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Writing a Memoir

March 1, 2006

In my twenties, a New York book editor asked me to write a memoir about my experiences as a GI sent to West Point who chucked a military career to become a peace activist. I replied that I hadn’t lived enough to write an autobiography. Writing a memoir in my sixties, I still feel I haven’t earned the right to dispense wisdom.

The campaign I undertook in leaving the army has yet to bear fruit. Mindless military mayhem in Vietnam has been replaced by mindless military mayhem in Iraq. Congress still runs and ducks when ungrateful soldiers bring up the subject of costly war wounds. And the public patriotically supports torture, mass murder of civilians and wholesale destruction of cities, countries and our own troops as the American way of war.

I still haven’t accomplished what I set out to do in the Sixties. I still don’t have the ability to convince sufficient numbers of my fellow citizens that they are cheering their nation to rumble down the path of other once-mighty empires that are now dust.

And yet I’m encouraged by the example of others. I hope that my life can be an example for encouragement, too. Public service and perseverance under fire are not the exclusive preserve of the military. The men, women and children who created bridges of peace between America and the Soviet Union to prevent nuclear war, the best campaign I participated in, did more for national security than all the wars in history. If that peace campaign had not succeeded, the world we enjoy would now be a radioactive wasteland.

That danger, and the need for such campaigns, is not over. It may never be over, because how can the knowledge of making nuclear explosives be undone.

The world is a more dangerous place than when I was born in the midst of World War II. Yet, it may also a more hopeful place. All solutions in the mid-20th century seemed to be military ones. Today, military solutions are in short supply. Can missiles shoot down bird flu and other deadly diseases? Can tanks save the survivors of earthquakes, floods, tsunamis? Can bombs and bullets vanquish hunger and poverty? So why does anyone look to war to solve social problems?

These are the kinds of questions that began bubbling in my mind as a 20-year-old soldier in Vietnam. They crystallized at West Point, where I realized at 21 that I had to make a choice between the trumpet call of a military career and the quiet tug of my conscience and sense of responsibility.

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