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Author of this essay:

Shi Ming Zhen
(8 February 2007)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

"A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon."

--Napoleon Bonaparte

"Education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

--John Kerry addressing students at Pasadena City College.

We don't know whether the emperor of France and the senator from Massachusetts share any other views, but both seem to regard soldiers in the field as intellectually challenged. Napoleon's men may have been content with a battle ribbon, but the men in Iraq have a different expectation, one that we never seem to consider when discussing the pros and cons of our role in the conflict. Our soldiers, unlike Napoleon's, are not conscripts. Nobody forced them to enlist. They have their own reasons for volunteering to serve; and most of those reasons lend a delicious irony to Kerry's unfortunate remark. Kerry was warning college students that if they didn't do the hard work of succeeding in school, they'd find themselves futureless in a war zone. The guys in the war zone were doing the hard work of succeeding in the military so that they could get themselves a future by going to college.

This was not Kerry's first denigration of American servicemen. Back in the days of Viet Nam, after he had joined an anti-war group of veterans, he went before Congress and testified about confessions of war crimes the veterans had made at a recent meeting. Appearing in fatigues, with dog-tag charisma, he proceeded to extend the guilt from the 150 men who had been present at the meeting to a million or so American servicemen. "These were not isolated incidents," he testified, "but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command." He listed the atrocities: "...they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam..."

That Kerry chose to become a member of the group that was denouncing its own crimes further indicates how pervasive he considered the criminal activity to be. His testimony, unfortunately, was both believed and well publicized. The next day thousands in Washington staged an anti-war demonstration, and Kerry's political career was launched. He had accessed the public's reservoir of frustration about Viet Nam; and with the alchemy of rhetoric, he converted the waters to venom. People greeted the returning troops with spit.

It is of interest to note that despite his graphic depiction of the savages who wore American uniforms in Viet Nam, more than 72% of them came home and used the G.I. Bill to attend college.

This doesn't just seem bizarre, it is bizarre. A hoard of baby-killing, raping murderers descending on our universities en masse to study Shakespeare and economics? It more than strains credulity. It is, in fact, so preposterous that common sense forces us either to discount the number of Vets who went to college on the GI Bill, or to regard as scurrilous drivel accounts of their wholesale barbarity. Fortunately, we have records of classroom attendance.

And of the other 28% of returning Vets? Most got jobs in the fields they trained for in the military - heavy equipment operators, medical technicians, mechanics, police, food service, and so on. Those who were drafted returned to their pre-draft lives. No one is saying that there were no criminal acts committed. Men at war, particularly those who've been rushed into combat without having learned to manage fear and rage, are not inclined to be forbearing. No army in the history of warfare has been free of combat excesses. When killing is the object, sadism is a question of degree, not kind.

But this does not explain the convoluted reasoning of individuals who seek to become heroic spokespersons for those who oppose the violence, the greed, prejudice, hubris, or any other unpleasant motive they ascribe to those in power. In that inane logic of destroying something in order to save it, along with the object of their scorn, they demolish the reputation of the entire organization, the goodness of which has accrued to their benefit.

Democratic societies often retain the notion that certain groups of people are inherently superior. From the founding of the Republic until the end of World War II, the new aristocracy's dividing line was intelligence; and education was the prima facie evidence of intelligence. Controlling education meant determining who was "to the manor born." Economic class distinctions as well as an admissions' quota system supported this notion.

Before the War, a division as clear as a phylum designation, separated a man who was "an officer and a gentleman" from a man who was merely "enlisted." Officers were refined men with service academy or university degrees who came from prosperous Protestant families. Those with military backgrounds passed down, like genes, the traditions of leadership. Enlisted men were uneducated fellows who came from farms or the blue-collar ethnic neighborhoods of inner cities. Their nature adhered them to coarseness, but with strict discipline they could be pried loose and polished into servicemen. And though it might seem superfluous to mandate the preservation of such distinction, the two classes, then as now, were forbidden to "fraternize." This was no Saint Crispin's Band of Brothers.

World War II changed all that. Conscription filled the ranks: and since more officers were required than the service academies could provide, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) on university campuses and the military-based Officers' Candidate Schools, in which enlisted personnel could advance, supplied the bachelor degrees required for a commission. The natural barriers of economic class that had separated leaders and followers could no longer be counted on to defend against social contagion. Upper class intellectuals did not welcome the invasion.

When the G.I. Bill was introduced in 1944, elitist university administrators and faculty railed against it. Harvard's president, James B. Conant, was aghast to think that clods would be mucking up the Ivy League's hallowed halls. Conant protested that the Bill simply "did not distinguish between those who can profit most by advanced education and those who cannot." Clearly, the program was a misbegotten attempt "to push men farther than their intelligence permitted." Conant insisted that the Bill be revised so that the program would be restricted to a "carefully selected number of the most able veterans." The University of Chicago's Robert Hutchins was less gracious. He predicted that when the G.I.'s returned from the war, "Colleges and universities will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles."

Amateur athletics, the province of the leisure class, faced the same intrusions. Considering the camaraderie of collegiate locker rooms and playing fields, it had always been imperative that only refined persons be given places on varsity squads. And naturally when it came to representing the U.S. at prestigious events such as the Olympics, only the gentry were considered qualified for such honor. If some outsider succeeded in competing, he was usually resented.

The saddest instance of such prejudice was the collegiate Amateur Athletic Union's treatment of Jim Thorpe, a Native American athlete whose alma mater was the Carlisle Indian Institute. Coached personally by Glenn "Pop" Warner, Thorpe made Carlisle a national sports' power, beating both Harvard and Army in football. At the Stockholm Olympics Thorpe won the gold medal in both the Decathlon and Pentathlon events - an astonishing feat. Olympic rules required any protest or challenge to be filed no later than thirty days after the closing ceremonies; yet, AAU president James Sullivan, learning from the publicity that surrounded Thorpe's performance that several years before the games he had accepted money to play minor league baseball, took six months to retroactively cancel Thorpe's amateur status and to request the International Olympic Committee to do the same. Thorpe, who had not competed in baseball, hadn't known the amateur rules applied to this activity. He explained that he had no reason to suspect that he was doing anything improper since college men were also playing baseball for money - albeit they had not used their own names. The college students were not investigated. Thorpe was humiliated and forced to give back his Olympic medals. That the request to expunge his record had been made by an American is perhaps even more astonishing than the athletic performance. Accordingly, the silver medalists were awarded the gold; but to their credit, the silver medal winners, a Swede and a Norwegian, refused to accept them.

The tragi-comedy at Duke University encapsulates the destructive inanities of the intellectual aristocracy. In March, 2006, members of Duke's Lacrosse team hired two professional women, both African American, to perform striptease dances at an off-campus party. Later, when intoxicated, one of the women claimed that she had been raped by three of the party goers who, she added significantly, had not worn condoms. The men denied the charge. Within days, and before DNA and other evidence could be adduced, eighty-eight faculty members produced an advertisement in the college paper denouncing the university for engendering the kind of racist atmosphere that permitted such a "social disaster." The ad featured anonymous statements by students who claimed to be harassed by racism and sexism on campus. One student imagined how different the situation would be if the players had been black playing a less "upscale" sport. (Lacrosse, an Iroquois game taught to New England settlers, was considered a rich, white-boys' sport.)

In the ad, the "Group of 88" faculty lamented, "These students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves." Well, that settled it. No Lacrosse player had even been arrested for the alleged rape, but the faculty determined that the woman's story was true. Facts? They did not require facts. (DNA tests would prove that none of 46 Lacrosse players had donated the semen found in and on the dancer.) Campus intellectuals, who should have felt privileged to be associated with prestigious Duke University, instead savaged the institution. Their emotional response, coupled with the incomprehensible actions of the District Attorney - whose law license is now in jeopardy - caused inestimable damage to the young men who were formally charged with rape and kidnapping. Months later the rape charge was dropped. The students had been disgraced, suspended, burdened with legal fees, and deprived of a year of their academic life. (We do not know if Duke's $40,000. a year tuition fee was returned.)

Had the Group of 88 faculty twits given a damn about the young woman they might have tried to understand that this divorced mother of two, who was attending another college and paying her expenses by working as an escort and exotic dancer, might just have been overwhelmed by the pressures on her. Perhaps a nasty remark had set her off and she retaliated in a drunken rage. It happens. Cooler, calmer intervention might have helped her through her emotional distress. But in their desperation to shine in the spotlight as champions of justice, the 88 sacrificed her interests to theirs. Now that she has been discredited, they will likely blame her for making themselves look idiotic.

In religion, as clerics, we often encounter the same pedantic arrogance. University professors will invite us to give a talk to one of their classes, we oblige, and then in the Q&A period after the talk we discover that the professors have already lectured their students on our subject, giving them in meticulous detail a daunting amount of misinformation. When we assert a fact that disagrees with the professor's version, he accounts for our inaccuracy with patronizing condescension. If, for example, we say that the Dalai Lama is not the head of our Buddhist order, the professor intones, "Well, these internecine difficulties do arise." In other words, of course the Dalai Lama is the head but we, for some reason, are having an hierarchical hissy fit. If we don't believe in a Judgment Day assignment of karmic retribution, he explains, "Westerners often have difficulty with eastern eschatology." (We can't handle basic Buddhist theology.) If we allude to Zen's mystical component, we get a sarcastic, "Visions and such hallucinations are dismissed as Makyo. Perhaps there is an exception to the rule." I've spoken to other clerics who've had identical experiences. The agenda is clearly not to teach Buddhism but to establish an intellectual pecking order, a class distinction in which the professor flaunts his erudition and clerics are revealed to be humorously unschooled. Frequently the professor considers himself a Buddhist. He does not serve a congregation; and if some of his students have been considering joining a sangha, his derisive comments are not likely to encourage them.

Buddhist chat lines and other venues often contain the abusive comments of a gang of contributors who consider themselves the Dharma Schutzstaffel, an orthodox "Guardian Squadron" that is entitled to denounce (as they quote chapter and verse of scriptures from their particular school) and expel from Buddhist ranks anyone who does not subscribe to their version of the Dharma. Buddhism's "gentle persuasion" is no where in sight. Those who would comment in a gentle manner are driven away - as are readers who visited the site in hopes of finding a Path.

All of these self-ordained "Keepers of the Flame" accomplish very little. Given a little time, they usually strengthen the side they are opposing.

Jim Thorpe's medals were returned to him, thirty years after his death. Ultimately, none of the incident's disgrace fell upon him.

The soldiers in Iraq believe in their cause and continue to do what they agreed to do. They do not make foreign policy; and neither their interests nor the reputation of the country need be sacrificed in order to voice an opinion about that policy. Perhaps as a demonstration of combat-readiness, they immediately responded to the slur by posing in front of hand-painted signs: "Halp us, John. We ain't got no ejicashun." The Senator, his foot bleeding, announced that he would not be a candidate for the presidency.

By their premature and somewhat cavalier determination that a drunken, reckless charge was Gospel truth, the 88 faculty members helped to create another Tawanda Brawley. This is not likely to benefit the next African American woman who claims to have been beaten and raped by white men. But on the bright side, the Ku Klux Klan may give them a gratuity for all the good they did for race relations.

And finally, we, as Buddhists, should be circumspect when voicing opinions about our religion and the religion of others. If we can't obey the rules of Loyal Opposition, we should make an effort to be civil and to try, at least, to respect the right, to "live and let live." Destroying something in order to improve it or save it makes sense only in the world of intellectual snobbery.

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