My Dad, War, Hungry Children, and Real Security
I remember Dad calling in the middle of the night: “It’s not right. . . . It’s not fair,” he’d say.
“Kids shouldn’t be starving in Haiti.”
Or again, “Those kids in Iraq shouldn’t have to die.”
And toward the end of his life, this World War II veteran called me to his side to tell me, “We shouldn’t have bombed Hiroshima. We shouldn’t have hit Nagasaki.”
And there we sat on his bedside, two frail people, holding hands and having far more questions than answers.
Dad would have understood Afghan women lamenting that they felt they were losing their minds because they couldn’t feed their children.
He would have shaken his head, troubled over U.S. decisions to fund wars rather than feed hungry children.
He would have wanted people younger than him to think about these dilemmas, much as he had done toward the end of his life, poring over Neil Sheehan’s “Bright Shining Lie” about Vietnam.
Thanks to Nick Turse, more people may be doing that. I was fortunate to hear Nick speak this past weekend at the Veterans for Peace conference in Madison, Wisconsin. His book, “Kill Anything That Moves,” shocks us into recognizing the many, many massacres that took place during the Vietnam War.
And thanks to Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, professor of peace and justice studies, more people may be pondering the facile resort to military action. Earlier this summer, a group of Veterans for Peace at Peacestock, in rural Wisconsin, listened to Jack’s warnings about the disturbing encroachment of the National Security State, which increasingly justifies killing of civilians by reliance on a pernicious mantra: “The threat justifies the means.”
What’s more, the system of war hits home every day in the form of unmet needs. The U.S. could meet the basic needs of people living here, but instead the government continually opts to feed a bloated military budget.
Jack rebutted three presumptions that the U.S. Military-Industrial-Congressional-Media-Security complex increasingly market:
that the fundamental purpose of the state is to provide security;
that the military is the main provider of security;
and that the military must protect fundamentally inequitable socioeconomic relationships.
My dear friend, Jim Loney, has courageously rebutted these presumptions, too. He was one of four Christian Peacemaker Team activists held hostage in Iraq for 118 days in late 2005 and early 2006. Tom Fox, a U.S. citizen, was murdered by the hostage-takers. The others were released, following a military raid on the house where they were held. Jim Loney entitled his memoir about the agonizing kidnapping experience “Captivity.” But he later wished he had drawn the title from a statement that his captors had often made, “When you are free, I will be free."
Jim recalls the details of the longed-for day of release. A soldier from the U.S. and British task force pulled him aside and said: "I know I'm speaking out of school here, but I'm going to say it anyway. You have no idea how many people were involved, how many people risked their lives to get you out. I want you to tell your people that. Just tell them to think about that before they decide to send someone else here.”
Here is the first answer that came to Jim’s mind: “We wouldn’t have been here if you hadn’t first invaded and occupied this country.”
But Jim dwelt with the soldier’s statement.
What did the soldier mean?
No one was wounded or killed during the rescue mission. The rescuers called the hostage-takers ahead of time, warning them that they would soon arrive with overpowering force. One guard was left behind at the house where Jim and the others were held. The other captors fled.
We can surmise that the rescuers had gleaned intelligence data that led them to the place where Jim and his companions were held hostage.
Did the intelligence data come from surveillance of cell phones?
Did the soldier observing past risk-taking refer to night raids?
And more to the point in my own thoughts about American exceptionalism and the notion that the threat justifies the means, would I forswear a night raid or an intelligence “mission” that might figure crucially in the release of my friend Jim Loney? Suppose Tom Fox’s life could have been spared?
These questions burn through Jim Loney’s riveting memoir.
He doesn’t claim to have definitive answers, but he focuses intently on the exact words his captors gave, each time the captives asked about being released: “When you are free, I will be free.”
When we’re all freed from militarism, we’ll find real and lasting security.
Here is an anecdote that has bearing on these hard questions.
I was hogtied at Fort Benning, Georgia, at a protest against the School of the America.
A soldier was kneeling on my back and calling me a “fucker.”
I was bleating, ‘This really hurts. I’m sorry, but you’re really hurting me” — to no avail.
I mentioned that my lung had collapsed more than once before (from a congenital disease).
That seemed to work. The soldier got off of me.
I was shaky but OK.
Still hogtied, I was carried to the next station, where I was to be photographed. Since I was hogtied, my hair was in front of my face, a bit like a shaggy dog. The young soldier who was carrying me under my right armpit to the photography station politely addressed me: “Excuse me, ma’am, but in order to take your picture, we’ll have to remove the hair from in front of your face. Will that be all right?”
Yes, I said.
And ever so gently, as he removed the hair from in front of my face, he squeezed my shoulder. “I know those cuffs are real tight,” he said. “We’re going to get them off of you as soon as we can.”
And isn’t that how it so often goes?
Just when you think the lights have gone out, humanity reasserts itself.
It’s a plurality, a “we” that can unchain human and other beings from the war system.
We must acknowledge our captivity.
We must recognize that our security is founded in meeting basic food needs, in health care delivery, infrastructure repair, shelter, education, and in addressing the urgent threats posed by climate change and global warming, without resorting to military force.
Here is another time when humanity reasserted itself and borders dissolved.
Afghan Peace Volunteer Abdulhai attends a school where he is an ethnic minority. Most of the students come from affluent families, and Abdulhai, whose father was killed by the Taliban, belongs to an impoverished family. But Abdulhai speaks English better than many of his teachers. As a child in a remote village, Abdulhai was lucky to find a Singaporean medical doctor who taught an English class, and Abdulhai learned quickly. His teachers asked him to present a poem, in English, to a school assembly and then read it in Dari, the language spoken at their school. Abdulhai was wide-eyed when he asked me to suggest a poem. But then his eyes lit up with enthusiasm when I reminded him of Dan Berrigan’s poem, “Some.”
“Don’t you remember?” I asked.
We read it together the last time I left Kabul, and I started to cry.
“Yes,” said Abdulhai. This is a good poem.” He stood before the school assembly and read the poem. Everyone cheered.
Here is that poem:
Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.
Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried.
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked
– they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.
“Why do you stand?” they were asked,
and “Why do you walk?”
“Because of the children,” they said,
and “Because of the heart,
and “Because of the bread,”
“Because the cause
is the heart’s beat,
and the children born,
and the risen bread.”
The next time he was invited to read a poem, he chose the Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet, and his “Hiroshima Child.”
I come and stand at every door
But none can hear my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen
For I am dead for I am dead
I’m only seven though I died
In Hiroshima long ago
I’m seven now as I was then
When children die they do not grow
My hair was scorched by swirling flame
My eyes grew dim my eyes grew blind
Death came and turned my bones to dust
And that was scattered by the wind
I need no fruit I need no rice
I need no sweets nor even bread
I ask for nothing for myself
For I am dead for I am dead
All that I need is that for peace
You fight today you fight today
So that the children of this world
Can live and grow and laugh and play.
Afghan Peace Volunteers constantly teach me about blurring and eventually disappearing artificial borders that reinforce the war system. They know from brutal past experience that war isn’t over when it’s “over,” and they want to live without war.
Members of Veterans for Peace have dedicated their lives to extricating themselves from the war system and to teaching that security rests in the belief that we are all part of one another.
At the end of his life, my dad gave his simple acknowledgements as a compass, a rudder, and a ground for hope during these days when cultures around the world commemorate those who were killed by the first atomic blasts.
These truths remain with me: “We shouldn’t have bombed Hiroshima. We shouldn’t have bombed Nagasaki. The children shouldn’t starve. The children shouldn’t die.”
Kathy Kelly co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence, www.vcnv.org. She was a keynote speaker at the Veterans for Peace conference in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 9.
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