Set a Place for Him
Wait Until Morning: Veterans for Peace (transcript of video)
August 11, 2012
Dedicated to the Other Veterans for Peace:
Those who kill themselves
©2012 by Alice Walker
We Pay a Visit to Those Who Play at Being Dead
That he planted
I say to all
You are silent.
On an Army Veteran’s
of you –
I had not noticed
This before –
You are quiet, too, as we sit
Are you not
I have no
Pratibha (her name means genius in her
Which is Hindu)
(as your own Southern country accent
Has put into
The recent cover of TIME magazine tells an unusually sad and tragic story: ONE A DAY, the number of soldiers who commit suicide while they are in the American Military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having suffered from suicidal depression for many years when I was younger I am immediately saddened by the thought of the last hours of all these sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of ours. In fact, anyone who has ever suffered from suicidal depression understands that the painful tension of it is almost unbearable and that the thought of suicide actually begins to beckon the sufferer, who almost begins to long for oblivion, considering it to be, at last, an opportunity to rest.
The headstones of soldiers in my family’s section of the Ward’s Chapel Cemetery in Putnam County Georgia tell the ending of a story our local people knew little about. The young men, drafted out of the cotton fields of Georgia, had no idea whatsoever of where they were being sent; nor did they have a clue whom they were required to fight. In the First World War they were forbidden to actually harm any white person, no matter that they were considered the enemy. Their job was to build latrines and keep them clean, to pick up the wounded and dying; to wash and iron the “real soldiers'” uniforms and to obey any order given by a white person, whether on the US side or not. This was demanded by the racism of the time. So these men who died and were buried in these graves near our church, were returned in pieces, some of them, to people who knew nothing of their blind sacrifice. Others who returned from both the First World War and the Second World War, with physical injuries, or mental disorders, usually sat mute and despondent days and weeks and months, years and decades, on end, with no one in the community they’d left behind even remotely aware of what they had endured.
My own brothers were soldiers in the Korean War. They too came home mute about their experiences. Because, what could they tell us: Country people who had rarely left our small communities. Peace-loving people whose deep spirituality made any kind of violence a disgrace to the Prince of Peace our people followed in church, whose turn the other cheek directive was ever striven for; and whose teachings of love and kindness were deeply believed.
And so, when I think of the mostly young men who are killing themselves in the Military today, I think of the Veterans of the First and Second World Wars – who were my great-uncles and cousins; and also of my brothers, who might have committed suicide except their anger and self-loathing at whatever had been done to them: induction, racist humiliation during basic training and after, the training to kill people of color that would have reminded them of themselves, was turned outward, toward family and society. In fact, their rage turned homicidal rather than suicidal, and that too is part of the tragedy of war.
I have been thinking of something I always say to young people who tell me they are suicidal. I tell them: wait until morning.
I say this based on my own experience of toughing it out through many a grim night, to see the beauty, once more, of the morning sky. To hear birds chirping outside my window; to witness the miracle of dawn and the soft movement of fog, of rain, of wind, of leaves falling.
And yet, what if I had been forced to do something unimaginably horrible; what if I discovered I’d been fooled, lied to, egregiously; what if I had witnessed and participated in cruelties and abuses that defied anything I’d been led to expect of other human beings, or of myself; what if I felt I had been used so despicably I could never look into my own eyes again; what if the War into which I had perhaps enlisted, turned out to be, not really a war, because most of those on the other side had no weapons, but more of a mass murder of poor people, people whose minimal clothing, food, and shelter, could not be hidden from me as I destroyed them. What if I remained human though having done inhuman things?
What if I still had a conscience?
Dead Men Love War
Dead men love war
they sit astride
the icy bones
of their slaughtered horses
They wind their pacemakers
and like Napoleon
green velvet dressing
on the battle field.
in board rooms
of a profit
they like to anticipate
they will bring
their loathsome daughters
They like to fantasize
about the rare vintage
to be served
how much company
they are going
I believe our young soldiers are killing themselves because their humanity is still alive. They do not want to become the dead men who are giving the orders. Something human is still alive in them and they want it to stay that way.
After all, though much of the world now thinks of Americans as killers and terrorists, we know this is not a true picture. Not at all. Nor has it ever been.
We know that the vast majority of young people who leave their homes, their wives and husbands and young children, to go to war, do it for the same reasons other people in all lands have done it; to make a living doing something they have been told is useful, on their way to making, for themselves, their families and their communities, a life.
They have not (yet) been raised to be killers.
Thousands of Feet Below You
Thousands of feet below you
there is a small boy
running from your bombs.
If he were to show up
at your mother’s house
on a green
off the coast
He’d be invited in
you have shattered
He lies steaming
in the desert
in fifty or sixty
or maybe one hundred
If you survive
to your island
and your mother’s
where the cup
of loving kindness
(and from which
Set a place
What to do with the “you” that continues to live inside, no matter what you have done?
One of the first friends I made having left home at seventeen was the great historian activist Howard Zinn. It was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, and Howard Zinn, unlike other history professors in schools around Atlanta, Georgia, was out on the street protesting, picketing, being assaulted and arrested along with his students. We were attempting to bring down American Apartheid. It was simply astonishing to witness this because, among other reasons, Howard was white.
At the same time he was militantly against the Vietnam War. In the streets against this atrocity also went Howard. Long after he had left the South, Howard continued his anti-war work, leading marches, speaking at rallies, endlessly teaching the truth of what he knew about War. At one point going to Hanoi (with the also admirable radical, Staughton Lynd) and bringing some of our soldiers, prisoners of war, home.
He used to tell us, his students at Spelman College in Atlanta, a school for mostly middle-class young women of color, that, during the Second World War, he had been a bombardier. I could never associate the dropping of bombs with Howie (as he was affectionately called by the many who loved him) because he was so kind, so thoughtful, so patient with his students and so utterly devoted to non-violence. This was the “Howie” who lived within the person who dropped bombs that killed countless people.
His very last book, The Bomb, written shortly before he died, is about this.
Howard Zinn grew up in the slums of Brooklyn, in a poor family. Though they didn’t know they were poor because – like my own poor family in Georgia – there was always plenty to eat. He joined the Navy and because of his exceptionally good eye-sight, was trained as a bombardier. He carried out many missions on the Allied side, against the Germans, during the war. The one that stuck in his mind though was the last sortie: when, just a week or two before the war’s ending, his squadron of flyers was ordered to drop bombs on a small seaside village in France, Royan (a favorite vacation spot of Picasso) because it was thought some Germans were hiding there.
This was done. The bombs were dropped, using a new kind of jellied gasoline, the very first use of Napalm. The village and most of its inhabitants were killed. The whole area became an inferno. An inferno barely seen by those high above in the airplanes.
Howard speaks candidly and honestly about how disconnected he was from the damage being done below. How, on being told their very last mission would be to continue to fight in Japan, he had actually been happy to learn bombs had already been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima because that meant he would be able to go home and not have to fight any more.
The horror of that catastrophe was not brought fully into his consciousness until a journalist went to witness the devastation, took photographs, and wrote stories about some of the severely maimed survivors.
Howard Zinn is someone who should never have been required to go to war; never required to drop bombs on anyone. Never been required to kill. But he was, and he did, kill.
And it is his life’s story that I wish to offer would-be suicides in America’s Armies. It is medicine that, I believe, can help make you well.
Once out of “the service” as this lethal employment is euphemistically called, Howard Zinn was able, on the G.I. Bill, to go to college, then to Graduate School. He was able to learn about whatever was of interest to him, which was what he most wanted in his heart to do. He was able to get degrees that enabled him to teach others. And what he chose to teach others was a lot of what he’d learned himself: about the sociopathic power of the bosses and so called leaders of the world; the heavy investment, by the wealthy, in the slaughter of everybody’s young, who believe it is their right to manufacture wars to advance their avarice; and about the effort and constant struggle the soul must under-go in order not to lose what is most precious: the original meaning of one’s life that is embedded in the original self. The meaning each of us presents to the rest of humanity as our unique gift.
Howard Zinn wrote A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES because he had discovered the lies of patriotism and “God’s on our side-ism” that had caused him to destroy countless women, men, children, old people, animals, houses and rivers, without ever thinking very deeply about it. Until it was too late for those who were gone. And too late for him to un-do what he had unwittingly done.
He marched with the poor, the students, people of color, women, because he could see, from his own experience, how we are pitted against each other in a fake “war” that benefits us not at all, but is used as a distraction from the machinations of those who steal life, land, and liberty, from all of us.
I say today to every young person in the Military who has done or has witnessed evil. Or who has suffered evil done to him or herself. WAIT UNTIL MORNING. And read Howard Zinn.
When I was preparing this talk I myself read (via audio) two great books on war that I highly recommend: War and Peace (though you should skip the ending where Tolstoi – I hadn’t remembered this – gets bogged down in sharing farming techniques), and a truly extraordinary contemporary book by Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars. About the First World War. This is the best book I’ve ever read about war. In both these books what is striking is how little wars have changed. How many innocent people, including innocent soldiers, die for reasons they cannot fathom, and how it is primarily the foot soldiers, the privates, who are deemed supremely expendable, of negligible consequence. I also watched Steven Spielberg’s recent movie: War Horse. A film that shows the “little fish,” as the poor “cannon fodder” soldiers are seen by the military machine, caught in the meshes of violent confrontations that it is impossible, because of limited education and experience, to comprehend.
The madness of war is given mute testimony by our young men, and increasing numbers of young women, who take their own lives rather than continue to murder others or to self-murder, in slow motion, while feeling half alive. My heart is moved for them.
Like Howard Zinn they might find so many battles out here to join: on our streets, and inside our forests and within our dying oceans; life and death battles, beyond the battle field. We need them beside us. With all that they have learned. With all their valor and expertise. Their lack of fear of dying, which can be a very good thing.
Stay with us. I say to them. We desperately need you.
Wait until morning, dear ones. Beloved ones. Just wait. Stay here to witness, along with us, your own internal sun as it shines again.
August 7, 2012
The Last Letter
A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran
To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.
I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all—the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.
I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.
Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.
I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.
I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.
I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.
My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.
Dig last updated on Mar. 18, 2013