At gunpoint in a Peace Camp

indexWe don’t trust the skinhead. This is the kind of paranoia that is going to make the Peace Camp a not very fun place. This is exactly the kind of paranoia that The Man wants you to feel. The skinhead seems friendly enough, even if he looks like a young angry Robert De Niro from the movie Taxi Driver, only with more issues and surplus army jackets. He explains he’s from a branch of skinheads that don’t believe in hate. He’s not a Nazi at all. That just doesn’t taste right. But we are all about giving people and love a chance in the Peace Camp. So, we roll the dice and embrace the skinhead, only metaphorically and at arm’s length.

I am technically only covering the Peace Camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina just outside the U.S. Marine base Camp Lejeune for a newspaper in Chapel Hill. OK. It’s not exactly a newspaper. It’s more of a thin left-leaning zine financed by smoke and mirrors and so egalitarian that the group can’t decide anything without consensus. It only takes one disagreeable person in the group to turn the search for a decision about changing the font size into a tedious nightmare. The Prism is so far left-leaning it might be bent over double in the manner of a sprightly Cirque du Soleil contortionist. But I have been so heartily embraced by the Peace Camp that the line between sympathetic journalist and Peace participant seems blurry or maybe doesn’t exist at all.

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The Peace Camp is all about supporting the conscientious objectors to the Persian Gulf Conflict. To be clear, this is the first one. The one where we pushed Saddam Hussein right back out of Kuwait, defeated him militarily with a Coalition of the Willing and left him in power so he’d be there to fight another day.

Also, to be clear, the conscientious objectors were not drafted. They joined up in peacetime, but found their conscience when called upon to go fight and possibly die in the war. This may seem hard to square for some people. Over time, I had a hard time squaring it myself. At that moment in the Peace Camp, being a conscientious objector to all war in the middle of a very specific war that I didn’t feel comfortable with made perfect sense.

The boys in uniform were getting court martial trials and being sent off to the brig one by one. They would serve their time there. Maybe four months. Maybe three. Then they’d be dishonorably discharged. They’d continue on with whatever they were about to do before they joined the military.

There was a little bit of cult of personality and freedom worship about them among Peace Campers. Sexual favors may have been given out by some of the women. The warriors who wouldn’t go to war represented something more than what they really were. They were given pretty homemade medals in a ceremony on the beach before they were given court martial trials by their country and sent away to serve their time.

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It was easy to sympathize with them. A lot of times the recruiter had apparently explained that they would enjoy all the benefits of being in the military like exotic travel and college scholarships without ever actually having to fight in a war. That probably seemed like a great deal until it wasn’t the deal anymore.

So, we are all having great fun in the Peace Camp supporting the oppressed and indicted conscientious objectors until the skinhead arrives. That very night he gets there, he is in the car with a bunch of us when a police officer pulls us over. We are a motley crew. Matt, the organizer of the Peace Camp, who has an unflappable goatee and has lived all his life in Brooklyn, does something you should never do when you are stopped by a police officer at night. Matt gets out of the car and walks toward the police officer’s car to find out what the police officer wants.

The police officer draws his gun and points it at Matt’s head. Matt doesn’t have his glasses on. But when he gets close enough, he does notice the gun in his face. He reverses direction and comes walking slowly back to the car. We are all told to put our hands behind our heads and not move. So, we do.

The police officer searches the car. There’s so much tofu and odd hippie stuff in the back of the car, he doesn’t make much headway. He gives up after about ten minutes of rooting around in the back. As a consolation prize for not finding any drugs, he arrests the driver of the car for driving while impaired. He rides down to the station house, and we follow them there.

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“I’m sure glad he didn’t find my gun,” says the skinhead later. “Why on earth do you have a gun?” we ask.”You can never be too careful,” the skinhead replies. No. No, you can’t, we think to ourselves.

Skinheads and police officers were never supposed to be part of the plan. The Peace Camp suddenly stinks of oppression and potential violence. We dismantle the Peace Camp the next day, packing up all the tofu and political literature. Everything fun and wonderful in the dark of night in a tent with a fire and political passions burning hot has become stale and cold and weird.

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I go back to Chapel Hill and write my story. Things are never quite as clear as they once were after that. Certainty gives way to doubt. Fever gives way to thoughtful examination of the facts. Viewpoints shift.

Still, there are moments when you need to go way out on a limb with your passions. Really. Until you are at gunpoint with a skinhead next to you who is carrying a concealed firearm, you have not truly lived the bright and dangerous life you were meant to have.

Or maybe it’s just me.

My wife, 15-year-old son and I now live in New York City in the shadow of the 1 World Trade Center. If there is ever a real war, the bombs will drop first here while wackos deep in Armageddon-proof bunkers in Nebraska can feel free to keep on inbreeding underground for generations living on cans of beans and spam.

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When I started my job not long ago, I walked past a car in a quiet Brooklyn neighborhood that had clearly suffered a miniature bomb blast. The seats were blackened. The windshield was shattered. It was parked perfectly parallel among the other cars in the neighborhood as if it were still somehow driven to work each morning in that condition.

Maybe I just like to live dangerously.

Actually, neither me or the conscientiously objecting marines I covered at Camp Lejeune have much of a clue about danger or sacrifice or what it means to serve. Our concerns and worries seem petty and ridiculous when stacked up against people in wartime.

My grandfather on my mother’s side served in World War II. He was with the Army Medical Corps. My mom remembers him having nightmares. When soldier’s legs needed to be amputated to save their lives, he would have to hold them down. He never spoke of it to me.

At his funeral, soldiers lined up to fire a 21 gun salute. The crack of their rifles pierced me to the bone. My grandmother received a flag folded perfectly. The sun was beating down mercilessly on a Florida day set on slow-bake. We all moved toward the cars to leave. My uncle stood watching at the grave long after the funeral was over like a silent sentinel as his father was lowered into the ground.

Grandaddy Snipes had served his time. He was at peace at last. A good soldier in a war that had to be fought. There are no Great Wars, and some conflicts are harder to justify than others. Subject to endless debate, even. But there is your word and what it means when you give it and what it means when you try to take it back.

You can object to any war, but it’s hard now to see how you can pick and choose among the conflicts you’ll fight in once you’ve signed up to do your duty. Clarity comes with time, and my judgment today is much harsher on the conscientious objectors I once thought were grossly misunderstood and uncelebrated heroes.

Some step up. Some do not. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

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At gunpoint in a Peace Camp

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