Tag Archives: war

A Long Cold Summer When Civilization Seemed to Retreat

It’s been a summer of troubling drama, a time of “Sturm and Drang” (storm and stress) as one German writer put it, a season of disasters of Biblical proportion. Even those of us lucky enough to be a continent or an ocean away from various epicenters have not been left untouched by the seeming scourge of disease and human despair that seemed to jump borders with alarming speed.

Surely I’m not the only one who thought of Masada when the Yazidis and other religious minorities fled to the top of Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains to escape death at the hands of ISIS. Masada, the flat mesa on top of a mountain that rises in Israel near the Dead Sea, was the site of a mass suicide in 73 C.E. More than 1,000 Jews died there rather than fall into Roman hands. (One woman and five children hid and survived to tell the tale.)


Nor could I have been alone in thinking about the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt when I watched the refugees who came down from the mountain as they crossed that rickety bridge over a river on their way to find refuge.

And then there was the Israeli/Gazan situation, a conflict as old as the Bible itself.

Did anyone else think of Tiananmen Square when they saw the horrific pictures of tanks lined up against the people of Ferguson, Missouri as they protested peacefully after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death by a policeman?

An unidentified man attempts to block tanks entering the square

Wasn’t the outbreak of Ebola reminiscent of medieval plagues, when borders were closed and bodies were carried away in carts, their homes marked as houses of death?

Didn’t the deaths of hundreds in a disappeared jumbo jet and other airline disasters, as well as the deaths of so many notable figures, bear the overtones of Greek tragedy?

And yet, among all the events that seemed to suggest a leap into a frighteningly dystopian future, is there some hope to be found? Might we be at some kind of turning point, a profoundly learnable moment that will ultimately render us capable of finding what writer Mary Gordon has called “the simple beauty of the good”?

Could it be that we stand on the fragile threshold of a time in human history when instead of “circling the drain,” we might, in an attempt to survive, find our universal souls, returning to truth and justice as guideposts, to ethical governance and sensible, compassionate leaders who would replace the oligarchs leading us into anarchy?

These questions were no doubt raised after the colossal tragedy of World War I (and many wars before that). Surely they were asked after World War II and the Holocaust. I remember them being raised in the 1960s when assassinations seemed endless and military might on the streets of America made us wonder if we had reached the apocalypse. So, too, did we ask ourselves if we could return to our better selves after the genocides of Rwanda and the Balkans. It seemed then and it seems now a Sisyphean question that we are doomed to ask in perpetuity.

But, without wanting to sound delusional, I think it may be possible that we are about to enter a moral epoch marked by a collective, rejuvenated spirit of good over evil, right over wrong, moral choices over inhumane acts.

I suggest this possibility because it seems to me that we all feel dangerously close to the precipice of madness. I say it because of all the people in all the cities who rallied in support of an end to police brutality after Michael Brown was killed. I say it because of a community that stood up to an unethical businessman when he demonstrated corporate greed. I say it because of organizations like MomsRising and I say it because of the outpouring of help that occurs when humanitarian crises perpetrated by political insanity and potentially fatal diseases happen. I say it because, as Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in a moving commentary in Haaretz, “you add together all the people who gathered to demand justice in Israel and Palestine – in Cape Town, Washington, D.C., New York, New Delhi, London, Dublin and Sydney, and all the other cities [and] this was arguably the largest active outcry by citizens around a single cause ever in the history of the world.”

I say it because I see no alternative.

And yes, I say it knowing that history has proved me wrong again and again and that bad people flourish while “good guys finish last.” But just imagine a world in which we find within us the ability, the strength, the intelligence and compassion to move our communal heritage forward instead of falling back to the Dark Ages!

Surely the majority of us maintain a moral vigor, a life force that can enable us to recapture the soul of our communities and countries, to find again our better natures, and thus emerge with new hope and dignity in a sustainable world.

Dare one hope that in the face of so much sadness and threat we might yet be on the threshold of our greatest hour? At the very least, could the winter to come bring with it at least some renewed and reassuring warmth?

The Pornography of War

We’ve all seen them – the photographs of malnourished children with big bellies and thinning reddish hair; the pictures of babies with horrific harelips, the sad and lonely faces of AIDS orphans.  These photos, tugging at our heartstrings until we write checks to assuage the guilt of affluence, have been dubbed ‘the pornography of poverty.’  They are seductive.  We can’t divert our eyes. They stimulate something in us, perhaps compassion vs. passion, but still, they make of us voyeurs as we look upon other people’s suffering and humiliation.

There is another kind of pictorial pornography – the pornography of war.  You know its poster child too:  A “wounded warrior” learning to walk with a prosthesis (or two); a female officer incapacitated by depression, perhaps induced by guilt for what she has seen or done, or by what has been done to her; a child wrapping her arms around a dad who no longer has the mental capacity to recognize her, a homeless vet wandering aimlessly.        

And that’s just in our own country.  We seldom see pictures of children wearing the faces of conflict, bearing wounded bodies, bereaved beyond repair in places where wars are actually fought: Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.  These photos are no less seductive. We look upon them with broken hearts, perhaps wondering why there is something horribly compelling about human suffering, and when we’ve had enough, we look away.

These photos make me immensely sad, and angry.  I cannot bear to look upon limbless bodies, shrapnel misshapen heads, or blank, staring eyes when they are used to garner sympathy in order to foster a simplistic, faux nationalism that calls itself patriotism.

Let’s be clear: Our troops did not march into Iraq to save us from weapons of mass destruction, or to protect democracy.  They went to Iraq, as they did to Vietnam, because of a lie told to them (and us) by their own government.  All the loss of life that followed, on both sides, happened because Iraq had something we wanted (oil) and because George W. Bush wanted a war. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy for sure but what have we got to show for our bravado?  A country torn apart and full of suffering souls because of our dishonest invasion.  As for the so-called wounded warriors of Afghanistan, what were they actually fighting for in a country whose culture we don’t begin to understand, and so rife with corruption that no one knows where the money went, although a large chunk of it is likely in the pockets of President Karzai and his cronies, all of whom have turned against the ally we thought we were. (If you think the American military was welcome there, talk to some Afghanis. You’ll get a different picture than the ones used for propaganda.)

So let’s be clear about something else.  President Obama is not, as politicians on the right would have us believe, a wimp on war.  He is not clueless, inept, passive, stupid, or weak in foreign policy.  His devotion to diplomatic solutions aimed at ending conflicts that cause so much pain to so many people – often with unanticipated consequences – is courageous, intelligent, active and sensitive to complex realities.  Unlike his predecessor and the hawkish Republicans who continue to live in some kind of Reaganesque LaLa Land, Mr. Obama recognizes the costs of war in human as well as geopolitical terms. 

Like Jimmy Carter, also unfairly pilloried for his political posture, the president knows that difficult but safer solutions often reside in the conversation between two people, both with a stake in the outcome of actions they take.  The president is not the inexperienced ingenue some people believe he is.  He’s simply trying to exercise caution, and a modicum of wisdom, from this side of the brink.  That he keeps his wits about him and maintains his dignity while critics hit him hard for believing in alternatives to war is something we should all be grateful for. 


To be clear again, I am not a knee-jerk Democrat (although I am always and forever an independently minded one). I don’t always agree with the president’s decisions or actions.  I am a harsh critic when criticism is called for. But in writing this commentary, what I want to know is this:  How many more limbless, lifeless, lost soldiers will it take before we come to see that war is not inevitable, not desirable, not always the solution, and should never be undertaken on the basis of lies – or false notions of patriotism.

How many more pornographic pictures must we view to see that violence is always trumped by vision, and that suffering is the last, worst solution to conflict.  If you doubt this, ask any one of those poster people promoting nationalism– or the parents and partners who now weep over their dead bodies.          

This Memorial Day, Let’s Remember Women in War

Now that qualified women can enter combat officially, it’s a good time to remember the many roles women have played during wartime, whether military or civilian.

Writer Frank Moore dubbed classical women during the Civil War “Angels of Mercy” as they rolled bandages and patriotically waited for their men to come home. But he also understood that “the story of war will never be fully or fairly written if the achievements of women in it are untold.@ He knew that there were women soldiers in the Civil War, honored in DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook’s book They Fought Like Demons. The stories of hundreds of women who assumed male aliases, wore men=s uniforms, and charged into battle as both Union and Confederate soldiers are compelling. Mary Ann Pittman and Loretta Valesques, for example, both raised a company of soldiers and later became spies.

More than a hundred years later, Marge Piercy=s 1980s epic novel Gone to Soldiers offered an important portrait of women=s experiences during WWII. Writing about women who ferried airplanes for the Air Force, served as intelligence officers in Europe, worked in factories to produce war goods and more, she put a female face on the reality of war.

Later, when Vietnam nurses lobbied for recognition, a new realization of women=s contributions and trials on the front lines emerged.

Still, many a wartime heroine has gone unnoticed or been forgotten. Claire Chevrillon was one of them. An English teacher in Paris in 1942, she served in the French Resistance for three years. In 1943 she was arrested and imprisoned. AWhat I remember about arriving,@ she recalled, Awere the dark, subterranean, endless corridors through which I walked followed by a guard, as if in a nightmare.” Chevrillon survived and wrote a 1985 memoir. AThe instinct of one nation or race to dominate another doesn=t die,” she said. “It grows insidiously, feeding on private and public concern, until suddenly it=s too late to prevent disaster.@

Minnie Vautrin was an American missionary in China during the 1937 ARape of Nanking.@ Called the Goddess of Mercy for trying to save as many girls and women as possible, she repeatedly faced down threats and bayonets to provide asylum for refugees at the college she headed. A 1938 diary entry reveals her despair: AHow long will this terrible situation last? How can we bear it?@ In the end, Vautrin could not bear it. After helping women locate their husbands and sons at war’s end and teaching destitute widows how to survive, she returned to the U.S., committing suicide in 1941.

Ninety-nine Army and Navy nurses later known as the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor were captured in the Pacific by the Japanese during WWII. The first to be sent into the middle of battle, they became the only group of American women captured and imprisoned by an enemy. Before their incarceration, they helped build and staff hospitals in the middle of a malaria-infested jungle, pioneering triage nursing. Among them were women like Eleanor Garen, whose diary entry on a bad day read: AGaren, This is to yourself. Remember, life is not a bed of roses.@

An estimated eight to twelve thousand women served in the Vietnam War. Most of them were nurses; all had volunteered. Few were recognized as true veterans when they came home. One of them, Lily Jean Adams, was twenty-two years old when she worked as an intensive care nurse. She remembered what it was like comforting a dying soldier. ASometimes they would say >don=t leave me!= And I wouldn=t. I had an inner sense that this was just as important as taking care of the living.@

Women war journalists have been equally brave. Traditionally a male arena, war reporting obscured the trauma experienced by women and other civilians living in attacked areas. These noncombatants survive by fleeing to the hell of refugee camps, where sexual assault and other trauma is common. Today approximately a third of frontline journalists are female and they have a measurable influence on the content of war coverage. They follow models like Anna Benjamin, the first female photojournalist who covered the Spanish-American War, Mary Boyle O=Reilly, who was at the front in World War I, and Peggy Hull, who covered both World Wars and was the first accredited female American war correspondent.

Today women make up approximately 16% of American military forces and about 6% of veterans. Although women were not officially recognized as members of the Armed Forces until 1901, and then only as nurses, women have served in every major war in U.S. history. In WWI women who weren’t nurses could finally join the military; over 30,000 of them enlisted. During WWII women=s roles expanded and over 400 women of the 400,000 who served lost their lives. Desert Storm marked the largest deployment of women to a combat theater in U.S. history until the second Iraq war, with more than 40,000 women serving. Today women are graduating in ever larger numbers from U.S. military academies, often at the top of their class.

Frank Moore was right. The story of war will never be fully written or understood if the achievements and contributions of women are unrecognized. From soldiers to spies, nurses to Navy personnel, journalists to junior officers, veterans to wounded warrior wives, the stories of women in wartime must be told. The women at the center of those stories need to be honored, for they are women of courage, strength and resilience, not only now but as they have always been during wartime.