Mike Gravel and An Ongoing Road to Courage

Photograph Source: United States Senate – Public Domain

“There’s only one thing worse than a soldier dying in vain; it’s more soldiers dying in vain.”

~ Senator Mike Gravel, 2008 Democratic presidential primary debate, July 23, 2007.

Please watch this short video of Senator Mike Gravel speaking at the 2008 Democratic presidential primary debates. Watch him admonish his fellow candidates for their warmongering. Watch this video, not just to witness Senator Gravel’s moral and intellectual honesty, but watch to see the expressions of disdain and derision in his fellow candidates’ faces, to include the smirking and mocking smiles of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. Notice how Joe Biden raises his hand, enthusiastically, to ensure he is included in the count of candidates who are eager to go to war with Iran, even with nuclear weapons. Those are not leaders, they are gangsters running an international racket, and they are men and women beholden to the Empire, to its clawing for power, to its inequality, and to its profiteering. Mike Gravel stood in stark and inspiring contrast.

I heard Senator Gravel speak at those debates in the days and months after I came home the second time from the Iraq War. Those words by themselves were not enough to give me the courage to face the reality of what the United States’ wars in the Muslim world were actually for and about. Nor did they allow me to acknowledge how counter-productive the wars were, to admit their moral and intellectual dishonesty, or to accept how the only people profiting from the wars were the weapons companies, the generals earning promotions, the politicians waving bloody flags, and al-Qaeda itself, who benefited from tens of thousands rallying to their cause in response to the US’ savage occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. I would still go on to join the State Department, after having been in the Marine Corps for ten years, and on to the Afghan War.

In Afghanistan, I was a political officer stationed in the rural provinces of the insurgent dominated east and south of the country, on the border of Pakistan. What I saw in Afghanistan was no different than what I had seen in Iraq. Any differences “experts” would describe between the two countries, the culture, the terrain, the near and far history of the places, etc., were all irrelevant. This was simply because the one thing that mattered was the presence of the US military and the intentions of those in Washington, DC.

I was of the mindset these wars were one off mistakes. Just as I had been of the mindset that the Vietnam War was an isolated event. What the United States did, and still does, in Central America, the Caribbean and South America were disconnected events. The same for the role the United States played in the Pacific; whether it was the “opening” of Japan by Commodore Perry, the violence of the US Marines and Navy in Korea in the 1870s, the conquest of Hawaii by coup in 1893, or the Philippine occupation beginning in 1898. The same with the Spanish-American War and the War of 1812 – how we forget our invasion of Canada! Meanwhile, the Native American genocide and African slavery were occurrences not coupled to these other wars and the construction of the American Empire. I was thanked constantly by acquaintances and strangers for my courage in taking part in the Global War on Terror, but in my own head and person I had not the courage to admit the history of the country, and its continuance, that I was serving.

So I went to Afghanistan in 2009. And, as I said, what I saw there was no different than what I had seen in the war in Iraq. The Democrats were now in charge, but just as the Republicans were eager to have a successful wartime commander in chief for domestic political reasons, the Democrats were the same. The generals, many of whom had been generals in Iraq, had only grown more vainglorious. The war was a reality onto itself, as the American and NATO occupation, along with the corrupt drug running government the US had put and kept in place, was one of the major reasons for the war itself.

In hindsight, my self-delusion and self-concern were remarkable to the point of being breathtaking. I was able to lie to myself for so long and to live a life and career so dissonant from the sharp actuality of the horror of what the United States was doing…it is a great shame today. Nearly twelve years later, I am still asked about the evolution of how and why I resigned in protest from my State Department position in 2009 over the war, and began a path of dissent against the wars and empire. Most of the time the questioner is kind and tactful enough not to ask why I did not do so sooner. To that second question the answer is singular and clear: cowardice.

However, to the first question, well, there is no simple answer to that. Much of it was experience after experience. Some of that experience began in 2002-2004, when I was a Marine Corps officer at the Pentagon, in the Secretary of the Navy’s office, and I was able to see clearly the disagreement between the US government narrative on the wars and the fact of them. Yet, I went voluntarily to the war in Iraq twice. I came home angry and despondent, drank heavily, became suicidal, and then I went to the war in Afghanistan. In between the wars, I worked on war issues in Washington, DC, even taking part in helping craft lies about the war, such as I did when I authored the Iraq weekly status report, in both classified and unclassified versions, at the State Department in 2005 and 2006.

As I look back on it now, my knowledge of the wars was complete and my familiarity with history was thorough. Nevertheless, I did not have the courage to link the continuity of history through American wars and empire. More importantly, I did not have the courage to step away from the institutions, my career, societal adulation and all the other benefits of being a Marine in the United States or being an officer of the Empire. My continuance in the wars and service to the Empire have certainly earned the consequences of that deceit and cowardice. I have been suicidal, crippled with post traumatic stress disorder that has brutally destroyed relationships and a marriage, and I live with a traumatic brain injury that leaves me unable to earn a paycheck. This essay I must dictate, because my brain injury does not allow me to think, articulate, type and look at a screen at the same time. So there is some justice, not enough, but some. As a just man once said: live by the sword, die by the sword.

Hearing Senator Gravel speak in those debates in 2008 was one of many chisel strikes into my personal foundation of deceit and cowardice. Senator Mike Gravel passed away this week. I never met him, and he most likely had no idea who I am. Yet the impact he had on me, just by his presence and courage on that debate stage, was extraordinary. It was an extension of the courage he displayed fifty years ago when he read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record.

Who today, whether they be darlings of the Left or the Right, have displayed such courage? Courage only matters when there are real consequences to your actions and there is a difference between consequences to yourself and consequences to others. The consequences to my own vanity and career are what kept me in the wars and kept me taking part in that organized murder. Personal consequences did not scare Mike Gravel. Senator Gravel was afraid of the consequences to others of his inaction. He was afraid of the consequences of what would happen if someone of his standing and position did not act with truth and justice as their intention.

I do not know if Mike Gravel ever acted because he knew what he was doing would influence and inspire others. I don’t know if when he spoke those words in the 2008 debates he knew he would be influencing and giving strength to those who needed it. I think his determination was just to do the right thing, personal consequences be damned. That is one of the things about influencing, inspiring and strengthening others, we never know who we are going to impact. We do not know where in a person’s journey towards courage we will meet them.

Mike Gravel’s words were somewhere at the middle of my journey. Although I would still act in ways I now regret for another two years, his words at those debates connected one element of courage to another element inside of me. Such inspiration and support came additionally from writers like Bob Herbert, from the words of my father, and from the faces, forever in my mind, of those I witnessed suffer in Iraq and Afghanistan. This journey towards courage continued until I finally had the strength to confront my own moral and intellectual dishonesty. In many ways it was a breakdown, a collapse of my mind and spirit due to the weight of mendacity, yet it was also a rebirth. To find such courage I needed examples and Mike Gravel was one of them.

I have no doubt that over the decades Mike Gravel influenced and changed people as he did with me. So many of those people whom he led to courage he never met and will certainly now never meet. Senator Gravel’s impact on generations of Americans, as well as citizens, of other nations, cannot be underestimated and it should be celebrated.

Oh, if Mike Gravel had been president. What might have been?

Rest in peace Senator Gravel. Thank you for what you did and attempted to do for our country and for the world. Thank you for what you did for me and for what you have done for countless others. Your spirit, your courage and your example will live on through those you inspired.

Matthew Hoh is a member of the advisory boards of Expose Facts, Veterans For Peace and World Beyond War. In 2009 he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan in protest of the escalation of the Afghan War by the Obama Administration. He previously had been in Iraq with a State Department team and with the U.S. Marines. He is a Senior Fellow with the Center for International Policy.