War

December 3, 2009

My heart is breaking.  My president has ordered 30,000 men and women to Afghanistan.  They will kill and be killed there.  This is not all they will, do, I understand.  But there is no denying that there will be tremendous suffering.

I am not a politically inclined person.  I try.  I make a concentrated effort to keep myself informed about local and global issues, particularly those connected to human rights.  I understand that to be a citizen of this world requires the continuous cultivation of awareness and willingness to engage in community, with the intention of making a positive difference.  But it is a challenge for me to drag myself out of the contemplative realms where I am so comfortable and into the messy human condition where the games that are played are incomprehensible to me.  I do not understand the rules.

I can, however,  feel when the rules are being broken, when core values are violated and basic human dignity trampled.  This emotional energy enables me to overcome my resistance and rise up in defense of the defenseless.  Without this felt response, I am paralyzed.  This is why contemporary “sacred activist” Andrew Harvey speaks of the necessity of “following your heartbreak.”  Accessing that place inside that viscerally aches for the pain of the world can be the best guide for finding a path to be of service.

The other night as my husband and I sat listening to Barak Obama’s speech on NPR, I burst into tears when the Commander-in-Chief announced his decision to send a surge of troops to Afghanistan.  I knew it was coming, but when I heard those words it was as if he had plunged a dagger into my own heart.  And the more he justified it with his eloquent rational explanations, the more I cried.  This is a man I had campaigned for with all my energy.  I supported him because I felt he shared my vision of a non-violent solution to the violence in this world.  I felt betrayed.  Logically, I was almost persuaded.  Spiritually, I was unequivocally outraged.

As I watched myself having this emotional meltdown, I inquired about where this response might be coming from.  Then I remembered what it was like to grow up during the Vietnam era in an actively anti-war family.  My mother was a folk singer.  My lullabies were protest songs (which I sang in turn to my own children 20 years later).  I shared these memories with my husband after Obama’s speech, and sang him one of the ballads that had branded my heart most deeply:

“Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before / I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war… I dreamed I saw a mighty room filled with women and men / and the papers they were signing said they’d never fight again… And when the papers were all signed and a million copies made / they all joined hands and bowed their heads and grateful prayers were prayed… While the people in the streets below were dancing round and round and swords and guns and uniforms were scattered on the ground.”

Why do I remember every line of that song?  Because my mother sang it to me with such passion.  Because the charcoal drawings she made in her basement studio were of brown-skinned fathers holding their napalm burnt children in their arms, taken from front page photographs in the New York Times.  And  also because at the same time that American teenagers and Vietnamese families were dying in a war that made no sense, my own brother was fighting a heroic battle against the tumor that was invading his ten-year-old brain, and he was losing.

Later that night, when I tried to sing my husband another song I loved from my counter-culture childhood, this one from Don McLean’s American Pie album, I could not get through it:

“The grave that they dug him had flowers gathered from the hillsides in bright summer colors / and the brown earth bleached white at the edge of his gravestone / he is gone… When the wars of our nation did beckon / a man barely twenty did answer the call / proud of the trust that he placed in our nation / he is gone / but eternity knows him and knows what he’s done… And the rain fell like pearls on the leaves of the flowers / leaving brown muddy clay where the earth had been dry / and deep in the trench he waited for hours / as he held to his rifle and prayed not to die… But the silence of night was shattered by fire / as guns and grenades blasted sharp through the air / one after another his comrades were slaughtered / a morgue of marines / alone standing there… He crouched ever lower, ever lower in fear / they can’t let me die / they can’t let me die here / I’ll cover myself with the mud and the earth / I’ll cover myself / I know I’m not brave / the earth, the earth, the earth is my grave…”

This childhood wound is primal, anguish for all the innocent bloodshed mixed in with the loss of my big brother and the all-pervasive quality of my parents’ grief.

Coincidentally, my own daughter died only weeks after the attacks of September 11 and the beginning of our war against Afghanistan.  At that time I was acutely aware of the suffering all over the planet, the fire of grief and loss that was sweeping through lives on every side of the conflict.  I felt connected in every fiber of my being to mothers everywhere who were sharing the hopelessness and despair I was suffering over the death of my child.  And I knew that my comfortable life shielded me from the daily terror of senseless violence that compounded the simple tragedy of losing a child.  This compassion was not abstract.  It rose from the core of my mother-heart.

So, for me, war is intensely personal, and always has been.

Tell me: what breaks your heart?

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6 Responses to “War”

  1. Bob Silver said

    I deeply share your war related sentiments. Thanks for pointing me in the direction of your blog. Thanks, too, for your kind and supportive words regarding my op ed piece in the Taos News. I also campaigned for Obama, as I worried that he might not be tough enough when toughness might be necessary.
    Bob Silver

  2. Check out my post: Thanksgiving & Afghanistan. It rather goes along.

    Peace for all of us.

    • Oh, Anne, you’re right — your blog was was in complete alignment. If war is not personal, it will never end. As women, how can we help but feel it with our bodies, with our own blood?

  3. Doug said

    Captain Kirk once said when faced with either destroying a planet to stop a plague, or doing nothing and allowing people to suffer and it to continue and spread to other worlds, “I want that third alternative, and you (his crew) are all on the hot seat with me.”
    No, I too am disappointed in ways with O’Bama, that he does not go far enough and that he either is not aware of, or have a desire, to find that “third alternative” Captain Kirk spoke of. (I know Star Trek can be a silly reference, but truth can be found anywhere, and perhaps the only thing that really matters is what form of it is digestable for you, and when).
    As I continue my own search and questions about O’bama he reminds me like everyone, he represents a lesson to all of us, on so many levels, good and apparently bad. Like with issues of racism, which run deep and are not easily dismissed, war certainly does too. Without personal transformation (the third alternative in this situation) not to partake will never make sense. To simply say there will always be evil in the world and we will always be fighting it is a hard answer to accept. To say using force is never justified to stop the suffering of those who cannot stop it themselves is also hard for me to accept.
    I wise man once told me, a monk, a priest, a teacher of soul liberation, “peace is not always the right way”. As hard as that maybe to accept, in ways the grief and suffering you deal with Mirabi certainly are products or consequences of violence and when used properly as you seem to know are vehicles for personal transformation. In this sense is anything really real or permanent? Isn’t it all grist for the mill as Ram Dass tells us? As painful and wrong as war is, is it too, one of God’s ways to cleanse us and purify us.
    Again we are back to personal transformation, If I don’t continue my own journey than many of these questions will not be answered and I will be caught in duality and judgement.
    Maybe our biggest problem is not that we wage war, but the way we do it. Perhaps like eating meat, when we connect with the actual event, and deeply feel another’s suffering, will may still feel a need to do it, but at least it will no longer be a separate act, like a Native American knowing intimately the animal they use to have to kill, the event will have meaning with the full spectrum of the feelings of being alive.
    Your grief work sounds wonderful, grief for many of us is the underlying layer that often much of the rest of our personalities are built on. I hope to read more of your work and stay in touch…
    Doug French

    • These are some beautiful & helpful insights, Doug — thanks so much for taking the time to write. My response to Obama’s decision to send all those people into Afghanistan to kill & die was far more of an emotional than a political one. What I found interesting was that I have this visceral linkage between war & grief, connecting to my childhood & the Vietnam war and the death of my brother. I was sharing that epiphany. The politics continue to baffle me utterly.

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