For What It’s Worth:
Some Thoughts on War, Disappointment and Anger
I do not believe in war at all; although I am as capable of anger as anyone. To me war is something to be outgrown, recognized as immature, wasteful and so destructive to life that human beings should shun it as they shun Swine Flu, or HIV/AIDS or as they once shunned Bubonic Plague. If our species survives, and it may well not, it will be because we learn not to fight to kill each other, though some of us may continue to fight as an expression of our not yet controllable nature. It is painful to feel the war machine continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan and in all the other parts of the globe not covered by our media. It isn’t that I thought one man, a new president, could stop it overnight or in one year – it has been acceptable behavior for millennia – but it was my hope that there would be, out of Washington, an entirely new and different approach to what is essentially the failure of human beings to listen to each other; to teach and guide and share with one another. To see the best, even in “the enemy.” And where no “best” is discernable, to understand how what might have been good has become horribly twisted or destroyed. To think of small children who have no alternative, often, to growing up imprisoned in poisonous ideologies; there they stand in our missile sights, “terrorists” who never really had a chance.
Is there no way to reach our enemies other than by killing them? Do we “win” in this way? I cannot believe it. Rather I believe killing other human beings is not about winning, but about failure. Winning would be to begin to train our military to do what it also does wonderfully well: look after the inhabitants of the planet. It has been such a relief to see our soldiers stepping in to help earthquake victims in Haiti and elsewhere; to see their self-assurance and can-do spirit as they tackle the problems of crumbled buildings, trapped children, pain crazed persons who, having lost homes and possessions, have nowhere to go. This is when I have felt most proud of our military. And it has been easy to see that this is where our soldiers have felt most proud of themselves.
There is much anger at our president from the community of pacifists and anti-war activists to which I belong. There is so much disappointment and rage. I share some of this; what I mostly feel, however, is not anger or rage, but grief. Eisenhower was right to warn us about the burgeoning power of the Military Industrial Complex, as he termed it. That it was quite capable of taking over the country, and the president with it. That we are in the hands of a war machine that doesn’t really care who is elected to run the country; it’s aim is plunder, destruction, conquest and exploitation. Taking whatever its creators want by force. All in the name of “defense.” Looking in our own families we can see how we are connected to this machine: the jobs, the pensions, the chance to learn a trade or go to school. Many people’s fear is that if the military stopped its machinations around the globe millions of people would have no place, and no work.
And that is why what we must insist on, I believe, is transformation of the Military. Though what use can be found for our obsolete missiles and weapons of mass destruction I cannot, myself, imagine. But my faith is that someone can imagine this; that we can make something useful out of things like old fighter planes and bomb casings. The way the earth is shaking so many of us out of bed in the middle of the night with no shelter left to our names, perhaps we should put our architects and builders to the task of designing and creating housing out of them. Humans are very clever, as we know. No more clever humans exist – along with some who are abysmally not clever – than in the United States.
In these times it is easy to see why war is obsolete. Nature has taken it on herself to show us how destructive unanticipated and uncontrollable violence is. And that nothing humans can ever do on the battlefield is a match for her power. After an earthquake, especially after earthquakes like the recent ones in Haiti and Chile, how can humanity permit our governments to cause similar devastation, with our money, deliberately?
Recently I was in Cairo, attempting to cross into Gaza with the courageous women of CODE PINK. This organization had worked for nearly a year to collect about 2 million dollars worth of aid for the people of Gaza. They had also invited fourteen hundred people from around the world to join in a Freedom March inside Gaza, in protest of the imprisonment of 1.5 million Palestinians, in Gaza, by the Israeli government. The Egyptian government, apparently under the control of Israel and the United States, refused to permit us entry. Perhaps its leader feared losing the large amount of aid the U.S. gives Egypt every year.
In any case, on my third day in Cairo I found myself traveling with Jodie Evans, co-founder of CODE PINK, to pay a visit to the Red Crescent, similar to the Red Cross. We were escorted into the office of a large, kindly man who seemed to want to help us. Jodie Evans, wearing a lot of pink, had come armed with her cell phone and her computer. At each point of questioning from the kindly but cautious Egyptian, she used these tools to connect with her base of information. There was not a single question put to her that she did not, sitting there in all her glorious pink, answer politely, firmly and conclusively. She explained about the 1400 citizens from around the world who were outside, some camping in front of Embassies, some battling police in the Cairo streets. She talked about the 2 million dollars worth of aid. Milk and cheese and bread and beans. Water. Chocolate. School supplies. Medicine.
I had arrived in Cairo ill; speaking brought on a spell of coughing; I was sorry to be of so little help. However I did have one question:
“Have you ever been to Gaza?” I asked our host, when Jodie Evans took a moment to catch her breath.
“No,” he said. “But I hear it’s better than when you were there last year.”
More people dead? I wondered. Or did he mean more rubble cleared?
But then Jodie Evans was back on the case. To every question, she found an answer.
At last, the kindly man, someone’s uncle or father or brother or son, allowed the possibility of 65 people being allowed entry into Gaza. 65 out of 1400. Jodie Evans tried to increase the number, speaking again of the hardship many had suffered to be able to come so far. Maybe two buses? And what of the aid? There was now given to us a long list of all that could not be carried into Gaza. Milk was out, for starters. It was a liquid.
This haggling went on for some time. As people who had visited Gaza a year ago, both she and I would be denied entry this time.
And so forth.
But here is what the feeling was: We were begging to be allowed to help desperate people, many of them slowly starving to death. Begging. I will not forget this feeling as long as I live; because it was not right. And yes, I longed to have a government behind me that would have made it unnecessary for us to beg; I yearned for a government whose leaders would go with us into Gaza. Shoulder to shoulder with us. Because until our leaders go with us to try to understand and right the wrongs our nations have caused, what chance as a planet do we have? And yet, ironically, this encounter, where we felt we had nothing officially supportive at our backs, is where I saw the Goddess in Jodie Evans. Even th
ough this was begging, she never lost her dignity, her resolve, her commitment to the people of Gaza who are suffering. I witnessed something I never expected to experience that day: that to beg for the good of others is noble. I saw this nobility, very strong, in her. That moment was worth the trip.
When the disastrous earthquake hit Haiti, even Israel sent a shipment of aid. But why not send such a shipment to Gaza, where Israel has done the damage? Looking at a collapsed school in Port –au– Prince it seemed almost identical to the American School in Palestine in whose rubble, a year ago, I spent part of a morning. America sent aid, but why had it not helped the Haitians (over decades) as their capsized boats filled with impoverished people headed toward survival in the US, floundered and were drowned by the waves. Not to mention the atrocious colonial treatment of Haiti, for centuries.
I have said many times that my caring for Barack Obama and his family is unconditional; this is the only kind of caring that makes sense to me. Within that caring, held just as unshakably, is my disagreement with some of his choices. War cannot be stopped by killing more people; there has to be another way. What is it? Nuclear power is treacherous; is there no faith that Americans can consume less of everything, especially the rapaciously pursued “energy?”
And so on.
Talking some of this over with a friend, I asked her to make a list of all the good things Barack Obama has done in his first year. Within minutes she had a list of about a hundred things. This was a great relief, because sometimes the rhetoric against his leadership is so condemning it is as if he’s done nothing at all. What is the blindness and anger that causes this unfairness? How can it become more balanced? Not for Obama’s sake, he seems to be weathering his storms as well as one could, but for the sake of those of us who like to think of ourselves as people of ethics, fairness, balance. Some of us call ourselves “spiritual progressives.”
At the end of some of the more virulent blasts against Obama there is the threat of punishment: Wait until the next election! Can we learn to disagree with someone without instantly attempting to punish them? What is this but a stirring up of one’s inner war? War without a military, but violence just the same. And who do we have in mind as a replacement? With our luck we will find ourselves stuck with another Bush, or worse, though our dream might be Dennis Kucinich whose belief that the United States should have a Department of Peace is one with which most of us resonate. Anger makes us lose our ability to think clearly, to strategize, to plan. It is useless at this point in humanity’s distress. We are headed over a cliff of our own making; blaming anyone without at the same time blaming ourselves is a waste of the time we could at least spend dancing.
Can we learn to care about our leaders in ways that support their ability to move forward as we would wish them to? Is our only mode of behavior instant rage and blame if someone cannot deconstruct in one year what has taken five hundred years to build? Can we sit with ourselves and the truth of our crisis as humans long enough to see where we ourselves must lead and change?
Before traveling to Cairo I spent a few days in Dharamsala calling on the Spiritual and Political leaders of Tibet in Exile. These are people who obviously know a thing or two about life, about conflict, about inner discipline and care of the personal and the planetary soul. At a dinner with the political head of Tibet in Exile, Professor Samdong Rinpoche, along with six cabinet ministers, we found ourselves talking about what it feels like to be up against opponents who might be a billion times larger than you. Which is pretty much the case of China vs. Tibet. Talking together we soon realized that everyone in the room was working hard for the same things: feeding and clothing and teaching and healing our people and our communities. Finally, in the face of all attempts to stop us from doing what we feel we must, someone raised a glass to toast “our friends the enemy.” In Buddhist thought one’s enemy is likely to teach so much we otherwise would not learn, is so helpful in strengthening us in ways we might never have imagined, and is so likely to be a primary reason for our growth, that it is wise to recognize him or her as a friend. This is a teaching I have found profoundly useful in my own life; so much so I rarely am capable of seeing anyone as an enemy, but rather as someone who is heartbreakingly confused. I first heard “my friends the enemy” used by the DaLai Lama when he was speaking about the Chinese government. He shares this concept with Burmese spiritual warrior Aung San Suu Kyi who speaks of the possibility of becoming friends, literally, with the dictators who have held her imprisoned for years.
Inwardly bowing to Aung Sang Suu Kyi and His Holiness I raised my glass in response to the toast. “Thank you,” I said: “They (‘our friends the enemy’) have their job and we have ours.”
That is also how I feel about every US administration I have ever read about or known, all of them “our friends the enemy” to our parents and grandparents and very often to us): none of them as morally intelligent and responsive to regular Americans as the one we have now, for all its limitations. They have their job, whatever it might be. But I have mine. Mine is to work for the world that I want, in the belief that it can only be just, fair, balanced and dedicated to peace, if I am.
Alice Walker is author of the children’s book: WHY WAR IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA.
Why War is Never a Good Idea
When I wrote “Why War is Never a Good Idea” I was thinking about children who play “war” long before they have any understanding of its meaning. Their parents buy toys for them that are miniature rifles, tanks, and bombs. Small babies are dressed in military print. They lie in their cribs grinning up at the adults of the world, without a clue that they are being set up to fight other young people, in not so many years, who would more sensibly be their playmates. I wanted to write a book for small children that would begin to counter the entrenched belief that it is all right for small children to think positively about war. It isn’t all right, and the adults of the world must say so.
We’ve all heard of “the good war” presumably a war that is righteous and just. However, seen from the perspective of my children’s book, there is no such thing as a “good” war because war of any kind is immoral in its behavior. It lands heavily on the good and the not good with equal impact. It kills humans and other animals and destroys crops. It ignites and decimates forests and it pollutes rivers. It obliterates beauty, whether in landscape, species, or field. It leaves poison in its wake. Grief. Suffering. When war enters the scene, no clean water anywhere is safe. No fresh air can survive. War attacks not just people, “the other,” or “enemy,” it attacks Life itself: everything that humans and other species hold sacred and dear. A war on a people anywhere is a war on the Life of the planet everywhere. It doesn’t matter what the politics are, because though politics might divide us, the air and the water do not. We are all equally connected to the life support system of planet Earth, and war is notorious for destroying this fragile system.
Our only hope of maintaining a livable planet lies in teaching our children to honor non-violence, especially when it comes to caring for Nature, which keeps us going with such gr
ace and faithfulness. “Why War Is Never a Good Idea” doesn’t take sides because we are ultimately on the same side: the side of keeping our home, Earth, safe from attack. We cannot live healthy lives without a healthy Earth ever supporting and inspiring us, in all her unspoiled radiant generosity.
Bottom Photo by Lhamo Tsering. Garrett Larson and Alice Walker in the parliament of the Tibetan Government in Exile, Dharamsala, India. December 2009.