Bernie and Me
First published in the Anderson Valley (CA) Advertiser’s January 23, 2002, edition.
To say that I hadn’t thought of Bernard Rostker in years would be imprecise: How do you ever truly forget someone who threatened you a month before your car was firebombed? You don’t. The memory of someone like Bernie—then United States Selective Service System Director, no less—can remain embedded in your mind forever. Or twenty years of forever, in my case. But a large part of me was willing—if not to forgive and forget—to move on: that part of me was willing to give into The Man.
But here was Bernie again, mug shot adorning a February 26, 1997 New York Times news story. The article was about a news conference Bernie had conducted on behalf of the United States Department of Defense the day before. The Pentagon, in the form of “senior investigator” Rostker, had acknowledged “for the first time that when the Army blew up a sprawling ammunition depot in southern Iraq in March 1991, it already had information suggesting that the depot might contain chemical weapons . . . The information from the CIA, the Pentagon said, was never passed on to the battalion of US soldiers who carried out the demolition several days after the Persian Gulf War ended, and who may have been exposed to a cloud of nerve gas and other chemical weapons as a result.”
Bernie was looking a little older for the fifteen-plus years which had passed since my salad days in Washington, DC. But if you know what he looks like—a dark-complexioned Caucasian of average height, solidly built, bald with a strip of dark hair—Bernie is instantly recognizable. I doubt he would remember me, though. When Bernie stepped down as Selective Service System Director in 1981, I was no longer his problem.
And I am sure he would not recognize me now. I had much longer hair in the early 1980s than I do now, and, like Bernie, I’ve put on a few pounds.
At the February 25, 1997, news conference, Rostker, whose formal title at the time was Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illnesses, said that the Pentagon had no explanation for why the American military command bureaucracy did not pass the CIA information about the Kamisiyah ammunition depot to the 37th Engineer Battalion before ordering the unit to destroy it. “That’s one of the unfortunate miscommunications here,” the Times quoted Bernie as saying.
Gee, we don’t know. We don’t know why we sent Americans into a bombed-out arsenal of chemical weapons: What a brilliant defense. For The Man and his minions, anyway, and for the inhumane and irrational within almost all of us.
“Gee, we don’t know” was the decal on the ball Pentagon Bernie ran with for four years. He did a great job—according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Bill Clinton administration, anyway. On May 23, 2000, Bernard Rostker was sworn in as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Bernie became, according to his Pentagon bio, “the Defense Secretary’s senior policy adviser on recruitment, career development, pay and benefits for 1.4 million active duty military personnel, 1.3 million Guard and reserve personnel and 725,000 DoD civilians.” A natural career move for a former director of Selective Service.
But there seems to be a partisan dynamic at play with Bernie and high-profile military positions: he left Selective Service in 1981, shortly after the arrival of Ronald Reagan in Washington, and was either relieved of or removed himself from duty as Department of Defense Under Secretary by the time George W. Bush was installed as President January 2001. There’s no telling to which plum position President Al Gore might have appointed Bernie to next if the hijacking of democracy in Florida in November 2000 had not been allowed to stand.
The Pentagon is a big, big place, though, and the Military-Industrial Complex is even bigger: Bernie’s been known to habituate such high-command headquarters as the RAND Corporation when he’s marching to the beat of the business world. But from the look of Bernie’s bio, he must be busting 60 now. Is he vigorous enough to appear once again in a starring role come the Democratic Party’s next administration of the United States Government in the Christian world’s twenty-first millennium?
Back to the car firebombing thing for a moment.
A DC squad car was parked in the street behind the burning Renault by the time my lover Anne and I made it to her car. A lone police officer sat in the driver’s seat as he talked to a woman who leaned into his open window. She departed from the scene as soon as the policeman stepped out of his car and walked toward us. Anne confirmed that the destroyed vehicle was hers. The policeman told us that the woman had seen two men get out of Anne’s car and walk to Connecticut Avenue, in the direction of Dupont Circle and the White House, as the fire erupted.
Do either of you know of anyone who might have had a reason to do this to your car, the police officer asked?
Had anybody other than the director of the Selective Service System threatened me before the interior of the Renault was gutted? No. The August 1980 threat Bernie lobbed in my direction was the first threat of physical violence I’d heard since high school.
Anne had forgotten what I’d told her the previous month about Bernie’s braggadocio. The bone of contention SSS Director Rostker had to pick with me concerned my appearing on national radio and television newscasts advocating noncompliance with military draft registration. I was a director of the National Resistance Committee (NRC), an organization created by northern California libertarians and pacifists in response to President Jimmy Carter’s call for military draft registration in his January 1980 State of the Union address.
I was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara at the time of Carter’s request. I’d started a campus chapter of Students for a Libertarian Society (SLS) in the fall of 1979; SLS was the Libertarian Party’s short-lived college adjunct. My brief time with SLS before working for the nonpartisan National Resistance Committee, and a year of carrying a Libertarian Party membership card in 1980 (though, in fine libertarian spirit, I did not cast a vote for the LP’s presidential candidate, or for any of the other presidential candidates in November of that brutal Cold War year) are the only political affiliations I’ve ever made. I dropped the torch for “Big L” libertarianism when I realized that its American political strain holds a fervent faith in unrestrained capitalism’s liberation of humanity but maintains an equally fervent blindness to the more muddled history of world capitalist expansion and human rights. I’ve been an advocate of democracy—economic, social and political—since.
Jimmy Carter made his call for military remobilization in the 1980 State of the Union Address in reaction to the hostage taking of United States officials and military personnel stationed in Teheran, Iran, in November 1979, and to the Soviet Union military invasion of Afghanistan the following month. Although the Carter Administration did not move as forcefully as prior American presidents may have done to bolster the despotic rule of the Shah of Iran in the final months of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1978, The Most Powerful Man In The World could not release The Man’s chokehold on US Middle East policy. After being browbeaten by such American emissaries as David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger into allowing the deposed Shah into the United States for specious medical reasons—a decision which US foreign policymakers knew would precipitate an attack upon the US’s presence in Iran—Carter acquiesced. When the inevitable occurred in Teheran, the hapless Preacher from Plains chose the road most traveled by American politicians in appealing to the American people’s overdeveloped sense of brute patriotism.
But many of us in the anti-draft registration movement sensed that The Man’s inglorious defeat in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s had opened a hole in his US armor. Even Americans as militarily bellicose as Ronald Reagan opposed the reintroduction of military registration and conscription. (Indeed, as President, Reagan allowed federal legal prosecution of draft non-registrants to languish.) We suspected there was an excellent chance that the American people might not be so willing to deliver their own unto Caesar and his kaleidoscopic US business concerns.
And we were right. The revived draft registration program was to begin July 1980. But, on the Friday before the first of two mass registration weeks, a three-judge federal court in Philadelphia struck down the registration law due to lingering Vietnam-era court challenges to the male-only nature of US military conscription. The National Resistance Committee and other local, regional and national organizations had held news conferences throughout the country earlier in the week featuring soon-to-be draft non-registrants and their supporters, myself included. I remember watching Walter Cronkite on television that night, opening the broadcast of “The CBS Evening News” with the story on draft registration’s setback. Sure enough, we appeared. The US Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling that weekend. But until then, for a brief moment, the first post-Vietnam move by The Man to militarily remobilize American society had been thwarted.
Bernie and friends were surely watching the same broadcasts. They must have been very peeved.
A month later, while in his office at Selective Service headquarters, Bernie asked an anti-registration compatriot of mine to let me know that he and his friends were going to get me. “We are going to get him,” is what he said. Bernie used the royal “we.” At the time, I thought that Bernie was merely blowing off some Cold War steam. That changed as Anne and I watched the fire burn itself out in her car.
I chose not to tell the police officer anything about Bernie’s message. I sensed instantly that if I began to make a federal case of the firebombing, it might allow The Man’s almighty public relations machinery to demonize the movement as a whole by setting their character assassination sights on moi. I didn’t want to give The Man that opportunity: I felt I should stay “on message” instead. So I said nothing about Bernie to the police officer, nor to the DC detective who paid us a perfunctory visit the next afternoon.
Now I wish I’d done otherwise. If such a terrorist act upon me was a result of my anti-registration efforts to that point, I was obviously doing something right. The NRC’s strategy was based on a highly public confrontation with the Selective Service System so that a violation of its laws would appear to be as socially acceptable as compliance. If I could turn back time, I would schedule a news conference on the steps of the Selective Service System headquarters in Washington, inform the journalists in attendance about Bernie’s threat to me and the firebombing of my lover’s car, and then lead the pack of reporters into Selective Service headquarters to demand a meeting with the public servant then residing in the Director’s office: Tis better to look The Man and his Bernies square in the eyes, and declare them to be what they are. Who knows how the history of draft registration, and The Man’s post-Vietnam machinations within the United States and throughout the world, under cover of the democratic flag, might have changed in the last two decades of the twentieth century?
For the rest of the time I lived with my lover and her three daughters, I worried about a second such device harming them. Yet I continued to play a key role in the anti-draft registration movement. On a Friday early in December 1981, after learning that a United States Attorney in Minneapolis planned to indict a religious college student at the end of the following week for refusing to register with Selective Service, I telephoned a contact who was with the Reagan Administration’s domestic policy staff. Surprisingly, he indicated that the staff was unaware of the US Attorney’s planned action. I informed my contact that over 100 public demonstrations would occur by the weekend after any first indictment.
My call seemed to have its intended effect. Key Reagan Administration figures met with the President in the White House the following week. Roughly 36 hours before the indictment was to be announced, Reagan officials directed the Justice Department to send a telex to all US Attorney offices announcing a suspension of all planned draft non-registration indictments pending an Administration review of the program! News of the Reagan White House’s action did not become public until the Friday the indictment was to occur.
Once again, I believed that draft registration might end. I knew that the anti-draft registration movement had done as good a job as was possible in attempting to end the program. But my hopes, once again, were quickly dashed. That weekend, while Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger toured Europe, the Communist government of Poland cracked down on the Solidarity trade union movement. Lech Walesa and other Solidarity trade union activists were arrested as martial law was declared. Upon hearing the news from Poland, I knew the Communist suppression would allow Ronald Reagan a way to distance himself from his presidential campaign criticism of mandatory draft registration. Sure enough, in Spring 1982, the Reagan Administration announced that it had decided to keep the program going. The chance to end draft registration quickly had passed.
The anti-draft registration movement imploded due to political fractiousness at the end of 1982. By then, I’d had my fill of both American peace movement politics and the abomination to democracy that was the Reagan Administration. I returned to my native northern California shortly after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President for a second time, not really knowing what to do next.
I’d gone to Washington to try to undermine the workings of The Man in my country, but, in the end, I lacked his staying power—a story not uncommon among Americans who internalize the confounding reality of a democratic government and society too inclined to anti-democracy. I retreated to the workaday world, into marriage and into the myriad other responsibilities of adulthood. I became a silent reader of all the news that’s fit to print.
But the inner horror I felt in my early twenties as I observed my nation’s brutal ways has never waned—and continues to shame me, as it should all Americans. For we, the American people, free citizens all, are ultimately responsible for how our businesses and government conduct themselves in the world.
As the twentieth century has blurred into the twenty-first, we continue to be beholden more to the hollow consumerist ethos at the center of our popular culture than to the democratic promise the founders of our nation made to humankind in 1776. Indeed, the hallmark of the modern United States is not our form of democracy—marred as it is by pathetic voting levels, rampant civic cynicism and a government dominated by Big Money—but a roiling, violent society which features the largest gap in wealth between haves and have nots in recorded human history. Virtually every social ill, and every foreign policy embarrassment experienced by our nation, is caused not by a fealty to democratic social principles, but by a manufactured loyalty to an economic system too inclined to human exploitation and social inequality.
How can we remain silent about our nation’s behavior without compromising our humanity? Human psychology declares it impossible. And I am Exhibit A. My marriage is long dead, and a bad back (borne of a bad conscience?) has now forced me to seek a third, fourth or fifth career. Two decades may have passed since I abstained from attempting to exorcise Bernie from our nation’s affairs, but I am still unwilling to accept them as they exist. I may have refrained from further action partly to protect my personal well being, but my personal well-being has suffered some heavy blows nevertheless.
So to say that I haven’t thought of Bernard Rostker in years would be imprecise. His presence has weighed on my psyche as The Man weighs on our collective affairs. Surely you must be as tired as I am of the offensive weight. Surely, in this post-September 11, 2001 age, you, too, can say, Be gone!