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Where Was I Forty Years Ago? Who Was I?

August 12, 2009

Monday’s are my “To See:  Looking Back Day”

To see where one is, one sometimes looks back to see from where one came.  Contrary to the popular saying, “There’s no looking back,” today I’m looking back from August 2009 to August 1969.  Looking back is something we can do and sometimes should do.

Hikers know to look back occasionally to gauge direction and distance.  When I hike, I occasionally look back to see what I’ve accomplished.  Beth and I hiked in the Dolomites last September.  Some of my look backs on those Dolomite hikes were spectacular, but getting to a place where I could get that look back was sometimes grueling and unpleasant work.

A Gospel song says, “We’re going up on the rough side of the mountain.”  We’ve all had that experience.  Isn’t it odd that, one can stand in a place and feel basically nothing or just feel pooped on the rough side of the mountain, and, yet, one can travel a few miles from that place on foot, look back where one stood only an hour or so before, and feel exhilarated looking at that same spot?

In August 1969 at 24, I sat alone in my little, one-bedroom, rented apartment.  I looked out the second floor window onto a quiet, tree-shaded street on the edge of the campus of Miami University in Oxford, OH.  I contemplated what appeared to others to be a wasted and ruined life, my own.  I wondered were they right.

My prospects did not look good. I had gone into the U.S. Army in June 1967 a college graduate and clearly officer candidate material.  In May 1969, I had left the U.S. Army a private E-1 and with a record of one summary courts martial and one general courts martial.  Despite my time in the stockade, I did leave the army with an honorable discharge and a good conduct medal.  And don’t forget my Expert marksmanship badge.  That was something.

My low rank of Private E-1 and my two convictions were, in my eyes, all commendable, not failure.  I had made decisions to march with the rank and file, rather than the officers; to skip training for a week to search my conscience in solitude, and then to refuse to go with my unit — A Troop/4th of the 12th Cav —  to Vietnam in Project Red Diamond that summer of 1968.  I considered all those a mark of my freedom and indicators of my success at opposing the Vietnam War.

All that didn’t worry me – though it all pained my family.  No, I fretted that, when I looked back from 1969 to 1967, nothing I had done seemed to have changed what the U.S. was doing to the people of Vietnam nor refuted the warmongers at home.  The war in Vietnam continued to rage.  I had expected my resistance to have accomplished a lot more.  What a waste of 2 years!  Could I have done something else or something more that might have made a difference sooner?

Looking back at August 1969, from my seat at FCNL here in Washington today, I can see so clearly what that 24 year old couldn’t.  Nonviolent change is a process of going through conflict after conflict after conflict, until one day looking back, things do look different.  In August 1969, what kept me going was not what I could see but rather my religious experience and study.  I felt a passion to take a stand with “the least of these” and to practice hope.

My religious experience convinced me to try to let go of what I wanted, to let go of my expectations, and to open my self to the possibility that more was happening than meets my eye.

Today, I look back to August 1969 with empathy for that person I was then.  That 24 year old was finding his way out of one world into another.  He was grooping from this world into a world which is now-but-not-yet.  He soon learned that he wasn’t really alone.  On his way from this world to the now-but-not-yet world, he found many others on the same journey.

For ages, people have gone on religious pilgrimages, usually on set routes.  He and his fellow “hikers” have been on a religious pilgrimage, too, one with no set route up the rough side of the mountain but with a certain destination at the summit.  Along the way, we’ve seen important accomplishments, from the five day work week and outlawing of child labor to the voting rights act and school desegregation and from an end to the Cold War to peacebuilding in the Balkans.

We’re not near the summit yet, though.  Our national leaders still have a blind faith in the power of the gun barrel to secure a free and safe America.  That bipartisan military ideology still holds our nation in thrall and commands the greater share of its treasury.  The U.S. wars abroad will rage generation after generation until one day when we look back and see ourselves for the violent people we are.  That look back will free us all.

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