From the Vietnam War to Species Suicide: Thoughts on a 50th High School Reunion

Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman

When I was in high school the worst sin to me was “conformity”; the greatest glory was to be an “individual.” Those were for me the years of The Lonely Crowd, The Organization Man, and, above all, The Fountainhead. Imitating my then (not now) idol Ayn Rand, I wrote an angry rant in the high school newspaper my senior year attacking my fellow classmates for conforming. I called upon them to chart their own course and create for themselves a life that no one else would live. I still remember feeling tremendous fear when it was published, assuming it would make everyone angry at me. But to my amazement I have never received as much positive feedback to something I wrote, before or since. It seemed to strike a chord with many.

Today, fifty years after graduating from high school, I would not write such a piece. I have a far greater awareness of my own limitation and the ways in which I have failed to live up to my own ideals. I would not now presume to tell anyone else how to behave. All I can do is offer my own experience and be curious as to whether it resonates with anyone else.

I grew up in Great Neck, New York, with a strong sense that my classmates and I were destined to do special and great things in the world. I suppose it was largely because of the identity of Great Neck being “one of the wealthiest towns” in America, and also because we were Jewish. I had been brought up to believe that Jews were, well, better or at least smarter than others.

My mother was a high-minded person and fervent Adlai Stevenson supporter (one of my most striking childhood memories was her weeping convulsively when Stevenson lost in 1952), and inculcated in me two basic principles that have had a huge impact on my life: 1) that the most important thing one could do is be politically involved; and 2) that we had a strong moral obligation to help the poor and unfortunate.

This second lesson also took hold, I believe, because she was often emotionally abusive to me, and I strongly identified with being victimized. One of my earliest memories was defending a kid at Kensington Elementary School who was being picked on by the other kids for having effeminate characteristics. I remember praying to God every night that the kids would no longer pick on him. I understand now that this was largely because I identified with him as a victim — a psychological phenomenon that led me to identify with victims throughout my life.

Combating Poverty, Racism, and War in the 1960s

This feeling of “Great Neck specialness” easily and automatically fed into a wider identification with the New Left and the sixties generation in general when I went to college and beyond. My strongest identity in those years was generational. I can remember tutoring African American children in housing projects in my first year at the University of Chicago, and being thrown into despair at their living situation: one big room with a big bed occupied by their mother and the kids basically living on the remaining floor space, eating TV dinners, TV going all the time, heat supplied by the oven — it was impossible for them to study. I remember going home on the El in anguish thinking, “Well, at least this will all change when my generation comes to power!” It was the only thought that offered some relief.

As a student in the early 1960s, I wanted to join the Civil Rights Movement and become enmeshed in domestic politics. But my life was permanently altered because my father was the New York representative of racist southern textile mill owners. When I told him I wanted to become a Freedom Rider, he broke down weeping for one of the few times in his life and begged me not to get involved with the Civil Rights Movement, saying his bosses would fire him and our family would become destitute. One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I felt I had no choice but to comply.

So I did the next best thing and went to Tanzania in September 1965 upon graduating from the Harvard School of Education, which led in turn to my going to Laos in March 1967 to keep my “service in the national interest” draft deferment. When I then discovered that my leaders in the United States were bombing hundreds of thousands of innocent peasants in Laos, I sought to expose it to the world, until I was expelled from Laos in February 1971. As a result I missed the “sixties” (which were really at their peak from 1965-71 or so) in America.

A Vietnam War Protest. Creative Commons/mikefisher821.

I then fought to stop the war upon returning to America in 1971 as the head of Project Air War and the Indochina Resource Center. When the war ended in 1975, I felt strongly that I did not want to spend the rest of my life simply opposing the war criminals and mass murderers we call “President” and “Secretary of State.” I was, rather, drawn to the call by Tom Hayden, one of my sixties heroes, to form the Campaign for Economic Democracy and seek to elect a new generation of decent leaders who would promote social justice and peace.

Left Campaigns in Mainstream Politics: 1970s and ’80s

I worked with Tom and CED for four years, writing “Jobs from the Sun,” the solar strategy for the state of California. I then took a Cabinet-level position with Governor Jerry Brown promoting high technology and “investment in people”; wrote a strategic investment initiative for Senator Gary Hart’s think tank prior to Donna Rice; and wrote “Industry-led Strategy” while directing a nonprofit called Rebuild America, which was advised by Larry Summers, Robert Solow, Paul Krugman, Laura Tyson, Robert Reich, Robert Noyce, and many other leading economists and business leaders. During the years from 1971-90, therefore, I was deeply involved with sixties generation politics, from the grassroots level to local campaigns to working on two U.S. Senate and two presidential-level campaigns. I also met and worked with many of the political and policy leaders of our generation.

The friends I made during that period remain among my closest up to today. I have tremendous respect for those I have known who have spent so much of their lives, often at personal risk or at least great discomfort, to promote civil rights and peace in Indochina, and build various social justice movements at home.

My Generation’s Idealism and Sense of Betrayal

On a more general level, however, I experienced a great deal of disappointment in “our generation.” As I see it, we are unique in American history because:

1. We really believed in the decency of America and our leaders, especially since many of us were the kids or grandkids of immigrants who grew up in the aftermath of the “Good War” and enjoyed so much prosperity;

2. We then felt betrayed by our elders’ horrific behavior, particularly in Indochina where they slaughtered over 3 million Vietnamese people, murdering, maiming, and making homeless over 16 million in Indochina.

My father, although he believed deeply in America, having come here from Ukraine, did not have any illusions about politics or society’s ability to transform itself. Our children, with us as parents, are now similarly cynical — or perhaps I should say “realistic” — about our nation.

I know that I felt betrayed by my elders on the deepest possible level. I was in anguish at the murder of innocents throughout the Indochina war, beginning in 1965 but particularly after I began interviewing Lao refugees from the U.S. bombing, which was still continuing in other areas of Laos. As a Jew, I felt as if I had discovered Auschwitz while it was still going on. For me each week of horror at this mass murder seemed like a lifetime. I also took it personally. They were not only committing illegal mass murder in Indochina but also trying to force me to engage in it! I was haunted by the very idea of the draft from the day I turned eighteen, and my basic internal attitude was, “these bastards are prepared to force me to die in their sick war!”

I guess not only I but also many others of my generation were thus unique for experiencing this combination of both a profound belief in America’s goodness and a profound experience of betrayal by our elders. And I think this experience of belief and betrayal was also the source of both our generation’s enormous energy and contributions during the 1960s and our failure to transform America thereafter.

On the one hand, this generational betrayal was liberating for many of us. Realizing we could not “trust authority,” many of us rebelled and created our own music, attitudes toward sexuality and the environment, and new movements to fight for peace and social justice. Rebellion had its virtues — and rewards.

But, on the other, there may be nothing more psychologically — and societally — devastating than the phenomenon of “generational betrayal.” It is bad enough when we feel betrayed on a personal level by a parent, mentor, or teacher whom we trust. It is far worse when much of a generation feels abandoned by their elders. I believe the best book for understanding what has happened to our generation is All Quiet On The Western Front, which describes the betrayal of a generation of Germans sent to fight in World War I. And it is of course this betrayal that led to the rise of Nazism and World War II.

Thrown into a Moral Abyss

I believe our generation was thrown into a moral abyss by Vietnam, and all the other ways our elders betrayed the values they had inculcated within us. It is not only that we, only in our twenties and thirties, did not have the knowledge or power to know how to create a decent society in the face of what we were up against. It is not only that too many of us grew too angry and over-used drugs and other addictions to relieve the pain of this betrayal. It is not only that we eventually needed to make a living and raise our children, and this required adjusting to society rather that continuing to try and transform it.

I believe our fundamental issue is how the clash between what we had grown up believing and what we experienced destroyed our individual internal moral universes and fatally divided our generation.

I know when I discovered that Democratic and Republican leaders had been mercilessly, pitilessly, and savagely bombing innocent Lao peasants for years on end — burning and burying them alive; killing mothers, children, and old people who could not live in the forest like the relatively unscathed soldiers; destroying everything they owned — I felt my entire moral universe had been upended.

I had grown up believing that “crime doesn’t pay.” But I saw with my own eyes in Laos that crime does pay. I believed as a youth that in the end goodness and truth triumph over evil; in Laos I clearly saw evil triumph over good. I had grown up believing that my country stood for democracy and freedom and individual rights. But in Laos I saw with my own eyes that U.S. leaders, whether Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, are undemocratic and self-interested careerists in their foreign policy. I saw U.S. leaders acting without human feeling, promoting dictatorship for hundreds of millions throughout the world, and callously crushing human rights as a matter of course.

And when I returned to America, I observed firsthand executive branch leaders not only violating the international laws which would have led to their execution had they been subject to them, but also violating the U.S. Constitution they claimed so much to revere. I saw executive branch leaders not even informing (let alone consulting) Congress about their activities abroad. I saw them commit perjury in congressional testimony as a matter of course and noted how powerless even the best of our congressional leaders felt in the face of executive power. I discovered that the corporate and national security elite constitute a dictatorship in foreign policy that makes a mockery of the very idea of “democracy.”

A Double Disappointment: Our Generation and Southeast Asian Liberation Movements

During my years in domestic politics I’ve been disheartened to see so many people of my generation gain some political power and then behave little differently from their elders. Nothing symbolizes this more than how Hillary Clinton has morphed into a cheerleader for the war in Afghanistan, even to the point of inviting Henry Kissinger, whom she rightfully opposed in her youth for his mass murder of civilians and disastrous prolongation of the Vietnam War, to deliver the keynote speech at a September 29 State Department conference on the history of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

And I’ve been equally discouraged by the growing split between those who broke with their elders and those who did not, between those who were in anguish at the murder of millions, and those who either ignored or supported it. Nothing symbolizes our generation better than the fact that the three most powerful baby-boomer leaders we have produced — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Newt Gingrich — have so lacked a coherent moral vision of a decent society. I believe it is not their fault. They are the products of a fatally divided generation that was thrown by the Vietnam War into a moral abyss from which it has not yet emerged.

My disappointment in my generation was coupled with another, equally profound disillusionment. During my years in Laos, I had a chance to learn firsthand about the guerrilla movements U.S. leaders were trying to crush, and I was tremendously impressed with them. The former guerillas I came to know had lived simply among the people, were idealistic and courageous, and were seriously committed to helping the poor of their countries. But when the war ended, I saw the new governments of Indochina becoming as corrupt, power-hungry, and indifferent to the masses of their citizens as the ones they were replacing.

Is the Problem the Economic System, or the Human Psyche?

All of these disappointments eventually made me realize that our problems do not lie, as I had thought, in flawed political or economic systems but rather in the human psyche that produces those systems. It doesn’t really matter whether it is our parents, ourselves, or our children, whether we are capitalists or communists, socialists or libertarians. It now seems obvious that the real issues are the individual human qualities — particularly our learning to deny pain in general and the anguish generated by our knowing that we will die — that have produced our unjust economic and political systems.

I also had a profound personal encounter with death for the first time in 1990, at age forty-eight. For the first time I stopped denying my intense emotional pain at the prospect of facing oblivion for all eternity. It occurred one early morning and was at once the most painful and most ecstatic experience of my life. It was such a powerful experience that it led me to quit full-time politics overnight and embark on a spiritual and psychological journey that has continued up to this present moment.

During these years of meditation and psychological inquiry, which deepened my ability to feel in my one-on-one relationships, I somewhat regained my internal psychological and spiritual equilibrium, found a measure of internal peace, entered into one of the few decent relationships of my life (with my wife Zsuzsa Beres, with whom I now live most of the year in Budapest), and feel more alive and satisfied than at any previous point in my life. My central practice these days is a life-affirming death awareness in which I no longer repress but feel as fully as I can my pain about my eventual death, and then use that pain as energy to more fully appreciate and experience the preciousness of Life, and its Mystery.

I also have had a profound internal experience of how my life is unfolding due to the interaction between my genetic heritage, previous experience of life, and external conditions, rather than any “choices” I make. This has greatly reduced the stress which so characterized my earlier life, enhancing my sense of awe, wonder, and humility at having this opportunity to experience the Mystery of life.

Where does this leave me at age sixty-eight? On a personal level, I love what we call our “clean and simple” life. Because we live in Budapest, Zsuzsa owns her apartment, and we don’t need a car, I am able to more or less live on my $1,250 a month of Social Security. I don’t experience financial stress and can do what I wish on a daily basis — which at the moment is reading, writing, thinking, meditating, walking along the Danube and deepening my relationship with Zsuzsa.

On the other hand, I have never been more in anguish about the human condition, and cannot be “truly happy” in the face of it.

Our Choices Today

Tuvalu is destined to become one of earth’s first nations to be washed away due to the effect of global warming, making the Tuvaluans the first complete nation of climate refugees. Credit: Juriaan Booij (thesinkingoftuvalu.com).

Our basic choice is either to believe those who have studied climate science or those who have not. To believe those who have not is to regress to a pre-Enlightenment age of superstition, prejudice, and magic. But if we believe the climate scientists, we have no alternative but to act as if human civilization as we know it will not exist in our children’s lifetimes without a major global effort to take serious action to reduce climate change. And until we are willing to make this effort, we will all remain locked in our present cattle cars, comfortable and large as they are, heading toward annihilation.

The evidence suggests that the future for America will be the exact opposite of what I dreamed of when I came home from those housing projects in Chicago each night at age eighteen. Those who control our society not only behave immorally but are also thoroughly incompetent. Our Wall Street and corporate elites, while enriching themselves, have fatally weakened our economy by exporting jobs abroad, losing out to their competitors, gaming our financial system, and turning us into a debtor-nation in ways that cannot be sustained. They have wasted over $1 trillion fighting pointless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that — like the Vietnam War — can only end in disaster. Had they spent that $1 trillion on creating a clean energy economic revolution, we would be far stronger economically and more secure vis-à-vis terrorism.

As a result of their self-interested, short-sighted, and entirely irrational miscalculations, we are in a bind: our economy cannot grow as it has, and we cannot sustain our present way of life at home and level of war-making abroad. We thus in my view face a stark choice between two options:

1.     A 1930s-like effort to pull together, share the wealth, strengthen safety nets, maintain our democracy, and de-escalate our war-making, etc.; or,

2.     See the powerful seek to maintain their wealth at the expense of the majority and turn to police-state measures in the name of repressing the protests their domestic policies will inevitably produce and “fighting terrorism” after more domestic terrorist attacks occur, largely due to their irrational escalation of violence throughout the Muslim world.

Internationally, I see ever-greater automated warfare as our military/corporate elites continue to expand the mass assassination that lies at the heart of their strategy toward the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide — a suicidal policy that I believe will lead to more attacks like that of September 11, nuclear proliferation, Middle East conflagration, and other horrors.

A Nightmare Beyond My Previous Imagining

I thus find myself grappling with entirely new questions at the time of my fiftieth high school reunion. I successfully managed much of my postwar emotional pain first by devoting myself to domestic politics and later by embarking on a twenty-year inward-turned spiritual and psychological journey. But now I can no longer block out the pain of the human condition. I can no longer block out my pain at knowing that one billion people on our planet go hungry in a world overflowing with food; that my leaders engage in war-making that kills countless innocents and can only lead to more mass murder; that my nation is becoming increasingly unjust, unequal, and authoritarian; and that, above all, we are bequeathing to those who will follow us a legacy of economic hardship and climate destruction.

I suppose my deepest pain is knowing that I am part of a generation that is failing the most basic test of human civilization: to pass on a better world to our children than we inherited from our parents. It is bad enough to face personal death. But to face the prospect of being cursed by all who will follow us feels unbearable.

I am above all haunted by one question: can it really be true that we, the Great Neck North Class of 1960, just happened to be born into the first generation in all human history that constitutes the single greatest threat to all who will follow them?

Integrating the Learning of Fifty Years

Is this really what everything I once believed in — Great Neck; Judaism; the New Left; the idea of America; the sixties generation; the movements for civil rights, peace, women’s rights, and the environment; the guerillas of Indochina; meditation; spirituality; and psychological liberation — has come to? Can we really be this sick, suicidal, and indifferent to the continuation of human life itself?

I see my biggest challenge at this point as “integration”: integrating my personal satisfaction with my societal anguish; integrating my previous political, spiritual, and psychological explorations; and integrating my unconscious, conscious, and transcendent experiences of life.

During my political years I lacked internal peace, the ability to feel deeply in one-on-one relationships, and a basic sense of who I was. And during the years of spiritual and psychological inquiry, I leaned too much toward the personal, ignoring the screams of the world’s victims, not sufficiently engaged societally.

Today I seek to go within — and without. I seek more meditation — and more political action. I seek a deeper relationship with Zsuzsa — and to commit more to averting catastrophic climate change through a human movement that engages people’s desires to live on through the genes and precious memories of their offspring and descendants. I try to touch the transcendent daily and to convince my fellow Americans that those in charge of our society are destroying it, that our elites’ pursuit of their own self-interest will destroy the lives of the majority of their people, that they are endangering rather than protecting our lives by attacking the entire Muslim world, and that they pose a threat to the continuation of human life itself.

In so doing, I seek to move beyond a “politics of hope.” If I need to be hopeful about results in order to do anything, I will feel hopeless when those results do not materialize.

Howard Zinn gave me a simple answer near the end of his life when I asked him why at age eighty-six he was still engaged in politics when, by his own estimation, it basically seemed “hopeless.” His simple answer: “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.”

At this point in my life, I have a sense of myself that I didn’t have when I was eighteen. I know a part of me wants to live a peaceful, clean, and simple life, free from the worries of the world. And I feel fortunate to be able to do so.

And I know another part of me cannot live with itself unless I am doing whatever I can to help our species survive and improve its condition. And I still hold the seemingly irrational conviction that our generation will come to its senses and act politically to save ourselves, our kids, grandkids, and all who will follow us.

Truth told, this state of being is not much compared to the dreams I used to have of being part of a generation that had brought peace, prosperity, and justice to America and the world. At age eighteen I never imagined that at age sixty-eight I would be part of a generation that could be one of the last in human history.

But this self-knowledge is something, however inadequate. And as long as I can meditate and agitate, reflect and rebel, and seek inner peace within and revolution without, I can at least say this: finally after all these years, I can, from time to time, live with myself.

Fred Branfman, after four decades of psychological, spiritual, and political work on behalf of the environment, information revolution, and peace, focuses today on cultivating a “life-affirming death awareness,” as described on www.trulyalive.org. His appreciation of Howard Zinn appeared in the March/April 2010 Tikkun. Email: fredbranfman@aol.com.
 
tags: Activism, Culture, Spiritual Politics, War & Peace   
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