foreign policy, called it a "nature walk." The Iraqi soldiers couldn't surrender quickly enough. But some felt that they had no choice but to fight, or they were sufficiently afraid of their cruel leaders to fight even though they knew they were doomed. After the "battles," Iraqi men in these divisions were found "carbonized" in their tanks and troop carriers, according to the newspapers. A famous picture, captioned "Gruesome Traffic Jam" in the Examiner, showed hundreds of Iraqi or stolen Kuwaiti vehicles that had been destroyed as Iraqi soldiers tried to retreat from Kuwait. They contained a lot of toasted humans.
       Saddam Hussein was still alive, running the country from underground in one of his German-made bunkers, and his Republican Guards were killing their fellow Iraqis to maintain his rule amongst civil war and anarchy. Starvation and epidemics of cholera and other water-borne diseases were widespread after the destruction of sewer and water facilities by Allied bombers. Thousands of Kurdish and Shiite refugees were stuck on borders. The Kurds in the north were freezing to death. They could be seen on the nightly news walking barefoot through snow.
       Many of the rich Kuwaiti sheiks and sultans, however, had now returned to Kuwait, and American companies were receiving fabulous contracts to rebuild their country. My childhood hero, Red Adair, had over 500 oil-well fires to put out, over a year's worth of work. Scientists felt it a strong likelihood that the soot from these fires would shorten the growing seasons in Europe and Russia, possibly resulting in famine.
       The same year, 27 million people starved to death in Africa, but that was another story, and it didn't seem to strike the media as being nearly as newsworthy as the fact that Iraqi troops had gutted a museum in Kuwait.

       My health deteriorated further, and I spent all of my time, except for when I was working, in bed. After taking the AIDS test at the county hospital, I returned a week later and sat nervously in a waiting area in a cold hallway along with several other nervous people. We all clutched our test receipts in clammy hands, waiting for a nurse to call out our four-digit numbers. When mine was called, I walked into an office, carefully surveying the face of the nurse who was about to break the news to me. "Your test came out negative. You don't have AIDS." I was mildly relieved. But I was still quite worried about my health.
       Several months after the test, my throat was so sore that it hurt even to drink water. It was difficult to control classes at the high school and the junior high schools without raising my voice from time to time. I was sweating at night and had sores inside my mouth. I had no health insurance, so I had to wait two months for an appointment with a specialist. Every few weeks, when the pain got unbearable, I went to the emergency room and some young doctor would look at me for a moment and give me some antibiotics. I'd take a few days off work and then go back again, until my voice gave out.

       They say stress and sadness affect the immune system. Well, I was heart broken by the war, by seeing my fellow citizens celebrating massacre and so naively believing the distorted news media.
       When the air war was still going strong and the ground war was just beginning, I recorded the Super Bowl on my VCR. George Bush and NBC used this national sporting event to make propaganda rivaling the films made for Hitler by Leni Riefenstahl. I recorded the opening ceremony and the half-time entertainment.
       Whitney Houston was adorable—a life size black Barbie doll—as she sang the Star Spangled Banner more beautifully than it's ever been sung. Her brown skin glistened, her face set off by a red scarf tied about her hair. All 80,000 people in the stands held color-coded red, white, or blue cards to create a gigantic wall of stars and stripes as fighter jets flew overhead. At half-time, a little blond boy on a huge stage surrounded by cute kids of soldiers in the Persian Gulf sang "You Are My Hero" as slow-motion shots of our troops in Saudi Arabia were shown on our TVs.
       The picture faded to George and Barbara Bush in their living room at the White House, addressing the nation and our troops. We continued to hear the rousing, patriotic music from the football field in Florida even as George and Barbara spoke to us. As if this wasn't enough, there was a short "newscast" that had a commander surrounded by troops telling them what would happen to them if they stepped on various kinds of land mines used by the Iraqis. He picked up one from the sand and said, "If you step on this, all that'll be left of you is your shoes." He picked up another and said, "Now this one, this one'll turn you into red mist." The coordination and choreography of this event were such that someone from another country could have easily thought NBC was a propaganda organ of the U.S. government, and not an independent television broadcasting corporation.

       I was afraid. The sick feeling that one has when one reads Orwell's 1984 was with me always; I felt as if I were in that book.
       In July, 1990 the American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, virtually encouraged Saddam to strike against Kuwait. On August 1st, Saddam Hussein was still our friend and ally, the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. loans and advanced military technology. During his war with Iran, we had given him real-time satellite surveillance pictures that enabled him to prevail over his enemy, largely by using missile attacks against areas populated by civilians. His human-rights abuses were of no concern to our government and were unknown to most Americans, unless they happened to watch the news the one day that a 20-second spot on the gassing of the Kurds was shown. But on August 2nd, one day after August 1st when he was our friend, Saddam became a "Hitler" and "The man who gassed his own people."

       We had just had a war, yet I had not see one injured or dead American soldier on TV. Our reality was, in many ways, actually more exaggerated than Orwell's book, which was supposed to be allegorical or satirical, but not factual.

       Two of my letters to the editors of the San Francisco dailies were published. Here they are:

(San Francisco Examiner, May 2, 1991)
I was saddened to read Seth Rosenfeld's good article (April 20) regarding my friend and neighbor, Erik Larsen, the Marine from Hayward who spoke out for peace and refused to serve in the Persian Gulf. Now I know that this person, the bravest and most patriotic man I've ever met, is in prison in North Carolina facing a possible death sentence.

Erik began the process of becoming a conscientious objector long before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in response to U.S. policy in Central America.

He knew that for him, a radar mechanic, war would be relatively safe, yet he chose to risk his youth in prison and even to risk his life in an effort to save the countless lives that would be lost if the war were to start. Erik wasn't afraid to fight. He's fighting right now.

I believe the reason Erik Larsen has been singled out for a possible death sentence is that he was such an effective speaker during the war. He traveled all over the world in an effort to build support against the war.

Erik is one of the true heroes to emerge from the "crisis in the gulf." His only crimes were that he was patriotic and generous, not cynical and selfish, and that he believed in the America that we were taught about in public school. True, he failed to follow his commander in chief. Why? "My actions," said Erik, "are ultimately accountable to a higher authority—namely, God." A society that would put Erik in jail would certainly imprison Jesus or Buddha.

(San Francisco Chronicle, May 7, 1991
THE "M" WORD [the Chronicle's title]

Editor—Why are we afraid to use the "M" word? When the most powerful military nation in the world goes up against a hungry, frightened army having no air support, no reconnaissance and mostly old equipment, and when the number of pilots we lost in the "air war" was only slightly more than would have died if a training exercise of such magnitude had been conducted, let's call it what it was: a massacre.

From my journal, June 12, 1991:

       My health is better. I finally got to see the throat specialist at the county hospital after waiting two months for my appointment. He prescribed chemical warfare against the bad synapses happening in my brain; he has me on Valium. Also, I'm seeing a psychologist named Jules.
       Summer vacation has started for me. Ruey is at work at the restaurant. Since she has recently sold several paintings, we'll have enough money to spend a week in Hawaii with my dad [an English teacher, no longer a munitions maker] on our way to Taiwan. I will teach English all summer in Taiwan. Ruey will paint her beautiful pictures and socialize with her friends and family there.
       I'm back to killing ants. My weapon of choice is the vacuum. However, there is an ant walking on my computer keyboard even as I write, and I've decided to let it live.
       Steve next door is playing his guitar on his redwood deck. He's playing the Pink Floyd song that has the lyrics, "I have become/comfortably numb." GiGi is doing illegal day-care so they can keep up their nice lifestyle. I heard her talking on the portable phone she carries around while she watches the kids in the back yard. She told someone that she and Steve are going to their cabin this weekend. Her brother came home from the Army on leave, strong and confident. He never saw combat, but he played a lot of chess and cards in Saudi Arabia. He did get gassed pretty badly during a training exercise.
       Erik Larsen is still imprisoned in North Carolina at Camp LeJeune by the U.S. Marines, who refuse to honor his right to be a conscientious objector.

       Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who served under Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, visited Iraq after the war and found that the United States military (and the "Coalition") had destroyed 95 percent of Iraq's roads. Most water and electricity systems, even in small villages, were destroyed. The Coalition bombed almost all small-town post offices. Many hospitals were bombed, some more than once. Doctors worked without electricity, medicine, or rubber gloves in cold rooms with plastic taped up to cover the blown-out windows. The Red Cross says that 200,000 Iraqi babies under two years of age will die of malnutrition and water-borne disease by this October. The Kurdish and Shiite refugees are still camped out on the borders or fearfully being "repatriated" into their ruined villages, hoping that the U.S. will not abandon them.

       The Kuwaiti human-rights abuses against Palestinians and others living in Kuwait included torture, severe sentences routinely handed down on the basis of questionable evidence, and rape—especially of Asian women—by Kuwaiti troops. One man was executed after a summary trial for wearing a Saddam Hussein T-shirt. According to Amnesty International, these abuses surpass those perpetrated by Saddam Hussein's troops while they occupied what Bush called "this freedom-loving country."

       There are still 500 oil well fires burning. The smoke plume from the fires, south and east of Kuwait, stretches from Ethiopia to Bangladesh, about 1.8 million square miles, an area half the size of the United States. At this size, the smoke blocks 10 percent of the light from reaching the ground. There's nothing to worry about, though, according to a recent report by a team of U.S. scientists. At its darkest part, an area that would stretch from San Francisco well into the Midwest, over 63 percent of the sunlight is blocked out. No problem.

       Two countries are destroyed, the wellbeing of entire peoples is threatened, and resolution of the hostility between Arabs and Israelis seems as remote as ever. American troops are bogged down in Turkey, committed to stay for years to protect the Kurds (or at least until after the ‘92 presidential election here). Saddam Hussein is still in power. Many newspaper columnists have written that Bush's New Order seems a lot like the old order.

       Virtually every large American city has had huge victory parades.

[taped into my journal] (San Francisco Examiner, June 9, 1991)
WASHINGTON—In a sea of flags, hoopla and sunshine, America on Saturday unashamedly and exultantly celebrated a great military victory.
       On Monday, New York will provide a rival show to celebrate the rout of Iraq. But this was President Bush's war, and on Saturday the commander in chief celebrated his triumph.
       For 90 spectacular minutes, the wagons of warfare rolled in the biggest military celebration here since the end of World War II. More than 10,000 veterans representing every unit that served in the Persian Gulf took part in the march-past and fly-past. Thirty-one bands played in the $12 million extravaganza.
       For the 200,000 spectators the U.S. Park Service said were on hand Saturday, it was worth every cent.
       Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the biggest hero of the war that made him a global celebrity, led units of the Army, the Marine Corps, the Navy and the Air Force past the packed review stands down Constitution Avenue.
       Not a technological star of Operation Desert Storm was missing. But the trump card belonged to the Air Force—three F-117 "stealth" bombers over Washington, dark wedges against an azure sky.
       "America endures because it dares to defend the most ennobling virtues of man," Bush said. "We went to the gulf not because it was the expedient way, but because it was the American way."
       Bush's voice choked briefly as he said Kuwait is free because "we dared risk our most precious asset, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives—the finest troops any country has ever had."
       The few scattered peace demonstrations scarcely dented the overwhelming mood of patriotism.

       On Monday, New York had a ticker-tape parade (more time travel by tricky George Bush). 140 miles of yellow ribbon were cut into one-inch segments and packaged in little plastic bags to be distributed to the crowd in this carefully orchestrated event. People dropped the ribbons from tall buildings as the troops marched through the "Canyon of Heroes" up Broadway. 500 pounds of old ticker tape (ticker tape isn't even used anymore) was procured, to give the parade a real World War II feeling.

       Bush is insane. The night before Desert Shield became Desert Storm, the night before he unleashed the "air war" in which the United States and the Coalition would drop on Iraq six times the explosive force used to destroy Nagasaki, Japan, the night before the United States began the total destruction of the "cradle of civilization" that I had learned about as a child in school, the place with the first alphabet, the place where math was invented, the place that had the first guest professorships at universities, George Bush prayed with Billy Graham, one of the greatest religious hucksters of all time. While Bush displayed his convocation with Billy Graham in front of TV cameras to show the American people that he was about to kill Iraqi people for a godly reason, his regular minister joined peace marchers protesting the bombing in front of the White House.
       In the upcoming election, Bush didn't want to be bogged down, like Jimmy Carter was, with a situation in the Middle East. Or maybe the whole problem—a definite possibility, according to some doctors—was simply that he was suffering from a hyperthyroid condition during the whole conflict, which, once the war was over, manifested in a potentially dangerous heartbeat irregularity.

       I admit it: Bush is not Hitler; he's more like Hitler Lite. But when I watch Bush talking on TV and listen to his words, I feel that I'm looking at sheer evil. He killed for personal power and prestige, and he caused the deaths of perhaps a half million people and intense suffering for millions more. He was willing to destroy an entire nation in order to dispel his "wimp" image, foisted upon him earlier by the media. It's hard to measure evil, but if I were writing the history books, I'd put Bush right up there with Hitler and Stalin in the Evil Hall of Fame.

       Now, the Middle East has virtually dropped out of the news. Let's see, what's happening? There's a volcano in the Philippines. What else? A plane crashed in Thailand. Abortion is illegal in Louisiana, even for rape and incest cases. The Supreme Court has ruled that it's OK for police to search everyone on a bus or train, without a warrant, to facilitate the arrest of drug smugglers. Jay Leno will take over the Johnny Carson Show.

       I've settled down from my constant anger and amazement about the war. Now I'm not sure what to worry about most. The depletion of the ozone layer? The fact that India's population is growing by the equivalent of an entire Japan every year? That a Mexican worker accidentally spilled some highly radioactive cobalt pellets at an iron foundry, and now, scattered randomly in restaurants throughout the United States, are 4,000 radioactive table legs?
       There was an insane minister selling redemption on TV last night, but it was scary to even look at him, and I can't afford it anyway. The Beast seems to be slouching towards Bethlehem at a faster pace, and I continue with my white-knuckle Zen.

© Jeff Syrop, 1991