The Ordnance of the Barricades
A young activist I talk to fairly regularly at Dooney’s told me the other day he could see no workable alternative to violent action against the G-8 and the hard-to-define ideology most people are calling Globalization, but could as easily be encapsulated in any number of other ways—hyper-myopic corporate capitalism is my current favourite. “We’re going to have to barricade the streets” he said, his eyes gleaming with something I recognized. “This is revolution.”
He had the standard arguments for direct action: corporate capitalism depends on the orderly flow of goods and services. Barricades will disrupt that, and draw attention to issues in dramatic ways.
“It you want to disrupt corporate capitalism, you ought to place your barricades at the parking entrance to WalMart,” I said. “Disrupting G-8 meetings is like picketing the cheerleaders clubhouse when you’re trying to stop an NFL game.”
He laughed uncomfortably, and I remembered that being a smart-ass generally isn’t helpful. I changed my tack. But instead of earnestly arguing the legitimate and non-legitimate philosophical reasons for social violence or pointing out that it’s the globalists who are the revolutionaries today, not people who believe in social democracy, I asked him what it was he found so attractive about barricades.
The question seem to startle him, and for a moment he clammed up. But when I admitted that 35 years ago I felt as he does now, and that I was directing the question as much at myself as at him, he relaxed. We talked for a while longer about political and cultural activism, and its discontents. I suggested to him that violence is always an admission of failure—and that barricades are sometimes necessary when everything else fails—and he agreed that maybe I wasn’t such a fuddy-duddy after all. I also told him I thought that what screwed things up 30 years ago was that the barricades became an end in themselves—a visionary perch for a self-dramatizing few, and for others, a lifestyle. Then I offered him a word of caution and a few pieces of advice about barricades. The caution was simple: try to stay clear of barricades. People get hurt there, and they’re most likely to be friends of yours.
The advice? This: Three things matter most once you find yourself on a barricade. One is laughter. If you can’t hear any on your side, get the hell out of there because you’re either on the wrong side, or there’s no longer a right or wrong side. The second is the comparative quality of the ordnance available—yours and that of the people opposing you. The Third is the quality of your companions.
“Isn’t leadership important?” he asked.
I suggested that he look closer at the leaders on the barricades the last time around. Che Guevara? Tim Leary? Jerry Rubin? Eldridge Cleaver? Maybe they were important, but maybe not. Maybe you could have trusted them to pursue your goals—or maybe not. But could you have trusted them to give a shit about what happened to the people they were leading? Nah.
“My point,” I said, “is that you’re on your own, whether you admit it or not. Once the barricades are raised, strategy fades, ideas wither, and theatre takes over. And you—you the bag of vulnerable flesh and blood—nothing is going to protect you but your own devices. Your ingenuity, your common sense, and your ordnance—moral and physical will protect you. Leaders won’t. They’ve already agreed to let you get arrested or even killed. The rightness of your cause still matters, but once the event is set, the riot shields raised and the ordnance shouldered, whatever you arrived there to do ceases to evolve or respond to common sense. You need people you can trust to cover your back, and you need to be clear what the other guys are packing.”
I didn’t find a whole lot of people on the barricades that I could trust. I’ve heard that in war zones such people are more plentiful, but I suspect that buddy-bonds develop naturally when men are trained to defend one another, and have agreed to let other men try to kill them. As a lifelong civilian, I’ve know just a single person I’d have trusted on a barricade. He always seemed to know what to do when things got rough, and since I generally had no clue, I survived late adolescence by following his example. Among this man’s many decent character traits is the absolute aversion he has to exposing his backside in situations where he’s outgunned and surrounded by unstable, shouting allies. We never marched together as adults, and the several times I’ve done it on my own, I didn’t ask him to join me—but did pretend I was him while I marched.
I learned nearly all of what I know about ordnance across a dinner table in the summer of 1969. In 1968 I’d gotten it into my head that the Americans were coming—coming after our water and our resources, and to capture and punish the confused but morally competent draft dodgers and deserters who had then been flooding into Canada for several years. Some of the draft dodgers, as it happened, were my friends and fellow students, so I had a proprietary interest in their safety that went beyond nationalism or the anti-American paranoia that is a more or less natural product of living next door to a very large and aggressive country that has traditionally treated my small country like a 97 pound nephew with a bad attitude—when it notices us at all.
In 1968, the United States had killed Martin Luther King and the second Kennedy brother, after which it elected Richard Nixon as their president. Their troops were rolling through the jungles of Southeast Asia and, I decided, would soon come after us—we who lazed just a few miles north of their border, hurling rocks at their freight trains and abuse at whatever was American and wasn’t carrying a musical instrument.
Because when they came, these Americans would be carrying guns, and because their coming was, in my addled brain, a political certainty as secure as any I had in those days, we—I, because I couldn’t seem to talk anyone else into my point of view—would need to take arms against them. And so never mind “we”. I. I would arm myself.
Of course it was a ludicrous idea. Only a fool buys a gun to use against other human beings. I bought a gun anyway. I took myself to a gun shop, and purchased what seemed to me the perfect weapon to defend my country: a model 94 Winchester 30-30. You could buy hunting rifles casually in those days. British Columbia was a hunting and fishing paradise, and owning a gun wasn’t, as it is the US, a political right, but a practical convenience. I’d grown up in a house that had a 12 gauge shotun and several .22 rifles in the closest. They were rarely used, but they were there, and they were unlicenced. War surplus .303 Lee Enfields were sold in every sporting goods and most second hand stores. No one had automatic rifles, and if you owned a handgun, you didn’t admit it: those were for police officers and people who committed suicide.
I chose the Model 94 because, well, I’d seen it in a hundred Wild West movies. It was a replica of the short-barreled, lever-action rifle every decent cowboy carried in a tasseled buckskin sling behind his saddle. It was a weapon of defense—a cowboy on the open prairie feels a bullet whistle by, ducks, reaches for his 30-30 as he dismounts, and heads for cover. Bang, bang.
In the real world of the day and I suppose, still, a 30-30 is a deer rifle—light, easy to fire and easy to maintain. I told myself I’d use it to hunt game and defend my wife and unborn children after civil order broke down—the second political certainty I was convinced of in those days. The breakdown sometimes seemed a year away, a month, but maybe next week, and I didn’t need to be smoking dope to convince myself it was on the way. It was evident in the way we were devouring the planet’s resources. Civility was breaking down, and chaos was imminent—just like today—whether or not American troops were going to cross the border to put us in our place and tell us what to believe.
I bought ammunition for the 30-30: 200 rounds, 50 of them hollow point. That was my way of telling myself it wasn’t sport, that I meant to kill if I had to; I could. I would—in that order. To others, I said that maybe I must, if I am to defend my country.
Brash, silly talk, all of it. Privately I was much less sure of what to do, or what to think. Other moral questions dogged me: was it just my wife and friends I meant to defend? Or was it the degree of privilege and liberation I enjoyed? At this awkward moment in my private moral history, ordnance itself intervened: I received a visit from the U.S. Marines.
* * *
While I was in high school in Northern British Columbia , I’d become friendly with an American boy from Klamath Falls , Oregon. His father was a USAF captain stationed at nearby Baldy Hughes, the U.S. Air Force radar installation that was part of the Pine Tree Line in NORAD’s early warning detection system. The boy’s name was Jay Clark. He was well-mannered, sweet tempered, did well at school, but was, I decided in full view of my own naïvete, dangerously naïve. I protected him from the school barbarians as best I could, and so he could navigate us on his own, I taught what little I understood about the differences in custom between our two countries.
I liked Jay because he was a decent and gentle person. But I was also drawn to him because he was exotic, and because he had access to exotic goods, American things. He got me cheap American cigarettes, real blue jeans from J.C Penny, and brought me to stay at the radar base with his American parents, who I liked almost as much as I did him. Because we were normal teenage boys, we sometimes went hunting for squirrels in the woods outside the base. Mostly we hunted with the single-shot 22 rifles and shotguns I was familiar with, but one time he sneaked out an M-1 assault rifle for the hunt. It was the only time in my life I’ve ever had a semi-automatic weapon in my hands. We didn’t make much of a dent in the local squirrel population with it, but I remember clearly that there wasn’t much left of the ones we did kill.
The best part of it was that we were real friends, and we were constructing a bi-lateral universe together, one that was slightly larger than the Canadian and American ones we’d come from. We worked on that universe for a couple of years before Jay’s parents were transferred back to the States. I missed him when he left, and I guess I missed the American smokes and even the Americans themselves. We exchanged a few letters, but not very many. Something told me he was gone for good, and soon enough I forgot about him and went on with my life.
Apparently Jay didn’t forget about me. In the summer of 1969, he phoned me out of the blue. When I realized who was on the other end of the line, I experienced a predictable stutter of authentic 1960s paranoia: what could he possibly want? I was living the suburbs of Vancouver, finishing my undergraduate degree at an obscure but politically and culturally convulsive university, and he was an American who lived in the United States —one of my self-declared enemies. How had he found me? Who—or what—had he used to do it? But find me he had, and so I invited him over for dinner.
He showed up a few hours later in a beige Oldsmobile, not new and scraped badly enough along the driver’s side that he had to crawl out on the passenger side. He was dressed in combat fatigues with his name over the breast pocket, and he looked ten years older than his 24 years, twitchy and hollow-eyed. He’d told me he’d done two tours of duty in Vietnam with the U. S. Marine Corps, and was in the process of deciding whether to re-enlist for a third tour. He’d joined the Marines at age 20, after a year of junior college in Oregon . That had made him, he said with a smile that was proud and angry in nanosecond gradations, the second oldest and the best educated enlistee in his company—and very quickly, a platoon leader and one of its non-commissioned officers.
When he talked about what happened after he was shipped to Vietnam , there were no smiles. In his mind, his military accomplishments, beyond simple survival, were the shooting up of a North Vietnamese field hospital, and the acquisition of a sense of his—and the world’s—inherent evil. Lt. William Calley, he repeated at least four times, was the rule in a war zone, not the exception, and nothing to get excited about. He’d seen things worse than My Lai , he said, and hinted that he’d done worse himself. Then there were the complaints: nightmares, combat flashbacks, disorientation at civilian life—all the symptoms of what we now know as post-traumatic disorder. In 1969, it looked borderline crazy.
As I sat across the table listening to Jay talk, I tried to recall the kid I’d gone to high school with, trying to locate him within the haunted, jumpy creature sitting across from me. He seemed incapable of relaxation, but it wasn’t wariness that replaced it. It was the agitation of a man who’d lost all sense of safety, and I sensed that it had made everyone a potential threat, including me. I kept thinking, this is Jay Clark, as nice a kid as I’d ever known, a kid who had everything: nice parents, university prospects, American citizenship. I couldn’t put him together with this man, who had me a little frightened for both my personal safety and that of my wife, a delicate woman, also a student, and a person I was discovering I didn’t know very well even though we’d been married for more than two years. I suspected that Jay had come up to Canada because he’d lost his anchors to a normal past—family, Oregon , the military, American life itself. That I was likely a distant anchor from a time that seemed idyllic to him wasn’t comforting. It meant that his tether to reality was long and fragile. What if it snapped, here and now, and he killed us both?
And what was there to talk to him about, or—more accurately—what could I say to him from my safe civilian life that wouldn’t seem ridiculous and trivial? That I was worried about global pollution, or that a few weeks ago, a car had passed dangerously close to my ass? If what he was telling us was true, he’d killed people, and other people had been trying to kill him.
I tried to find some common ground that still existed between us, but there just didn’t seem to be any. What had been a small, in-the-future preoccupation for him while we were teenagers had spawned a chasm between us. Young Americans are subject to the military draft; young Canadians weren’t. I’d never considered joining the Canadian armed forces, not even in my most idle musings. And I hadn’t, until that moment, realized what good fortune that had conferred on me.
But wait! Jay and I hunted squirrels together, and, uh, he’d spent a lot of time since with guns, and…
Yeah, sure, it was idiotic. But I brought up the subject of the 30-30 anyway, and then I brought the rifle out to show him, laying it atop the dinner table like a trophy.
He didn’t seem impressed. “Yeah,” he said, picking it up and turning it over in his hands, as if measuring its reality. Then he sighted it at some imaginary target out the window, levered an imaginary cartridge into the chamber, and laughed. “I know this weapon,” he said. “What made you buy a popgun like this? Deer hunting?”
My young, delicate wife, the one I didn’t know very well, was standing behind me, watching. She answered Jay’s question. “He thinks he’s going to use it against the Americans when they invade Canada .”
Jay gazed at me for a very long moment. “I suppose that could happen,” he said, finally. “But let me tell you the difference between this thing and military ordnance. Your 30-30 will crank out one metal-jacketed bullet about every six seconds—if you know how to handle the gun fairly well. The bullet will have a muzzle velocity of anywhere from 1300 to 1800 feet per second. When it hits its target the bullet will travel right through if it doesn’t hit something hard enough to stop it or deflect it, and it’ll leave an exit hole about the same size as the entrance hole.
“A standard issue M16 will pump out 30 .223 bullets in that six second interval. The muzzle velocity will be around 3000 feet per second, and because the bullets will be tumbling end over end, they’ll tend to explode when they hit something. If you got hit with a tumbling .223 bullet in the shoulder, there’d be a small wound where it entered, but the back of your shoulder would be more or less blown apart.”
“Isn’t that the same effect a hollow-point bullet has?” I asked. “I thought they were outlawed.”
“Dum-dums were outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. But half the guys in my platoon were screwing with their ammunition anyway, and the Viet Cong aren’t exactly playing by the rules. When you’re 50 clicks into the jungle, and a hundred thousand gooks are trying to kill you, all that civilized shit goes out the back door pretty fast.”
Jay played out several anecdotes to illustrate what he meant, but they went in one ear and out the other. I was imagining myself cowering behind an overturned car trying to get a shot off with my lever-action 30-30 while the M-16 bullets, the 30 of them someone like Jay could fire while I was trying to hump the lever on my gun for a second shot, chewed up thebarracade around me, or hit the Canadian standing next to me, a kid from one of the radical factions at my university I didn’t like much. I watched his shoulder disintegrate and fly to the right while he staggered to the left to fall in front of me, the arteries severed by the blown-off shoulder spurting blood.
Jay had more to say—a lot more. I don’t remember very much of it, except his description of the effects of a .50 caliber machine gun. I think he also talked about tank shells and napalm, but I’d long since clambered off the barricade and was cowering in the deepest part of my being. I’m pretty sure I had a few smart-assed things to say in answer, and I probably said them badly.
He stayed a couple more hours, but I don’t remember much except that we parted on bad terms, and that somewhere during that time I realized he really wasn’t going to kill me—not today, anyway. But I also realized something else: no other American soldier was going to get to kill me. Not if I had say in it.
What I’m saying here is this: the next day I put the 30-30 in its case, stuck it up in the rafters, and started devising alternative methods to defend my country against the American invasion. The best thing I’ve come up with, then and today, is to write stories, and quite a few of them have been about how mangling one another with different kinds of ordnance doesn’t get us a better world.
Writing stories, some pretty good, others probably not so good, has kept me from climbing up on barricades and throwing rocks and shouting simplifications or otherwise employing inadequate ordnance for 35 years now. Instead of wondering about things like direct action, I think about how to write better stories than the ones I’ve written so far. The Americans haven’t crossed the border carrying guns, so things have worked out pretty well.
I never saw Jay again. But this time, I didn’t forget about him. He probably couldn’t save himself from the things he’d seen and maybe done—I’d be surprised if he made it to 30, whether or not he went back for that third tour in Vietnam . But I owe him a debt, because he saved me from my own stupid naïvety. I never used that rifle. In fact, I never fired it again, even at a stump. It stayed in the rafters for years, and the last time I took it down to look at it, a few weeks before I left Vancouver for good in 1991, the firing mechanism was crusted with rust. I gave it to someone, and I heard he turned it in during one of the government’s gun amnesties, saying he’d found it in a dumpster.
I also told a version of this story to my young activist friend. I don’t think he got it—not at least, the way I understand it. He was looking out the window a lot, probably musing about some heroic, noble act of self-sacrificing violence. If he’s lucky, someone from the other side of the barricades, maybe someone like Jay Clark, will intervene before he does something that’ll make the world worse than it already is.
Postscript: February 2007: Sometimes you find you’re wrong about something, and it’s a good thing. Jay Clark did in fact survive, and is now living somewhere in Oregon. He showed up at a high school reunion in Prince George, B.C. not long ago, and from the reports I got, was tanned and happy. I’m deeply glad of that.
May 4, 2006, 3685 w.