my pissant two cents

Thursday, November 25, 2004

on thanks and giving

"i'm thankful that i live in a place where i can say the things i do without being taken out and shot." --jello biafra, dead kennedys "stars and stripes of corruption"

i just spent thanksgiving with my aunt and uncle, my cousins and my grandfather. it was a small gathering, nothing like the huge family dinners of my youth, where there would be two enormous turkeys and maybe a ham, gargantuan piles of all manner of side dishes, and dozens of family members orbiting around the table. my grandmother would be rubbing her hands, muttering in spanish about how much they hurt, because she had spent several hours the night before, chopping celery, apples, onions and lord knows what else to make the best stuffing i've ever tasted. my mom would be fretting about the pumpkin pies, more than a dozen of them so that everybody would have one to take home at the end of the night.

this was not like that. my grandmother is in a convalescent home, my parents working in las vegas, my other aunts and uncles too far away, too busy to come, my brothers and other cousins cast across the country. but there i was with a precious little bit of my family, a tiny knot of tension in my gut.

you see, there was a missing member of my aunt and uncle's brood. a figurative empty chair at the table. my cousin erich is in iraq, deployed with the 1st battalion, 503rd infantry, ghost recon platoon. i'm told they've commandeered a palace near ramadi. he rooms with a squad of 16 guys, including nco's and commanding officers. they have a website about their experience, much of it discussing how much they hate the sand.

the tension is mostly political, and i'm the oddball of the group. my aunt and uncle are quite conservative. we don't discuss politics. i love and respect them too much to pummel them with my ideas. they're too set in their ways to hear it, and the fact is, one of theirs-- one of ours-- is on the front line. this is not the time or place for prosaic discussion of u.s. foreign policy.

there is no room in my mind right now for platitudes thanking the men and women in uniform who serve to protect our country and its ideals. i'm thankful that erich is still alive, unhurt in a very dangerous place. but his presence in the desert, and the sacrifice of the 1200+ who've died there, is doing nothing for freedom or democracy. like most wars, this one's about profit and empire.

were they patriot volunteers, moved by love of country and western ideals? probably a lot of them are, and maybe some of them were but no longer are. many of them were also working class kids from economically depressed homes, looking for a leg up, a job, a way to afford colleges that would otherwise be beyond their financial reach. i myself tried to join the coast guard reserve-- following my cousin mike into the fifth branch of the service-- as a way to pay for college, but was denied because of blindness in one eye and a pair of damaged knees.

there is no shortage of words on how the economic prosperity in post-ww2 america was fueled by the g.i. bill, creating a middle class unequaled in world history. the labor activist within me compels me to point out that the influence of unions was also at its zenith at the time, and union workers in the war effort had won siginificant victories like health coverage and pension benefits.

these days, however, we have a very different story. the bush white house has cut veterans' benefits, v.a. hospital budgets, and benefits for military families. those soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who return whole from iraq will not return to a country that's on the verge of an economic boom. they will come to a country that's exporting jobs, closing mills and factories, and building walmarts. the federal treasury is gutted, with tax cuts for the super wealthy and deficit spending unheard of just five years ago. homelessness and hunger are increasing, and many working families are one paycheck away from one or both.

the holidays are a season of melancholy for a lot of people, and i guess i'm one of them. there is something inherently sad about becoming an adult, thinking adult thoughts, which rarely give rise to happiness. i have no kids of my own, but the joy my friends who have children express at the adventure they experience daily is tempered by the fear, rarely expressed in words, of the known and unknown dangers their offspring face.

i hope to never know the sadness and fear my aunt and uncle surely feel tonight. they know the fear, can watch it on the tv daily. their youngest son is in harm's way on the other side of the globe. they anticipate his occasional phonecall or e-mail, and dread the knock on the door. my aunt told me about an internet hoax where somebody sends an e-mail claiming to be from the defense department, advising the recipient of the death of their husband, wife, son, daughter, father, mother. she asks whether i believe anybody could be so cruel. i do.

if i can give them, and all families with an empty seat at their table, something this holiday season, it's my promise to help bring this war to an end, to bring their loved ones home. as long as i have the right to challenge my government's actions, i must. and i will.

freedom and democracy, profit and empire, whatever the goal, war kills people and scars families. the difference between my politics and theirs is of no moment.

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