Tuesday, December 18, 2012


December 18, 2012:

          When I enrolled at Princeton my brother, four years older and at Cornell, advised me to join ROTC in order to avoid the draft and fulfill my military obligations as an officer rather than an enlisted man. I did. Princeton happened to have an artillery unit and I trained for four years, once a week, to become an artillery forward observer. We used to fire steel balls out of miniature howitzers in the Princeton Armory, and I got good at it. I found out how good when we spent six weeks between junior and senior years at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, in field conditions, firing practice missions with 105 howitzers, using old tank and truck bodies as the targets. I fired six perfect missions over the six weeks, then a seventh as a demonstration before 700 fellow cadets from all over the country. Six other cadets also fired demonstration missions. They all messed up. Not me.

          I was also good handling the guns. A 105mm. howitzer was the Army's standard artillery weapon then and we trained on them, learning to get rounds off within ten seconds of receiving the fire order. That meant aiming the weapon, putting the right number of powder bags into the cartridges, loading the weapon and pulling the lanyard. We were between wars then. I never had to fire a shot in combat, go to Vietnam, put myself in danger. But we wound up in the Reserves and you never knew whether or when you might be called to active duty. I spent my active duty training cannoneers at Ft. Sill, teaching them to do what I did so well.

          And loved doing. You can stand directly behind a howitzer and watch the shell climb into the heavens until it reaches the top of its arc and starts to descend. It's a beautiful sight. I used to wonder when I was directing fire on tank bodies whether I could direct fire on living human beings. I never had to, but I was honest enough with myself to know that if you love doing something and are very good at it, you will love doing it no matter what.  Besides, those people you're killing are trying to kill you first.

          I've never owned a gun, but I have hunters in my family and I have no objection to hunting; I once shot six skunks that were living under my house in a crawl space, killed them one by one at night over the course of a summer with a neighbor's borrowed .22. They used to wake us up at night trapping mice. The smell got into your clothes, your sheets. I had no trouble killing them. It's in me. It may not be in everybody, but it's in me.

          It's also in the culture. American culture is saturated with killing, and we watch it all the time: in video games, in movies, on TV. The military even kills children, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they become part of the collateral damage. One of our best euphemisms, "collateral damage." Little kids getting their arms and legs blown off is what it actually is. But there's nothing new about that. We've all heard of Wounded Knee, right? The Sand Creek Massacre? Indian women, Indian children, and old men like me, killed by United States Armed Forces.

          For some Americans the killing in our culture is a principal form of entertainment, especially for the teenage boys so much of American cultural production is aimed at.  It has been this way since we started killing Indians in the seventeenth century. Is Billy the Kid a hero, or a villain? In our hearts, do we root for him, or against him? A talent for killing is very cool. James Bond has a license to kill, and he does it with  panache, in between those martinis. We the audience have a real life, and a fantasy life. Gary Cooper, going out to face down death in High Noon, and the dozens and dozens of others like him. It hardly matters which side of the law they're on. D. H. Lawrence said that the typical American hero is silent, a loner, and a killer. Deep in our minds, for a great many of us, this is who we are. We want to be that cool, want to maintain our courage under extreme pressure. And too many of us see gunfire as the solution to all our problems. Here's a story about that. True story. I had lunch many years ago in New York with the retired commander of all U. S. forces in the Pacific, who served in that capacity in the 1950s. He told me that during the battle for Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, which the French were about to lose, the French had asked Washington to use tactical nuclear weapons on the Vietnamese forces surrounding the French base there. Washington radioed my general and gave him verbal permission to do so "at his discretion." My general, no fool, radioed back that he would require written orders to so something so drastic. Written orders never came, and the event never happened. Nuclear weapons, of course, are the ultimate in gunfire. A whole lot of American diplomacy has been based on American weaponry, and the willingness--no, quite often the eagerness--to use it.

          So a young man goes mad and shoots twenty little children and six adults with his mother's--his mother's--guns. Are we surprised? Outraged? Saddened? Yeah, sure we are. But only because we refuse to know ourselves. Much will be said in the next few weeks about this young man's madness, but it will all be speculative. Nobody really knows what goes on in other people's minds. I spent eleven days in a mental hospital as a patient--they didn't know I wasn't a nut case; I faked my way in--in order to write my first book, a muckraking book about the mental health system. I got to know the patients on my ward pretty well, and I discovered what I already knew from research was true. Mental patients are not as a rule more violent than the rest of the population. They're too screwed up to be effective at anything, in fact, and that's their main problem. But there will always be crazy people as there will always be war. That, too, is in us--craziness, insanity. Breaking points.

          Stricter gun control laws would help. There's no doubt about that, and only the soulless flacks of the NRA and the Senators and Congressmen they've bought will stand in the way. Guns should be licensed, regulated, and controlled the same way cars are, and for the same reasons: to increase public safety. We'll see what gives with that. But don't, in the meantime, stand next to me at a party and tell me you just don't understand how this could happen, or we should do something about the mentally ill, or we should ban guns entirely. Because more than likely it's in you as much as it's in me. There's a reason that in the United States more than 10,000 people a year die by gunfire, while the figures in other civilized industrial countries run to 100 a year or less. Gunslinger Nation, one historian called us years ago. Until that changes--and what are  your suggestions about that?--this sort of thing will happen again and again and again, with the same horrified reaction and the same cowardly refusal to face ourselves, to know who and what we really are.