Monday, July 27, 2009

About War, Peace, and Supporting Our Troops

We've been at war for so long, I almost forgot, until recent remembrances about Hiroshima reminded me of how horrified I am by it. Not just this war, or that war, but war at all. The fact that it exists, bad enough. But the glorification of it, to the point that "supporting our troops" is something that now defines our patriotism or lack thereof, has got me pissed off. I'm standing up on a soapbox and saying I'm Mad as Hell about it.

I've been a pacifist all my life, at least since I got thrown out of school for a day for wearing too many McGovern buttons to sixth grade on Election Day. Walter Cronkite reporting those killed in action figures every night on the news -- US troops 32, North Vietnamese 427 -- always made me queasy. I remember asking my mom, after watching those lopsided "scores" for a couple of years, "So that means we're winning the war, right?" She patiently explained to me that no, it did not.

So: I'm a pacifist. What does that mean, exactly? My right wing friends will immediately start in with either: "What about the Nazis?" or "What if someone was about to rape your wife?" I answer, "I might have supported our entry into WWII, but I wasn't there," and "I'd kill the motherfucker," and they smile smugly thinking they "got me."

But the truth is, there are exceptions to every rule; it doesn't mean we don't make rules. And if we're not constantly questioning and reassessing rules, then we're not thinking clearly or critically; we have become ideologues. And I am not an ideologue. I am one who believes that in almost all cases violence is a poor solution to problems, even and especially if the problem is violence. I believe that there are so few cases where war is the right option that it's worth making it a rule not to engage in it.

Here is I how I responded to a conservative friend who flipped out when I said I do not "support our troops," and and who accused me of drawing a "moral equivalency" between those soldiers who killed for the Axis powers and those who killed for the Allies. Pardon, it's long.

Our political views may indeed be irreconcilable, and reflect entirely different world views. While you may not share my world view, I wish to explain it, or at least try to assuage your lingering amazement that I deemed Nazi soldiers and American soldiers in WWII "morally equivalent."

First: I did NOT say they were "morally equivalent." I said that they were "more alike than different." These are two very different things.

There is no doubt that the moral arguments behind the two opposing forces in WWII were very different, and in no way equivalent -- at least in Europe. The Nazis were an aggressive, racist, murdering regime bent on global domination; the US was, at that time, a very nearly altruistic liberating force defending European allies -- "nearly" because we were of course defending our own economic interests in Europe. The conflict of Japan and America is somewhat less clear cut, as it was really about territorial hegemony beyond each's borders [further note... by that I include the formerly sovereign nation of Hawaii, hence my issues with raising the specter of Pearl Harbor.] Nevertheless, I would not argue, now, that we should not have entered into that war -- though I can easily see myself, as a genuine pacifist, arguing against it at the time... and who knows where the US not intervening in Europe would have led? Aggressive, murderous, racist regimes tend not to last very long, even without foreign intervention. But I digress.

I was referring not the causes of Axis and Allies being more alike than different, but to the Troops themselves. I was referring to the Average Soldier, who generally has neither the contemporary geopolitical awareness at the time of his 18-25 year old service nor the benefit of historical hindsight to accurately assess his or her own part in the geopolitical chess match. My argument was that as a group, those who agree to participate in the chess match as pawns for their country, patriots all, are liable to pay with their lives for whatever cause their King tells them they're fighting for -- without even a 50-50 chance that they're on some "right" side. Perhaps you'll agree with that... unless you're a "my country right or wrong" type... which is its own insidious brand of moral equivalency.

To illustrate. If you believe that wars and armies are generally just or unjust, and that the troops fighting in them are therefore moral or immoral, and that ours, at least, are inherently "moral" and worthy of "support," I challenge you to rate from zero to three the Average Soldier in the following 14 causes, where 0 is a soldier fighting for an unjust cause, and 3 is a soldier fighting for a just cause. I suggest you do this without scanning the list first, just your first impression.

1. A British soldier fighting in WWII.
2. A German soldier fighting in WWII.
3. An American soldier fighting in WWII.

Easy so far, I guess; as you rightly point out, WWII was a fairly exceptional case.

4. Same American soldier, fighting against North Korea in the Korean War.
5. A Viet Cong soldier fighting against the same US soldier (who's a general by now!).
6. A Japanese kamikaze pilot.
7. The suicide bomber who drove a truck into the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in '83.
8. An Afghani Mujahedeen soldier fighting against the Soviet Union with American arms in 1979.
9. The same Afghani soldier, now Taliban, fighting against American soldiers with North Korean arms today.
9a. The same Afghani soldier, fighting against Afghanis in an attempt to re-take Kabul.
10. An Iranian soldier in the 80's, fighting the Iraqi army, armed by the US.
11. An Iraqi soldier in the 1990s, fighting the US Army.
12. A Panamanian soldier fighting the invasion of the US (poor guy)
13. An Al Qaeda general who dies plummeting into the Twin Towers.
14. An American soldier securing the Southwest against Santa Anna in the Mexican-American War.

I personally find it nearly impossible to meaningfully differentiate any "average soldier" in any of 4-14. Is the Viet Cong fighting to defend his village with a stick, or a paid operative armed by Moscow and trained by Peking, or just a brainwashed peasant? Is the Afghani right in warring against the Soviets, but wrong in warring against us? There are too many nuances for easy answers.

I suppose if forced to, I would give only one 3 (the British in WWII, who were a peaceful, democratic people actively defending their own homeland which was under attack despite signed treaties from an aggressive, racist, and murderous regime) and a 2 only to American soldier 3, who was primarily there as an ally of Britain and France, to liberate Europe, and who also probably also felt a genuine existential threat to his homeland..

I might give 1's to 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. They are, presumably, defending against what they (rightly or wrongly) perceive to be an immediate and existential threat from foreign troops on their own soil. But even then, are those troops all, therefore, equally worthy of "support?" The Panamanian army under Noriega? The Taliban? The communist, Soviet and Chinese backed Viet Cong?

I'd give zeroes to everyone else, because they're clearly fighting and killing on what I consider unacceptable grounds: on someone else's sovereign soil, sans a direct request or alliance with the sovereign of said soil and without a present and existential threat to their own homeland, generally with economic or geopolitical power as their goal rather than self-preservation.

Note that in every American war on the list with the sole exception of WWII, -- and almost all others not on the list -- I give America a solid zero because they fall into one or more of my "unacceptable" categories. We've never fought a foreign enemy in our homeland. [NOTE, I wrote this to my friend; he hasn't written back yet, but I've no doubt he'll say Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were homeland attacks. Fair enough... but again, WWII is an exception, and re: 9/11, see below.] I say, then why the fuck exactly are we warring so much? Why at all? You can give lots of answers, about spreading freedom and democracy (i.e. opening markets, i.e., seeking wealth and geopolitical power) and felling tyrants -- but as often as not we find ourselves not thanked for our benevolence in bringing war to these places.

So... all this makes me a pacifist. But I believe that being a pacifist doesn't mean I would never kill or commit acts of war any more than my being a Democrat means I can't vote Republican (though I never have). There are exceptions to every rule. I would make an exception in a genuine case of self-defense. I'd try to kill a guy trying to kill my wife or dog if I had to. But I don't believe we've faced a genuine war of self defense since the Civil War. You might argue that the war against Islamic Fundamentalism is one, or WWII was one. But just as I wouldn't drive across town and kill a guy who made a threat against my wife, I don't believe that "self-defense" includes us projecting military power across the globe. Absent existing alliances, I might have argued for mobilizing troops and arms to the east and west coasts of America to repel invasion by Germany and Japan. My idea of justifiable self defense against Al Qaeda would be, taking out those 9/11 planes the instant they were hijacked. But we missed that chance, and our military (for so it is called) budget would now be better spent looking more actively for Al Qaeda planes, boats, trains, suitcases, whatever, crossing our borders. You know... "defense."

Finally, and back to the point of "supporting our troops," I refuse to kowtow and give blanket "respect" to every American in a uniform. I'm happy to support and respect individual soldiers, who in my considered estimation fought for a good cause, for the right reasons, in genuine service to Good (whether or not that Good happens to align with American Interests). I know a lot of those people, and I do respect them. But I will not respect some guy who kicked ass in Grenada because he wanted a free education, or a woman who didn't want to go to college and couldn't qualify for any other job and said her interrogation techniques were her "duty" at Gitmo or Abu Ghraib, or a guy who bought God's "Manifest Destiny" as a reason to slaughter Indians or Mexicans, or even a vet wounded because he was drafted into what he believed to be a bad war in Vietnam but didn't have the guts to resist. That's what "support our troops" bumper stickers not only ask me, but command me, to do.

That, my friend, is my take on America, war, and our "place in the world" as far as our troops go. I think if want to be leaders in the world, we should do so by example, not by force. And I think that for all that everyone "hates war," few people act to eliminate it. I think the only way to end collective behavior that we we hate is for individuals to stop participating in it. So, to that extent, I do not support our troops. I prefer to support those who choose not to go to war on principle. And I respect, more than a single one of our soldiers in uniform, the Gandhis and Kings and Aquinos of history, who find another way to fight tyranny.

I believe someone said, "blessed are the peacemakers." He didn't say anything about "our men and women in uniform."


Sunday, July 26, 2009

Precious 2.0

With the death of my original iPhone (phone speaker went out) two days ago, I've reset my tech life. Got upgraded to an iPhone 3GS 16mb for $149. I love this wee beastie. Not only can I now hear phone conversations again, but the built in speaker is loud enough to not only hear the phone ringing, but also to listen to music in most environments. It's fast, the battery lasts longer, and the new apps opened up by the gps are awesome. My favorite apps recently discovered:

Google Mobile: voice activated google searches.

Pandora: I've used it on the web for years, but the iPhone app is even better.

News Addict: I may finally be able to give up the print edition LA Times. This lays out all the top 42 news sources from NYT to CNN to Reuters to major local papers, in a magazine rack format. Tap on one, and you get their feed, customized for iPhone. Best part: it scrolls with just a tilt of the phone. Best approximation of the paper experience yet.

PUniverse. If you're an astronomy geek, this is so cool. Real time sky chart. Hold the phone over your head and it shows exactly what you're looking at. Turn, it turns with you. Tap for full data on any object in the sky. Move forward or backward in 15 min intervals, or if it's daytime, jump to the sky at nightfall. Also has separate pages for lunar phases, Jupiter's moons... I love this.

MyPhone+. With a couple of taps, grab contact, birthday, and photo from your Facebook friends profiles and sync with Address Book!

Bump. Geeky but cool. If you meet another iPhone user, you both launch Bump, and do a hand-bump to exchange contact cards.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

MY NAME IS WILL Coming Back Atcha

I've been a very busy dude the past few weeks. In addition to producing my own audiobook of MY NAME IS WILL for its publisher, Twelve Books, I'm doing a little bit of consulting for Disney, working on my second novel...

It's almost made me forget that the paperback edition of MNIW is coming out in three weeks. Featuring some corrected text, a Reading Group Guide, clips of all sorts of great reviews, and a recession-friendly price, it comes out July 3. You can order it now on for $10.19. Remember that the New York Times Book Review made it a "summer beach read" choice last year. Mmm. Beach!

There's also a swell review of it out today in the Roanoke Times - which specifically notes that the book has enough layers to make it worth a second reading. Thanks, Roanoke!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Shakespeare? I Think Not

Since lots of folks have asked: I'm not sure I buy the newly discovered life portrait of Shakespeare. The subject of the painting looks much younger than the 46 he is if the date assignment of 1610 is correct. It also doesn't jibe well with the other extant portraits, which although posthumous, were agreed to have been good likenesses by Shakespeare's contemporaries. Thos images both portray a balding Bard; this new portrait asks us to believe that he went bald suddenly between his exceedingly outhful age 46 and his death at 52, when his likeness was erected in Holy Trinity Church.

At least one critic agrees with me on other grounds.

Although the "copy" they talk about at the Folger was staring at me while I was waiting in the Founder's Room to go onstage for my book tour appearance there, so that's cool. And I've met Stanley Wells, a very proper British chap indeed. He was kind enough to come and say hello to me when I dropped by the Birthplace Trust offices to do some research... he had seen me perform with the RSC in New York.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Media Page Redux

Some people had trouble starting the YouTube videos of the Brooklyn Book Crawl events on my site when using the Safari. They've been reloaded and should be functional now. To try again, click here. And note that it's a slightly different URL, so update your bookmarks.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

One Stop Jess Media Shop

I've just added a new page to my website that I hope you'll check out. It's an A-V (audio-video) page: one spot where you can go see and hear recordings of my various media appearances. The page launches with one click access to my radio interviews for the New York Times Book Review and KQED's "Forum," YouTube videos of my record-breaking one man Hamlet, the complete Shakespeare Histories in Coffey Park, and more. If you missed my book tour launch event at the Los Angeles Public Library in July, there's a complete audio recording available. I'll be updating the site with both new interviews and some vintage video which I'll be converting to digital throughout the year. Just click here to check it out, and let me know what you think!

Readers Guide Questions

It's a rainy weekend in L.A. Rainy weekends are good for writers; well, for me, at least. I tend to get work done. I'm working on a Readers Group Guide for the paperback edition of MY NAME IS WILL. I'd love to have some actual questions about actual literary questions people might have about the book. You know, English class type stuff that you might have wondered about. Why did this character meet that fate, was there a double meaning to this or that phrase, was this or that character based on a real person. Please send me some; otherwise I'll have to make up the questions myself and then answer them, which feels a little autoerotic. Post your questions here as a comment or e-mail to I'll credit you in the book if I use your question; how cool would that be?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Picking Up, Dusting Off

Like the rest of the world, I spent this morning watching in awe as our nation took a giant step forward in race relations, and what we all hope will be a giant leap forward in our country's evolution. There is so much already said, and being said, and to be said, but I wanted to add a very personal note.

The last eight years have been both very successful and very difficult for me. I've tried to enjoy the highs: celebrating my 10th anniversary with my wife Sa, rescuing the cutest dog in the world Orson, winning two Emmy Awards, writing, selling, and publishing my first novel. But it has also been a tragic eight years, during which I lost my sister, my brother, my father, and far too many friends and mentors. I've wrestled at various times with alcohol, grief, and depression, and had some personal relationships suffer. And hey, the hardcover of the book came out during what we now know was the third quarter of a recession, so I'm not rich. The usual life stuff, I suppose. It has been hard, at times, to muddle through. But with the help of my friends and family, I've made it so far. I thank them for that.

I offer no thanks to the outgoing president, though. As I sit at my keyboard today, I feel intensely, literally, as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Looking back from the clarity of a happier day, I have the shameful feeling that since 2000, I've grown more arrogant, more cynical, snarkier. I suppose this could be attributed to any number of causes, personal moral failure among them. But I know that my way of relating to the world hasn't been improved by living under a regime that I truly believe to have been tyrannical. How could small-mindedness, stubbornness arrogance, and aggression help but seep down, over the course of eight years, from a leader to its people? How could a nation that violates the rights of its own citizens, bombs the innocent, tortures the suspected, and murders the guilty not, to some degree, desensitize its people to kindness and compassion?

I've mentioned privately to friends that I had a long list of New Year's resolutions, and I'm happy to say that so far they're going well. But President Obama's (how sweet it is to type that, for the first time!) speech has inspired me to add to the list. As he said, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly."

So as I set to work on this year in my career, I want to publicly proclaim I am picking myself up, dusting myself off, and rededicating myself to honesty, integrity, and professionalism in my writing. I will endeavor to be civil, to be snarky only with injustice, not with individuals. (I think I owe an apology to Joan Baez and Billy Joel for a bit in My Name Is Will!) I will try to bring to my own, exceedingly humble work -- of telling little tales -- as much truth and wisdom as I can find. In my private life, I'm going to pet the dog and cat more often, bring my wife more flowers, and take better care of myself so that I can take better care of others. I will volunteer more. And I will do a host of other small, private things that I hope will make the world a better place to live in.

If that sounds exceedingly lofty, well, what can I say, it's an exceedingly lofty day. I hope you all share my great joy, and my great hope for not just a happy new year, but a genuinely happier four years to come.

Now... I've got a novel to write.