What will the will will, and will it will it again.

 The above statement sounds edgy and intuitively true, in addition to the apparent virtue that is seen in "taking responsibility for your choices". However, in a world that is, quite plausibly, causally complete, does it make any sense? To put it another way, in a world without the traditionally conceived human free will, are we any more to "blame" than the weather?

 An incompatabilist who accepts that determinism is true, and in so doing disagrees with the picture at the top, is often given this sort of rebuke: "You're just unhappy with your life-choices and would prefer to believe that the weather in Alaska caused you to do something morally blameworthy." This is a misunderstanding of the position of such a person, but the most obvious response is that the weather in Alaska is no more "responsible" for it's actions, even if it caused yours somehow, than you are for the weather in Alaska, even if you somehow affected it.

 To understand why I think this is so, you have to understand why I don't think we have free will or moral responsibility.

 One of the biggest obstacles to consensus in philosophy is defining what you are talking about in a way that other's can agree with. Free will has had a long, troubled history, and the various definitions debated today testify to the difficulty in really nailing down just what it means. Indeed, a number of you reading this will probably not be satisfied with any definition I might present; yet, tho I despair, I persist.

 My pet definition is one of an incompatibalist bent. I define the term as it appears, as a conjunction of two previously defined words, with their own previously accepted connotations, viz:

Free - Not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes.[google]also; - not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being : choosing or capable of choosing for itself [M&W]

Will - The faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action [google]

 At first blush, these definitions appear to justify compatibilism, in that it seems you could retain such freedom even if our minds' operations are explained completely by deterministic physical laws. Many compatibilists view the question along these lines, as decisions which are free from outside coercion. I think they are mistaken, and I think the reason lies in considering the limits of this supposed freedom.

 Let me begin with a story. Sam is minding his own business at home when he finds he wants a snickers bar. Sam, however, is on a diet, and a snickers bar is out of the question if he wants to remain true to his diet. So, despite Sam wanting a snickers bar, he chooses to ignore the urge and stick to the diet. Now, a few questions. Why did Sam want a snickers bar in the first place? Did Sam choose to want a snickers bar? When he declined to get a snickers bar, was he exercising free will by adhering to his dietary regimen? Why did Sam want to go on a diet in the first place?

 Each of these questions has an answer. One can always rationalize post hoc about their reasons for doing or wanting something, but notice that this is precisely like evaluating the reasons for someone else's behavior, or indeed, even an animal's behavior. Why did the dog lie down in that spot, at that moment, rather than another at another moment? Some number of reasons have already occurred to you, but remember, reader, before you jump to respond, that we are talking about a dog. Why would you feel the urge to defend a dog's freedom of will?

 The truth is, our conscious minds are governed by desires we neither author nor control, desires which are indulged only insofar as they do not conflict with other desires, which we likewise neither author nor control. Sam's desire for a snickers bar conflicted with his desire to diet properly, and neither desire was a choice he made consciously. The dog's desire to lie down in the shade conflicted with his desire to remain standing, and neither desire was a choice the dog made consciously. So this freedom, which has such intuitive allure, is only a surface truth; the compatibilists define free will in the context of a surface phenomenon, ignoring the true origin of the will being discussed. I've found several good arguments that run contrary to the definition compatibilists would use. Ask yourself: are you free to do what you do not want to do? and if you do, was it not because you wanted to?

 I define free will as the freedom to will what one wills, rather than the freedom to do as one wills. I am not defining free will out of existence, as might be claimed; I am defining something that doesn't exist. Most compatibilists concur with the traditional notion of free will being an illusion.

 The question of moral responsibility weighs heavily on this topic. If we lack this freedom, how can moral responsibility gain traction? If we are not to blame for our choices, and the weather is equally not to blame, who is to blame for the wrong, and who is to be lauded for the right? Short answer-no one. Moral responsibility, traditionally understood, is an illusion, resting as it is on the illusion of free will. More on this in a future post (otherwise these things would go on forever).


 For more information about how I formed this opinion, see this video, and read this book. Obviously my influences extend beyond one source, but though my endeavors to disagree with this individual have taken me far afield, I have thus far failed to find a compelling argument against his position, or a stronger argument for another. So, inextricably, I hold this view.

The Pious Have Bills To Pay, Too

Colorado shooting: tragic. I don't know why it occurred, where "blame" should properly lie outside of the lone gunman, or how any of the victims might feel. I tend not to spend much time reveling in the gory details, but Facebook has once again delivered a religious proclamation that makes me despise the religious mindset all over again.

The article that cropped up in my timeline is here, where a local pastor relates the story of a woman whose brain had a "defect" which allowed a piece of a shotgun blast pass through her grey matter, seemingly without any permanent cognitive damage. Said pastor calls this "miraculous" when they hear the tale from the operating doctor. He claims it was an instance of "God working ahead of time for a particular event in the future."

He has received some mild pushback from the skeptical, to which he has constructed a forked approach, first saying, "If we are honest, we must admit we cannot explain everything." Later, he justifies God's non-intervention in the case of the shooter, saying, "We are free to act for good or evil." Why? Because "Choice and freedom are removed if I[God] jury-rig the consequences." He goes on to completely contradict himself when he says, "God interacts in the normal course of events in such a way that outcomes are changed from the normal workings of the universe." This, in and of itself, represents a stark example of self-refutation that (nearly) renders any effort of mine superfluous. However, it's actually even worse.

I will presently argue three basic points:

A) There is no more reason to suppose that God created the miraculous channel in Petra's brain than that he failed to create those same channels in the bodies and heads of the other victims.

B) The very idea of contravening the natural course of events violates the Christian claim that God cannot prevent any of the evil presently in the world.

C) Even if this special case was the work of God, the adulation of God is utterly misplaced in the aftermath of this event.

In defense of A, I would simply point out that to claim we have discerned the "beneficence" of God through sparing one woman's life while dozens fell around her, is to say that good fortune suddenly grants us some special insight that misery denies us. If God's ways truly are mysterious, we are in no position to attribute the outcomes we prefer to God's actions and the outcomes we do not prefer to some void of confusion. If we can, for a moment, admit that we do not know the mind of God, we immediately see that the 6-year-old whose body did not have special bullet channels, for example, is the failure of God's non-intervention. Where was he when this child was formed, and his internal organs were placed directly into the future path of destruction. Busy carving the virgin mary into a tree in New Jersey, apparently.

In defense of B, I will point out an example used by Christian apologist William Lane Craig in support of the consistency between God's existence and the existence of evil. It has been suggested, by his opponents, that God could turn some bullets to rubber, or butterflies, before they hit their target. In this way, choices might retain their moral content, while no innocent has to suffer for this moral freedom. Dr. Craig responds that this would turn the world into a playground, where no bad choices have bad consequences, and thus bad choices would not retain their moral content. If you fire at someone in this playground world, no one would be hurt, so why would firing in such a way, in that world, be a "bad" thing? This pastor's miracle is but one example, but the principle is the same. If he can create one mind with special bullet-channels without stripping us of our freedom or moral responsibility, why can he not create all minds, and bodies, similarly? By Craig's argument, he cannot even do this once without violating creaturely freedom, and so if God modified Petra's brain in such a way, then the concept of creaturely freedom in the Christian context is rendered false. Since said freedom is a necessary component in the Christian religion (i.e. it cannot be false while Christianity is true), this event is either not miraculous, or the Christian God is a fiction.

In defense of C, let's consider what it means for an action to be morally praiseworthy. If a man's actions provide some benefit to someone else, at no cost to himself, we intuitively view this as mildly praiseworthy. Yes, he did something good, but it isn't as though he went out of his way to do anything. The recipient may be thankful, but should anyone else view this as all that morally praiseworthy? I don't think so. Now consider another man whose actions provide some benefit to someone else, and significant cost to himself. We immediately recognize the difference in how much praise each man deserves. The first may give $100 to a charity, yet possesses millions that he does not donate. The second may give the same $100 to a charity, and have to walk to work for a week because that was his gas money. Obviously the cost of an action to the actor is directly proportional to the level of praise we might visit on the actor.

In the wake of this tragedy, we have received (at least)two claims of praiseworthy behavior. In the first, a "good" God who fiddled with some woman's biology in order that she might be spared death at the hands of a gunman. God has sacrificed nothing to do this, his powers, such as they are, remain unaffected, and his person unmolested. In the second, we have a man who shielded his friends from gunfire so that they might be spared death at the hands of a gunman. The second man sacrificed everything that he has and could possibly give in order to save his friends. Now I submit, on C, that while we may, perhaps, lend light praise to God, we might also wonder why he did not do more. In contrast, on C, the men and women who gave their very lives have so far outstripped the pathetic effort of an all-powerful deity in moral terms that to spare even that light praise on God is a complete waste of time.

Of course, if you read the article, you'll notice that the lion's share of the pastor's time is spent extolling the virtues of God, likewise his supportive commenters. True courage, true sacrifice, truly morally praiseworthy action is readily available, and what does this pastor focus on? God. It's almost as if he has a stake in keeping God in the picture; as if, perhaps, he might benefit from highlighting a supposed "miracle" from God rather than the actions of some brave men and women.

This sort of blatant opportunism makes me sick. A church is a business, and this is an instance of capitalizing on tragedy. It is the (socially acceptable) equivalent of slapping a gun advert over a still shot of the carnage.


The sound that is not made by any two things striking together

 The title of this blog post is the English translation of the word Anahata, known as the Heart Chakra, in Kundalini Yoga, and represented in the picture below. I make only a passing reference to the practice here, but will use the concept of this "sound" as an illustration in the subsequent post.

 We have all felt the urge to defend our views against criticism, or to champion our views to those who do not share them. For any disagreement of consequence, the experience is generally one of confusion and angst, in which what seems so clear to you is utterly unconvincing to your partner(I will explain why I use the term 'partner' later). It feels to you like you are making a cogent case, and therefore it must feel the same way to them. You respond to their case, and their responses, and this appears to be a genuine crossing of swords. Swing, parry, riposte, reset.

 The truth of the matter is that in most disagreements, each party has their back to the other, boldly thrashing against nothing, while only thinking that they are meeting their partner swing for stroke. Assuming you are not dueling a madman (as you should always, out of humility, assume), the first thing that should occur to your mind, is that the sounds you are making at one another are the sounds that are not made by any two ideas striking together. Perhaps a more salient analogy would be that of two individuals attempting to cross swords from atop the peaks of neighboring mountaintops, when a true meeting of swords can only occur within the adjoining valley.

 The mountains of the above analogy refer to all the underlying assumptions that we, as beings who form belief systems about the world, carry into every discussion. This belief formation is completely out of our control, even if we do have free will, because it is based on the information we have available and the level of understanding we possess of the connection between this information and the actual state of the world. These beliefs can only change in response to new information, or a new understanding of how existing information can be understood, not by a simple clash of the ideological overlay on top of these beliefs.

 Now, why do I call two individuals in disagreement 'partners'? The fact is we are all in the business of divining the true nature of our experience as it relates to the true nature of nature. True beliefs, insofar as they have any relationship with the world, enable us to predict future events; the closer our view is to reality, the more accurate those predictions. This is clearly demonstrated in the scientific method, and in the success of the scientific project, and it is uncontroversial. Whenever you engage in disagreement with another person, on any topic, you are both striving towards a better understanding of the true nature of nature, and thus, whether you recognize it or not, you are partners in this pursuit. Try to view disagreements in this light, and you might find your natural predilection to an emotional reaction towards the proponents of a competing view largely attenuated.

 The most transparent manifestation of this concept takes the form of a "loaded question". "Does your mother know you are gay" is the schoolyard version, but it is by no means limited to children. In philosophical terms, it is known as "begging the question". What is operable, under the surface of most disagreements, is the true engine of conflict: presuppositions. When certain facts are assumed, certain other positions are entailed. Yet if two people bring competing assumptions into a discussion, they are inevitably drawn into irreconcilable differences of opinion by virtue of the incompatibility of certain beliefs not even under discussion.
"What we've got here is failure to communicate."
 That's right, boss. This failure is doing immense damage to political discourse in this country, pitting family and friends against one another across an ideological divide that so-called "polite" conversation renders insurmountable. So how do we, as partners, live and breath and communicate in compliment to one another? You descend your mountain and invite them to do the same, that's how. The moment you find yourself in an Anahata discussion, e.g. The God Test: Why Really Everyone Believes, immediately begin considering what your partner is assuming, but which he or she is not openly discussing. Then do the same with your position. Have some humility. What you don't do is attribute to your partner all manner of character or cognitive flaws, or secret malicious motivations, on the basis of their disagreement, because this violates the fundamental trust that lies at the core of social behavior and underpins the basis of civil society.

 This process takes time, hard work, and persistence, and is often mistaken for a desire to simply "argue for argument's sake". There's no guarantee that you will win out, or even find common ground at all, but if you care whether your beliefs are true (and you should), you have a rational duty to engage with your partners.


Greener Grass (requires better soil)

So I've been working my ponderous way through William James lecture series Pragmatism and found an interesting perspective on the Free Will Problem.  Under the Pragmatism James espouses, questions of a philosophical nature "turn" on their usefulness, either in the asking or in the value of a particular answer to the questioner. On the topic of Free Will, he urges (or appears to be urging from my reading of it) we look upon the question as a function of the possibility of a better future.  I quote him at length to both capture his thoughts as accurately as I can, and because his entertaining prose is worth the extra space.
Free-will pragmatically means NOVELTIES IN THE WORLD, the right to expect that in it's deepest elements as well as in its surface phenomena, the future may not identically repeat and imitate the past. That imitation en masse is there, who can deny? The general 'uniformity of nature' is presupposed by every lesser law. But nature may be only approximately uniform; and persons in whom knowledge of the world's past has bred pessimism(...) may naturally welcome free-will as a MELIORISTIC doctrine. It holds up improvement as at least possible; whereas determinism assures us that our whole notion of possibility is born of human ignorance, and that necessity and impossibility between them rule the destinies of the world.
He goes on to call Free-will a "theory of PROMISE" without "any inner content" or any "pragmatic value in a world whose character was obviously perfect from the start."
Elation at mere existence, pure cosmic emotion and delight, would, it seems to me, quench all interest in those speculations, if the world were nothing but a lubberland of happiness already. Our interest in religious metaphysics arises in the fact that our empirical future feels to us unsafe, and needs some higher guarantee. If the past and present were purely good, who could wish that the future might possibly not resemble them? Who could desire free-will? Who would not say, with Huxley, "let me be wound up every day like a watch, to go right fatally, and I ask no better freedom." 'Freedom' in a world already perfect could only mean freedom to BE WORSE, and who could be so insane as to wish that.
He finishes with the summation:
Surely the only POSSIBILITY that one can rationally claim is the possibility that things may be BETTER.
Being vaguely religious himself, William James equates this underlying promise at the heart of the issue of free will with other religious terms, like God, as empty manifestations of an urge to safeguard(emotionally) a better future for ourselves.

However, it seems to me that this follows a general religious trend to codification of our desires as realities, wholly bereft of any real foundation in reality.  This trend finds ample company in New Age mysticism of all stripes, stemming from the original use of the term 'mind over matter'.  So while I can empathize with this project of, for lack of a better term, hope for the future, I am constrained by temperament to echo Cuba Gooding Jr.'s proclamation to a desperate Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, saying, "Show me the money!"

Free-will, for all it's promise, wants for justification in reality; ignorance, however blissful, is unsustainable*.


* Ironically enough, I draw this intuition from Matthew 7:26, proving, yet again, that any view can be justified with reference to a biblical passage of your choice (even atheism).  I had to chuckle when I read it, though, because one wonders what a desert tribe would have done with that phrase.  Where are they to build in the desert, if not upon the sand?  Indeed, having visited the middle east on a few occasions, I can testify that not only do they build upon sand, they actually build with sand.


A Match Made in Heaven?

So I read this blog post, about a gay fella that married a straight woman and is joyously, blissfully, ecstatically enjoying his marriage, and my first thought is: no one enjoys their marriage that much.  Even straight couples will universally testify that marriage is, like any partnership, about compromise.  I've found that the harder one tries to convince you of how great their circumstances are, the less likely it is that they are representing the true state of affairs.

But be that as it may, let's suppose for charity's sake that he really is that happy.

Now we are met with an altogether different question.  If he is gay(and claims to not be bi-sexual), how could he form and enjoy a sexual connection with someone of the opposite gender?  This would be like me marrying another man, despite my lifelong, undeniable physical attraction to women and lifelong, undeniable physical non-attraction to men.**  This consideration actually unpacks into two separate topics.

The first is the religious dynamic of the situation.  The abrahamic faiths, so named for their reliance on the sacred scriptures known as the old testament, are and have been clear about the "ideal type" of marriage and of the limited scope of sin-free sexual relations.  If the book is to be believed, God dictated that men should marry women, should lie with women, under this or that circumstance and (according to some) only in certain positions and for certain reasons.  This individual, Josh Weed, is adhering to these commands as he understands them in a Mormon context.

Right.  A few quibbles...

Suppose, for a moment, that *gasp* the bible is as unreliable on God's intentions as any work of man is unreliable as a function of fallibility.  If we accept a creator of the universe, and consider the possibility that the bible is just an ordinary book (as it most assuredly must be), we can actually discern some potential attitudes of this creator.  God creates most men and women with an inherent physical attraction to the opposite gender, and some men and women with an inherent physical attraction to the same gender.  Can we not safely infer from this fact that he intended for the latter to live by their nature?  Even if we make the narcissistic assumption that the being who fashioned a billion billion billion galaxies, space and time itself, is earnestly concerned with our sex lives, is it that unreasonable to suppose that he, perhaps, made some men and women different for a reason?

What if, in God's eyes, homosexuals engaging in heterosexual "acts" is the sin equivalent to heterosexuals engaging in homosexual "acts"?

The second topic is another thought experiment.  Suppose the Abrahamic faith tradition stipulated an altogether different sin-free union; suppose homosexual unions were the ideal type that God apparently demands.  From that, a culture arises in which heterosexual unions are derided and vilified, heterosexual marriages are outlawed.  Imagine being born into this culture as a heterosexual male.  Would you be willing to marry another man in accordance with your religion, or would you be inexorably drawn to women?

This is a salient question, because as I suspected, the blog post under consideration is not without it's own judge monster.  When I read through it initially, I had a gut feeling that somewhere I would find this monster lurking.  He is religious, he can't help it, and lo and behold, I was right:

"Being gay does not mean you are a sinner or that you are evil. Sin is in action, not in temptation or attraction. I feel this is a very important distinction. This is true for every single person. You don’t get to choose your circumstances, but you do get to choose what you do with them.

I want you to know that God loves you, and that even though you are attracted to people of the same gender, you are a completely legitimate individual, worthy of God’s love, your family’s love, and the love of your friends."(emphasis mine)

Did you catch it?  The urge to engage in homosexual unions is on par with the urge to murder innocent people, steal, purjer, lie, etc..  It's temptation, people, resist the urge to sin!  Drawing on our thought experiment from above, this is the equivalent of God demanding same sex unions.  Let's edit the above quote as follows:

"Being straight does not mean you are a sinner or that you are evil. Sin is in action, not in temptation or attraction. I feel this is a very important distinction. This is true for every single person. You don’t get to choose your circumstances, but you do get to choose what you do with them.

I want you to know that God loves you, and that even though you are attracted to people of the opposite gender, you are a completely legitimate individual, worthy of God’s love, your family’s love, and the love of your friends."(emphasis mine)

Now I submit to you, dear reader, that this edited version of Weed's words is as ludicrous as the original manifestation.  God does not exist, but even if he did, it's beyond the capacity of a rational mind to believe he cares one whit about the circumstances in which you share your body with another person.  Further, it is none of our business what Josh Weed, or any other adult, does with another consenting adult.

That brings me to my final point.  The whole idea that this is some new take on "the issue" of homosexuality is itself fraudulent.  Homosexuality is a sin, according to Weed.  Homosexual unions should be avoided like any other sin, according to Weed.  What, precisely, is new about this position?


** - There is, I think in all animals, a biological imperative to reproduction.  This imperative may go some distance in explaining Josh's choices, but I think most people would find that their sexual proclivities outweigh any consideration along those lines.  I don't know about you, but if I had to have sex with another man in order to reproduce, I would probably just go childless.


My Inactivity Explored, Part 2

Go here for part 1.

It was the waiting, I think, that finally sapped my fear of death.  I can't recall much of the crossing or of the days that followed, only glimpses of the dusty, smokey interior of our vehicle and the shouts and gunfire coming from outside the little metal box I shared with twelve or so others.  I couldn't hear the radio chatter over my helmet, only the intercom between the driver and crewchief, and so I simply waited.

At first, I waited fearfully; my emotions in lockstep with the other passengers as we stared at each other, straining to hear the whistle of the tank round that had our name on it.  Our 'chariot' roared and quieted, stopped and started, throwing us off our seats or into the walls.  Gunfire erupted and subdued, the intercom squeaked and hissed and shouted, and quieted.  The ping and snap of small rounds rang against the vehicle like tiny hammers against a muffled bell.

Intense emotion tends to wear one down over time, and this is what I suspect happened to me.  I don't know precisely when, but at some point during that day I let something go.  Some feeling I had held back, some truth or hunch that was hanging over my intellect.  In part, I let it go because I didn't want to be surprised; I've never been a fan of surprises.  The larger part, however, was that within the confines of that mobile metal box, I came to realize that even if I survived the day I would have to face tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, with the same harrowing trepidation that ate at me.  I finally just let go, accepting that, if not today, tomorrow would be my last; the properly aimed rocket, the perfectly timed explosive, or the expertly aimed rifle round would find it's target.  No matter what, or when, or where, I would not live with this gnawing fear overshadowing my every moment.

From then on, though I took every precaution required to stay out of trouble, I didn't find the inevitable end to my existence a compelling motivation to further caution.  When ambushed, I leaped out of the vehicle as requested and made room for the infantry to follow after.  While the chatter of machine gun fire surrounded us, while rounds kicked up the dust at my feet and slapped the metal hatch at my side, I peered curiously back into the dark interior of my vehicle and into the frozen faces of the young men I had just called to follow me.  Following their gaze, I glanced over my shoulder at the field across the road just as a humvee roared past.  Blinking the sand out of my eyes, I watched mortar rounds making ten foot high teardrops of sand as they slowly walked them towards our position.  The second impact was near enough, and the sudden burst of 50cal fire loud enough, that I lost all sense of hearing but for a loud ring.  Turning back to the infantry, I punched their squad leader on the knee and held up four fingers.  He immediately snapped out of his reverie and into his training, tapping three others and jumping out past me.  I turned again to watch the teardrops as they filed out and ran behind me.

Later on, after a sandstorm that had claimed a tank and it's crew which fell off a bridge and into a river, we found ourselves on an extremely muddy stretch of road in the dead of night.  Through the top hatch, which had been folded back to allow three of the riflemen in back with me to stand and aim out over the side, I saw tracers streak past and heard the chatter of us returning fire.  The details elude me, but we spent some significant portion of that night trading rounds at shadows of one another.  So far as I could tell, no one was even wounded.

The next morning I stepped lightly out the back of the vehicle and set up to shave and brush my teeth, wearing my jumpsuit and boots but no protective gear.  The infantry on either side of the road, still in full combat gear, urged me to don my flak jacket for fear of another surge from the sand.  I ignored them, and went about my hygiene nonplussed.  They must have assumed that I knew something they didn't, and, though still keyed up from the previous night, they slowly relaxed.  I later discovered that the enemy snipers were poorly trained, and weren't likely to even hit the vehicle from a decent distance, much less a man shaving in it's shadow.  Besides, I thought, if they do get lucky, I won't have to shave in cold water any longer, or wear those bloody rubber boots that make your feet sweat so badly.  These were the terms of my existence at the time, and they constituted a burden I would have found easy to cast aside.

When, through all sorts of misadventures and dusty, endless days, we finally arrived in Baghdad, I finally had the opportunity to meet Iraqis without guns.  They didn't emerge until several hours after we arrived, most likely to confirm that we were not actively engaged in digesting small children (the interpretors, almost en masse, confirmed that this was how many people thought Marines earned the title).  Once again surrounded by people, I watched and listened.  You know, the strangest realization found it's way into my consciousness: they're just people.  The children do childish things, the adults do things adults do.  They care for one another, work for their livelihoods, laugh, fear, love, and cry.

I thought back to the episodes on the road in, the molten anger that sought fleshy purchase in our ranks, and contrasted it with this city and it's inhabitants.  What, I thought, would I have done in their place?  If someone invaded their home, intent upon killing them (as Saddam announced over the state television and radio).  Well, I would have...

Oh, that's why I'm here.  Huh.


My inactivity explored, part one

It is absolutely incredible what you can learn when you just...listen.  Music, literature, cinema, politics, philosophy, all can be absorbed only with your mouth closed.  Learning is a receiving of knowledge, an activity that presupposes a void to be filled.  I was mostly a quiet child, or so I am told, and I spent the lion's share of my time with my mouth closed and my ears open.  It was with great trepidation, indeed only after urging, that I created a blog, this blog.

However, after only a few posts, I realized that a lifetime of listening does not prepare one for speaking up.  I viewed the written expression of my opinion in much the same way many people view public speaking.  It wasn't so much a fear of the audience that has kept me mostly silent.  It was the realization of just how little I know in comparison to the perceived "knowledge" of other writers and opinion-holders with a voice.  A perception I have come to acknowledge as misguided; not entirely false, of course, but an underestimation of my own truth-testing and an overestimation of the authority of any single individual.  What follows is the first part of an explanation(not excuse) for this silence and, hopefully, a reason to speak up.  Whether to help myself or someone else, I don't really know yet.  Without further adieu...

I don't make plans, I don't have dreams for the future, I don't have personal goals.  This behavior is completely alien to me.  It isn't as though I just don't want to fulfill my purposes; I don't have any.  As callous as this may sound, the events of September 11th, 2001, were a boon.  I had applied to no colleges, attended no job fairs, had no marketable skills.  I had no drive to "succeed"; nothing animated me to action.  That shocking footage gave me a path to walk, one that resonated with...something indescribable, powerful, right.  The feeling came out of nowhere and overwhelmed me.  So when I joined the Marines in 2002, it wasn't to pay for college or to see the world or to shoot a gun.  I joined to kill the people who had killed my fellow Americans.  Tribalism, Nationalism, these urges are what animated my choice when I woke up from dozing in Sociology class during my senior year of High School.  I watched the news feed as the second plane hit the two towers, and my blood boiled.  Prehistoric man roared from the African plains of my biological past, and with determination, I affirmed the desire for bloody reprisal in the only civil way possible: join the military.

The next day I received a call from the Marine Corp recruiter, as do all young men and women who take the ASVAB to get out of class.  I can't say whether I would have still joined the Marines if another branch had called first.  When I think back to why I wanted to be a Marine, such as when someone asks that very question, I generally reply that I had skated through life up to that point and wanted to do something hard.  Do something hard and do it right.  I think now, however, that it was rather more primal than that.  I didn't want to fly over my country's enemies, or sail past them, or arrive as part of a mob.  I intended to see the whites of their eyes when the light went out.  I had this idea that I wasn't going to be part of a machine, however well-oiled and effective, I was going to make "them" see me as the angel of justice.

Well, the Marines was the right choice, but OIF was the wrong war.  I had no previous experience, but it didn't feel like a 'war' in any sense of the word.  Perhaps it felt this way for the men and women who came before me, as well.  Oh, the fear was there, but the anger faded very quickly and only reared it's ugly head in the quiet and dark hours after the fear had worn off.

It was the spring of 2003 when we sat more or less perched on the Kuwait/Iraq border.  It didn't look or feel like spring.  I don't think the desert has the capacity to express the season.  During the day it looked and felt like a summer that never starts or ends, and at night a winter without comfort.  The evening before we crossed the border, a sandstorm had kicked up as though the angry spirit of Iraq was protesting our imminent intrusion.  American and British vehicles formed lines that stretched towards and away from the border, disappearing into the swirling sand after only a dozen or so tan and green hulks in either direction.  The whole world had turned brown, as it often does in the desert at dusk when the sand flies.

We sat atop our iron chariots and squinted against the sand and wind, watching the 155s soar over our heads through the pale green world revealed by our night vision goggles.  Each thundering impact felt like the beat of a drum; the little drummer boy of previous human conflicts had evolved into a mighty hammer shaking the earth with mighty swings.  Some of us cheered and were rewarded with a mouthful of sand, but most just sat listening and replaying the briefing of the previous evening.  We were to face Russian tanks, buried in the sand and ready to bite through the soft aluminum of our amphibious assault vehicles.  Well, we would be shielded by humvees with rockets, but I'm sure I don't have to elaborate on why that was less than reassuring.  I wasn't the only one to consider a bevy of hummers, skilled though they may be, as little more than an appetizer to a battalion of bunkered tanks.

Thud. Boom. Thudthud.  Booboobooommmm.  Thudthudthuthtuthtuthtutddddddddd.

I still remember that night vividly; the taste of sand, the green-tinged streaks of each hammer as it whistled overhead, and the thrumpthrumpthrump of the drums of war as those hammers pounded the earth.  As the ground shook, no one slept.  Some laughed nervously, some wrote home, others ate.  I listened.  Surely, I thought, the rest of the world can hear this.

It was the last time during my tour in the Marines that I actually thought I was part of a war.  It was also the last time I can remember being afraid to die.