I went to the Oliver North “Honor the Veterans” event on Armed Forces Day at Grace MegaChurch in Eden Prairie this year. It wouldn’t be my usual inclination to do such a thing, but I have a bit of history with Lt. Col. Oliver North. I went wearing my Veterans For Peace tee-shirt.
In 1985 we were at our regional storytelling conference in Elkader, Iowa, sitting in an exercise where an image of Turquoise kept appearing for me. I went home and did research, learning that turquoise was considered sacred in ancient Persia (modern day Iran). In totally non-linear fashion, I began paying more attention to what was already being referred to as the Iran-Contra Affair. It wasn’t long before Oliver North surfaced as a key figure, a man defying Congress in a scheme to sell arms to Iran to fund one side of a distant war in Nicaragua. Soon we found ourselves coordinating the local end of a national videoconference designed to publicly illuminate this issue and bring about a Congressional Hearing. The main media confusion was that either President Reagan was lying because he said he had no knowledge of the illegal work North’s group was doing, or North was the liar because he said Reagan did know and, in fact, had in a certain way authorized the operation.
During this time I performed at a Storytelling Festival in Illinois, and the introduction went something like this: “I got to know this nice young man at dinner, and he reminds me so much of Oliver North.” I was suddenly so paralyzed I had to use every trick I knew to recover and tell a story that connected with the audience.
Also during this period I wandered into Northwestern Book and Bible House, a place I hadn’t visited since the mid 60s when I was still a conservative, evangelical Christian, attending Bible School and running a program for delinquent young people through Minneapolis Youth for Christ. Sometimes I say, “But for the grace of God, I could be a right-wing Christian today,” but I doubt it. I believe I would have filtered into Sojourners, the evangelicals supporting social justice from a Biblical perspective. At that time the people in my circle trashed me for questioning whether the Vietnam War was ordained by God. I officially became a conscientious objector in the spirit of John Prine’s song, “Jesus Don’t Like Killin’, No Matter What the Reason For.” Drafted as a medic, I was willing to care for and heal on either side, but unwilling to carry a weapon or deliberately take another’s life.
That day in the bookstore I was horrified to find Oliver North’s first book displayed prominently on the featured shelf in this Christian establishment. I was interested to see what he had to say, but refused to spend good money on this new book. A year later I bought it for a dollar on a discard table at another book store, and for years showed people the preface where North summarized his Iran-Contra experiences by saying, “I realize if the President said he didn’t know about the ‘diversion’ and he actually did, it sounds like he was lying, but with Reagan that wasn’t necessarily true . . . Reagan didn’t always know what he knew.” That analysis is still troubling.
As I wandered the lobby and exhibits before the Honor the Veterans event, I noticed a few people looking askance at my Veterans For Peace tee-shirt, but mostly folks either ignored it or viewed it as a good concept, sort of in the vein of “Jesus, the Prince of Peace.” One woman said, “Vets for Peace? That’s a good idea.” Inside the maybe three-quarters filled auditorium, I settled in and began to enjoy the music. I love brass and military bands, and in my storytelling life sometimes turn six feet of discarded garden hose into a military marching band to save the government lots of money to plow into education and social justice programs. I also have a dual take on patriotism. I abhor the kind of blind patriotism that won’t question anything. I learned my love of country from my grandfather, a veteran of World War I, and the most patriotic adult I knew in the 1950s. One day as he showed me how and why to fold and respect the flag, he cried and said, “War is a horrible thing. My brother died in World War I, and I was there. I hope you never have to participate in a war.” The only other adult conversation about war I was exposed to at that time was in the “Kill a Communist for God” context.
One of the minister’s preliminary remarks before North spoke referred to God ordering armies in the Old Testament to protect religious freedom. In my opinion and experience, much of the Old Testament narrative has been open to considerable variance in interpretation and application, but I do have some memory of a passage where God said something to the effect, “OK, if you won’t listen to me and let me protect you, go ahead and build your own army. Do it your way.” I know for a fact that the Old Testament advocates the death penalty for sassing your parents, any kind of sex outside of marriage, and a whole lot of other things, which, if followed, would probably eliminate all of us, but…
The part of the service where all vets were called up on stage to be honored was truly meaningful. I wasn’t always proud of it because of my belief that what we did in Vietnam was wrong, but I am a vet. I had a legitimate student deferment, and my diploma and draft notice appeared in the same day’s mail. I served in a way compatible for me, and now I’m a vet _for_ peace and social justice, and a vet _against_ greed and war profiteering. I’m a vet affected by Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Whatever you do to one of the least of these, you have done also to me.”
As we stood on stage, I found myself 10 feet from where Oliver North was sitting. I turned and made deliberate eye contact, and he gave me the thumbs up (“Thanks for your service”). When it was time to leave the stage, I chose the direction that took me right in front of him with the words Veterans For Peace proudly on my chest. I did not stop to shake his hand as so many others were doing. When I sat down, the woman next to me (about the age of my mother, were she still living), leaned over, shook my hand and said, “Thanks for your service.” I was truly moved.
North’s talk was boilerplate, articulate, and extremely convincing. If I knew nothing else, I would have been a believer, as obviously most of the cheering crowd was. North said he now had the best job in the world with Fox News because it allowed him to spend most of his time with “the best of the best” of our brave soldiers. He said many of his colleagues in the media (not at Fox) are busily disparaging soldiers, but I’d like to see his documentation on that. Too many people made that mistake in the 60s, but I’m not seeing it now. I know for a fact that left-leaning media is extremely supportive of soldiers, even while questioning the mission on which they’ve been sent. If there’s been any disparagement by media, it’s questioning too little, too late, a government sending young men and women in harm’s way for reasons that keep changing. Just as disparaging is the lack of media outrage over systematic cuts and confusion over benefits for veterans returning from the Iraq War, not to mention the many living vets from past conflicts.
Another main point made by North, of course, was “Some say you can support the troops, but not the mission they’re on. They are dead wrong. Try telling your wife you love her, but you don’t like the way she looks or how she cooks or what she wears.” The crowd went wild, cheering and laughing, but my own analogy might be “Try telling your spouse you love him or her, but you can’t support the way he or she is emotionally and physically abusing your children.”
North showed a slide of a medic in Iraq, caring for a wounded Iraqi soldier, and he said, “That’s what we do. We care for people on either side, no matter who they are.” Now I know that’s what many soldiers do or would do, despite the training, especially the off the record version, that depicts the enemy as almost non-human. However, North’s talk made no reference whatsoever to the growing number of stories of unlawful torture and abuse of prisoners of war, let alone of unnecessary civilian casualties, sometimes because soldiers don’t even know who the enemy is. Whether by a “few bad apples” as the administration prefers to spin it, or by some dysfunctional plan, as too many reports indicate, those events are also part of “what we do.”
“I hate war”, North said at one point in his talk, giving him some common ground with Vets for Peace. “But I love the warriors,” he continued. “They go not for greed or oil, but for freedom.” That may still be a true statement, that most soldiers at least go believing what they are told. The rapidly increasing number of those coming back believing something completely different adds credence to the idea that history will have to decide whether the freedom North refers to is for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for ordinary people on both sides of the ocean or freedom for a few large corporations to increase profits no matter who gets hurt.
Finally, North cast disparaging remarks (to the delight of most in the audience) at his Congressional hearing “inquisitors” during the Iran-Contra episode. He spoke of praying before they went in, not knowing what lay before them, and that God delivered him. God will have to judge, but I know the Bible, which was quoted so frequently during the talk and ceremony, has a New Testament passage saying, “In that day, many will come and say, Lord, didn’t we pray and preach in your name, and do many mighty works for you, and I will say, ‘Get away from me. I never knew you.’” I know it also says, “By their fruits you shall know them, and the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.” Lying . . . Killing . . . Stealing . . . all deliberate acts or results of the Iran-Contra operation, violate the 10 commandments. The ends justify the means – the spiritual philosophy which drove Iran-Contra, and which seems inherent in so much of what we see today – comes not from Jesus or Moses, but from a completely different spiritual/political philosopher.