The debate over whether the United States should launch military strikes against Syria got me thinking about the first (and last) time I started a fistfight.
It was the summer of 1994. I’d graduated from Penn State the year prior and aimlessly circled the country before returning home to Rochester, N.Y. My high-school friend Stud invited me to spend that summer on Martha’s Vineyard, where his older brother lived and had arranged to rent a house for the season. A friend of Stud’s older brother — a pompous Swiss windsurfer named David — would also be living there.
The arrangement worked for about a month. I spent my days getting stoned and mowing lawns. At night we grilled clams and got drunk and tried to pick up girls. With the exception of David, the handsome European, none of us had much luck.
I discovered three important things that summer. The first was Geary’s Pale Ale, which we drank by the pitcher at a local bar. The second was Taj Mahal, whose 1974 album “Mo’ Roots” became that summer’s soundtrack, and who I got to see perform at the Old Whaling Church on the island.
The third was the realization that if you’re going to fight someone, you should either kill them or not cock your fist in the first place.
The nightly beer, clam and rejection routine got boring after a few weeks, so I started to spend nights home alone at the rental. This irked the Swiss playboy, and a rift grew in our already tenuous relationship. Tension mounted until the day I packed up to leave. Then it exploded.
I was in the kitchen, separating the silverware I’d brought from the others’. David was on the couch in the next room, lobbing insults at me, while Stud sat in a chair, silent and depressed. I let the first few insults pass, knowing they were untrue (to paraphrase, I was not gay, and I was not a coward). Then David said I hadn’t paid my share of the rental’s expenses, which was also untrue, and he called me a Jew, which is sorta true.
I’m not Jewish, but my mom’s mother, who helped raise me, was, and the burdensome sense of historic injustice most Jews carry inside them was inside me, too. I snapped. There were a number of knives close at hand, but rage-blind as I was, I wisely did not pick one up. Instead, I charged into the room, leapt over the coffee table and tried, without much success, to bloody David’s pretty face with my knuckles.
We grappled for a minute or so, then I gave up. I stopped not because I would’ve lost the fight, though that was the likely outcome, given that David was older and stronger than I. I stopped because I saw the look of pure terror on Stud’s face.
Stud was not a stud. The nickname was a foreshortened version of his surname. He was the least aggressive friend I had back then. The year before, he’d been at a bar in downtown Rochester with other friends of mine when a fight started in the parking lot. Stud had gone back inside to ask the bouncer to intervene. When the bouncer refused, Stud returned to the parking lot and was blindsided by someone with a knife or a broken bottle that cut off most of his right ear.
The trauma the wound caused was still fresh in my friend’s mind, and here I was fighting right in front of him. It’s probably the most shameful thing I’ve ever done, and I regret it to this day.
Reflecting on the fight in the days that followed, I saw how pointless it was. Aside from defending my pride and decimating David’s, what could I have accomplished? The answer is nothing, and the same is true for the actions we’re considering in Syria.
We’ve wisely decided not to grab the knife and jump in with boots on the ground. Our president, who also likes to kick back on the Vineyard, and our windsurfing secretary of state instead want to lob bombs into a tinderbox tense with age-old religious hatreds while Americans collectively sit on the couch. This will only further traumatize the Syrian people and cause more bloodshed.
Secretary John Kerry and Sen. John McCain argue that our credibility is in catastrophic danger if we allow the use of chemical weapons to go unpunished. As veterans of Vietnam, they should know our credibility on the subject was shot decades ago when we used chemical weapons to catastrophic effect on the Vietnamese.
We must put our missiles and our national pride aside. The only credible path is the one that leads to peace.