Keep On Rockin’
From the book
RADICAL PEACE: People Refusing War
By William T. Hathaway
Published by Trine Day
RADICAL PEACE is a collection of reports from peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. An American exchange student in one of my courses here in Germany contributed the following essay.
Jason was my boy-friend for a while in high school. It wasn’t a match made in heaven. Looking back, I think the main thing we had in common was that I wanted a boy-friend and he wanted a girl-friend. Other than that there wasn’t much between us, as we discovered whenever we tried to talk about anything. I broke up with him when he asked me to go rabbit hunting with him. We stayed friends, though, probably because since it was obvious we could never be a real couple, neither of us had hard feelings.
We both left town after graduation; I went to college, Jason went to the marines. Two years later we were both back home; I was on summer vacation, Jason was on medical leave after having half his leg blown off in Iraq. He’d been riding in a truck that hit a mine.
Everybody in town felt terrible about what had happened to him. The American Legion post gave him a parade. The high school marching band played, the vets marched, and Jason walked in front next to the mayor, who was carrying the American flag. Jason could walk pretty well, considering.
They marched into the football stadium, where a couple of hundred people, including me, were sitting in the bleachers. They mayor, the high school principal, and Jason’s minister all gave speeches that praised his heroism and the sacrifice he’d made for our freedom. Jason gave a speech about how much he loved his country and how much he appreciated everyone for their support. He said he had a new dream in life. In high school he’d been on the track team, had run the 220. Now he was going to try out for the Special Olympics, to show the world that people can overcome any handicap.
At this, everyone jumped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. People were crying while they clapped. Jason started to cry, and the minister led him back to his seat. I left the stadium crying while the band played the “Marine Hymn” and “America, the Beautiful.”
Some of the people in our class were going to give him a party that night, and I’d been planning to go. But now I kept hearing his voice as he was speaking. It sounded like a machine, like he was saying what everybody wanted to hear and what he wanted to hear, what he wanted desperately to believe but couldn’t quite, but if he forced himself to say it and saw everyone else believed it, he might convince himself. Because otherwise it was too terrible, and he couldn’t bear that. To block out his grief, Jason had become a robot of patriotism.
I couldn’t go to the party and hear him talking in that mechanical voice. I didn’t want to hang around home either and hear my parents say how brave Jason was. I poured a little from each of my parents’ liquor bottles — bourbon, scotch, vodka, gin, rum, and Southern Comfort — into a jar, then poured in some Coke. Tasted terrible.
I drove my moped down to the river and sat on the bank as it got dark, drinking and watching the slow brown water and listening to the cicadas and frogs chirping like those speeches. I started out sad and then got mad.
I didn’t think Jason had been defending anybody’s freedom. I drank some more and realized the word “freedom” has become meaningless. It’s just a gesture like waving the flag or playing the national anthem to create a feeling in people.
I threw some rocks into the river. I liked the way they splashed but was afraid I might hit a fish.
I got afraid of being out there alone, so I drove away. The strip mall on the edge of town was closed for the night. I saw the army recruiting office and thought of all the Jasons they’re still convincing to sign up and get their legs blown off. I thought it would be more efficient to put the recruiting office, the hospital, and the funeral home all together, so you could just go from one to the next.
I looked around to see if anybody was there. Nobody. I drove to the edge of the parking lot and picked up a big rock. Drove back and when no cars were going by, I threw the rock through the window.
Crashing glass. Wailing alarm. The cardboard dummies of smiling soldiers in the window display fell over. I felt like David knocking over Goliath. But only for a second. Then I got terrified. The cops would be coming. What if my fingerprints were on the rock? What if somebody saw me? I sped away, taking side streets back into town.
I got home OK. My parents were in bed. I threw up in the toilet and went to bed.
Next morning I woke up hungover and afraid. What should I do if police come to the house? Don’t admit anything. Maybe they can’t prove it.
The newspaper had an article about it and an editorial saying vandalism like this is an insult to Jason and all the other heroes who have sacrificed to defend the free world.
I couldn’t resist returning to the scene of the crime. I left the moped a few blocks away in case anyone recognized it, and I wore a hat and sunglasses. The window was covered with a big sheet of plywood, and people were looking at it and talking. I wondered what they were saying but didn’t want to get that close.
Over the next several days a stream of letters came out in the paper. Some said people who do things like that should be sent to Iraq. But I was surprised by how many said the war is wrong and we shouldn’t be sending our young people over there to fight. It was a real debate that wouldn’t have happened unless I’d thrown the rock.
I thought maybe Jason would write a letter, but he didn’t. I thought about calling him, but I knew I couldn’t say the kind of things that would make him feel better. So I went back to college early.
That town has a recruiting office too, and every time I went by it, I wanted to break the window. But I was too afraid.
Now I’m doing my junior year abroad in Germany. When I read about how the people here who resisted fascism when it was taking over are now honored but back then were despised and persecuted, it made me glad for what I’d done and convinced me I should keep doing it, be careful but take that chance of getting caught. I don’t have a police record, so if I did get arrested I probably wouldn’t go to prison. It’s just breaking a window. Throwing that rock lets people know we can fight back against this, we aren’t helpless. Each boarded recruiting window makes people wonder if this war is right, especially if they’re thinking of going inside and signing up. And the money it costs the government to fix it can’t be used to kill people.
Actually, now that I think about it, it’s more than just breaking a window. It’s also smashing the glass walls that surround us. This prison we all live in is invisible, but it holds us down. Its walls say: “This is how things have to be, and you have to obey.” “These are your only choices.” “This is freedom.”
The easier a person has it in this society, the harder it is to see it’s really a prison for all of us. Even the people at the top have had to sacrifice their humanity to get there and stay there.
Breaking windows doesn’t demolish the prison, but it does let in a breath of fresh air, and that makes us yearn for more. It’s air conditioning for the brain. Breaking glass is making music. It’s DIY redecoration of our neighborhood. It opens our eyes and lets us see. Breaking glass should be a new Olympic sport … especially for the Special Olympics.
“Keep On Rockin'” is a chapter from RADICAL PEACE: People Refusing War, which presents the experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Recently released by Trine Day, it’s a journey along diverse paths of nonviolence, the true stories of people working for peace in unconventional ways. Other chapters are posted on Dandelion Salad and on a page of the publisher’s website at http://media.trineday.com/radicalpeace.
William T. Hathaway is a Special Forces combat veteran and an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His other books include A WORLD OF HURT (Rinehart Foundation Award), CD-RING, and SUMMER SNOW. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org
Purchase the book at www.trineday.com.
Archived chapters as published: Radical Peace: People Refusing War