Living the Dream
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“Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood as we understand the theory of relativity and principles of uncertainty. Phenomena that determine the course of our lives. Yesterday, my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. These forces that often remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be, begin long before we are born and continue after we perish. Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment. That each point of intersection, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction.”
– David Mitchell “ Cloud Atlas”
I was sitting in class, we were discussing the Geneva Convention and it’s importance. The course was Introduction to European Peace and Security Studies. At the end of this course, we were meant to write a peer paper in which I and another student was meant to recreate the debate between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud called “Why War” in our own thoughts. All of the sudden, Dr. Koops pulls up the video that Chelsea (Bradley) Manning famously leaked to Julian Assange that previous year in 2010 named “Collateral Murder”. He shuts off the lights and the class watches the digital memory of when an Apache helicopter fired upon unarmed civilians, killing 18 people including two Reuters journalists and injuring two children. The video was buried deep within our classified database and was never meant to be known to the public. When the video finished, he turn the lights on and asked the class “What is wrong with this video?”. The class was silent. “ Come on, anyone..”
I looked around and everyone was clearly disturbed by what they had just witnessed. One student raises their hand and says questioningly “They didn’t have weapons?”. He points to me. “ And why is that a problem Cian?” Knowing that I would most likely answer the question correctly.
I hated speaking in front of people, and I hated being put on the spot even more…I knew what was wrong with that. I’ve seen that video before and many like it. It was the subject of the dreams that brought me to that point. I replied “ It was the heat of the moment, those guys probably hadn’t slept. The video feeds are grainy, you can’t tell if they are holding weapons or something else. They could be insurgents, they could be anyone. I would have made the same mistake.”
He paused, and looked up at the class, then prompts them. “ And what do you think?”
One American girl raises her hand. “ I agree, this is war and bad things sometimes happen. They were civilian but anyone could have made that mistake…” A few nod their heads agreeingly.
“Guys, what about the Geneva Convention? There were people here that were clearly unarmed, and the gunner fired on them and it turned out they were no threat to anyone.” He explains.
A German girl raises her hand “ I mean, I can understand how someone can make the mistake of thinking that the people with items in their hands were insurgents, especially considering that there was a fire fight in the area earlier that day. But why are they determining the fate of people’s lives based on images that you can’t even see clearly? Also, aren’t these people trained to follow the Geneva Convention, and aren’t they trained how to decipher these images?”
The class looks back at me. I lowered my head and replied to her “Yes…”
The was a brief awkward silence.
“ …Ok everyone, time is up, I want you all to think about this tonight and I want you all to read the Geneva Convention before next class and don’t forget, you need to turn in your first draft for your peer paper before next week”
I get up and begin to walk out of the class, and Dr. Koops stops me. “ Cian, you mind walking with me?”
I agreed and waited for him outside of the class. We walk out of the building and as we cross the street toward the main campus, he asks “ What did you think of that class?”
I replied “ I think it was good…”
“Would you mind speaking to the class a bit about your experiences sometime? Most of the students have never been exposed to the military” he says.
It was my intention to leave as fast as possible prior to that, but I responded. “ Dr. Koops, I don’t know what to tell them…”
“Well, I just think being able to talk to you might be valuable for them. You know, this is International Relations, some of them might be making decisions one day.” he replies.
“I got a piece of paper that said that I helped kill 200 people” I choked. “ Let me get back to you on that”
That night I thought about that video, the reactions of the class, and my own. My response was so cold. Why didn’t I just say that it was a violation of the Geneva Convention? Are these students really going to be decision makers. I hope they know better than I do. I hope they were just being quiet because they were shocked. What’s wrong with me, why wasn’t I shocked?
My girlfriend Francesca was cooking dinner. We sat there quietly, and then I told her about my day. We went to bed and I couldn’t sleep. I tried, but couldn’t bring myself to that point. After Afghanistan, I was having dreams about being mortared. There were several occasions where I woke up startled. After reading my Enlisted Performance Report saying that my work contributed to 200+ enemy kills, I secretly grew obsessed with finding better statistics on that number. I read the UNAMA Reports, and those of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Numbers didn’t match up. The “200+ enemy kills” was actually an understatement. There were civilian casualties… numbers that were to me unacceptable… children… and that was only 10% of all the missions made transparent to the public. I started having dreams about bombs. Except, instead of them being dropped on me on base, they were happening in villages. I once dreamt that there was an air raid, and that there were something like 50 children staring at the sky in terror. I ran for them, and would try to save them, but when they saw me they would scream and run away. The bombs dropped. I blacked out. Then I found myself standing amongst them in a rubble field, and they were all dead. I had another one that I can remember because I had variations of it for a week. I was in my Radio Control Unit. The radios were all down, and I was trying to fix them. My NCOIC told me to fix them, or people were going to start dying. I panicked and I ran out the RCU into a desert. I ran and ran, then happened upon a village that was burning and black with smoke. I ran toward it, and saw a small girl crying over a body on the ground. I looked down, and it was a women. Instinct made me get down and try to give her CPR, but I hesitated to give mouth to mouth because it was caked in blood. I looked at the girl, and told her I was sorry. But when I looked up, she stopped crying and she grew quiet. She was afraid. I’m sorry I said. I looked at my hands and I was wearing my BDUs, they were covered in her mother’s blood. Then she turned around and ran away. I reach for her, then I hear the same whistle I heard during a rocket attack I experienced in Kandahar, there was an explosion, and I would wake up.
After I saw that Collateral Murder video, and being asked to talk about my experience. It became my mission to understand war. I felt like I was entirely out of my league. I at times would not be able to handle the material, and when I wasn’t thinking about it, I would try to link it to my experience. This was a difficult battle, one that I mostly kept to myself and at times spoke to my girlfriend about. I was struggling with money, the amount the GI Bill gives you is hardly enough to live comfortably on. I was struggling with the fact that I could not handle staying in America with my family because the whole time I was there, all I could see was people who were blissfully ignorant to the pain and suffering that was happening around the world in the name of their government. People who found comfort in laying their hands on me to pray away the pain I felt, instead of listening to what I had to say. I had long hair at that point so thankfully I was not burdened with people thanking me for my service.
I spent five of the eight months I had at home on unemployment in the house I had left five years prior in the midst of my parents separating, finding out that my father was gay, and my girlfriend at the time attempting suicide. For five years, I hadn’t lived in America. It was foreign and yet all too familiar for me. I had spent months on unemployment, looking for a job. At a point I had given up. The goal was to have my girlfriend move there so that I could be close to my family, but we weren’t about to get married to get a visa and it was too expensive to have her study there. She was the best girlfriend someone like me could have had. I tried to break up with her before I went to Afghanistan, because I couldn’t bare her getting lonely and meeting someone else. I didn’t want her to go through all of that, and I didn’t want to end up hating her for being human. But she refused. She stayed with me the whole time. When I came back, she was there for several months and held me when I had nightmares, and throughout my bursts of anger. Anger that I now understand was the result of repressed emotion. Even when I traveled the world, she waited.
I grew pretty desperate to make it work. I didn’t know how to make it work. Then one day Sean Dunn, an acquaintance posted that he had just got accepted to a small English speaking university in Brussels called Vesalius College and they had International Affairs as a course of study. That was it. So I told my family who I had promised that I would be home for awhile that I was going back overseas. I arranged everything with the Belgian Consulate in Atlanta and I left with the last $3,000 I had left saved.
For months, the VA did not pay me and I was forced to borrow money from my girlfriend who was receiving money from her Italian parents, that could barely afford basic things for themselves. My entire first year at university was overshadowed by my continuing struggle with money, living with my girlfriend in confined quarters with a Frenchman on the other side of a plastic wall, and my inability to obtain my residency permit for one reason or another. In the course of my studying, I began to see that my education was paid for in blood, so when I wouldn’t do as well as I had hoped, I would often break down and my girlfriend would bare the brunt of it. It was difficult not to think that way when you dreamt about dead kids every other night on a bad streak. To escape these thoughts, I’d often invest an obscene amount of energy in clubs and projects, often taking on more than I could handle, and often being disappointed with my inability to make them work. I’d often cast blame on others for that, and regret it afterwards.
In January 2013, my passion became a Capstone project to create a think-tank we called Bridge for Humanity. Our objective was to research and formulate a policy proposal for the Maghreb region (N. Africa) after the Arab Spring. We were then meant to present this document to the European External Action Service for consideration. Being someone who has been on the practical side of bad policy making, I had three months to obsess over creating something that I could never possibly understand well enough to be content that it would be used to improve matters. I managed to neglect everything else, my other schoolwork, my activities at school, my friends, and most importantly the person who went through everything with me. I became convinced that Bridge for Humanity was going to be my redemption. It was going to be my solution for world peace. I wouldn’t sleep, and I’d drone away at making this idea work.
After having to cancel my flight home for Christmas due to not having a residency permit and guilt for not being able to make it when it seemed like my family needed me there, my American history professor managed to pull some strings with the US consulate, and got them to call the Bureau of Immigration. I got my visa, and managed to pass my classes. But I was in a deep depression that I was not able to get rid of, my nightmares were in full force, and all I could think about was Bridge for Humanity and the plans I had for integrating it with the school by using my position in the student government. I left to Colorado in July just days before my five year anniversary with my girlfriend. I arrived, and I was fighting to be myself around my sister. I had ignored Francesca for that week, and eventually she told me that it was over. When she said that, all I could really say was “ok”. I didn’t want her to have to deal with me anymore. I spent a week staring at nothing before I broke down and asked my sister for antidepressants. The VA was not an option for me, I didn’t want to talk to them. What would I say? I felt terrible because I built a communications system? I anticipated that there were people who had seen and done things much more traumatic sounding than me. The antidepressants helped, but I felt like a robot. For once, I didn’t give a damn who I hurt. It was relieving, but unfortunate. By the time I returned to Brussels, I was full blown, not caring. I met someone, and we became intimate. I got with her before Francesca was able to move out. When Francesca came home, she was forced to endure the pain of not only me being with another person, but me being such an obnoxious prick as to force her to move out. For a month, I pushed Francesca away. I wanted no chance that she would take me back, or be associated with what I was planning next.
In the beginning of the school year, I assisted with a conference on EU-GCC relations and tried to bring up an idea I had on Trilateral Joint Policy Exchange Workshops which I had adapted from one of the items mentioned in the policy proposals we submitted to the EEAS. I had met many interesting and spirited people from the GCC countries. Next, I attended a Transparency International Workshop on Defense Industry Corruption and ended up going off on a tirade with the help of Andrew Feinstein about drone warfare and systemic corruption. After the meeting, he gave me his book “Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade” which chronicled his four years worth of investigation into how legitimate American and other defense companies have been using the grey market to perpetuate warfare since World War Two, and even went back in history as far as Basal Zaharoff who helped start an arms race in every country involved in World War One. This was a man that was called a hero. After reading this book, many of my suspicions and fears were confirmed. With regards to the Snowden leaks – much of the information of which I was also suspicious about – I saw a state that had transcended the level of systemic corruption and abuse of power, as well as expansionist aspirations than I had ever seen before. Being a futurist and one who stays ahead of the curve with technological change, I became growingly concerned with this policy of Full Spectrum Dominance and the political philosophies associated with it. I had developed a major affinity for the writings of George Orwell after reading his short story called “To Shoot an Elephant” in my first semester of university. One quote burned in my head after hearing of these leaks
“In our own day they are not fighting against one another at all. The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”
I started seeing issues that were arising in the US, that could lead to internal conflicts in the next ten years. In particular, the growing wealth divide and the exponential rise in machines that are replacing humans in the workforce and at war. I met the premiere peace scholar Dr. Johan Galtung soon after meeting Andrew Feinstein. He wrote a book that was titled “The Fall of the US Empire: And Then What”. I stood waiting to speak to him, and once I had the chance, I asked him “ How does one stop the US from descending into a police state” and he replied “ You have to target local institutions and change the country from the bottom up.” Had I not been on the antidepressants I might have been more inquisitive. But this was something I began thinking about intensely as time went on. Dr. Koops then asked me at the beginning of October, two years after he first asked me if I would do a lecture for Armistice Day (Veteran’s day). Had I not been on the antidepressant, I would have most likely not agreed to do that. But I thought that by the time I had to do it, I would have something to say.
In the course of my being broken up with Francesca, and being with my “unnameable girlfriend”, I had a brief relapse with Francesca. I caught mononucleosis in the month of October and nearly died due to dehydration. They misdiagnosed me for strep throat, and I blacked out on a tram. I woke up in the hospital, and in the three days that I spent there, I thought about how I was going to do this lecture to make it useful. After I got out of the hospital the mono had slowed me down, however, I intensely thought about my problem, and I wracked my brain about how I could put it into a context that people could understand. It was a 10,000 word paper that I called the Anatomy of an Airstrike. It was essentially about how warfare and society has evolved to the point where the there are so many people in the chain of actions that it has become increasingly difficult to understand the true impact of what we do.
For instance, when Brandon guided in those missile, someone else made the kill decision. There was someone else who activated the missiles so that they were able to kill people. Someone else constructed the intelligence for the decision maker to make that decision. We are at war because certain people in government sent us there. And if leaders of third world nations can be tried and executed as being war criminals for authorizing their men to kill civilians, then why is a man who built the communications system that made all this communication between individuals who are all bearing responsibility for making the act of killing an individual by airstrike possible any different than a person who can see the effects of what they do?
I was responsible for building that system. That system is used to kill people, therefore, I am killing everyone that my system was used to kill. It was my decision to build that system, and though coerced, it was my decision to follow those orders to do it. Braver men have been faced with greater threats than a dishonorable discharge and some jail time. More innocent men have been punished for less. Why is it that the lowest guy on the totem pole is always the one who gets the brunt of all punishment for immoral acts? In this interconnected world, we are all guilty for grave injustices to human beings and our planet, if there were a lense to view the entire impact of our entire lives as individuals on this planet in a single day, we would all look back on ourselves prior to that day as people who are on par with Hitler. Our society is built to shroud the effects of our evil acts, so that we can go on with light consciences. We blame Kim Jong Il of merrily living his life as his people suffer, but what do we do when we insist on buying the newest computers for the lowest prices, when we all know good and well that the ingredients of which fuel a conflict that has taken the lives of over 4 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo? We live in a world of moral children, and we perpetuate suffering by our decision to ignore the truth in favor of a carefree existence.
When I sat in front of fifty people to tell them what I did, and the consequences of my actions on the victims and myself, it was one of the most humiliating moments in my life. To admit that I have been conned, to admit that I am a coward and a killer, and to admit that I am not a good person was what I thought to be my lowest point. Of course, people may disagree with that, but those people clearly don’t know what I know. My paper never made it to the crowd, as I finished it the night before. But this moved Dr. Koops to try to take me onto the Global Governance Institute so that I could research this further. They postponed my due dates, and they told me to finish when my mononucleosis got better. I was maybe sleeping 2-3 hours a night trying to work on what I had to do, even when I had a break, I barely slept. The last day of the Fall semester. My unnameable girlfriend found messages on my computer to Francesca, and she found out that Francesca and I got together while I was with her. I had a finals party I was required to organize, a task that I was not especially keen on in light of my more grandiose plans that never worked out to transform the school into a ground zero for peace. My “unnameable girlfriend” chose to play it cool though, and tried to make our last night together memorable. It took everything in me not to cry. I had managed to hurt two people that I cared most for. When she left on the airplane, I was alone with myself for once. I no longer had antidepressants to numb me, and I no longer had someone to console me.
That month, I researched the future of warfare and extended my imagination to the depths of my sanity. If I had been able to believe that humans were as the powerful political theorists have said they were since Machiavelli, I would have conceded that my actions in Afghanistan were necessary and were therefore justifiable. But I have found no such proof that humans are intrinsically the cynically self serving entities that is claimed they are. In fact, this argument has been used to justify morally bankrupt actions since time immemorial as you can essentially feel blameless in anything you do so long as the person you are doing it to would beyond reasonable doubt do the same to you, given the same circumstances. But this isn’t exactly genuine. If perhaps we were lizards, that may be the case, but our minds are built to transcend this. We are capable of empathy, and often times we will sacrifice ourselves for the greater good. Some say that goes against nature but the fact that we do it makes it our nature. In fact, everything humans do is human nature, and making choices is human nature too. Ernest Becker says that we are in fact survival oriented, but we have the cognitive capacity to frame our own survival not only in our physical existence, but we are able to transcend death in our ideas as well. The great many things that we as individuals consider reality is in fact social constructions. These things are factors that determine our life choices. Patriotism, a nation, trucks, hell the words you are reading are social constructions that are representative of reality. You are given a name, and that name and everything attributed to it is a social construction. Social constructions are only as real as the power people vest in them. The idea that there is such a thing as a just war is very dependent on who you are speaking to and on what side. However every person who raises a weapon does so under the assumption that they are the one who is just in their decision to take another’s life. The very fact that there is a party who would view the act of taking their life as unjust signifies that that act in itself is unjust.
In war, we are conditioned to believe that since we are lawful combatants, there is a mutually understood agreement that if you kill or are killed by another combatant, that the act of killing is a mutual act of self defense. However, the very reason one is sent to war is also a social construction based on decisions a handful of leaders have made to expend the lives of otherwise peaceful individuals to meet a political objective or to eliminate an unwelcome influence on their society. Nevertheless, we are still fighting for things that are only as real as people make them, and are figments of our imaginations supported by generations of evolving thoughts that we must be aware of to make decisions based off of them. Some leaders have seen this, and thought it would be a good idea to culturally whitewash societies in order to create a new social reality based off their vision for human kind, but this is normally a measure that is enforced, and is not voluntary. These incidents of cultural whitewashing are normally referenced to societies that history normally associates with evil. In many ways, any norm, no matter how well intentioned or just is no longer just so long as it is imposed on that individual or society, as the nature of the norm changes in the process. War in itself is the business of imposition. War cannot be just because there is never justice for those who are forced by others to do something. Even violent revolution against an evil dictator is not just, so long as the structures of power remain intact, as those who rebel are not rebelling against the structure of society or the norm, but the people themselves.
For a month, I dwelt on these thoughts. In the middle of this month, I was having a very difficult time coping with what I did. I thought about the diffusion of responsibility and how this diffusion represents power of those making decisions, as it distances people from the moral weight of their decisions, and allows people to live in their collective fantasies by limiting their exposure to the actual injustice of taking another person’s life. In some ways, speaking about my experience felt like I was providing a service, perhaps I was. But since I became aware that people knew what I had done, I felt what I had told them every time I saw them. I stumbled on Brandon Bryant’s video for DemocracyNow! when I was researching drone warfare. It was a long shot, but he seemed like of all the people I have met or heard of, he’d get it. I helped him do his job after all. We spoke a bit. I played it off like I was doing this for research reasons to some extent. I didn’t want to tell him that I had been sitting at the edge of my own sanity for too long, what do I do, how do I deal this.
We talked on and off for several months. He was apparently very busy as I’d later find, but I was frankly just relieved that I wasn’t alone in this. I tried starting the antidepressants again, just so I could function normally. The mono still made me really tired, and I’d sit at my computer frustrated because I was not able to think clearly enough to articulate the research I did. In February, I found out that Brandon was coming to Germany to do something, so I pitched to Dr. Koops the idea that we organize a conference on drone warfare with Brandon. He thought it was a fantastic idea. Then I found out that he was in a documentary and I got in touch with Tonje Schei through Facebook. Then I messaged Andrew Feinstein and asked if he’d join us as a lecturer, knowing that I also heard his voice in the trailer and remembered him speaking about a drone documentary he was in when I first met him. Tonje and Jonathan offered to bring Shahzad Akbar with them from Norway, and all of a sudden I was organizing this conference called “Drone Warfare: Where to go from here” with around a month to pull that off and one of the first screenings of the DRONE documentary shown to the public right before everyone else went on vacation. This conference was organized primarily over Google Hangouts and Facebook with Giulia arranging bookings and flights in Italy, Dr. Koops directing from the Arctic Circle, me in Brussels, Andrew in London, and the rest of the DRONE crew in Norway. I had not anticipated that Spring break and a months notice wouldn’t be enough time to gather institutional experts that could argue for drones, I had never done this before. I just did it because I felt like it was critical, and people needed to know.
We managed to get the biggest theater at the Vrije University Aula Q and was told that we’d have a full screen. The day finally came, I picked up Brandon at the airport. Brandon’s credit card wasn’t working, so I went to the airport in Dr. Koops’s car. I was late, and he was sitting over to the side with his head down. I was in my suit and he was in clothes that looked far more comfortable to me. We both stood there and talked about books and movies, while we waited for Tonje. She arrived and went to the car. I had to move the child seat for her. I took them to their hotel to freshen up, and Sean Dunn pick them up. In addition to the conference, I had arranged for the very person who I found out about Vesalius College from on Facebook, and who was interning at New Europe, to conduct interviews with all of the guests. Then the time came, and of course nothing worked to plan. The projector we needed was broken and we were forced to use the small one. The speakers that were connected to the small projector reduced the acoustic quality and I feared that it was ruined. Everything was late, including many of the guests. I hadn’t slept in two nights and worse, Dr. Koops challenged me to sit up there with all of them. The film played, and for me it was an emotional moment. For one, I couldn’t believe someone made a documentary about this. Secondly, I understood that I was in the company of people who are in a very much David vs. Goliath scenario. Third, seeing Shahzad, and knowing that my equipment was still affecting the people in Pakistan he was trying to protect sent me into tears. It captured much of what I researched and put a face to the names I had been reading. I had realized that I was part of something so benign on one side, yet absolutely terrifying on the other. When I went up to the stage to sit by these people, I was weak in the knees. I was doing everything I could not to start crying again.
The Q&A session went really well. To be honest, I can’t for the life of me remember everything that was said. But I do remember seeing from the corner of my eye when an audience member called Brandon a hero and he looked down in shame. I already knew how he felt about that. I recognized when his tone switched from explanatory to combative. I knew how he felt. I was trying put on a mask up until that point to appear like I was hot shit, able to organize anything so that people would trust me enough to let me. But I had lied to all my Professors by telling them that I was catching up. I still had work due from the previous semester. There was no way I’d finish everything. I was nothing in a suit, just trying to keep my cool long enough before people understood that I was not doing any of this out of academic curiousity, but because I had to.
On April 18th, I made the decision to share with Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism information that I believe was how our system was being used in conjunction with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node to control UAV strikes over Waziristan. This information is at least from what I saw, very much supported the notion that US Air Force personnel were being used for clandestine operations in a country that we were not formally at war with and whom the Pakistani government has a legal obligation to deny. I did this because it was important. I have full faith that Chris Woods will use this information responsibly. I did not do so secretly, I did so transparently to those who would be monitoring such information, although I have not and will not make that information available to any other source. They were mere clues to follow in order to help his investigation. But then the media lab holding the video for the conference was hacked and a virus was installed on the video for the conference deeming it unreadable. I began to sink deeper into my depression. I wasn’t sleeping and when I did, there was this looming chance I’d have another nightmare. I was intent on passing these classes, but I was fairly certain that it wouldn’t happen. I passed all but one. Statistics.
My mother came for a graduation I would never have. We both went and watched Charlotte, another member of the student government deliver the speech I wrote to start the school year which was meant to spark off a series of plans I became too dysfunctional to carry out. I watched Andrew Feinstein, the speaker I selected speak of following what you know is right no matter what and you’ll never regret it. I saw my fellow students, all happy for an accomplishment they worked hard for. I was proud of them. But I knew that road wasn’t for me. It wouldn’t matter anyway, I’d probably be detained at the the New Jersey Airport the minute I swiped my passport.
After “graduation”, I was meant to go to India to travel and decompress. But I had drank away much of what I saved going to bars those first three months of the year. All I had was non-refundable ticket to New Delhi, and from there to Denver two months later. I didn’t have a visa however and I didn’t have the money, time, or ID card to obtain one. Instead, I found a flight to Kathmandu. I had $400 in my bank account, the rest was wrapped up in a stock I had lost almost everything on. My sister’s wedding was in late September. But I was suffering at the time. I would occasionally hang out with friends, but mostly sat in my room starring at the ceiling, counting euro cents, hoping it was enough to buy food. With one of those coins, I started to flip it over whether or not I was going to kill myself when I went to Nepal. I didn’t want to make the decision on my own, I wanted fate to decide that. Every time it landed on tails, I should. It’s pretty messed up but that was kind of a relief to me. I knew you could get any pill you wanted there and I knew hikers disappeared all the time. It was enough having to deal with sleep problems, nightmares, depression, and all that. I was not sure I was ready to do that in prison.
Francesca came and visited me again, to say goodbye. I missed her, it was good bye though. I had spent a considerable amount of time with a friend in Brussels. We kind of kept eachother company and we had something but it never worked out. I helped her move and on the last night we kissed. Sometimes people don’t understand the little things they do that make a difference, but we kissed two more times. Once outside the house and once at the train as she was leaving. I gave everything away, and sold a few other things for extra cash. Then I got on the plane and went to Nepal. When I arrived in Kathmandu, I was picked up by my host Durga. She brought me back to her house in a rusty old taxi. There was something familiar about not being in the west anymore, something refreshing. There I met Nina, and Durga’s son Diwash and daughter. Nina was a Buddhist, who was crazy about singing bowls. She was also crazy about helping people. We saw several of the temples in the first few days and went to the orphanage. When I arrived at the orphanage, I had about ten kids jump on me. I saw that they were plenty loved, they came from hard places but they were happy. The father and his wife who were taking care of them were struggling to support them though. The kids didn’t have any winter clothes and during low seasons they would have issues getting volunteers to provide funding. Nina and I started talking about how to help them, and she managed to raise some money to buy food and cold weather gear for awhile. Seeing those kids and the conditions of the street kids changed me. Perhaps, it saved me. It became sort of my mission to create a conference to get these NGOs to speak to each other about these kids and try to hash out a comprehensive plan. I met a Swiss girl named Octavi, and we set out to interview different NGOs, to see if it would be useful. In fact, the general consensus is that it would, but it would be really difficult to do in a way to make it so.
I interviewed several in both rural and social projects. I started to rethink my old idea for Bridge for Humanity, and started to think about what needed to be done locally. I saw NGOs that were being funded to help issues such as street children who were definitely full of well meaning people, but were limited in knowledge and capacity to actually put forth useful steps to solve these problems. I saw Christian NGOs that were focused primarily on normative change via belief systems that promoted healing, but were not accepting of and hardly understood the culture they were speaking to. Much of what they had said was self reinforcing rather than trancescendental change, and limited in capacity to do real good. It was there to reinforce a dependency relationship between victims of other systems and the mission. Efforts such as these I found inherently disingenuous.
There were also NGOs that tried to change their society through mostly foreign paying volunteers, and this was great, only it was illegal, and hardly effective for the funds that were invested in it. I spend a lot of time with an NGO like this, but there was no screening process for volunteers or adequate direction. An organization built on irregular volunteers is the definition of difficult to coordinate. This resulted in children being taught basic English in school, and having no permanently structured learning to progress their knowledge. It looks good, but is inneffective. On an eco project such as the one they had in Chitwan, this system worked, however it was difficult to create any meaningful employment for volunteers without adequate skillsets, and it ended up being a mess.
There were also organizations with great public relations, only it was clear that they viewed their organization as a cash cow. The government was scheduling regular meetings between NGOs, however it was said that these meetings resulted in little headway, and was actually just more of a showcase. What I realized these NGOs needed was assistance with capacity building, and they needed structures that would facilitate cooperation and at the same time create oversight. It didn’t need an NGO that would be an umbrella, but rather one that bridged existing ones, and created a framework they could walk across to share their services and knowledge. They also needed a cost effective and sustainable exit strategy, one that would give them the security to put their full effort behind solving problems rather than letting them linger. This exit strategy had to result in something that would be more profitable for them to pursue than their existing structures and would rather than being a money pit or a burden on government would help strengthen their existing economy.
In international relations, we learned of two approaches I saw a way forward with. On was called global governance (not to be confused with global government) and the other human security. Global governance is the global framework that exists between different entities that are not government but facilitate a political dialogue between civil societies and international organizations. Human security is the existence of structures that provide for individuals all their basic needs and support them in a manner that allows them to pursue their wants. The other concept that is fundamental to a just system is of intergenerational equity. This means that the way of life that is promoted through these two means should promote the third in order to make this sustainable, as intergenerational equity has to do with ensuring that future generations have the opportunity to achieve human security.
We currently operate in a system that is destructive to peace, and thus global governance, and it is destructive to human security overall as it does not follow the principle of intergenerational equity, but rather encourages the destruction of it in favor of an arbitrary measure of a nation’s self importance called power. Indeed, what the United States has been pursuing since 2001 is power, and not just any power, but global power, and judging by the changing structure of this system, not power for all, but power for a few. This is not freedom. Ubiquitous collection of online information can make us more safe from enemies, but in the same way that a sheep herder keeps his flock safe. The NSA is the herder’s staff meant to coerce its population to bend to its will, as when someone feels monitored, they do not act without considering potential retaliation from whoever is in power. These enemies, what most people have a difficult time understanding, are not simply people who mean us harm, but are people who have been the victims of the harm imposed on them since the times of colonialism. This is not at its core about religion, it is about people who fighting for their dignity in the name of Allah. It is about protecting their right to access resources that have been limited by structures of power that began with colonialism, and have persisted to this day. It is not about wanting to regress to a more primitive and controlled way of life, but it is about protecting their system of values from disappearing, which have equal right to exist as our western ones. However, in doing so, systems that are threatened turn inward. They grow paranoid, and certain individuals who profit from this egg it on. In the process, we all became what we most hated from the beginning out of fear for the alternative; we become controlled and subservient to violence. We are no longer free to find ourselves or our God. But certain values are imposed on us, and we are no longer provided the means to make the journey of a life worth living. Therefore, if we are to break from this, the only responsible course of actions is to live for the day. It is to be present, and it is to constantly remind ourselves to think transcendentally.
On the 9th of September, I had lived for two months a free individual. When I finally determined that my own life is no longer worth living, I began to think of a life that was. While at times I punish myself for my past, I remind myself that the only time that exists is now, the past is a ripple of a ship, and the future is the culmination of the life we choose to live on a day to day basis. It became my mantra to work on what I felt to be the most important thing I thought I could do that day. I met a girl in a hostel in Kathmandu. There was only two days left for what I was preparing myself to be the last two days of my life as a free individual. On the last hours of the last night of staying up and talking about life, we kissed. In that kiss, I felt home for once in many years. When I boarded that plane, I felt no fear, because something was telling me that it was going to be ok.
I got home, and I went to my sister’s wedding. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I started to understand that when that coin flipped and told me I was supposed to kill myself, I was. Only, it was not the self I had imagined it to be. It was the part of me that would have felt ashamed and afraid to share this information.
Over that month, I began talking to Brandon more, and we both agreed that now was the time for solutions and for truth. A few days later, he asks me if I would be available for a conference call regarding the start of Project Red Hand. In the course of two months, I spent being with my family, I also spent it trying to think about the most important thing I could be doing today. I contacted Dr. Eric Hodges, a major proponent of the field of Veteran’s Studies so that Brandon and I can speak about what they are now calling moral injury. We believed that it was important to further the understanding of people who have been exposed to war, though the system would have you believe that our experience is atypical. There is a great injustice happening to the veterans of this nation. We have to improve the understanding of returning veterans to ensure that our society is able to grow from this suffering rather than collapse in our own fantasies. We were promised change, and we were promised a more peaceful world would come of this. But a decade down the road, there is only surveillance, a more militarized police force, an increasingly automated military, and well meaning policies that are financially unsustainable. Our future generations will be burdened with debt that was created by bankers who still roam free, and for what? We have still not heard an adequate explanation for this. As it currently stands, the only actions that have come from this was criticism of those who serve the state. I say that this is not a matter of people, I believe that people are for the most part guided by what they think is right, as misguided as that may be sometimes.
The problems are these illusory structures that we have built for ourselves, these structures that guide our actions, of which, we have mistaken for reality. But we can change these structures ourselves, there are solutions out there. Last Saturday, I left my father’s house unexpectedly in the middle of the night. I did not know where I was going, I was anxious and I felt like I had to go. I told him I was going to Taos, New Mexico. I got in my truck and I drove three hours south, and camped in the back of my truck in the middle of the desert. That morning, I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was going to do, it just felt right. I had heard of Earthships and I was intent on seeing them for myself. I went to McDonalds to see what the address to it was, and I met a man who was going through the academy there. I told him I was camping in my truck, just trying to see what was up with them. He offered to let me see his, and to show me around. We drove into the desert and almost five miles down a poorly maintained desert road. It was a cold early morning, and I was skeptical of what I was about to see. I’ve been talking about earthships for the last few days with the Project Red Hand group. We were all very intrigued. But when I walked inside, it was warm and there were plants growing inside. I went to the tap, and there was clean water from the rain pouring out. I have been living in one for over a week. There are plans designed for every climate. As I am writing this, it is below freezing outside, and I am wearing a T-shirt.
Today, there are homes available that are 100% self sustaining. They can sustain a family of four indefinitely. They are extremely low impact to the environment, in fact, they are for the most part built from recycled materials that our society has had a difficult time finding uses for. You can build a home for four people for $20,000. What many do not understand about this concept is that while yes, this is forty years old, there are thousands of homes that have been built by them and this concept is evolving. In order to change society and prevent war, we have to find a way to provide human security and intergenerational equity. This concept is the most advanced system for overcoming the issues we will have in the future yet. If people can have access to their basic necessities of life, there is no need for a welfare system, the structure itself is a welfare system. When there is massive unemployment due to improvements in technology and our inability to retrain people into new skill sets fast enough, people will have food, water, energy, and a roof over their heads. We can connect these homes to a grid, and combine it with a self sustaining system, and we will have power feeding back into the grid, and we will have redundancies for whenever for some reason or other, the grid fails. This is not only human security, this is economic security. This is the ability for the American people and people around the globe to control and monitor what impact they have on the world. On a planet with human security, pressure is alleviated from governments to send their people to war over security of trade in resources. While I do not claim that this alone is the be all end all of war as we know it, it is a necessary step in the right direction to ensure that at the end of the day, people are safe. Safe people are happy people and they are people who will have more time following their passions and less time doing menial work like flipping burgers. This system will allow people to be curious and ingenuitive, because people have always been that way. In a world of greater automation, systems like these will ensure that humans can still be in the game, and contributing significantly to the knowledge of our planet. We will continue to need government to provide those things that we cannot provide ourselves, but in a free society it should be the mission of government to give those things over to people they can provide for themselves, by integrating them into our daily lives in a way that is sustainable and user friendly.
We need to create solutions that can last, within communities that support them. We can create a better world free of coercion and connect globally at all levels, that includes those who currently sit in positions of power. I will work from my end to help make this a reality. I only ask that those who read this consider working from theirs.
Thank you for your time.
By Cian Westmoreland, Nomad