I never thought I would start crying while listening to an interview with Lieutenant Dan Choi, the Iraq war veteran who recently received notice of his honorable discharge from the US military for publicly acknowledging he's gay. But here I am, crying. I'm watching Democracy Now, and during a break in the conversation the show is broadcasting images of Dan Choi at various actions in favor of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell.
"Universal Soldier," Buffy Sainte-Marie's classic antiwar song, plays in the background. While Sainte-Marie sings, "And he knows he shouldn't kill/ And he knows he always will kill/ You'll for me my friend and me for you," Dan Choi is pictured in full uniform saluting a crowd at the National Equality March, removing tape from his lips to declare:
We love our country, even when our country refuses to acknowledge our love. But we continue to defend it, and we continue to protect it, because love is worth it. Love is worth it! ...But when we're telling the truth about our love, our country slaps us in the face and orders us, "Don't ask," and orders us, "Don't tell." Well, I am telling you that the era and the time for asking is over. I am not asking anymore! I am telling! I am telling! I am telling...because in the face of injustice and the face of discrimination, patience is not a plan. In the face of discrimination, silence is not a strategy.
I'm crying because here is one of the most widely broadcast antiwar news programs in the country, camouflaging Dan Choi's pro-war rhetoric beneath the lyrics of St. Marie's Vietnam-era anthem. Dan Choi's Equality March speech is elaborate in its rhetoric and pageantry, yet in the end it asks us to believe that the vicious wars of US imperialism are for "love." Democracy Now welcomes this rhetoric into antiwar struggles, simultaneously hiding the pro-war stance and aggrandizing it. This is completely contradictory. You can't fight against war by arguing that gay soldiers should be able to gun down Iraqis openly.
When Choi tells us that "in the face of injustice... patience is not a plan. In the face of discrimination, silence is not a strategy," what does this mean about his silence regarding the unjust wars the US is continuing to wage in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his involvement?
Dan Choi declares on the August 4 Democracy Now broadcast, "We all know that America's promises are not manifest yet, so long as gay or transgender people are getting kicked out of their workplaces, fired for telling the truth or expressing who they are." No kidding -- and America's promises are not manifest yet (except, perhaps, the "promise" of Manifest Destiny), as long as the US continues to bomb at least two countries into obliteration and fund who knows how many other atrocious wars around the world.
But Dan Choi tells a very compelling coming-out story:
I came back from Iraq. And many times when I was sitting in the barricade areas within the compound or in my Humvee, I thought to myself, when am I going to get along with my life, get along with the truth, reconcile who I really am from what I've been pretending to be? And many times I would spend alone in Iraq, many nights I would be very contemplative. I came back from Iraq, and I decided that it's not worth it. I could have died at any moment in the area that I was, in the Triangle of Death. Why should I be afraid of the truth of who I am?
Do you see what he's saying? While in Iraq participating in the slaughter of innocent civilians in a war for oil, he had the chance to contemplate his closeted sexuality, and when he came back to the US he decided that remaining silent about his gay desires wasn't worth it. How many Iraqis died in order for him to express the "truth of who I am." What about the truth of the war? His biggest worry seems to be this: "I've wanted to go back to Iraq and to Afghanistan, but then I thought, if I die in Afghanistan or Iraq, then would my boyfriend be notified?" Did you hear that? He's not worried about dying in an atrocious war, or killing innocent civilians, but about whether his boyfriend will be notified.
Amy Goodman, rightfully renowned for routinely exposing the viciousness of US imperialism, can only ask: "Dan Choi, what was your mother's reaction?" Really -- is Dan Choi's mother's reaction to his coming out really the most important story here?
In its eagerness to jump on the bandwagon in support of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the antiwar left becomes complicit with US wars. These reporters can't get past their joy at finding a gay struggle to support, in order to step back and realize, wait: maybe this particular gay struggle is contrary to everything I supposedly represent. That's the nightmare of assimilation we're living in -- add "gay" to any reactionary goal, and the liberals will jump on the bandwagon, but the founding values of gay liberation -- fighting police brutality; challenging US imperialism; ending oppressive institutions like marriage and the military and organized religion; and creating personal autonomy for sexual merrymaking outside of conventional norms -- nope, we rarely hear anything about those queer values.
So let's get back to talking about the right to openly serve in the US military. The closest Democracy Now gets to talking about the war in this particular segment comes when Goodman asks, right at the very end of the interview: "Dan Choi, if the law was changed and you were able to return to Iraq or Afghanistan, how would you feel about the war then?"
Well, my feelings on the war and my responsibility to speak out against unjust wars and illegal wars and immoral wars, that certainly wouldn't change. But, as a soldier, there are certain responsibilities, particularly in war. You put all of the politics of why you're there aside, and you focus on accomplishing the mission in the most moral and the most, I think, effective way, so that you can get yourself, as well as your soldiers--and your soldiers first--alive back home.
Aha -- but what unjust and illegal and immoral wars does he mean? Apparently not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or perhaps he's ready to speak out? We won't find out on Democracy Now. Amy Goodman offers no follow-up question. Even when Choi contradicts himself in the next sentence, and says "you put all of the politics of why you're there aside, and you focus on accomplishing the mission." Oh, right -- politics aside, get the bombs ready!
The end of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier" goes like this:
He's the universal soldier
And he really is the blame
His orders comes from
far away no more.
They come from him.
And you and me.
And brothers can't you see.
This is not the way we put an end to war.
We should all pay closer attention to this particular message: complicity is not the way we put an end to war, indeed.
Mattilda is most recently the author of a novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, and the editor of an expanded second edition of That's Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, and also blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com.