This is Your Brain on War
Rev. Grace H. Simons
Rev. Joe Cherry
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A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
Friday, March 20th, is both the vernal equinox and the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq. What a sad coincidence that the first day of spring is the same day as the initiation of this longest of US wars. Yet there they are. And they give us the two themes of this morning's service.
We can hardly ignore the surge of new growth, of bud, blossom and birdsong that have graced our recent days. What a beautiful time of year! And as creatures of earth, our own spirits rise, our steps lighten with the coming of spring. In this season, it's easier to see promising possibilities, to be confident that hope and love will prevail.
The war in Iraq, however, presents a different story. Like all wars, it is about destruction, pain and loss of life. Yet for most of its duration we have been encouraged to act almost as if it didn't exist - told, in fact, to go shopping! The costs of warfare have been kept out of the Federal budget. Early images of success proved misleading. The ongoing litany of once exotic place names and pictures of desert explosions has lost much of its power. Recently, we've seen news of this ongoing conflict eclipsed by problems with the economy. Iraq has been pushed to the middle pages of our newspapers and magazines. Its impact on us has been obscured.
Yet at the same time, the attitudes and ethos of war have pervaded our culture and our psyches in telling and insidious ways. This is not new. In fact, Chris Hedges, in his book "War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning," reminds us of the lessons and examples in the sagas of Ancient Greece and Rome. He recounts his experiences as a war correspondent, showing parallels with the classics of Homer and the words of Shakespeare. ".war is a god, as the ancient Greeks and Romans knew," he writes, and proceeds to explain a variety of cultural and psychological effects of war. He quotes a calculation by historian Will Durant that there have only been twenty-nine years in all of human history when a war was not underway somewhere on earth. If war is so cruel and devastating, why can't the human family manage to avoid it? Failing that, why can't we at least make sure it is rare? Hedges makes the power of war all too clear.
When I first read Hedges' book several years ago, I was too chilled to talk much about it. I've needed time - quite a lot of it - to begin to pull its stories and themes together with other ideas and events; to build a kind of perspective on the composite that gives some implications for a life like mine. For my realities do not include battlefield experience and my aspirations lead me to seek non-violent interactions. From my spot as a middle-class, well-educated, San Joaquin Valley UU minister, it's easy to think that I don't have anything much to do with warfare and its effects. But something nags. That construct is too easy. It is denial and delusion. Young men and women from our families and communities fight and sometimes die in these battles. Our taxes pay for them. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fought in our name and hundreds of thousands have died because of them. What does this mean for us and for our communities?
One Unitarian Universalist response is the Study-Action Issue on Peacemaking now in process to be considered by our General Assembly delegates. An article by Paul Rasor in last spring's UU World, starts with two questions posed in materials from our Commission on Social Witness. "Should the Unitarian Universalist Association reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?" And, "Should we, the Unitarian Universalist Association and member congregations, adopt a specific and detailed "just war" policy to guide our witness, advocacy, and social justice efforts?" If you check the UUA web site pages on this developing issue, you'll find another question: "What is our religious response as Unitarian Universalists to the historic habits of war and the timeless challenges of peace?"
Rasor's article, entitled "Prophetic Nonviolence," outlines the main features of both "Just War" theory and Pacifism. He talks about their development and also past positions and involvement of Unitarians and Universalists in some of our wars. Rasor notes that while we often think of the two positions as opposed, they are both anti-war traditions. Working from their commonalties, he offers the beginnings of a proposal that might serve us well. I commend the article to you.
The materials available to support our work to arrive at a statement on peacemaking include a draft of a congregational pledge. It includes five areas. They are thoughtful and wide-ranging. Three of them - Inward Peacemaking, Interpersonal Peacemaking and Societal Peacemaking - instantly made me think again about Hedges' work. I was disappointed to find little trace of his ideas.
Hedges deals mainly with the internal and cultural effects of war. He writes from his own wide experience, from conversations with others and from classical and literary sources. He speaks powerfully of the myth of war and the ways it impacts our assumptions, our feelings and our culture. It distorts reality. "the myth of war," he writes, "sells and legitimizes the drug of war. Once we begin to take war's heady narcotic, it creates an addiction that slowly lowers us to . moral depravity." He explains that the myth of war takes over the arts, the media, the stories we tell ourselves and the way we see the world. He quotes philosopher David Hume:
"When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. If the general of our enemies be successful, .he is a sorcerer .he is bloody minded and takes a pleasure in both death and destruction. But if the success be on our side, our commander has all the opposite good qualities and is a pattern of virtue, as well as of courage and conduct. His treachery we call policy; His cruelty is an evil inseparable from war."
One result of this corrupted reality is the division of all humanity into one of two camps: our allies and our enemies. Dissent, doubt and protest within are at best unpatriotic, at worst, treasonous. Some of us remember the slogan, "My country, right or wrong." We can lift up many others. They foreshadow our current reality all too well. Hedges wrote soon after the tragedies of September 11th. But it's easy to find examples from today's wars that parallel those he recounts. We are far too familiar with the nearly unanimous congressional assent to Presidential authority to use national force. We can list abuses that went along with the hasty passage of the Patriot Act. We know that media pictures of flag-draped coffins were banned and that the abuses of Abu Graib were exposed because of individual internet postings. None of us can claim to know what's actually happening in Iraq or Afghanistan, any more than in times when reports took days or weeks to be received.
We are encouraged to see war as exciting, heroic; a time of clarity, of patriotism and valor, the true test of character. We find it natural to expect our young men and women to serve their country in combat. Are they not willing to do their part for the land of their birth? Hedges tells how these myths fall away in the reality of war; how fear takes over and ideals of glory, courage and honor become empty. And yet, once out of danger, many find themselves addicted to the excitement, the clarity and even the danger. Hedges tells of being caught in a firefight in El Salvador. Pinned down by gunfire, he began to pray. "God, if you get me out of here I will never do this again." Here, he reports, "was war, real war. not the war of movies and books - There was nothing gallant or heroic, nothing redeeming" Then he continues, "During a lull I dashed across an empty square and found shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe. I made it back to the capital. And, like most war correspondents, I soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. Most people after such an experience would learn to stay away. I was hooked."
Even those who don't get hooked, who return home when their commitments are fulfilled, cannot be unaffected by the things they have seen and done. Veterans have long formed clubs and associations, needing to gather with others who have shared the sights, sounds and smells of war, who have felt the fear, done and seen things they wish had never happened. World War II vets are famous for their silence about their experiences. Rebecca Parker tells a story of a Methodist church she once served. The church was divided over whether to arrange for posters on city buses opposing the buildup of nuclear arms. At one of the women's group's meetings, some said that the church should stay out of politics, and especially opposition to our government. There was general grumbling. Then one woman spoke up. "Every one of us here knows that our men came home from World War II broken." she said quietly. "We've spent our lives holding together the pieces that war broke.And never speaking of it, always saying it was a good war. We know there is no such thing as a good war." One by one, the women nodded. They supported the project.
After Viet Nam, suicides among our returned troops claimed more lives than the hostilities themselves. We know that far too many surviving Viet Nam vets find themselves dealing with drug and alcohol addictions, with inability to keep their jobs and with homelessness. Reports of domestic violence, depression and sleep disorders among veterans of the first Gulf War and those now returning from battle mount steadily. PTSD has become all too familiar. Our troops come home, but can't move smoothly into the places they left. And finding help is a whole new challenge. Suicide rates, among both active duty and returned personnel are again on the rise. Their minds and hearts have been forever changed by the realities of war.
Our new administration has already taken steps to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. But increases in our forces in Afghanistan are underway. Just how this will all play out is far from clear. One hopeful sign, however, is the change in rhetoric, in the way officials use words as they talk with and about other countries and their leaders. Sarah Palin notably faulted then- candidate Obama for talking about the war in Iraq without ever using the word "Victory." When I saw that reported, I thought it was just a typical Palin- ism. But on reflection, I thought she had identified something important. The change in language signaled a change in approach; a movement away from the myth that war is glorious, victory sweet, and anything else disgraceful.
We have been surrounded with images and phrases that make war sound like a good thing. We tend to use "w-word" whenever we want to convey a serious, strenuous effort. So there's the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the "Culture Wars." An important cause is the "moral equivalent of war." Our politicians seek donations for the "war chests" which fund their campaigns. We speak of political enemies, not opponents. If you are a fan of The Daily Show, you know that just this past week, John Stewart's digs at CNBC were soon dubbed a "War of Words" with Jim Cramer, their eccentric market advisor. No wonder the realities of war are obscured!
When I first read Hedges' book, I decided to make an effort to change my vocabulary and avoid using violent and war-related terms in other contexts. Partly, I wanted to get an idea whether Hedges' claims about the pervasiveness of war images are reasonable. Partly, I worry that our use of these terms encourages acceptance of warfare as normal and appropriate. Partly, I wasn't at all sure how much I actually used these words and phrases.
Well! Making these changes turned out to be a lot more challenging than I expected! Peaceful, little me: the UU minister, returned Peace Corps Volunteer, former teacher, mother, grandmother and avoider of violent movies! I learned that I used quite a lot of war-related terms and images! At times I found myself tongue-tied, unwilling to continue using a phrase or metaphor, but unable to come up with a replacement. Think about it. Debaters look for ammunition to support their arguments. We attack a problem or situation. We complain that we're bombarded with news, ads, whatever. We identify crusaders for good causes. We target our efforts to accomplish a goal and we explode myths and misconceptions. The list of examples goes on. I've been conducting this little experiment for more than 2 « years, and I still catch myself at times, still search for other vivid images.
Now, I don't know how much the common use of war-related phrases affects us. I don't know if violent video games, movies and song lyrics program behavior. I don't know how to end war. No one does. Despite that, I believe that an awareness of the pervasive myths glorifying warriors and warfare can help us to take steps away from them. I think our choice of word and image carries more that literal meaning. I believe our work with congregational covenants, and the fact that our UU Principles address our ways of being together in the world help to move us away from an unquestioning acceptance of war.
I refer again to the work on our statement about peacemaking. Issues of war and peace are active on many levels - from inner peace through personal relationships to national and international policy and diplomacy. There are indeed ways that we can work toward peace - at all these levels. Some are listed on the UUA web site. They will require intentionality, effort and practice. We don't have many models for this work and fewer habits. But increasing the possibility of peace in the world is worth the work required.
Chris Hedges ends his book with a chapter on love and death, Eros and Thanatos, and their attractions for us. War is a force that gives us meaning, but it is not the only force to do that. Both love and death, he claims, have the power to take us out of our small, everyday concerns, to lift us into a different reality, to offer meaning and clarity. But they have far different ends. War and death end in destruction. Love, on the other hand, offers connection: invites us to embrace life and cherish it in all its beauty and pathos. We choose between them daily. May those choices be both wise and life-affirming.
March 22, 2009
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Rev. Grace Simons left us a
collection of her sermons
when she retired in October, 2011.
We have a brief biography
of Rev. Grace, and the last edition of
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