Heroes (June 2, 1999)

The end of May saw another school yard shooting. Fifteen year-old Thomas Solomon, Jr., “a quiet, churchgoing Boy Scout,” marched into his Conyer, Georgia school and popped off a dozen or so rounds from a rifle, injuring a handful of his schoolmates. It's reported that unlike Oregon's Kip Kinkle or Colorado's Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Solomon wasn't trying to kill his peers. He was trying to wound them, his horror show a “cry for help.” After his spree, Solomon shoved a gun in his mouth, only to have it coaxed out by a school administrator.

Solomon is being portrayed as an “average kid,” as if there is such a thing. He is not being painted as a animal-torturing psycho as Kinkle has or members of a racist, misfit army as young Harris and Klebold have been. The “average” Solomon stands alone, his act an act of frustration over a failed teenage romance. However Solomon shares something with Kinkle, Harris, and Klebold, something other than the title “schoolyard shooter.” All four of the boys are children of the Gulf War.

Until the Gulf War and since World War Two, war has gotten a “bad rap.” America's toughest war, its campaign in Korea never took on the heroic sheen the Big One did. Its goals were murky. The war was never officially declared. And American soldiers suffered under much harsher conditions than they did in either the European or Pacific theaters in WWII. The Korean War was not romantic.

Like Korea, the War on South East Asia was never officially declared. The stated reason for the war, “to contain communism,” was a wooshy abstraction. American soldiers encountered stiff resistance from Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian patriots. And as popular sentiment against the war grew, the war's romanticism was associated with those who marched in the streets in opposition rather than the warriors. Later the opposition took the form of myth, and what was really a prolonged effort by a small group of people against the war morphed into a whole nation at odds with the Pentagon. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, outside of the military and the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party, it was nearly impossible to find someone who “wasn't out in the streets, man.” From the mythology of mass resistance came the “Vietnam syndrome,” a popular negative reaction to war in general.

The “Vietnam syndrome” was alive during the 1980s and enabled Central American solidarity activists to gain popular support against Presidents Carter and Reagan's aggression south of the border. So deep was the conviction that the US should keep its hands off Central America, both the Carter and Reagan had to go underground in order to realize their policy goals of thwarting social reform and populist control of the US's backyard. Carter used Israel and Argentinean nazis to funnel money and weapons to Guatemala's fascist generals. Reagan engaged in the well-known Iran-Contra scandal, a fiasco that led to a mass whiteout of cheap cocaine throughout America's ghettos. Popular revulsion toward war was also responsible for mass support for arms control and the crusade against nuclear weapons.

With the Bush administration came the instant invasion of Panama, a “bloodless war” and one that paved the way for the war on Iraq. With Panama, our “leaders” learned that if the action is swift and the villain is clear identified and Hitlerized, resistance to such action will be limited to the fringe and whatever goals the US wants to accomplish can be realized before fringe resistance spreads to the general public. What freaks the public out is not the violence per se, but “our boys” coming home in body bags for some undefined reason; thus swift action, thus war by remote control, thus “genocide” and “Hitler.”

While there was widespread public resistance to the build-up in the Middle East prior to the US attack on Iraq, once the bombing started public support swung the other way. “Support the troops” replaced “No war for oil” as the populist slogan of the day. Anti-war groups even started doing blood drives not for the victims of the air war but for the US troops who were to encounter the fabled Iraqi Republican Guard, a fierce fighting force that were literally crushed under US tanks while running away. At the time, Noam Chomsky would mantra that public support of the war was “a mile wide and an inch thick.” He was correct if he was referring to adults and late teens who grew up during the Korean and South East Asian wars or during the mythical, mass-progressive shadow of the Sixties. If you were a kid who was born in the Eighties when TV heroes were GI Joe and “Family Ties” Alex Keaton, a teen George Will, when rock'n'roll was defined by coked-out Yuppies like Huey Lewis and Diet Coke hucksters like George Michael, when Wall Street was synonymous with the Stairway to Heaven, your support for the Gulf War was as real as kid support could be.

While bombs rained down on the civilians of Baghdad, Kip Kinkle was eleven years-old. Eric Harris was ten. Dylan Klebold was nine. And Thomas Solomon, Jr. was seven. All four were at an age when children, especially young boys, look up to adults, especially adult males, as demi-gods. From the ages of six to thirteen, we males form our perceptions of what manhood is or should be from the actions and influence of our fathers and brothers. For the first time in our lives we discover and create heroes. When I was ten my heroes were Dr. J, Elton John, and Billie Jean King. (Okay, you can stop laughing). My heroes were multiethnic and of different genders. And though I rebelled against these heroes during my early pubescence, they did have a lasting influence on me. But between the time I was coming into puberty and when our four shooters did, who was worthy of hero in the media eye had changed.

The Eighties brought Wall Street to Valhalla. Wheeler-dealers like Donald Trump were paraded in front of our youth. Jingoistic cranks like Chuck Yeager were hoisted on our shoulders. Leftist musicians such as Bruce Springsteen were held up as right-wing populists (“Born in the USA”) and then presented as heros. As the era came to an end and the US was turning Iraq into moonscape, the warrior became hero. Over and over again we were told of the “valiant war effort” of push-button Pattons like General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, the “world's most popular general,” at the time, according to the New York Times. General Colin Powell was not only touted as a hero but a savior, who could “unify the nation.” Powell was the first military man since Eisenhower to be considered a “shoo-in” for the presidency — if he wanted it. Our “brave fighting men and women” — the fierce legionnaires who, with daring fortitude, nerves of steel, and unvarnished grit, pointed and clicked their on-board computers sending missiles hundreds of miles into hospitals, power plants, and baby formula factories — were America's darlings. People who embodied the idea that one must kill in order to get one's way and destroy if one does not are who Kinkle, Harris, Klebold, and Solomon were told to emulate. Firmly planted into the subconscious of this generation of young boys are archetypes of violence and force, the rationale that might makes right. Is it any wonder why, when confronted with adversity, these youngsters grabbed their guns?

And now as bombs hail down on Serbia, our youngsters are presented with a new set of heroes, heroes who resort to violence as a solution to problems. Perhaps, hopefully, our youth will shield their eyes from the remote-control combatants and the blood ghouls of Washington and look toward the basketball court of Sacramento. There they will see the Kings' center Vlades Divac, playing his heart out while the US and NATO destroy his homeland; while his brother, drafted into the Serb army, faces certain death on the front-lines; and while his parents and family cower in fear every time they hear planes overhead. Divac not only lead his team in some of the NBA's most thrilling playoff games ever, he held press conferences and gave interviews where he minced no words in his opposition to NATO's war. He grieves not only for his country but for the death of a grassroots Serbian democracy movement, destroyed by Milosevic under the pretext of “unity against NATO.” A small “d” democrat, a populist, an outspoken opponent against war, and a kind and compassionate man with a mean sky hook: That is hero material.

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