Momentarily taken aback, I looked him in the eye and said, "This is a free country, buddy, and if you touch me or my shirt, I'll have you charged with assault."
As he stormed off, I reminded him that America isn't Iraq, and that here being stronger doesn't mean you automatically get your way. I added that he was insulting all of those who died in Iraq thinking they were defending American freedoms. He didn't turn around.
I started my jogging again, but then found myself getting increasingly pissed off. Who did this guy think he was making threats like that?
I went out and informed the YMCA's executive director of what had happened and said I wanted this guy informed that he couldn't go around threatening people who didn't agree with him. Although she was reluctant, she followed me back into the weight room.
I went up to the guy, who now was doing arm curls with two 50-lb dumbbells, and said. "You messed up my run. Now I'm going to mess up your exercise routine. I pay for a membership to be able to come here and work out in peace. There is no rule barring the wearing of political statements on shirts, and I wear what I feel like wearing here. If you want to criticize me, my politics or my shirt, that's fine, but you are not allowed to make threats and if you do, you are going to have to leave."
The director backed me up, albeit limply, agreeing that threats were not allowed.
The guy finally grimaced and said, "Okay, I'm sorry."
As I went back to my treadmill, four people in the room came up and thanked me for taking a stand.
Mulling over what had happened, I realized that this guy, who had fought in the bloody US assault Fallujah in late 2004--a pointless massacre that featured the use of prohibited weapons like napalm and white phosphorus, and that leveled one of Iraq's largest cities, with the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians--was really reflecting the frustration of the loser,
Less than a month ago, American voters cast out the Republican leadership in Congress in what was primarily a protest against the war in Iraq. Polls are showing that two thirds of Americans now see the Iraq invasion as a giant mistake, and want exactly what my shirt calls for: an end to the war. Back in 2003, and even 2004, American troops in Iraq were seen almost universally as heroes. Now, like the soldiers of the Vietnam era, they are being deliberately forgotten--an embarrassing reminder to those who once supported the war of the idiocy of that mission (just try finding any of those once ubiquitous yellow ribbon magnets). Reports of rapes, torture and murder by American troops in Iraq haven't helped things.
The would-be bully in the gym has seen his status plummet from hero to, at best, victim.
Clearly, it's not fair to blame the troops--or him--for what's happening. He and tens of thousands like him were sent into Iraq on a lie, told by their commanding officers and by their commander in chief that they were going into Iraq as "payback" for 9-11--even though the 9-11 attackers included not one Iraqi, and even though there was never any link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. They were given inadequate equipment, inadequate body armor, insufficient troops, and an assignment--pacifying and establishing democracy in a tribal nation--that was clearly a fools' errand. And they have been left to kill, and to be maimed and killed themselves, in that quagmire now for nearly four years simply to protect the president from having to say he messed up.
Having said that, we are also starting to see the human and social cost of the horrors of that war. People like this former Marine are damaged goods--returned to the U.S. with chips on their shoulders and with an anachronistic militaristic mindset that says the guy with the gun gets to make the rules.
I'm reminded of a similar experience I had back in the late 1960s, when I participated in an event called "Vietnam Summer." Back then, with the Vietnam War going downhill for the U.S., I volunteered as part of a national campaign to go door-to-door in my neighborhood handing out literature about the war and talking about it with people. I knocked at one door of a ranch house down the street a ways from my home. A woman I didn't know answered the door. When I told her why I was there, and handed her a flier, she looked at me funny, and said with some irony in her voice, "Honey, there's someone here to see you."
A big crew-cut man 10 years older than me came to the door and asked what I wanted. I repeated my spiel to him and gave him a flier too. He glanced at it, his face contorted with anger, and said, "Just a second." He walked into the house and returned holding an unexploded mortar round. It was painted red, had a hammer-and-sickle logo, and a set of brass fins. He said, "You see this? It's a Viet Cong mortar. The only reason I'm here talking to you is because it didn't go off when it landed next to me! Some of my buddies weren't so lucky. Now scram before I lose my temper and ram this into your head!"
I split in a hurry! But years later, my father said that the guy, retired from the army, mentioned the incident to him and apologized, saying, "I should not have done that. I was angry at the time, but your son was doing the right thing. The war was wrong from the start."
I don't know what horrors this young man lived through, though I overheard him telling one shocked woman in the gym that his time in Iraq represented "the best years of my life." I do know that what U.S. forces did in Fallujah in late 2004 was a collective war crime, with captured and wounded enemy fighters shown on camera being executed point-blank, residential neighborhoods leveled by bombs and tank fire, innocent men and even boys illegally barred from fleeing the scene of battle, fleeing civilians shot as they swam for safety across the river carrying white flags, and hospitals attacked. The entire assault on Fallujah, for that matter, was a case of collective punishment--something outlawed since World War II as a war crime. No one who participated in that mass atrocity could walk away unimpaired in some way.
The most positive thing I can bring away from this encounter is the recognition that the anger and frustration expressed by this ex-Marine is a sign that the American war in Iraq has truly been lost. Back in late 2003, I wrote a piece about this same shirt, which I bought and began wearing on the day of the Iraq invasion. I had observed that when I first wore it in March 2003, it mostly elicited angry denunciations and hand gestures from people caught up in the blind jingoism of the moment, but that by late September, just six months into the war, the majority of people who saw the shirt had positive comments. Over the years, as the war has become even more of a disaster, the shirt, despite becoming pretty seedy looking from long use, has become increasingly popular, with people now asking where they can buy one like it.
I view this veteran's belligerent response to my shirt and its message as just a corollary of this changed political environment. As the "cause" for which he gave up several years of his young life--and in the name of which he almost certainly lost friends and comrades--goes down the drain, to be remembered as one of America's historic policy disasters and one of its few military defeats, he is reacting in the way he has been trained: by threatening violence.
In that, he is reflecting the mentality of the current administration, both in its failed approach to international affairs, and in its hostile attitude towards American freedoms.