By Jim Fromm
Memorial Day 2014
Trigger warning. This piece includes content about suicide and rape.
Ever since we were kids, my friend Kythe declared they would be a Jedi Knight. Their most distinctive feature was their eyes: big, brown, and mischievous. Kythe was the funniest kid I knew.
We ate lunch together in high school, at the freaks’ table. We were small town outcasts, sharing what we had from brown bags and Free Lunches. Castle Rock High School is located between a trailer park and a junkyard, across the street from a cow field. You get the idea. Not an easy place to grow up as an atheist.
We ran together, daily, thousands of miles through forest trails. We fought many an epic LAN games of Spaceward Ho! and Total Annihilation in Computer Club. We enrolled in community college at the same time. We tore open books like escape hatches. I really mean that. To escape into fantasies, to nurture hopes of better lives. Everyone who grows up in Castle Rock dreams of leaving, but Kythe dreamed of more, to respond to the suffering and ugliness in the world by fighting for good. By graduation, they remained a self-proclaimed Jedi. After high school we parted ways.
I have three treasures.
I keep and treasure them.
The first, mercy,
the second, moderation,
the third, modesty.
If you’re merciful you can be brave,
if you’re moderate you can be generous,
and if you don’t presume to lead
you can lead the high and mighty.
But to be brave without compassion,
or generous without self-restraint,
or to take the lead,
Compassion wins the battle
and holds the fort.
The United States Department of Defense is the largest employer on Earth. Soldiers experience intense forms of exploitation and unique hazards of employment: rape culture, toxic waste exposure, combat, PTSD. This helps explain the often-cited statistic that U.S. soldiers are committing suicide at an average rate of one per day.
Kythe’s day was June 17th, 2011. It was the day before their 22nd birthday.
I learned this at the end of that summer. It was that year’s first day of autumn rain. Northwest standard-issue drizzle-gray. I was in Olympia, meeting our friend Jesse for a ride to Castle Rock. Buckling in, Jesse asked if I’d heard about Kythe. They handed me a white memorial card, emblazoned with the star-and-wings symbol of the Jedi Order. Inside was a photo of Kythe in U.S. Marine dress blues. Later I found out Kythe had married, and had had a child.
Kythe loved their dream of heroism. To every one of us they gave their friendship, their wit; we shared what little we had. They were my friend, faithful and just. When people cried out at injustice, Kythe listened. When comes such another?
I remember Kythe every day.
In the degradation of the great way
comes benevolence and righteousness.
With the exaltation of learning and prudence
comes immense hypocrisy.
The disordered family
is full of dutiful children and parents.
The disordered society
is full of loyal patriots.
Weapons are unhappy tools,
not chosen by thoughtful people,
to be used only when there is no choice,
and with a calm, still mind,
To enjoy using weapons
is to enjoy killing people,
and to enjoy killing people
is to lose your share in the common good.
Our generation learned, brutally, that governments don’t contract soldiers to fight injustice. The historian James Jones described U.S. military training as the “path of the soldier evolving toward acceptance of their death…the discipline, the daily humiliations, the privileges of ‘brutish’ sergeants, the living en masse like schools of fish, are all directed toward breaking down the sense of the sanctity of the physical person, and toward hardening the awareness that a soldier is the chattel (hopefully a proud chattel, but a chattel all the same)” of the state.
Recruiters don’t talk about that. Nor do recruiters talk about the inevitability of civilian deaths when heavy weapons are used in urban areas. Nor do recruiters talk about the U.S. military’s role at the heart of rape culture.
One public health journal estimated the sexual trauma rate at 22% for female veterans and 1.2% for male veterans. When U.S. military contract DynCorp threw a party to bribe Afghani officials, DynCorp bought bacha bazi, boy prostitutes, for entertainment; the story didn’t come out until it was leaked by Private Chelsea Manning. Manning was sentenced to 35 years of prison. DynCorp faces no penalty. In May 2013, Lt. Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, head of the Air Force’s rape prevention program, was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman in a parking lot. Krusinski faced a year in jail and a $1,000 fine—but was acquitted.
Anthony Swofford wrote in their memoir of the Gulf War:
We’re carrying on our backs the overseas sins of generations of fighting American GIs—gang rapes in Vietnamese jungles, the same in Seoul and Pusan, pregnant Englishwoman abandoned after World War II, Japanese women raped and impregnated and abandoned during the occupation, thousands of French whores filled with syphilitic cocks while the Great War raged on.
You can add torture and rape of POWs in the dungeons of Abu Ghraib. Yes, in Iraq, American women proved just as capable of “serving their country,” as Secretary Hillary Clinton proved women just as capable to manage U.S. policy. Female veterans are now the fastest growing demographic among the homeless, proving U.S. policy is just as capable of using and tossing aside female soldiers.
The U.S. is “Number 1” in military and economic power, yet far behind most countries in any other indicator—health, life expectancy, literacy, poverty, environment, safety, and so on. But those are indicators of a society’s care for people, and care is a female duty. Breadwinning and defending the home (or homeland) are male duties, and so America values guns and bombs, income and GDP. Half your federal tax dollars go to military spending. Decades ago, the Italian women’s group Rivolta Femminile argued that if the unpaid domestic worker, or the sweatshop seamstress, is the epitome of feminine roles, the soldier is the epitome of masculine roles—and both suffer for it; youthful rebellion and refusal are attempts to escape these respective nightmares.
Kythe’s dream became one of those nightmares.
Militarism is more than a set of institutions. It is a culture of obedience, discipline, submission, and negation of individuality, with deep roots in American life. Militarism is hierarchies of order-givers and order-takers; the ability to perceive people as abstractions, body counts, resources. Of course militarism and rape culture are deeply linked.
Most American soldiers enlist, not for patriotism or patriarchy or bloodlust, but with honest intentions, because we grew up without opportunity, because we actually believed in the humanitarian mission of the wars. We believed that all this, the state and the blood spilled and the resources wasted while our neighbors starve, were necessary to protect the people we love.
Where the army marched
grew thorns and thistles.
After the war
come the bad harvests.
Good leaders prosper, that’s all,
not presuming on victory.
They prosper without boasting,
or domineering, or arrogance,
prosper because they can’t help it,
prosper without violence.
People are starving.
The rich gobble taxes,
that’s why people are starving.
The rich oppress them,
that’s why they rebel.
People hold life cheap.
The rich make it too costly,
that’s why people hold it cheap.
But those who don’t live for the sake of living
Are worth more than the wealth-seekers.
Kythe wrote this self-description on Facebook:
Grew up in Washington, joined the Marine corps, waiting to get out and move on to things that might actually better my life.
A thousand small things led to this. Like all the times we didn’t question our rulers, didn’t question the lobotomized corporate media, didn’t question the institutions and culture we live with. Many will pay for wars in tax dollars, and the poor will pay in blood.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Law never made people a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”
Remember Chelsea Manning. Remember the soldiers around the world drafted by force or economic coercion; especially those in jail right now for resisting.
Remember Kythe. It doesn’t really matter whether Kythe pulled the trigger or someone else. Truth is, it was the officers, and generals, and politicians, and weapons makers, who let Kythe die, and even profited.
Kythe had a dream to do good. The betrayal of their dream was deadlier than any weapon. That betrayal murdered their spirit; then burst their mighty heart.
A Jedi fell.