Monday, May 25, 2015

American Amnesia- Thoughts on Memorial Day

Yesterday was Memorial Day in the US. For those who don't know, it's a national holiday in America where US soldiers who have died while in uniform are honored and remembered. While that might sound like a very solemn occasion, and yes there are ceremonies and parades remembering fallen soldiers across the country, the truth is most Americans spend the day picnicking, barbecuing, and drinking.  Not surprisingly there is also a considerable spike in arrests related to drunk driving.


Like all US national holidays, Memorial Day is not something that arouses any deep seated feelings of patriotic loyalty in me. I grew up in Thailand and while our family celebrated certain US holidays from time to time, I can't say they were as exciting to me as Christmas or Thai New Year. Getting older, traveling to new corners of the globe, all while delving into the darker chapters of US Foreign Policy and History at college didn't exactly make the Star Spangled Banner a favorite tune of mine either. 


That said, I don't hate the US. It's a very great country. It's accomplished quite a lot and provides a great deal of philanthropy across the world...for better or worse. As far as the US military goes, I'm wary and sympathetic. I disapprove of the power of the military industrial complex and the fact that US spends more money on its armed forces than the next twelve countries under us combined at the expense of important social services. 


On the other hand, the US military is often at the tip of the spear when it comes to responding to humanitarian disasters and catastrophes around the world. I know people in the US army. Some of my friends were military brats. The soldiers I know on an individual level are great people; ideal driven, highly motivated and often very humble. 


Overall, it's good that the US has a holiday to remember its fallen soldiers. All countries around the world commemorate those troops who've died in combat. No one should expect the US to be any different. 


However, when I see pictures circulating social media showing the funerals of US soldiers, when I catch commercials on the TV from a local news station ending with 'We'll never forget', and yes the abundance of American flags, I can't help but feel discomforted. Because we do forget...and no I'm talking about forgetting that US soldiers died. Nor am I referring to the supposed sanctity of the day being tainted by Americans deciding to clog their arteries with saturated fats.


I'm talking about how Americans' remembrance of their soldiers and the wars they've fought in is often tainted by a selective amnesia. We remember that soldiers have died fighting in wars. Yet we deliberately neglect thinking of the wider context of these conflicts.

 The false narratives that have driven us to unnecessary conflicts, PTSD and physical disability, the deaths of non-American civilians in wars across the globe, often unintentional, the chaotic and bloody mess we have left behind in countries we had spent trillions of dollars to rebuild or develop; these are all aspects of wars past and present that we choose not to include in remembering US soldiers who died. 


Why? Well, I suspect a number of people would feel that it makes the deaths of the soldiers, particularly those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, in vain. Somehow, criticizing the nature of the justness or necessity of the wars they died in is an attack on them as people and lessens their own lives.


I don't view it that way. A soldier is a soldier. They follow orders. They obey their superiors. While they may harbor doubts about why they're trying to hold onto a remote outpost in the Afghan mountains (Restrepo), they will continue to hold it. Soldiers, regardless of nationality, do not decide where they are sent. They don't choose which field to fight in or which cause is just.  


Leaders do that. In the States it's leaders we elect, leaders we choose to go along with. Ergo, the buck stops with the ordinary American.


And this is the true reason we dislike talking about the unjust and tragic nature of some of our wars on days like yesterday. Because we don't want to indict ourselves. We don't like to acknowledge that we are the reason these men and women have gone off and killed others before being killed themselves all for causes we told them were worth their weight in life. 


I can think of no clearer example of this than Iraq. In 2014, 50 percent of Americans believed that decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was the wrong choice. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Nor should it be a surprise that in March of 2003, when the invasion was underway, 72 percent of Americans believed that using military force in Iraq was the correct decision.  


Sure, George W. Bush sold the American people a yarn about Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction but we bought it. 


The talking heads at Fox and CNN prattled on about shadowy ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq's military. We swallowed it up. 


US officials told us the American soldiers we were sending would be greeted as liberators and that a new democratic society would blossom in the desert. And we said 'Of course it will! America can do no wrong!' forgetting that we are an imperfect nation made of imperfect people and that we knew next to nothing of this country who's future was now going to intertwined with our own. 


I lived through that time. I remember it vividly. American news covered Iraqi Freedom like the Super Bowl. The excitement and electricity among the students at the US public school I went to was palpable. We believed in the war. I believed in the war and ultimately we the people of the United States had no damn clue how much harm we were going to inflict on Iraq's people, ourselves and the American soldiers that we claim to love so much. 


Fast forward through 4493 dead American soldiers hundreds of thousands of slain Iraqis, and the country we promised to liberate and make a democracy in our own image is engulfed by political discord, the terror of ISIS and even more sectarian bloodshed between Sunni and Shia.


None of this changes the fact that many US servicemen and women served selflessly and to the best of their ability. None of this changes the courage they showed in extreme hardship.Yet how many of their lives, which we insist must be remembered, could we have saved if the American people had been more hesitant to plunge forward into war?

Will we learn our lesson and honor the American soldiers of tomorrow by promising them that the next time our government tells us that a war is worth waging we will be better informed?  Will we make damn sure that we have thought long and considered the loss of life on all sides before sending them into fire and flame? I can only hope so. I can only hope. 


US Army Spc. Jerral Hancock- Photo by David Jay via NPR

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Dear Millenials Near Thirty- A Love Letter



Dear Millenials Near Thirty,

I know you've thought about that number.

You can admit it. You may have tried forgetting it... Nevertheless, it's there on the horizon.


And I want to tell you wherever you are, it's fine. That's the message I wanted to tell those of you who share my stage of life: in the latter days of their twenties with thirty on the horizon.

Turning twenty six two years ago increased my awareness of my age. Turning twenty seven has made that awareness ever more acute. Like most of you, I've dwelt more on this fact more often than I should have. I've looked over my life since college and made the mistake of comparing it to others. I wonder about different paths, different roads and I try and decipher the pictures on social media to see if friends from high-school or college are more or less content with themselves than I am.

I know you've done this too. We know we shouldn't make these comparisons. But we do. We're human and we have windows into the lives of others as no generation has had before.

In the end though, social media is just that a window. The realm of the internet is a trailer of a person's movie not the biopic of their entire life.

Since coming back to the States in  February I've been able to catch up with a number of my peers. Without the pressures of full time teaching I can finally make space to truly reconnect with all the people I'd lost touch with during my two years in Thailand. Whether over Skype or in the flesh the stories I've been told by friends have been as diverse as they have been insightful.

Some people have moved from one country to another, some have changed cities, some have started new careers or gone back to school, some have made a rapid ascent up the ladder.

Many have gotten married, some have gotten divorced, some have ended long relationships, some have moved back in with their parents, others have moved out.

And for some their world has not changed significantly at all. They remain in the same place they were two years ago, working the same job, living in the same house, together with the same person.

All these changes have been fascinating to learn about. Each life is so different and yet the one thing that holds us all together is that no one really feels like they have figured everything out. There's still, for most people I've talked to, a sense of uncertainty about their journey. For all the empty spaces we've filled in our lives, there remain vacancies. Some old some new.

A successful job but no relationship, a profession which brings money and prestige but no personal satisfaction, a fulfilling profession that doesn't pay quite enough to support a family.

We are fuller people. Yet we are also more aware than ever of the empty places in ourselves.

Yet, it's all alright. I'm here to write you that it's okay. I believe one day many of those holes will be filled and the few that remain will be become treasures to us.

Because the older we get the more comfortable we become with the weaknesses we have and prouder of the strengths we possess. I find myself loving the holes and vacancies in my life with new appreciation. We may never be full but that does not mean we are empty. It doesn't mean we can't live a life of meaning, purpose and contentment.

You are not alone in your uncertainty and ambiguity. That is what this decade is all about. :)

Much Love Fellow Almost Thirtysomethings,


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

What it Means to Publish- Thoughts on Releasing Part of Yourself to the World

'Vulnerable Heart' by Angela (pixeldust007)

I remember the first story I ever wrote. I was around nine and like many little boys in the 90s I loved Star Wars. One day, I decided to take a pencil and paper and write a story about how the rebels found their base on Hoth. The plot of this early fan-fic revolved around Luke Skywalker being shot down by a star destroyer. He crash landed on the ice planet and after wandering around trying to avoid snow troopers he found the massive cave complex that would provide the rebels with their haven.

Like so many kids, my initial enthusiasm for this passion waned and I never finished what I started. So many of my projects followed the same path over the next sixteen years. I finished some pieces. Sometimes I would take care of the first-draft, occasionally I would make it through an edit or two and there were a number of short Facebook notes, and blog-posts that I would share for the wider world. Yet there were so many other works that just sat half-baked and completely forgotten in a folder on my computer. And, until I finished the last edit of my Native American Fantasy novel, 'Only the Sky is Forever', I had never reached the stage of publishing a piece of fiction.

It's one thing to share what you've written with those close to you. That in and of itself is courageous in my opinion. Many of those who write never reach that stage and I understand why. Writing always comes from the soul. It's a segment of what goes on inside you. Showing part of the real you is never easy. However, putting your official stamp on something and telling the world 'Hey, this book I wrote, I want you to buy it.', that's even more daunting, at least to me. You're telling others, your voice is worth something. You're proclaiming that your soul, the piece of yourself that is etched in those words, is worth buying for three dollars.

As the author, you're intimidated. You have a much larger expectation to live up to. You're worried. You ask yourself many different questions: Is this story really worth sharing? Will anyone buy this part of me? Will anyone care? Will anyone absolutely despise it?

These thoughts went through my head at different times throughout the past few weeks as I thought about the imminent publication of my book. I have a feeling most authors have similar doubts at different times. Yet, the heart of why writers write, is never fame and fortune( plenty of us dream of it even if we won't admit it). It's because we are addicted to the act of creation. We are consumed by the desire to stir the caldron of potions in our head, add the right ingredients at the best times to make it as fine a brew as we can and finally pour what we've concocted out for the sake of watching it flow out onto the page or screen in front of us. This is the act that keeps us going even if what we write never wins a Pulitzer Prize or reaches anyone beyond a few friends.

It is gratifying to be read. I hope people do read this book I've written and are willing to pay for it. Yet the canvas I paint with my words is meant, first and foremost to be something I can look upon and smile at. And if others wish to smile at it with me, dismiss it or walk by without a glance they are welcome to. I'm just glad to be able to say to the world, 'it's here! it's finished!'