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Peace Odyssey

January 1, 2006

My goal for 2006 is to write a memoir. What follows are some preliminary notes, as I sort out what to say about a life that became very different from where I started:

I was born to war. It was, from my earliest memories, my destiny.

Born in Ithaca, NY, a Greece-inspired college town named after the home of the mythic warrior of Homer’s Odyssey, I emerged—on January 26, 1943—into a nation forged in war and patriotically engaged in the most massive clash of armies in history, with sons of Ithaca fighting in battles around the world.

Like millions of war babies, I grew up on heroic, stoic tales of military service in World War II and previous conflicts. As a toddler, I wore a sailor suit, just like my Dad’s. An uncle died in a naval battle off the Philippines fighting the Japanese, who attacked us first at Pearl Harbor. I heard in school how our gorgeous Finger Lakes region was liberated from treacherous Indians in a daring raid by George Washington’s Continental Army. And the Civil War, that glorious cause of Abraham Lincoln’s, sparked by a New York farmer named John Brown, and won by the gallant stand by Union troops at Gettysburg, liberated the South from the misguided belief in forming a separate nation and, just to teach those rebels a lesson, ended slavery.

Told in a thousand ways that warfare was an essential element of American life, I also gathered that it was the most exciting thing that people do. Books and books on battles, John Wayne charging with guns blazing in the movies, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” rocking on the radio, “Combat” episodes exploding on TV, “Sgt. Rock” bursting out of the pack of comic book heroes, “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” belted out in church, “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung at full throttle while the audience stood tall in patriotic stance at public events, buglers bugling “Taps” over soldiers’ graves on Memorial Day, bands blaring military march tunes in Fourth of July parades, the “listen up!” tone of teachers, family members, neighbors, Boy Scout masters, American Legion veterans and national leaders all made it clear that our finest nature, our highest calling, our greatest passion was waging war.

Enthusiastically embracing the warrior way of life, I organized neighborhood kids into an after-school detachment of “Junior Marines”; built a sandbox battlefield diorama depicting US forces fighting in Korea; and in 8th grade, gruffly announced in class that I intended to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point.

I couldn’t imagine a different path. Yet just a few years later, I resigned from West Point and began trail blazing another way of relating to the world. As a GI in Vietnam, I encountered something American military training hadn’t prepared me for: Another way of looking at the world. Americans are still bitterly quarreling over why many soldiers turned against the war in Vietnam. For me, it was a liberating break with destiny to embark from war on a peace odyssey.

(To be continued)

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