Gulf War Bookends
It was January, 1991. The news was filled with images of troopers in the desert and evil Saddam, picking on his neighbors. Senators were talking about reinstating the draft. I was five months away from turning 18.
My mom told me she'd personally put me on a bus to Canada. This is how I learned about war.
My parents' generation had their great war and their great protests. And us kids, we grew up hearing their stories over and over. The war that divided a nation. The protests that changed the world. Vietnam, Nixon and everything after.
Us kids, we had MTV. The shuttle disaster. The first shuttle disaster, I mean; Challenger. We had Adam Curry. Guns N' Roses. VHS. This was before the net. Before VH1. Before Adam Curry became just another weblogger and another shuttle fell from the sky. Before another Bush took the White House and picked a fight with Saddam, same old evil Saddam.
So there was this spirit in the protests of 1991. This feeling that this was our shot. Our time. Finally we'd have our great war. Make our mark. We'd have our little piece of the 60s.
The war lasted three days.
In my small Southern California town, Claremont, we had our protests every night before the war. We gathered at the corner of Foothill and Indian Hill, the epicenter of our tiny town, and held up signs for the rush hour traffic. Tired car commuters in stop-and-go traffic, urged to "honk for peace." Wearily.
I was photographed there on the corner, a sign reading "Support our boys! Persue Peace!" in one hand (I never was one for spelling) and a peace sign in the other. When the issue of the Pomona Daily Bulletin with my photo in it came out, my mom took it to work and hung it on the wall, even though she was an English teacher. My dad told me how proud he was of me, but still didn't let me go to LA for the big protests that weekend.
This was my first taste of protest.
Claremont was a small town with only one high school, a school that required two years of Phys Ed. I'd taken year one my freshman year, and was so scarred by the experience of muscle cramps and asthmatic panting, I avoided doing the final required year until my last year of high school. I had to do it to graduate, so I took the one PE class that didn't require running around chasing a ball: weightlifting.
Seventeen-year-old skinny me. In a weightlifting class. With the entire football team. Woody Allen didn't have material like this. Most days I was lucky to make it out of class without bleeding. But today I was about to learn something I didn't know – Coach Keiser, the teacher of weightlifting class, subscribed to the Pomona Daily Bulletin.
It was during the usual roll call that it happened. We all had to stand on these numbers, painted on the cement, for a military-style roll call. One by one the calls of "present" rang out, as I stood there dreading the next mispronunciation of my last name.
"Pazowack!" he called.
"Present," I murmured. But the next name didn't come. Instead, I looked up to see Coach Keiser staring at me.
"Did I see you in the paper?" he asked. "Protesting?"
The entire Claremont High football team was staring at me now. The beady eyes of beefed-up, adrenaline-fueled jocks with Republican parents were all on me. Waiting.
"Yes," I said. "You did."
I don't really remember what came after that, and not because it was beaten out of me. There was probably some murmuring and vague threats, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. I don't remember anything that came after that because nothing else mattered. I'd had my moment, my 60s, my time to stand up for what I believed in, and I believed in peace more than my own safety. I was against war enough to make enemies out of an entire football team.
I went to other protests after that. I took the microphone and told stories, held my hands up high. Later I'd go to college and see huge protests. I'd shoot photos for the local papers and cover the protests. I saw violence. Pepper spray and handcuffs. I stopped traffic. I told the stories.
But I never felt as powerful as that day in PE class.
Now it's March, 2003. I'm a couple months from 30 and live in San Francisco, where everyone and their dog is against war by default. And now we have Bush II calling the shots. Who would have ever dreamed that my generation would get two Bushes in the White House, and two Gulf wars with the same evil despot? Really, it stretches the imagination. In the movie version, we'll at least be creative enough to have a new villain.
I hate this war even more than the last one, but not for the same reasons. I hate this war because I just can't be motivated to care about it this time around.
I, like most Americans, didn't see why we needed to drop bombs on a country that's already suffering. And I, like most Americans, think that Saddam is a big jerk, and would like to see him in prison for all the bad he's done. Which is why I, like most Americans, just hope this is over soon, and without too much blood.
And, like most Americans, I fear the worst.
These Gulf wars are the bookends of my generation. From 17 to 29, from high school to a salary, from home to away, from the last glimpse of childhood to the first glimmers of middle age.
I miss the certainty I had during the first Gulf war. I miss being a teenager and knowing, really knowing, that this was wrong. I miss having all the answers.
My moment of truth for this Gulf war was not protesting. As hundreds of thousands of people shut down downtown San Francisco, I was working. In 2003, like in 1991, the economy here is so bad, those of us lucky enough to have jobs just want to keep them – even those of us with jobs in the alternative press.
I hate this war for reminding me that I'm almost 30, and life isn't simple anymore.
Derek M. Powazek is the Online Director of the Independent Media Institute, which publishes AlterNet. Derek is also the creator of the personal storytelling magazine/movement fray, where this story originally appeared. Where have these bookends found you?