Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Asking and telling

This poem, which I wrote two or three years ago, expresses the complication of my feelings upon hearing about the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allowed lesbians and gay men to serve in the U.S. military so long as they did not reveal their (our) identity. It's a long poem. I've got a lot of feelings about this topic.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

You didn't ask, but I am going to tell you
how back in 1969,
My junior high school was a school
for smart kids from all over Philadelphia.
But my classmates were all smarter than I was,
because all of them were protesting
the Vietnam War.
Me, I was protesting them,
I was the only one who would pledge allegiance,
I was the only one who would try to sing
the Star Spangled Banner in the school assembly.

You didn't ask, but I am going to tell you
that back in 1969,
when I was 13 years old,
I wanted to be a man,
I wanted to be free,
not protected and controlled as women were.
I wanted to be free and strong and brave.
I wanted to be the one who did the protecting.
and at the end of the musical comedy,
I wanted to be the one who married the girl.

I would have volunteered to join the army
or maybe the marine corps.
I would have volunteered to go to Vietnam.
to protect the people from communist aggression,
to help them be free from tyrants and dictators.
I wanted to go.
but the army would not take 13-year-old girls,
whether or not they were going to become lesbians.
They didn't allow women into combat at all.
They said that war was too horrific for women,
but years later it crossed my mind that they
didn't really mind women being in combat
so long as
the women couldn't shoot back.

You didn't ask, but I am going to tell you
this story from the Vietnam War.
How the helicopters brought our soldiers
into the hamlet of My Lai,
with instructions to destroy it,
and to kill all of the enemy there,
and they did.
Our soldiers killed all of the enemy,
but on that day,
the enemy was not strong young men
armed with rifles and shooting back
at our troops.
On that day the enemy was old people,
and babies, and little children,
and of course women,
who could be raped as well
as bayoneted,
shoved into the irrigation ditch,
and slaughtered with bursts of
automatic rifle fire.

Our soldiers followed their orders
so well that in the morning there were 700 people
living in My Lai,
but by the end of that day
fewer than 200 were left.
As the saying used to go,
they destroyed that village in order to save it.
Not only did they butcher the people,
they also killed all of the animals,
burned down all of the buildings,
and poisoned the wells.

This happened in March of 1968,
and the army top brass was modest about it, too,
They said only that 128 of the enemy had
been killed in a fierce fire fight,
and they stuck to that story for over a year,
(well certainly, they admitted, there are
always a few unintentional civilian casualties),
they stuck to that story for over a year,
but then the truth came out.

The truth has a way of coming out,
even if no one asks for it.
People who know the truth, people who feel
the truth, always seem to want
to tell. There were brave men who were
there at My Lai,
brave men who could not stomach what they had seen,
what they had been forced to do,
and they told the truth without being asked.
They told the truth again, and again,
until congressmen and journalists had to listen.

After that, the generals said what
generals always say,
They said what they said after
Wounded Knee,
after the fire-bombing of Dresden,
after Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
after Kent State and Jackson State,
after they overthrew the democratically
elected governments of Guatemala and Iran,
after they trained the Islamic militants
who eventually became Al Qaeda,
after they mined Nicaragua's harbors,
after they blockaded Iraq and allowed
half a million children to starve,
after the revelations about the abuses
at the prison at Abu Ghraib.

They said that the My Lai massacre was
a tragic mistake,
that civilians cannot imagine the stress
of soldiers in combat,
that those men went a little bit
over the edge in what they did
but they were defending our way of life,
our freedom of speech,
our right to be ungrateful and criticize
our government for its conduct of a war
in defense of innocent people,
a few of whom, unfortunately, must always
be sacrificed in furtherance of that goal,
that now of all times was not the time
to cut and run, just because a few bad apples
had gone to a slight extreme in their
defence of liberty.
And they took one lieutenant and
locked him away for a four and
one-half months to show just how sorry they were.

In the middle of everything that was
happening to me when I was 13 years old,
I could not comprehend that my
government was lying to me.
I didn't know that
it hadn't been our civil war
until my government decided to take charge
after the Vietnamese drove the
French colonialists away.
I didn't know we had stopped elections
from taking place,
because we knew our side would lose.
I didn't know we'd installed a president
in South Vietnam, then murdered him
when he didn't do what we wanted.
I didn't know about people
being forced to live
in strategic hamlets, and if they didn't
stay there, they would be in free-fire
zones where my government would attack
them with napalm and rockets and bombs.
I wanted to believe my government when
it told me My Lai was a mistake.
I could not bear to ask
whether my government
might be

But the truth has a way of telling itself
even when you don't ask to hear it,
and later, when I was just a little older,
I fell in love with a woman who was a
little bit older than myself, a woman
who had been a protester.
I fell in love with a woman who knew
what our government had done, and I
believed what she told me,
I read for myself,
and I thought about what I'd read,
and then I understood that my government
hardly ever told the truth,
especially when it talked about its
foreign adventures.

I found that my government had a nasty
habit of supporting dictatorships
in the name of democracy,
in the Phillipines, in Latin America,
in Iran. I learned that
my government
has the nasty habit of supporting dictatorships
in the name of democracy,
and overthrowing elected governments
in the name of democracy,
and it crossed my mind
that my government was giving
a bad name.

And since then I have spent many
hours standing on many street corners
holding up protest signs,
sometimes in the freezing cold,
sometimes in the pouring rain,
I have stood on street corners
sometimes by myself,
often with just a few others,
I have stood on street corners
trying to tell my sister and
brother citizens the truths
that my government doesn't want them
to hear.

And in my own way I am doing my best to
serve my country,
I am doing my best to
defend democracy,
because free speech cannot be defended
with bullets or bombs,
democracy cannot be defended by
shoving helpless people into a ditch
and slaughtering them with bursts
of automatic weapons fire.
Free speech can only be defended by
speaking out,
by writing,
by doing your best to think for yourself.

And so,
to my gay brothers
and lesbian sisters,
here is what I want you to know:
If you say it is your country,
and your right to serve,
and I look at the world through your eyes,
I have to admit that this is so.
But can you look at the world
through my eyes?
Can you understand why once,
I would have volunteered to join
the army, or maybe the marine corps,
but now that is not so.
Can you understand why,
that if they asked me,
I would not go?
That even if the generals ordered me,
I would not go. I would say no.
I would say, "Hell, no."

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