St. Louis — His government broke his heart but it could not break Air Force veteran Charles Powell’s spirit. Fighting back tears, the 64 year-old vet stood tall and resolute in front of 400 of his comrades, describing in verse the final steps of a painful disillusionment.
Each summer during the national convention of Veterans for Peace, time is reserved for a Veterans’ Speakout, where any member can rise to say whatever is on their mind.
When the veterans gathered in 2002, prior to the invasion of Iraq, George Bush and the hawks of Washington were pounding away on the war drums. That year, Powell, who had served on a Titan ICBM launch crew during the Cuban missile crisis, read his poem titled, “I Won’t Let Them Take My Flag.” He noted the warmongers were “again waving my flag” as a buildup to invasion, and he countered what he felt was a manipulation of the national symbol with the following lines reminiscent of the great Langston Hughes.
“But to me ‘Old Glory’ still stands for the liberty, justice, and solidarity yet to come. So I still wave it too. I wave it for health care, education, housing, and food for all. I wave it for peace and love and I wave it for hope. Most of all, I wave it for the America yet to be.
After four and a half years of war in Iraq, Veterans for Peace convened again this summer and Charles Powell was there as always. As his turn came at the Speakout microphone he struggled a few seconds to compose himself. Then, in a clear voice growing more determined as he spoke, Powell mirrored the pain, regret, and anger in the hearts of so many who listened.
I WILL SALUTE NO MORE FOREVER
As a child I learned to Worship that piece of colored cloth.
My family, my school, the movies, TV taught me to believe that fragment of fabric stood for good things.
I watched my father, a World War II Army veteran, give homage to that wad of material.
As an airman I saluted that banner for the four years I served in the Air Force where I stood ready to help launch Titan Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles on command.
Then I became aware that the wonderful things which that clump of colors is supposed to represent have not been achieved.
I came to know that awful, unlawful, unwise and immoral acts have occurred under the stars and stripes.
But I still clung onto the belief and hope that someday, somehow conditions would change and the good things for which that rag is still supposed to stand would yet be realized.
However, I’ve been forced to come to my senses.
Now we have: preemptive war, the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, stop loss, neglect of returning veterans, ignored infrastructure, billions of dollars squandered on war and occupation, extraordinary rendition, secret imprisonment, warrantless domestic spying, disenfranchisement of voters, stolen elections, torture, suspension of habeas corpus and denial of due process.
So, even though hearing “America The Beautiful” still increases my heartbeat.
Although seeing those stripes still brings a lump to my throat.
Even though the sight of those stars continues to bring tears to my eyes.
I won’t pledge to it anymore.
I won’t remove my cap.
I won’t stand in respect.
I won’t wave it.
I will salute no more forever.
Mike Ferner is a member of Veterans for Peace and a freelance writer from Ohio.