Afterthoughts

I spent a good part of my afternoon becoming increasingly unhinged about U.S. foreign policy.  Publicly.  On Facebook and Twitter both.

I could write a lot here about unmanned drones and war in general and the painfulness of underwriting Empire.  But I’ve already written enough soundbites about that today.  And I could write more about how violence isn’t so much an American thing as a human thing, and about how the world as a whole is an unfriendly place in which to try to commit oneself to non-violence.  But I have already written and re-tweeted the same.  And I could spiral down into self-recriminations about my complicity in violence and my own selfishness, but my depression this evening is evidence that that too is old ground, already covered.  As I said, I was busy on the internets today.

I have an inner voice that condemns myself for not doing more, an inner voice that insists that I am deceiving myself that I am doing all that I can – that I already push myself to the limits of what I can take without unspooling to the point of utter uselessness.  It is a demon in the guise of an angel – because this voice would make it my job to save the world.  This voice overwhelms me until I am paralyzed, eyes drawing me forward into an abyss from which my own voice would reach no ears.

Tonight, as my family sat in the living room singing hymns, it occurred to me that I had neglected the two things I am most bound to do as a Christian:  I had not prayed for Barack Obama.  And I had not written to him, my brother in Christ, to share with him my concern about his foreign policy decisions*.  Both of these actions are commanded by Jesus.  Both of these ought to have been first steps, not afterthoughts.

My prayer for Barack Obama this evening

(For more on this kind of prayer, see my earlier post on Praying in Color.)

Lord, forgive me for how easily I forget that those who are in power are as much your beloved children as those vulnerable ones who suffer from the decisions of the powerful.  Remind me always to pray for those who would prioritize some lives over others.  And deliver me from my own self-righteous tweeting, that I might more clearly reflect your love in the world.  Amen.

* To be clear, I am no more enamored of Romney when it comes to foreign policy – I cannot imagine he would be any better.  But for the next few months – and perhaps for the next few years, it is Obama who is actually making those decisions, and hence who is accountable for them.

War Stories

Some years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, my husband and I bought a commemorative DVD box set of all the School House Rock videos, plus various other related special features.  My daughter discovered the DVDs a couple of months ago, and it has become her favorite thing to watch on TV.  “America Rock” – the series of School House Rock episodes prepared in 1976 to celebrate the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has had the effect of making her a very patriotic little girl, planting lots of American flags in the front yard.  (This in turn has made me nostalgic for my own uncomplicated childhood patriotism – and if you are going to get excited about the U.S., the preamble to the Constitution and women winning the right to vote seem like some good things to hang that pride on.)

But unlike the videos introducing children to multiplication and grammar, these videos do gloss over a lot – and glamorize some things that are too complicated to celebrate without reservation.  Like the settling of the American West, or the Revolutionary War.  It is the question of War that has grabbed my daughter’s attention, and what began as one question: “What was the Revolution, Mommy?” has turned into a weeks long barrage of “Tell me about another war…. OK, tell me more about war?… And why did they do that, Mommy?”

As someone who began considering non-violence by the age of eight, and who was firmly committed to it before graduating from college, these conversations have been difficult.  My daughter is really too young to grasp that adults do a lot of things that don’t make very much sense – she still believes that adults are predictable and rational beings, unless we are being silly on purpose, or are too tired to think clearly.  (As a young child, she has witnessed some very sleep-deprived behavior from her parents!)  People are 100% nice or 100% mean, although she hasn’t met any mean people, so there must not be very many in the world.  It will be years before she can grasp that everyone is a mixture of nice and mean, reasonable and unreasonable – and that that mixture is what we mean in the church when we talk about “original sin” – no matter how good we try to be, there is no avoiding that we fail to do the right thing (or even persist in doing what we know to be wrong) in some measure – or, as Paul puts it:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15, NRSV)

This does not keep her from trying to figure it out.  And in the process, she has learned an awful lot of American – and world – history.  I remember reading somewhere that age 6 is the “age of expertise” – when a child begins to specialize in some obsessive area of knowledge, and come to know more about that subject than many adults.  If military history is going to be that obsession, she is already well on her way.  She has delved into the Revolution – the whos (General Washington, King George, the “minute men,” the “red coats,” the French, the Spanish, the Hessians), the whys (taxation without representation, colonialism, parliamentary politics, war financing), the connected whens (after the Seven Years’ War, before the War of 1812, or, as Hannah puts it, “The one when the British came back and tried again.”), the wheres (Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Yorktown)… and has been puzzling over complex questions such as does being “right” justify taking up arms?  Would Constitutional Democracy have been possible in the U.S. without watering the tree of liberty with blood (as Thomas Jefferson put it – a revolutionary who notably did not fight in the American Revolution himself?)

As we have worked our way through other conflicts (the Civil War, the Indian Wars of the American West, WWI, Vietnam, and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), she has been drawing connections, and struggling with why war happens at all if (as she suggested) it is “always a bad idea to kill people.” (Or, as her friend Nathan added in the backseat, after listening in on one of these extended conversations, “God is sad when we kill each other, and there is lots of killing in wars.”)

She has also been trying to work out how soldiers – usually basically decent young people – could devote themselves to such a “bad idea.”

Just as genocide is a concept that is so beyond a 5 year old that I am keeping it from her at the moment (hence she has no knowledge at the moment of WWII, for instance — though I am unavoidably laying the groundwork, given her interest in Native Americans), so too is the idea of loyalty to the point of violence on behalf of another.  Because so often, “joining up” is not done out of any interest in geo-politics or flexing colonial muscle – but “patriotism” – loyalty to country.  “My country right or wrong.”  As if the generals and admirals and legislators and kings and presidents were the buddy we went to elementary school with.  And that is how good people can give in to a good idea – loyalty is archetypically good, but what about loyalty to entities embodying bad ideas?
She isn’t ready for that idea because she is unfamiliar with adolescent boys and the roots of the barroom brawl, and until she gets a window into that… well, the whole idea of joining the military is likely to be beyond her.  And she is probably going to say some unkind things in her incomprehension.  Just like we all do.  Speak, learn, repent.  Repeat.

I am trying to give her an idea of loyalty on a more global scale (treaties!), and the trouble it can lead to, through our discussions of WWI.  When too many people had promised to stick up for somebody or another if they got involved in a fight, and then they did, and honor demanded that they roll up their shirt sleeves and jump in, escalating a 2 man fight into a full on cue-stick snapping, bottle breaking, chair throwing free for all.

In the meantime, the far more dominant answer to the “why” question – the answer we keep coming back to – is fear – fear and his sister, desire.  These are ideas that a 5 year old can easily understand:  wanting something someone else has, fearing that what she has will be taken from her, or destroyed.  She understands that sometimes she misbehaves out of fear or desire, but she still is puzzled about the killing part.  Why do some grownups reach the point of killing?  We kill because someone has something (oil, land, etc) that we want, or because we think someone wants to take or destroy what we have (our safety, our land, our freedom.)

It has been a difficult few months, working with my little girl through her obsessive concern with state-sanctioned killing and the machines of killing – bayonets and cannons, guns and bombs, planes and helicopters and submarines, land mines and hand grenades… Not long ago, I interrupted her in the midst of her “tell me the story of another war” litany to ask, “It makes me sad to talk about war, Hannah.  Why do you want to know so much about war?”

“I’m just trying to figure it out, Mommy.  I don’t understand about war yet, and so I need to keep asking you more questions.  Can you tell me the story of another war, Mommy?”

And so I took a deep breath, and began, “Did you know that the story of Channukah is a war story?  It is about a miracle that happened during a war a long long time ago, before Jesus was born…”

Dear God, I pray she never thinks she has this figured out.  I pray she can always say, “I don’t understand about war yet…”  Even if it means I must keep on having these conversations in the years and decades to come.  In pain I bring her forth, my beloved child.

My Dad – “After the Yellow Ribbon”

My Dad was in the Air National Guard during the Korean War.  He had hoped that he would learn how to fly an airplane – he had grown up as one of the few poor kids in a very wealthy community – the sort of place where even in the late 40s a kid might have their own plane to mess around with.  Dad knew that the only way he would ever learn would be if the military taught him.  But he started to become nearsighted around the time he joined up, so he became a mechanic instead.  Because Korea was starting to ramp up around that time, he was on active duty for about three years.  Several times, his unit was scheduled to head out for the Pacific – but each time, the orders changed at the last minute, and he stayed Stateside.  The planes he worked on went, but he didn’t.  He sounded relieved when he talked about it – not that he didn’t have some harrowing experiences: seeing one airman stab another with an ice pick over a card game, being in a plane that went down in Louisiana and having to hoof it back to base several miles through a swamp at night… but he was openly grateful that his training in hand-to-hand combat had never been put to use.

I remember asking him when I was about nine or ten, “Would you have killed anyone, Dad, if you had gone over there?”  He looked sad, and shook his head, “I don’t know, honey.  I don’t know.”  In later years, I learned that he felt guilt over his involvement as a mechanic – he may not have fired any shots, but he did patch up targeting devices and bomb doors – he was part of the machinery of war, and as such could not pretend to himself that he had not participated in killing.

This is a time of year when I think of my father, and of other veterans.  As a child, I remembered my father’s birthday not in its own right, but as the day after Veteran’s Day.  I remember marching in the Veteran’s day parade through the small town we lived in when I was ten, as part of my Girl Scout troop. I had thought Dad would be excited or proud, but he grumbled that he remembered when it was Armistice Day.  That he was a veteran, and he didn’t want a day.

To round out this picture, I want to be clear that my Dad might have been registered as an independent, but had voted Republican at least since 1980.  He was an annual dues paying member of the NRA (until the “not my president” remark, which struck my military-trained father as treasonous.)  He told me that I was over-reacting when I protested that he and mom should not be popping popcorn and sitting in front of the television “watching the war” in 1991, as if it were just a TV movie.  He respected my own pacifist position, though having lived through McCarthyism, it made him nervous.  He saw war as a necessary evil, and thought it was naive of me to even consider the possibility that violence might not be necessary after all.  I considered pacifism to be a natural outgrowth of all he had taught me.  He hoped it was just a phase, and was always determined that I be careful that my own idealism not get in the way of me being sensitive to those who disagreed, and especially to those who went to war.  After all, he had lived through Vietnam, too.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting my parent’s church for my father’s birthday.  The pastor talked some about “The Greatest Generation” (as Tom Brokaw would have it), and asked for all of the veterans of WWII to stand.  In front of me there was a couple, and the wife prodded her sitting husband, “Stand up!  You were there!”  He shook his head.  He didn’t want to be recognized for that, he told her.  But she kept pushing with her words, “You deserve it!”  Finally, maybe just to quiet her, he stood.  There were about 5 other sheepish looking older men standing, too.  Everybody clapped for them, but I didn’t see any of the vets smile at the applause.  They looked sad.  Then they sat down.  I remember thinking that that was quite a thing to put them through.  Sure, we don’t want to jeer at returning soldiers, the way some did after Vietnam.  But it’s not particularly helpful to clap for them either – simply cheering is one way of denying the reality of the losses that veterans experienced “over there.”

WWII was over before my Dad was old enough to fight, but several of my uncles fought – one in Europe, the rest in the Pacific.  One of them had been sent out to shoot a sniper hiding in a tree just outside of the camp. My uncle had been the third sent out after the sniper – the first two soldiers did not make it back.  When my uncle came back home after the war, he woke up in a panic one night, ran down the stairs with a rifle, and shot all the windows out of his brand new car.  I remember Dad telling me this story, and me being surprised never to have heard any of my uncles talk about the war.  “Why would they want to talk about it?” he asked.  He had a sense that, as a child, I was just looking for interesting stories.  And to turn war into a series of exciting and interesting stories is to strip it of all meaning.

This weekend, Milites Christe, a student group at Duke Divinity school, is hosting a conference called “After the Yellow Ribbon.” Their intent is to bring the Church, the academic community, and the military into conversation with one another, in order to better love veterans – in order to see them in all of their complex humanity, to listen to them and to stand with them in their most broken places – to cry out with them, “How long, O Lord?…”

Last year, this weekend took on another association for me, when my father’s body could no longer hold multiple myeloma at bay.  He died three days after his birthday – four days after Veteran’s Day.  He was a complex and often infuriating man, stubborn and full of contradictions.  And we loved one another fiercely.  I am so grateful that he finally felt assured in his last months that there was nothing he had done (nor could have done) that was beyond God’s love and forgiveness for him.  I pray that the conference this weekend might empower others to experience God’s grace for themselves and for all people – and to convey this grace with sensitivity and with power to all they encounter in the future – especially to those who have been wounded in the course of their participation in the military.