This I believe

soldiers huggingIn 2005 I produced a documentary film, Voices in Wartime, that uses poetry to explore the trauma of war, and over the past few years I have spent many hours talking to people about their experience of war. I’ve talked to classrooms full of students, and I’ve hosted community dialogues on war and trauma, and I’ve facilitated audience discussions after screenings of films about war. I’ve spoken to church congregations and veterans’ groups and my own family members.

I discovered that virtually everybody in my community has a story about war and its impact on their lives. We are veterans of war and veterans of peace; we have either been to war ourselves or we know a friend or coworker who has been to war or we have a family member who has been to war.

I met a father named Bill at a community meeting in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Bill was a Vietnam veteran who told me about losing fourteen young men from his helicopter battalion in one horrific and murderous afternoon in 1967. He told me how he had to write fourteen letters in one day to the next of kin of those soldiers, and that one of the next of kin was a four year old child. He told me about suffering from that day’s trauma for the next 38 years of his life, with nightmares and agony in every one of those 14,000 nights. And I met Bill’s daughter, who told me that her father had always been emotionally absent and unavailable, and yet she had never before understood how his war had influenced her own entire life.

I met a beautiful young Lao woman named Sakuna who was a baby in her mother’s arms when her family fled across a river into Thailand from the Indochina war in the 1970s. She told me how she lived for the first few years of her life in a refugee camp until her family was able to immigrate to the United States, and she told me that she had been called the “princess of the refugee camp.” She never believed she had been affected by the war. Years later she realized she had been driven to present herself as artificially happy because she felt compelled to compensate for the deep sadness and sense of loss shared by everyone else in her family.

I met a young man named John who joined the army and went off to the war in Iraq partly because Jesus had said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” and he wanted to be a peacemaker. He told me of an afternoon in the fall of 2004 when his cavalry unit of Stryker vehicles was deployed to the northern city of Tal Afar. When his vehicle was ambushed, in the middle of a street full of people, he used his 50 caliber machine gun, as he said, to “unleash upon that street a lead hell,” as the crowds – women and girls, men and boys, old folks and mothers with babies in their arms – fled the carnage amid the explosions, the cracks of automatic gunfire, the smoke and the screams, the pink mists that appeared when bullets hit their targets.

I spoke with Rachel, a friend whose family celebrated when their father finally died an old, angry, mean and bitter recluse with no friends left, with none who loved him. My friend had carried with her such rage and resentment against him up for all of her life. After the father’s funeral, she sat with her mother looking at old photographs and they found one of her dad just before he had gone off to fight in World War II. His face in the photograph was alive with happiness and love. Her mother said, “Ah, that’s who he was before he went off to war. But he never talked about what he saw there.”

I believe that all of us are touched by war in ways that none of us fully understand. I believe that war may sometimes be necessary, and war may call forth reserves of courage and selfless sacrifice. However, I also believe that no war is good, and that any war opens the door to the deepest depravity and insanity that humanity is capable of.

I believe that our collective survival, our capacity to deal with environmental disaster, poverty, injustice, acts of terror, estrangement, starvation, and manifold misery, depends on our knowing how to pursue alternatives to war as a method of resolving our conflicts and contradictions.

I believe that the trauma of one war, so long as it remains unacknowledged and unhealed, helps to lay the basis for future and further wars, for terrible retribution and an unholy reliance upon violence.

I believe that developing the seeds of compassion in our children and in ourselves is the most immensely practical and necessary project of our century. I believe that we will only save ourselves through the intense and conscious practice of love as a method of personal engagement and public policy.

Along with Gandhi, I believe that “It is possible to live in peace.”