21-and-a-day: Guilt-trippin'

T.A. Barnhart

I feel like I'm a man now. It just takes a long time to get here. Recovery is part of it. Death is part of it. Love that goes bad is part of it. Failing to be a parent is part of it. You have to fail and over and over in order to become a man.

James Taylor

Yesterday, my older son turned twenty-one, but he was not at home with his family when he did. Nor was he at college, or at a job. Instead, he is at Fort Benning, Georgia, going through basic training as a member of the Oregon National Guard. He's learning the skills the Army thinks he's likely to need in the next seven years: Shooting a rifle at other human beings to kill them. Lobbing mortars at other human beings to kill them. Sticking a bayonet into their guts to kill them. Becoming stronger and smarter to have the advantage in killing them before they can kill him.

Did I mention I'm not very happy about his choice to join the Guard? The days when being in the Guard meant helping fight forest fires and rescuing people from floods are long past; in the tattered remains of Bush and Rumsfeld's Army, it's the Guard's duty to go to war to replace the bodies no longer available in the regular military.

I didn't raise my kid to be a soldier, but that, for now, is what he's decided he's going to be. So now I'm doing what any good parent does when their kid picks the "wrong" path in life: I'm guilt-tripping.

I have gone over all the ways I failed my kids: the divorce, the distance, the lack of money, growling in anger at them when they were babies and refusing to sleep in the middle of the damn night. My list of the ways I caused my child to pick the one option in life most like to cause me this kind of anguish is very long. It's also pointless and stupid.

My children have absolutely no doubt about how much I love them. In time, Alex will have the maturity to talk to me about what hurt him, what angered him, what he missed because I wasn't there. When he does talk to me, he'll be able to do so because underneath all the pain and disappointment is the unshakable, undeniable fact of my love. But the kid is just twenty-one — and a day. Right now he's only concerned with living his life the way he wants to (although I am convinced he's a long way from doing that, but since I was over 45 before I began to get a clue about the right way to live my life, I'm not the one to say he should be doing better). He'll get around to the maturity thing in time. I just need to be patient and wait for him.

But my failures as a parent are not all that I'm guilt-tripping on. There is so much more available to me. And I hope I do not sound blithe about this, but as I think about the possibility, the very real possibility, that Alex could be sent to Iraq in June and shipped back in a box, covertly and with no acknowledgement from the man who killed him; I feel guilty that I have done so little to stop the deaths of the 3,400 Americans who have actually died in Iraq.

I look at how I've lived my life since it became clear Bush was going to use September 11th as an excuse to attack Iraq and start his jihad against the infidels holding the oil Jesus meant for His Chosen People to use here in the Holy Land. Yes, I marched for peace several times, including on the first Mother's Day following the loss of my mom; that was a difficult day. I once bothered to phone Gordon Smith's office in DC; I think, however, it was about ANWR. I've written in BlueOregon; I've helped elect pro-peace candidates here in Oregon and worked even harder in failing to elect John Kerry. I've done a lot, but have I done enough?

That's the toughest question of all: Have I done enough? I love the James Taylor quote because as humans we learn much more from our failures than our successes. Success simply confirms the lessons learned in failing. I know I've done a lot of good work over the years. I've volunteered in my sons' schools since pre-school. I've phone banked against Measure 9 and 13 and for a woman's right to choose. I've lit-dropped and canvassed. I started an organization to support the Corvallis High School Band, giving hundreds of hours to make up for what the state has taken away from our kids. In short, I've done my fair share. And perhaps a bit more.

But enough? I think of Cindy Sheehan, who has paid the price I fear so much. She's working as hard as she can to save the lives of other parents' children; am I doing my part? I think this is a fear, a doubt, I share with many other progressives. We see the world falling apart around us, we know we are doing something, but we believe we must do more. But what? And how much more? And worst of all, can we do enough — can we do anything? — to make a real difference? If Bush has the power to continue the war and Congress won't stop him; if the oil companies can continue to gut the planet for ever-increasing profit; if the seeds of violence are spread further and further by circumstances far beyond my reach; what the hell can I do that makes any difference?

As a progressive, writing in a progressive blog, I'm not going to repeat the usual platitudes. We all know them; we all believe them to some extent. The thought that I have this morning, the day after my child's twenty-first birthday, is that the progressive movement is insufficient if it's simply a political movement.

The neocons have had their success by being both a political and a social movement. The conservatives and right-wingers have overwhelmed those of us in the center and on the left because they have the whole enchilada: politics, social activism, religion, family, workplace, everything. Their goal is not merely political; their goal is to conquer the entirety of American society.

We progressives must make this our goal as well. But where they are exclusive, dogmatic, judgmental and self-righteous; we must be inclusive, open-minded, tolerant, forgiving. Yes, we have to win elections, and we need to elect the right people. We need to defeat the crappy ballot measures and pass a few of our own. But we need a lot more.

We need to win the war of ideas: that war fixes nothing, that poverty hurts everyone, that no one is free when injustice is tolerated. But of all the ideas that I believe we must "sell" to America is the idea that we're all in this together: We are, each of us, fully responsible to one another. We are responsible not just to our family, our friends, our neighbors, but to every other person on the planet. I think the core of progressivism must become a realization that to care for those we know the least about, perhaps the ones we fear or hate, is the only way we'll stop the many ways humankind is working to annihilate itself. If progressives can show the way to a kind of universal responsibility (and please don't ask me to define that because, frankly, I am still thinking this through), then we can start to undermine a lot of the barriers that cause fear, division and hatred.

I imagine I will carry my parental guilt to my grave (or whatever container I get placed into before I'm cremated). I can live with that. But I refuse to live with this other guilt, the idea I've not done enough and I'll never be able to do enough. I am going to accept the hard truth that there is only so much I can do. I can't change the world — alone. So I won't try. Instead, I'll keep pushing ahead with what I've been learning the past few years: Hand-in-hand with fellow progressives, I can change this country. Working with neighbors and other citizens, I can help take back our country. With others, I can end war and injustice. At the very least, I can try.

I began with one singer; I'll end with another, John McCutcheon, a traditional song I know from his version:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none And by union what we will can be accomplished still Drops of water turn a mill, singly none singly none

Singly, none. Singly, none.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    My son is 18 and also at Ft Benning with ONG. I am not happy about some of the possible outcomes. I am, however, proud of him for making his own decision to do something difficult and doing it well. He is not learning a useful trade, but he is learning something important.

    I console myself with one thing, George II is the CiC but he is not the nation, and they serve the nation, not him. As my son, he counts for no more, or less, than any other person at risk; but it is a little more personal.

  • Pedro (unverified)

    Sounds like your son is turning out fine to me. It sounds like he's more of a man than his sniveling, guilty white liberal father who doesn't have the backbone or desire to fight for his country. Grow up.

  • Huh? (unverified)

    Is being in the Guard not a job? It may not be one I would do or want my loved ones and friends to need to do, but it is...work. Employment.

  • jrw (unverified)

    Meanwhile, I count my lucky stars that my 20-year-old son (who has a chronic health condition that makes him 4-F and is vocal about it) is successfully holding down two jobs and going to college. He has no desire to join the military. Due to a number of military personnel in the family (including uncle who retired at the rank of Colonel) he has no illusions about what service means.

    Me, I'm just glad he's working and trying to give back to society as he can.

  • Bill Holmer (unverified)

    Feel better, Pedro?

    While T.A. and I may not agree on much, for all his self-confessed failures, somehow he learned to write extremely well, and I just hope that he was able to pass along some of that ability to Alex, and pray that Alex will return from his tour of duty with the same sense of civic duty that T.A. writes about so eloquently.

  • (Show?)

    Pedro, not that you care, but USAF, 1975-79

  • ses (unverified)

    while my heart aches for you ta, i know that the angst and the guilt solves nothing. feel consoled by your proactive thoughts and actions regarding our society as a whole. as you say, someday your son will come to you and talk about the things that he felt growing up. this decision on his part is no "fault" of yours, rather a phase he needs to go through. keep your chin up, we the common guy and gal need someone with your mindset to help us keep going.

  • Garlynn (unverified)


    And further, the fact that you also made the same decision -- to join the military -- that you are now laying a guilt trip on your son about... well, this is an interesting piece of information. Just to play devil's advocate -- why is it not OK for him to follow in the footsteps of his father, just because his father no longer thinks that it's such a hot idea? Self-direction, and all that... I completely understand your guilt-tripping of him, I'm just sayin'.

    I agree with the larger intent of your post, however, of needing to create a progressive solution for society. I would argue that Oregon, in particular central Portland and some of the other cities around the state, have gone a lot further down this road than most places. There is still a lot of work to be done, of course, and also, the rest of the country pays worse than no attention to the example that Oregon provides, but certainly we have a good starting position to work from, and have been working diligently on it already for... quite some time now, no?

    cheers, ~Garlynn

  • ellie (unverified)

    Maybe it's just me but I interpreted "guilt-trippin'" to be about him feeling guilt, rather than him laying guilt on his son. I don't see any sign of the latter in this (or the previous) piece, but I do see some soul-searching on his part, which includes some guilt.

    Secondly, I don't think there is anything remotely incongruous with him having served in the military and now not wanting his son to do the same. In fact, I know many parents who feel the same - my own father included - particularly those who served around the time of Vietnam and who now see the conflict in the Middle East having a similar impact on young military personnel. Those who have served in the military in the past are often the ones most opposed to having their loved ones serve now. I don't think there's anything confusing or ironic about that at all.

    TA -- I want to thank you for sharing this with us, as painful as it may be. The part that most struck me was the paragraph about the war of ideas and our responsibility to our fellow humans. I know that there are certainly a number of people who would scoff at this message (in name of patriotism, no doubt) but I appreciate you vocalizing it. While some people reject cosmopolitan ideals as being too much a threat to nationalism, I find it to be a natural, rational extension of liberalism. It reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr's letter from Birmingham jail:

    Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

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    Garlynn, i laid nothing on my son. the trip is my own. he knows where i stand, and he also knows in terms of our relationship, it's irrelevant. i disagree with his decision, and on we go with our lives.

    ellie, terrific words from you. thanks. (i think you should think about posting, if that's an example of your chops.)

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    Agreed, TA. Ellie, the guest-columns link is the yellow one up top.

  • Joe12Pack (unverified)
    <h2>Respect your point of view T.A., but I also hope you respect your sons. It's okay to disagree with his choices, but I hope you are able to accept and respect them at the same time. Joining up with the Army National Guard these days would make most any good parent cringe, but do not dishonor him for that. Whether we happen to agree with the mission he's dispatched to or not, his service is most honorable. God forbid tragedy befalls your son and you are left to wonder for eternity if you supported him enough in his decision. Guess what I'm trying to say is I hope you don't let political/philosophical differences get in the way of a father-son relationship, especially under the circumstances. That would suck for both you and your boy.</h2>

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