Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy Fourth of July

I remember when I first learned that war was wrong.

I was nineteen years old, in love for the first time, sexual for the first time, holding my lover in my arms.  I looked at his body, long, smooth, and perfect lying next to me, and I knew that it was Holy.  This body I knew so well, that could bring us both so much pleasure, was sacred for that, yes--but also because it was whole, and it was living and it was inherently a thing of beauty and goodness.

And war, it followed immediately, which could shatter that beauty in an instant, was a blasphemy.

All I needed to understand that war is a blasphemy was to love one human being in the flesh, as an adult.

The peace testimony is different; my peace testimony took many more years to come to me.  But I have known from the age of nineteen that war is a blasphemy.

          *           *           *

Yesterday, I was in my kitchen making pickles.  What with boiling kettles of water and processing pounds of vegetables and brine, making pickles is something of a lengthy process.  To keep my company as I work, I nearly always play the radio.  Yesterday, no doubt in honor of today's American holiday, the radio show Snap Judgment did a special broadcast on veterans.

The first story in the episode involved the suffering and courage of a Korean War P. O.W.  The second was the story of an army nurse.  Both stories, and the anecdotes by the announcer, were the sort of booster-ish, pro-military, upbeat stories of heroism, loyalty, and generosity by members of the military that Americans are most comfortable hearing.  I might have turned the show off, but my hands were wet--I was washing dishes as I waited for my kettles to boil--and I had half-tuned the show out, thinking that this kind of coverage happens every year, whenever there is a patriotic national holiday.

I hate those holidays.  I hate Veteran's Day--wear a poppy in your lapel and feel good about "supporting veterans," or lay a wreath and change your Facebook status to say, "Honor a veteran: post this status!"

To me, there is nothing easy or cheap about military service.  And not just because, as a Quaker, I am deeply and completely opposed to all wars.

The next piece was about a gang member who joined the military in order to regain his sense of honor and purpose in life.  He reminded me of the students I teach, several of whom have entered the military as a way out of poverty or into lives of service and care for others.  I pray for them--privately--and I admire them in their uniforms when they return to show them to me.  And I want to tattoo the phone number of the G.I. Hotline or of Quaker House to the backs of their hands, but I settle for telling them, amid my admiration and support,  "You know, if you ever want to get out--if you discover that you believe that war is wrong--there are people who can help you."

And I mention the G.I. Hotline.  And I mention Quakers.  And then I pray, along with prayers for their safety and their hearts, that they will not forget.

And that we will be there for them if they call--that we will not let them down.

And then came the piece about Chris, who joined for all the most honorable reasons, who was stationed at Guantanamo, and who saw and did things that chipped pieces away from his heart and his soul.  And then I couldn't make pickles any more, because I was weeping too hard to see.

I know Chris.  Not Chris himself, the individual soldier, but with a different face, a different name, and a different story that is still, somehow, the same.  On some level, I think that every veteran is Chris--or could have been, in the blink of an eye, a wave of a bureaucrat's pen.

This is the part of patriotism and veteran's holidays we want to forget: what the cost of military service really is.

How common is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

So common, I have come to believe, that it is a travesty that we call it a "disorder" at all.  PTSD is simply what happens when human beings see, experience, and do things that should never have happened at all.

How common is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?  My own sense is that most of the men and women in the military who have ever been under fire, and virtually all of those who have ever aimed and fired a gun or directed violence at a human target are traumatized by it.

War makes scars where it does not kill outright.  And we lie about this, as a society, as a culture, all the time.  We are in massive denial about the true costs of war.  And it makes me angry, and it makes me want to howl in anguish, and it makes me resent like hell cheap patriotism, cheap peace testimonies, and the way we can all pretend to care without losing a moment's sleep over what we do to soldiers--ours or the other side's.

It makes me think of my friends who have served in the military, and it makes me think of my friends who have suffered real hardships to oppose the actions of our military and our government.  And it makes me angry over those whose idea of a "peace testimony" is to heap scorn on soldiers who have been confronted with choices we've safely managed to avoid.

People enlist in the military for all kinds of reasons.  But almost never without an ambition to serve, to be selfless, to be honorable.

George Fox and James Nayler, the guys who created Quakers, with our so-precious peace testimony, were veterans of war--of a bloody and terrible civil war.  I find that well worth remembering.

In my experience, no one hates war the way a veteran hates war.  They know the beast.  They have seen it bloody-fanged and dreadful, and if some of them prefer to cloak its horror in red, white, and blue, and pretend that it is noble, they have at least earned that right more than I have the right to judge them or to judge their service.  I hate war, but the deeper I go into my peace testimony, the more deep and powerful is my feeling of respect and compassion for the suffering of veterans.

Veterans with a peace testimony are not abstract about it.  Nor do they mistake other soldiers for their enemies.

Disrespect shown to those whose hearts and bodies have subjected to war dishonors the cause of peace.

I am thinking of one childhood friend in particular, this Fourth of July.

I've known him most of his life.  I knew him in high school: watched him grow up, fall in love, skip classes, get a job... and eventually join the military, serve for years, experience battle and injury, disability and trauma.

I knew him when his first marriage ended, and I've grieved with him as his antagonistic ex-wife has worked hard to estrange him from the child of that marriage, his only daughter. 

This daughter is now older than he was when I first knew him, college-aged and an adult in years, if not experience.

She has been raised to think of him as having abandoned her; she has been told (erroneously) that he did not pay child support.  He did; in fact, disputes over his ex wanting checks early, or a loan against the next month's support, or whether or not checks had arrived at all eventually caused my friend to simply sign over his benefit check to his ex-wife.  And now that his daughter is ready for college, he has taken pains to make sure she knows how to receive the benefits that, as the daughter of a disabled veteran, she is entitled to to help pay for her education.

Recently, she took him to task for that.

"That's not really your money," she told her father.  "That money doesn't come from you.  You don't earn it.  That money comes from the government."

The mind boggles.

That money is not from you.  You didn't earn it.  That money comes from the government.

How in hell does that child think her father qualified for those benefits?

This is a man who lives in terrible and chronic physical pain every day of his life.  The street value of the medications he has been prescribed to attempt to control his pain would, were he the kind of man to sell them on the street (which he is not) possibly even satisfy his ex's monetary desires.  He has been through medical crisis after medical crisis, multiple surgeries, not just to try to ameliorate his pain but to save his life.  He's been near death more than once, and I've watched his mother sit white-faced, watching the phone to find out whether or not the most recent medical crisis is cause for her to attend a funeral or a sick bed.

But his pain is also emotional, mental, and spiritual.  He is a deeply private man, and he fights not to impose his pain on others, so perhaps this daughter of his is unaware of the memories and emotions he struggles to make peace with. (My own knowledge of them is fragmentary at best, and has come to me in tiny pieces here and there, gathered over the years, and often secondhand or by inference.  But I know he experienced combat.  And I know he fired a gun, and that he is fairly sure he has taken life.  There's more--but that's surely enough.)

Perhaps she doesn't know that, with a heroism I would sing songs of loud praise for if I could, he's entered therapy to deal with those most terrible of wounds--those of the spirit.

Probably, he doesn't know that he describes his therapist as "little--tiny, and the most terrifying woman I've ever met."

Because, of course, with her help, he must remember what his daughter does not, or will not remember: exactly what price her father paid for her veteran's benefits.

It is not my place to scold this daughter; I don't know her.  But I want to shake her, and I want to shout at her, and I want to tell her: don't you ever put a poppy in your lapel on Veteran's Day, don't you ever wave a flag or get misty-eyed at a Fourth of July parade, until you understand just how expensive a thing you have received at your father's hands.

To us all, pacifist or not, I say: don't you ever say you hate war and heap derision on those who, believing they acted on your behalf, with love and honor in their hearts, were committed to that grave for you.

I have no room for  a peace testimony that does not see soldiers as casualties, soldiers as human sacrifices.  If you are opposed to war, but only care for the civilians who have suffered, you've missed half the horror of it.

I had it right at the age of nineteen, when I held my lover's pure and perfect body in my arms.





15 comments:

Catrin said...

Thank you Cat.

Really helpful and powerful across the cyberspace when people share their deepest Truths, and help me to expand mine. This communication is a blessing.

God bless, Catrin

Cat C-B said...

Catrin... thank you.

Mary H said...

Thank you, Cat. The burdens that we're leaving to the next generation are not limited to financial debt. How many wounded? How much labor to help bear the pain? How many more homeless vets? It hurts.

gcw2849 said...

Trauma and Stress and Peace... And War in the Streets Every day is a piece of a July 4th. We justcan never forget... Thanks Cat

Greg

Michael F. Hughes said...

Cat,
As someone who has lost a family member, an uncle, to war, your words are powerful. I echo your anger and dismay at what is happening to our soliders. During the late 60's I could never understand the treatment our returning soliders recieved from the people here in the states, but at least there was a protest, such as it was. the goverment has turned protesting of the wars as a way of not supporting the troops, instead of a way of expressing our freedom of speech.
May the peace which passeth all understanding come to rule soon.
Michael F.

Pallas Renatus said...

I really needed to hear this, Cat, thank you. I'll definitely be sharing this article with mt loved ones; the message is too important not to.

JIa aka Kelly said...

I met my husband when we were teenagers. I knew him before he joined the Marines. I knew him before he went to war.

Twenty years after the "end" of the Gulf War, and 17 years of marriage later I am sure that I only know half of the scars he bears on his soul as a result.

Thank you for this post Cat.

You said it all, better than I ever could.

Cat C-B said...

Blessed be, Jia.

Michael, Pallas... thank you both.

Peace.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this completely, and yet as I read it I am ashamed to realise how many times I have failed to live up to acting as if I believed it. I think I needed the reminder. Thank you.

Amy Walker said...

"War is blasphemy" - such a complex belief so exquisitely articulated in so few words. And I couldn't agree more. We are created with an infinite capacity for beauty, kindness, and forgiveness, and all violence is a callous rejection of our better selves. But my belief about peace - and I'm sure it differs from yours - is that as long as there is greed, anger, pride, envy, tribalism, or simple lack of self-control, there will be strong men who make victims of the weak. And as long as there are victims, it will be immoral for the rest of us to turn our backs on their suffering. But while we all like to believe we would do the right thing, few of us have the strength of character to do the hard thing.

I have a friend very much like yours. He suffers greatly because of the things he has seen and done. But, while he has suffered at the hands of war, he is not a victim of it. He is one of the few who can and will do the hard thing. He risked his life, his health, and his spirit because he answered the moral call to protect the vulnerable from evil.

But the application of the theoretical to the material is never an easy fit, and black and white morality runs together as gray when immersed in experience. In the instant available for decision, evil and good can be indistinguishable, and the good man must trust the hierarchy, the rules, the orders, the process. He has the rest of eternity to question, analyze, and doubt. And he does, a victim of the same moral character that forced him to step to the front when every ounce of self-preservation counseled him to remain in line with the rest of us.

We can debate the right-or-wrong of any particular military action. We can debate the wisdom of U.S. foreign policy. But our friends did not enlist to fight a particular enemy or to intercede in a particular tragedy. They studied history and, like most of us, were appalled by our species' capacity for cruelty. Their response was to stand in that no-man's land between the victim and the victimiser.

My friend is a hero. He hates that word, and will never acknowledge that it belongs to himself, but I believe that it does. Moreover, his life, and his actions as a soldier, have been nothing short of noble. He risked everything, with no hope of reward, and he responded to a higher call with the very best of himself. I cannot brush up against violence, anger, or hatred without being profoundly grateful that someone stronger is prepared to protect me.

As for those who treat him or his service with scorn and disrespect, my friend does not respond with anger or violence. He simply notes that he risked his life to protect their right to say what they feel. He never expected their gratitude.

As for me, I wonder what they have ever risked for another. Certainly not their smug self-righteousness.

Cat C-B said...

Amy,
My heart aches for our friends. But a big piece of the ache is gratitude, that there are people out there who really are willing to risk their lives for other people.

I have another friend who is a first responder, a firefighter, and in the days and months after 9/11, he spent literally every day he was not working attending the funerals of those first responders who died on that day. He made it real for me, what all of us know: that in times of terror, there are those who sell their lives running toward danger, not away from it.

Whatever my thoughts--my deepest convictions--on violence and war, I know down to the bone that I have been blessed by the friendship of great souls who understand what it is to run toward, not away from, terror, in time of need.

How can I not be grateful for the nobility of spirit that implies?" Though I strive to live my life in the Life and the Power that takes away the occasion for all wars," I am humbled by the courage of those who saw things differently--and acted in love in their beliefs.

How could I not be grateful to our friends, and wish everyone could see them clearly for the people they are?

Cora said...

Cat, thank you so very much for this.

Pacifism is the one thing that I struggle with, the Peace Testimony is the hardest one for me.

I come from a long line of military which includes my husband who served when the Iraq war began and was sent to the Middle East.

I hate war. I hate it with a passion... but I am so damn thankful for the men and women who lay down their lives for our freedoms.

I wish there wasn't war, but until that time comes I'll always support our military men and women.

Michael said...

This Friend speaks my mind.

Michael

Karen said...

Very late to the conversation, I know.

This is something I think about a lot. Because it's hard to even begin to have a conversation about this stuff.

In my family, the assumption is that if you're opposed to militarism and war, you're somehow dissing people who are or were members of the armed forces. And there's a real NEED to go on the offensive when the issue of what the system of the military does to the people in it, during war or outside it - because if some of the men in my family didn't get their wounds doing something noble and necessary, it would be too hard to bear. So it becomes all about how they fought for our freedom, which is problematic for me because I'm unclear as to how much of our freedom a) is freedom, and b) was earned through war, and c) is actually threatened by the continuing existence of war and militarism.

Tough and chewy and upsetting. So I often just veer away from these conversations, partly because I know I'll be jumped on for not accepting the official line, and partly because I don't want to cause any hurt to others. Cowardice and compassion in action, perhaps with cowardice winning out!

I worry enormously about the fact that in the British army, around 50% of recruits have a reading age of 11 or below; it seems to me that the military depends on the perpetuation of social inequality and injustice in order to keep going, that militarism distracts from the roots of inequality and shores them up, that there's a frightening blind spot around the ways that governmental, military, and cultural systems work to perpetuate each other to the detriment of society as a whole. And there isn't an organisation I know of outside Quakers in the UK which helps ex-armed forces members that isn't linked to the forces in some way, either directly (ie, The British Legion) or indirectly through alliances with groups like Help For Heroes.

And there's the H-word everywhere. If you have been in the armed forces, you're a hero; if you're opposed to militarism, you hate heroes and all that is good and noble and virtuous... We're a far more militaristic society now than we were when I was a teenager in the 80s.

I can't help thinking of Pink Floyd's 'Brick In The Wall' video when I think of the military. People join for all sorts of reasons - from the highest minded to the basest; they go through the system, and the system invariably inflicts damage; and they can't talk about the emotional and psychic wounds without being seen to betray a public desire to sanitise militarism, make it a necessary thing, so they either bottle it up, wrap it in the flag, or go off the deep end if they don't get support in articulating their experiences; and so we get to keep the cosy notion that the way things are is the way things really do need to be until we miraculously conquer The Bad Guys and everything suddenly becomes perfect. No-one wants war, but we have to have it so we can have peace.

It feels like we feed our kids into that meat grinder, year in, year out. And I feel very small, very cowardly, and very ineffectual in making positive changes to that.

kevin roberts said...

so it was this one.

yes.

i have a nephew now, with a young wife and a new baby a few months old. he grew up smiling and light-hearted, with a future that was wide open.

he has chosen to become a warrior, and is now a marine aviator, and arrived in afghanistan last month.

i've begun praying that he makes it through, because i see him at risk in ways that he is too young, and too new, and too idealistic, to appreciate in the ways that i think that i can.

thanks for the post, cat.

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