"Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you but they are not from you. And though they are with you they belong not to you." Sweet Honey in the Rock, the great a cappella Civil Rights-lovin' all-woman, all-African American singing ensemble (led for years by my hero, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon), taught me this song-version of the poem by Kahlil Gibran. Honestly, just reproducing it above with this anti-draft, anti-militarism illustration is almost about enough for the Bibliofella this morning, but there is so much more to say if one wants to (and I do) by way of "officially" welcoming women into military combat and my wife's trip to the United States Post Office, where she picked up a Selective Service Registration Form.
No, Ms. Bib was not joining up. And she wasn't planning for our son's 18th birthday, when the feds want him to register with the agency's office in Palatine, Illinois where what seems to the newly revised forms end up after boys and young men (no girls, no young women) complete it, sign their names and mail it in. More likely, they complete the handy online version. I haven't checked on the availability of a likely "app" for the cell phone.
All of which preparatory to saying that I certainly trust that I am being redundant and clumsily over-appropriate in quoting, once again, Clare Spark, historian and one-time host of a terrific philosophy-politics-cultural criticism show on KPFK (where else?). She probably first said, or is at least credited with famously, keenly observing, that "The long memory is the most radical idea in America." Even a short one, people. My own memory is clear and fond, of her program "The Sour Apple Tree." That tree is planted near Thomas Paine's Liberty Tree, the focus (as it happens) of last week's post.
My memory is also painfully clear about the eight long, gruesome, sadistic and masochistic years of the Bush presidency, but it's hard now to find anybody who even remembers him. The GOP cannot, will not, say his name, and he was a no-show at their convention. Silly Democrats, frightened that they might stir up history about their own President's warmongering and death dronery on little kids in Pakistan, are happy to keep quiet, too. If it were me, I'd try to memorialize the dumb guy, erect statues, name streets (dead ends) or otherwise un-disappear him from memory. Weirdly, young men today, kids who are required to register, have barely a recollection of the son of privilege who got out of military service by playing pilot dress-up on weekends and NOT flying Texas Air National Guard missions. But, then, they probably don't know that John Kerry used to be a vigorous anti-war activist. Or that it was Jimmy Carter who reinstated draft registration.
Mr. Bib knows a little bit about that, having been among the first batch of fellas meant to sign up. The card was yellow, as I recall, and smaller. No web addresses, but the rest of it was pretty much the same. There were resisters, hard to believe. But so urgently necessary today. Principled guys who said No. Locally, David Alan Wayte of Pasadena, and Ben Sasway of San Diego, refused. They went to court, did some time. Wayte's case went to the Supreme Court. Guess what? He won. I myself received free counseling from volunteers at the LA Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, that radical peoples' attorneys outfit still doing their good work against conscription. And the War Resisters League. Ditto there.
I expected everybody to resist then. I don't expect everybody to resist now. Well, I do actually, but, well, you know. I do sort of expect them to teach their kids that resistance is, should be, at least an option. That it exists. I expect them to love their children. See poster, above. And here's where those benign-seeming everyday documents, offering the everyday assumptions about what is called the status quo are worth, say I, stopping to consider. Perhaps to reconsider once in a while, maybe on a Sunday morning, with you. And to recall, in this case, what this particular one means, why it exists, and confront its odious purpose.
Dark and light blue ink, printed on white card stock 8" x 10", with perforation and the instructions to "Tear Off This Portion Before Mailing," it resembles a DMV, hospital intake or a school/college Emergency Contact form. On one side is the clumsy bit of coercive poetry: "A reminder to YOUNG MEN," with, I shit you not, a human hand wearing a light blue ribbon tied to its forefinger. For the record, I seriously doubt that this visual trope means anything to young people. And it occurs to me only now that if women are eventually asked by the Congress to register too, the Selective Service System will face the difficult choice of
printing up a pink version, or chucking the whole gender-based color scheme and going back to basic black. Speaking of women, and Lefty anti-war peace and justice women, I'll share a favorite poster, published when I was somebody's little kid. That's Joan Baez, her sister, and a message I wonder if my students would even begin to understand until, yes, I explained that there used to be something called saying No!
But I digress. On registering for the draft: I like to ask what I call enduring Frequently Unanswered Questions. Always unanswered, frequently not asked at all, obviously ignored. Call them what you like, but I like FUQs. Three of them, to start, which I offer below.
1. Why does the nation need a draft registration program in an all-voluntary military, notwithstanding the odious class-based and race-driven "poverty draft"?
2. How is it a "benefit (to quote the form) to not forfeit eligibility for student financial aid, government employment, U.S. citizenship, job training? These were in fact benefits before President Peanut reintroduced registration. Are they still benefits if you have to, well, you know, submit to potential servitude and, meanwhile, symbolic humiliation?
3. Has anybody ever been "fined up to $250,000 or imprisoned for up to five years, or both"? Visit the NLG and WRL sites to confirm the obvious answers.
Of course, this form is hardly a "reminder" to young men. I just introduced the basic and yet so-helpful phrase out of Sociology to my UC Irvine research essay-writing classes. The whole idea of "The social construction of reality" got quite a hazing this week, first with the "Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall" (hooray!) line to the attack on it from the usual reactionary politicians (FUQ you!) to, yes, the un-story about women being "allowed" in combat, where they have, in fact, fought proudly (how I hate that phrase) for some time, along with homosexuals, Black people, maybe even a democratic Socialist or two, however confused. And I am not the first, happily, to ask if MLK went to jail, marched, organized, got assassinated so that both women and men could fight and kill and die in wars for US Empire. Sheesh! I made the above photo a bit large, just so I could put the next one, of Viet Nam War-era resister David Harris right next to it. A picture is worth a thousand words, two pictures, well, you do the math.
Harris of course formed The Resistance, wrote a great book (this is a book review blog, after all, not a government forms review blog, Mr. Bib!) called Dreams Die Hard, married Joan Baez (she said yes!), became a great activist activist-journalist. He memorialized a resistance narrative after living a life of resistance. So did Jerry Elmer, about his experience, in a book called Felon for Peace (2005). He is seriously pissed-off, as he should be, at so many people who disappoint. He was radical and militant and should not have imagined that others would also be. Except that he might have, like me. Those non-resisters could not, it seems, imagine it, just as today, the silly discussion about everything but the wrongness of war, period, the wrongness of conscription, of registering young men by way of forcing them to be slaves to the idea – not even the reality – of sadism and the government's threat of being victims or killers or both.
All I am saying (to coin a phrase), is that you can't know (aren't allowed, aren't taught) that it's possible to NOT register with SSS, that the noncompliance rate is profoundly high among non-college young men, that almost nobody has been prosecuted for ignoring the thing, and that it's useful to the State mostly by way of coercing the educated, elite leaders of tomorrow into silence about the most obvious of humiliations, not to mention maintaining a class system, and threatening the next war. And, of course, the young men in my classes don't, won't in fact get aid or loans unless they bow to the crudest kind of duress.
"War is a racket," concluded United States Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler, in a book with that sublime title, and almost never taught. After the first chapter, named the same as the book, there follows "Who Makes the Profits," "Who Pays the Bills?," "How to Smash This Racket!" and, my favorite, "To Hell with War!" 'Nuff said. Well, not nearly. But for now, Smedley out. Bibliofella out. Peace out.
Dreams Die Hard, David Harris, Mercury House, 343 pps., Out of print, damn it!
Felon for Peace, Jerry Elmer, Vanderbilt University Press, 280 pps., $22.99
War is a Racket, Smedley D. Butler, Feral Press, 80 pps., $9.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.