Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Be a Peacemaker

Vietnam vet Frank Wagner protesting war in Iraq
for umpteenth year  (photo/Jan Barry)


Sorry, Bob Dylan, but the times are not a-changing very much. With the US military still engaged in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in a seemingly endless war on “radical Islamic terrorism,” consider where we were in world affairs back in the days of the previous Republican regime in Washington. Here’s the dilemma for progressives that I outlined in a talk at the Unitarian Church of Montclair, NJ on October 24, 2004.

Remember the famous military recruiting poster where Uncle Sam sternly points his finger and says “I want you!” Imagine a new updated version in which Uncle Sam says “I want you…to be a peacemaker!”

Wouldn’t that be something. Well, I’m not Uncle Sam—but I am here to ask you to join a life-and-death campaign, to reach out across the battle lines, here at home and overseas, and be a peacemaker. On this beautiful Sunday morning, America is at war, as our national leaders repeatedly remind us. Peacemaking has practically disappeared from the national radar screen and our television screens. Yes, our religious traditions proclaim “blessed are the peacemakers.” But our radio and television talk show hosts, who set the tone for national discourse, dismiss peace talk as unpatriotic, wishy-washy liberal folly. Calls to get tougher militarily have risen to such a pitch that the leading candidates for leading this country sound like rival boot camp drill instructors

War is in the saddle and riding relentlessly with the other three horsemen of apocalypse. Whatever the outcome of our presidential election, the war in Iraq will still be booming the next day. War between Israelis and Palestinians will still be exploding. Russians and Chechens will still be killing each other. Pakistan and India will still be rattling nuclear weapons at each other. Civil wars in Africa will still be destroying entire societies.

And here at home, there is a virtual civil war between patriots who support the war in Iraq and patriots who oppose the war in Iraq. Furious battles have erupted between veterans refighting the Vietnam war. One of the most startling scenes last week was a wire service photo of a burly man in Pennsylvania grabbing another burly man by the throat. “Both men Vietnam veterans seem to symbolize a nation bitterly divided over war,” the photo caption read. It’s a tough time to be a peacemaker.

When was it ever a good time? Twenty years ago, when this church was dedicated as a peace site, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a Cold War death-grip. Each side had thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at each other’s cities, ready to be launched at a moment’s notice. There were simmering tensions over a Soviet jet shooting down a Korean airliner whose casualty list included a US congressman, over US moves to put a new generation of nuclear missiles in Europe aimed at Moscow, over rumors and reports of spies amidst us and plots against us, over our president calling the Soviet Union the evil empire. We lived each day minutes away from potential doomsday.

This church, with other institutions in Montclair, played an historic role in helping to change that. Some of you may remember the Soviet visitors who spoke at a public meeting here in Fletcher Hall in 1987. Outside on Church Street there was a picket line of angry anticommunists, who shouted that talking with the enemy was traitorous. Where is the John Birch Society these days, any way? The citizen diplomacy campaign that arose in communities across America and the Soviet Union successfully defused the emotional landmines of the Cold War.

How’d they do that? By reaching out to people here to work together to reach out to people over there to work together to prevent nuclear war. In Montclair, peace sites were dedicated at the Religious Society of Friends, the YWCA, Glenfield Middle School, the New Jersey SANE (now Peace Action) headquarters, and at this church as symbolic and practical centers for instituting nonviolent conflict resolution. Hundreds of peace sites were dedicated across the United States and in other countries, hosting an astonishing array of activities.

Most effectively, Montclair’s peace sites helped launch a US-USSR Bridges for Peace citizen exchange project that sent a town council member, BJ Ricker, and me, representing the Essex County Office on Peace, in a New Jersey delegation to the Soviet Union in September 1986. The exchange visit in March 1987 by Soviet citizens, who were hosted by community groups from Bergen County to Cape May, sparked an amazing transformation in attitudes, which led to more exchanges. Montclair gained a sister city in Russia, Cherepovets. So many personal friendships and professional relationships grew from those citizen exchanges that we could fill this hall if there were a reunion.

So many exchange visits sprang up in so many communities between American and Soviet citizens—students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, war veterans, artists, athletes, religious groups, women’s groups, business groups, it literally thawed the Cold War era. The US State Department called the work done by the citizens’ campaign “track II diplomacy.” The head of the US Information Agency personally thanked leaders of that citizen diplomacy campaign for opening the door for President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev to meet in Moscow in 1988 and officially end the hostilities that had divided the world into warring camps for most of my life.


Counter-Productive Campaign

Now we are facing another division of the world, into us vs. Islamic terrorists, a virtually holy war that Pentagon officials have predicted might last 30 years. One of our military leaders during the Cold War, General Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, argues that we indeed need to prepare for a long engagement, but he maintains that our government is waging a counter-productive, ill-conceived campaign in Iraq based on a distorted view of the causes of the demise of the Soviet Union.

“This dream of engineering events in the Middle East to follow those of the Soviet Union has led to an almost unprecedented geostrategic blunder,” General Clark wrote in a recent article in Washington Monthly. “One crucial reason things went wrong, I believe, is that the neoconservatives misunderstood how and why the Soviet Union fell and what the West did to contribute to that fall. They radically overestimated the role of military assertiveness while underestimating the value of other, subtler measures. … The truth is this: It took four decades of patient engagement to bring down the Iron Curtain, and 10 years of deft diplomacy to turn chaotic, post-Soviet states into stable, pro-Western democracies. To achieve the same in the Middle East will require similar engagement, patience, and luck.”

Among the diplomatic actions General Clark is calling for are “broader, deeper relationships with Muslim countries through student and cultural exchange programs and organizational business development.” General Clark, meet Hassan Fahmy, a borough councilman in Prospect Park in Passaic County. Since 9/11, Fahmy, who grew up in Egypt, has been working to develop sister city ties between communities in New Jersey and the Middle East. In a recent letter to the editor in the Herald News, Fahmy wrote: “Let us respect each other as human beings. God created us not to kill each other, but to love and to cherish and to help each other in this disadvantaged world. Tolerance cries out to be heard.”

Here, I believe, is the solution to the vicious cycles of violence convulsing the Middle East that have spilled into America: teaching and sharing tolerance of people with different faiths and ways of life. One way to bolster tolerance is to bring disputing parties to live for awhile in New Jersey. We have people from all over the world living side by side in this state. We have a vibrant history of outreach to other parts of the world via student exchanges, cultural exchanges, and international business relationships. And, for good measure, this is where peace sites grew from an idea proposed by a concerned citizen, Lou Kousin of Cranford, into an international network of community centers for fostering peaceful solutions.

So consider the state of the world today and what you would like to leave as a legacy. With war being waged in our name, with the spiral of violence growing more horrendous with each tit-for-tat military maneuver, what better time than now to be a peacemaker.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Carl Douglas Rogers, RIP

Carl Douglas Rogers, cancer survivor, June 2015


My friend Carl died over the weekend at home in Los Angeles from cancer. We first met as ex-GIs protesting the war in Vietnam. As a chaplain’s assistant, Carl Douglas Rogers didn’t engage in combat in the war, but he spent the rest of his life fighting for many good causes.

As noted in The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, “Upon his return to the United States, Rogers went straight to the peace movement: ‘I wanted to do whatever I could to end this war.’ ... ‘Rogers, who could step tomorrow into a Wheaties ad (he wears a crew-cut and teaches Sunday school at New York’s Presbyterian Church) has been in the news since his return from Vietnam,’ observed Commonweal magazine in 1967. He marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and became the subject of feature stories in the New York Post, the New York Times Sunday Times Magazine, Redbook, and Eye, a magazine oriented toward the nation’s youth.”

Helping launch VVAW shortly after arriving in New York City from his hometown of Chardon, Ohio to hold a press conference announcing his dissent as a veteran against the war, Carl dove into the peace movement, doing publicity work for Negotiations Now, working with Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, founding Vietnam Veterans for McCarthy and serving on Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign staff, and organizing GI-Servicemen’s Link to Peace, which provided support for antiwar GI coffee houses set up near military bases.

In later years, he helped organize events in support of numerous causes in California. When he was diagnosed 23 years ago with kidney cancer, which later spread to other organs, he became a cancer patient activist.

“I fought for life over cancer and ended up better off because of it,” Carl stated in a profile in New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors, published last year. “As a patient advocate, I’ve been honored to serve for several years now on a National Cancer Institute editorial board dealing with complementary and alternative medicine.”

At a reunion in Chicago in 2007 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of VVAW’s founding, Carl greeted the gathering with exuberant tales of the early days of organizing vets to protest the war we served in. In the 40th anniversary booklet, Carl recalled the April 1971 morning when hundreds of Vietnam vets threw their war medals onto the front steps of the U.S. Capitol in protest of the war that never seemed to end. “The words and emotions that poured out were the most poignant and angry words I had ever heard in opposition to that dirty stinkin’ rotten little war… I walked away from that moment in tears, but never more proud to have been a part of the founding group of brothers who created VVAW.”

During a walk through Grant Park near the VVAW reunion site at Roosevelt University, Carl was still outraged as he recalled when Chicago police officers stormed through the area in August 1968 beating bystanders with batons, as well as antiwar protesters, journalists and staff members of Senator McCarthy, who was seeking the Democratic Party convention’s nomination for president.

And in quieter moments, Carl implored me and other now-aging vets to get regular checkups for any signs of prostate cancer. He didn’t dwell on his cancer treatments, but his voice conveyed a sense of urgency.

In December 2014, Carl and his wife Debrah visited New York to see old friends while he could still get around. His cancer prognosis was grim. Even so, he was full of cheer to be back in Manhattan strolling streets in the Big Apple where we had run around together back in the day.

When I visited Carl in LA in June 2015, he was full of enthusiastic plans for the future. Another round of cancer treatment seemed to be granting him some more time. Despite his health problems, he cheerfully led the way down a steep path to one of his favorite beaches below a headland south of LA. “Let’s go to Vietnam to commemorate VVAW’s 50th anniversary!” he said. That would be in June 2017.

It was a wildly improbable, compelling vision. He had me thinking about making the trip. So when my cell phone rang on Sunday and I saw his name pop up, I thought he’s calling to tell me it’s time to start getting ready to go back to Vietnam. And then I heard Debrah’s voice.

Carl’s gone. But he sent me a message. I’m thinking about it.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Education Wars


Public education in the US is and has long been a costly political and social battleground. Now a Connecticut judge has ruled that state’s public school funding system is so flawed as to be unconstitutional and the warring parties need to start over. Across the nation, state and local governments fiercely wage budget battles over what education to provide multitudes of students who never seem to match up to hotly debated national standards.

Back in the day, when America was presumably at the peak of greatness, public school was a life lesson in sink or swim. If a boy or girl didn’t measure up by the time they were 16, they were unceremoniously pushed out into the world. Earlier generations often didn’t get into high school. My grandfather Alfred, around 1912, left school after the 8th grade to work on the family farm.

Yet he got a good education for an era when knowing how to handle horses and wagons, planting and harvesting were essential skills. His country schoolhouse teachers instilled a sturdy foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic—and a life-long sense of curiosity and civic duty. An early Boy Scout leader, he worked as a machinist and as a building custodian at Cornell University and was elected president of the local school board.

Before the 19th century American experiment in providing primary schools for farmers and workers’ children, there was the British version of schooling, which educated only the sons of the elite. Back in the time of Shakespeare and such, education was a rough and tumble sport.

“The cane cuts as precisely as the Latin declensions. I do not, will not, cry out,” wrote John Aubrey, a polished product of the 17th century British system, as recounted in a recently published book about his life and times. “Hic, haec, hoc: more brutal blows, less precisely aimed, but still the same rhythm. It is the grammar and rhetoric of violence.”

The American version in the 20th century was administered in military boot camp or military prep schools—where teenage boys who were too rambunctious were herded by judges, school administrators and families. It was a system, designed to quickly train and field an army in World War I, widely acclaimed to make boys into men.

I’m a product of that system, volunteering for Army duty at 19, when college proved too boring. In basic training, I encountered a fascinating assortment of high-spirited young men from every part of America, who were uniformly bulled by drill instructors to master the details of close order drill, field marching, rifle shooting, grenade throwing, gas mask fumbling in a closed chamber full of tear gas, and, most of all, unquestioning obedience to orders, in a six-week endurance course to become soldiers.

Bowing to complaints from politicians and parents that far too many American children don’t measure up to the demands of modern times, many school districts have been lured by the military model, turning over the education of American citizenship to ROTC programs run by the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy.

Meanwhile, legions of young men and women who served in the US military during America’s high priority “war on terror,” over the past 15 years, have had a hard time finding decently paid civilian jobs, despite all their military training and war time experience.

Less seldom discussed in the current climate of disparaging the public school system is a model that actually works, without Common Core hype, testing hysteria or coercion.

In a recent cover story titled “Ordinary Families. Extraordinary Kids,” Time Magazine profiled nine families who raised children who’ve excelled in a number of fields, from the arts to public service. The thing that worked: these kids were encouraged by parents and teachers to engage in and learn from the world around them.

“Tan and Maya Lin grew up on a university campus” where they were allowed by their parents “to do practically anything they wanted,” Time reported of the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, and her sister, an author of 12 books.

The Lin sisters spent a lot of time playing outdoors, writing poetry and making clay art works in the university ceramics studio; they attended “a high school with an open-module system, which meant that sometimes they went to class only two days a week,” Time noted.

Another common theme in the families profiled by Time: political activism. Many of these parents “were outspoken in their demands for reform in cities, schools and housing complexes…When they weren’t pushing for reform, they were mediating heated political debates at home.”

“If we did not go with her to a particular protest, that protest was brought home,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said of his mother, Marsha. “Just eating dinner was a test of current events.” Another son, Zeke, is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped draft the Affordable Care Act. Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, said of his father, Daniel, a New York City school-attendance supervisor and civil rights activist: “He respected what you learned in the culture in the street.”


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Thomas (Stewart) Nusbaumer, RIP


Stewart Nusbaumer on assignment in Iraq


Tom Nusbaumer, a veteran activist on numerous campaigns, died recently. And so did his restless, world-hopping writer alter ego, Stewart Nusbaumer. The activist and freelance journalist died August 12, according to family members, of health complications likely related to exposure to Agent Orange chemicals, succumbing 49 years after surviving severe wounds as a young Marine in Vietnam. He was 68.

After a long recovery in military hospitals, the native of Delaware who made New York his home devoted his life to exploring the world and writing about the hard questions of humanity’s persistent pattern of unleashing the furies of war while hoping for peace. 

“It's the ‘logic of the gun.’ You get hit and you hit them,” Stewart wrote on his Facebook page last year in response to a news article on the latest of history-laden clashes between Palestinians and Israelis. “If you don't hit back, then you lose. There are all kinds of tactics to do this but the result is always destruction and stalemate. Whine about compassion. Cry about justice. Lambaste and even regret all you want it to stop. But until the war stops it's the ‘logic of the gun.’"

As a ticked off Vietnam veteran, Tom Nusbaumer helped organize protests of the Reagan administration’s wars in Central America. Two decades later, he helped organize Veterans Against the Iraq War to protest the Bush administration’s military actions in the Middle East. As a restless writer, Stewart Nusbaumer founded and edited Intervention Magazine and covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a freelance journalist. He also lived in China for several years with his daughter, Margel, until he decided she should finish high school in New Jersey. In recent years, he shifted his focus from writing about wars to reviewing films. 

I first met Tom when he helped organize an art show in New York City of works by Vietnam veterans. He was a persistent organizer. Over the years, he drew me deeper and deeper into antiwar campaigns, often well beyond my comfort zone as a journalist working for daily newspapers. As a writer, largely for online publications and magazines, Stewart dug deeper and was more perceptive than most news reporters.

Tom burst in and out of my life like a hurricane. Stewart was a constant midnight goad on the Internet, cajoling me and many others into writing and editing copy—for free—on current affairs for Intervention Magazine of a caliber that drew nearly as many views, Stewart swore, as The Nation. 

My newspaper reporting was better as a result of Stewart’s influence, as well as my poetry.

And my life was better as a result of Tom’s friendship. He pulled me into adventures that, after my wife died, were healing and fun, including staying at his cabin in the Catskills and contemplating life on a forested mountainside. Tom and his wife, Tong, invited me into their life in a Morningside Heights apartment near Columbia University in New York City. Beneath his gruff exterior as a medically retired Marine who trudged through war zones on an artificial leg, Tom was a graduate of Vassar College with walls of books lining his living room.

A selection of his writing can be found at http://stewartnusbaumer.com/cms/index.php
 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

David Keefe: Teaching the Art of Transformation


David Keefe directing Combat Paper class


David Keefe served in the United States Marine Corps in Iraq as a riverine infantry scout from 2006-2007. When he came home from combat duty, he mobilized his leadership skills as a Marine sergeant and his talent as an artist to helping fellow veterans cope with the transition to civilian life through art.

Dave Keefe is the director of the Combat Paper NJ Program at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, co-founder of Frontline Arts and senior assistant dean for student veteran initiatives at Columbia University. With a master of fine arts degree from Montclair State University and a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting from the University of Delaware, he teaches a course on Combat Papermaking for veterans at Montclair State University.

"Art is one of the best ways to express what exactly is going on in your head and in your heart. It can just be a way to tell stories. And stories can be a catalyst for anything after that, whether it's change or transformation,” he told a writer for the USO-Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore website. The USO sponsors Combat Paper workshops in the Washington, DC area. “We're transforming a certain element here that's a uniform that's the fibers. We're changing from a uniform into paper. That transformative act is a great process of art making."

Thanks to Dave Keefe’s vision, the creative process in these workshops, as many participants can attest, helps provide creative ideas for life transformations.

Selections of David Keefe’s art and work by many of his student-veterans at Montclair State will appear in “Combat Paper & Beyond,” an art exhibition running June 18 through July 9 at the Puffin Cultural Forum, 20 Puffin Way, Teaneck, NJ. The art show grand opening is Saturday, June 18 at 4 pm.

The exhibit explores the vision of the Combat Paper Project through innovative artwork created by veterans and non-veterans. Multi-media work by Eli Wright is featured with additional works by award-winning artists Jim Fallon, Rachel Heberling, Elisabeth Smolarz, Nate Lewis, Frank Wagner, Ron Erikson, Sarah Mess and others.



Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sarah Mess: Illuminating War's Invisible Wounds



Sarah N. Mess served in the US Army with the 42nd Field Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. Her surgical unit handled mass casualties, hunkered down under rocket attacks, and Mess was pulled from operating room duty on occasion to carry a rifle on convoy security duty amid a UN humanitarian mission that disintegrated into full bore war.

“Coming home, I felt disconnected and invisible,” she told students at a New Jersey middle school during a classroom visit 20 years later. “Combat Paper NJ helps a community of veterans who have experienced these situations. War doesn’t leave you—it haunts you, so this program eases the burden. We all have experiences that we don’t necessarily know how to process.”

One of the first two women to be treated for PTSD at the Lyons NJ VA Combat PTSD unit, Sarah Mess is a mother, wife, Combat Paper maker and Warrior Writer. Her work is featured in Warrior Writers fourth anthology and has appeared in a number of Combat Paper gallery shows in New Jersey and at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine.

Selections of Sarah Mess’ art work will appear in “Combat Paper & Beyond,” an art exhibition running June 18 through July 9 at the Puffin Cultural Forum, 20 Puffin Way, Teaneck, NJ. The art show grand opening is Saturday, June 18 at 4 pm.

The exhibit explores the vision of the Combat Paper Project through innovative artwork created by veterans and non-veterans. Multi-media work by Eli Wright is featured with additional works by award-winning artists Jim Fallon, David Keefe, Rachel Heberling, Elisabeth Smolarz, Nate Lewis, Frank Wagner, Ron Erikson and others.

Combat Paper art work by Sarah Mess





Monday, June 13, 2016

Frank Wagner: Making Art out of Midnight Memories


Frank Wagner at peace vigil, Teaneck, NJ


Frank Wagner served as a radio operator with a US Army advisory team attached to a South Vietnamese infantry unit in the central Highlands of Viet Nam in 1964-65. He survived combat operations that the US government wouldn't acknowledge for 50 years. He signed up for Vietnam Veterans Against the War at a headshop on Cedar Lane, Teaneck in 1968. He's been an activist ever since.

A Bogota, NJ resident, Frank attended New York Institute of Photography and the School of Visual Arts, 1968-71. An active member of Veterans for Peace, DAV, Secaucus Vet Center art group, Warrior Writers, Combat Paper NJ and the Teaneck Community Chorus, Frank is a photographer, artist and poet.

Frank Wagner's art work has appeared in solo shows at local libraries and in Combat Paper shows in Jersey City, Morristown, Montclair and other locales. His work--ranging from photography to pen and ink drawings to wood carving--has won awards in VA art contests.

Selections of Frank Wagner's work will appear in “Combat Paper & Beyond,” an art exhibition running June 18 through July 9 at the Puffin Cultural Forum, 20 Puffin Way, Teaneck, NJ. The art show grand opening is Saturday, June 18 at 4 pm.

The exhibit explores the vision of the Combat Paper Project through innovative artwork created by veterans and non-veterans. Multi-media work by Eli Wright is featured with additional works by award-winning artists Jim Fallon, David Keefe, Rachel Heberling, Elisabeth Smolarz, Nate Lewis, Ron Erikson and others.


"Eyes" linocut on Combat Paper by Frank Wagner