"Grandpa wants you honey." This is my mom now, coming up the stairs and repeating his wish. I take a deep breath, grab a coffee pot and descend slowly. When I hit the bottom stair, Grandpa motions me near and uses all of his energy to force, in a barely audible voice, these words: "This is my granddaughter, the one who wrote a book."
The book. My book. My soon-to-be published memoir. I become light headed as I feel the eyes of the praying, faithful, God-centered men on me. And while I should beam from Grandpa's pride, I don't. Instead, I pretend I don't hear him. I move into the circle of men, pour coffee and speak loudly about nothing before they can ask me questions. I do this because my book is about the thing I have learned does not go with religion: me. And to talk about my book would reveal what I believe they will reject: gay. In his weakened state Grandpa can't compete with my flurry of distraction, so he closes his eyes and fades away.
The Pentagon's announcement this week that it will lift the ban on women in ground combat positions is welcome news to many of those who value equal rights. But it is also an urgent reminder that sexual assault remains a blight on our armed forces that only constant, sincere efforts will erase.
As a writer who has been interviewing female veterans for many years, I have long argued that lifting the ground combat ban would help military women win the respect they deserve. As long as women were officially prohibited from engaging in that essential act of a soldier - fighting - they were seen as second-class. And that has contributed to the violence, predation, and harassment so many military women endure.
The ground combat barrier is gone now, but the attitudes that sprung from it will not disappear so easily. Plenty of military men will decry this decision and resent the women who wish to fight by their sides. Some will be angered, insisting that their female comrades endanger them - an assertion often made but never demonstrated. And some will express their anger with violence. [Read the rest here]
Journalist Sarah Garland grew up in Louisville. Day after day, she left her mostly Caucasian suburban neighborhood on a school bus taking her to a mostly African-American neighborhood, where she became a student in a racial minority. Her experience long ago played a role in her decision to write “Divided We Fail,” which covers the case that found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. So did the experience of Garland’s grandmother, an Oklahoma teacher who volunteered to join the initial group of Caucasian educators transferred to an all African-American school, where she remained until retirement. Garland relates how her own mother became a social worker splitting time between a mostly African-American school and a mostly Caucasian school in Louisville. Garland’s mother “witnessed firsthand the upheaval and violence that busing wrought in its early years.”
The first book to explore the idea and effect of moral injury on veterans, their families, and their communities
Although veterans make up only 7 percent of the U.S. population, they account for an alarming 20 percent of all suicides. And though treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder has undoubtedly alleviated suffering and allowed many service members returning from combat to transition to civilian life, the suicide rate for veterans under thirty has been increasing. Research by Veterans Administration health professionals and veterans' own experiences now suggest an ancient but unaddressed wound of war may be a factor: moral injury. This deep-seated sense of transgression includes feelings of shame, grief, meaninglessness, and remorse from having violated core moral beliefs.
Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, who both grew up in families deeply affected by war, have been working closely with vets on what moral injury looks like, how vets cope with it, and what can be done to heal the damage inflicted on soldiers' consciences. In Soul Repair, the authors tell the stories of four veterans of wars from Vietnam to our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—Camillo "Mac" Bica, Herman Keizer Jr., Pamela Lightsey, and Camilo Mejía—who reveal their experiences of moral injury from war and how they have learned to live with it. Brock and Lettini also explore its effect on families and communities, and the community processes that have gradually helped soldiers with their moral injuries.
Soul Repair will help veterans, their families, members of their communities, and clergy understand the impact of war on the consciences of healthy people, support the recovery of moral conscience in society, and restore veterans to civilian life. When a society sends people off to war, it must accept responsibility for returning them home to peace.
Click here to read an excerpt of Soul Repair on Beliefnet.com
Click here to read an excerpt of Soul Repair on Scribd.
"Soul Repair is an eloquent, deeply human reminder that war is not just what takes place on a distant battlefield. It is something that casts a shadow over the lives of those who took part for decades afterwards. The stories told by Lettini and Brock are deepened by what the authors reveal about the way the tragic thread of war's aftermath has run through their own families."—Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars
"Those you send to war may come home with souls unclean and hearts drowning in bitter mistrust. But the need for purification after battle has vanished into the blind spot of our culture. We neither offer it to returning veterans, nor remember that we-for whose sake, in whose name, our soldiers went to war-need purification with them. Potent challengers of conventional thinking, rich in heart, those who speak here are voices you will not forget." —Jonathan Shay, MD, PhD, author of Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming
"Very important and deeply moving. I strongly recommend it."—James H. Cone, author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree
"Soul Repair is stunning, just beautiful. Riveting. This is not just a breakthrough book, it is a breakthrough moment, the kind of work that makes history shift and emotions adjust. It restores balance and reclaims life." —Amir Soltani, author of Zahra's Paradise
"Eloquent and unflinching discourse on war's problematic moral core."—Publishers Weekly
Nine years ago, I encountered a man from Ohio on a flight from LaGuardia to the Akron-Canton Airport just as the Iraq War was starting. I wish I could talk to him again.
While sharing armrests but diverging on political leanings, we had a rather heated tête-à-tête about war in Iraq. He was firmly in favor of the war, and, in fact, wanted all the shock and awe the U.S. could deliver. He reasoned that Iraq was linked to al Qaeda and 9/11, and we couldn't let them get away with it.
I was fresh from the massive anti-war marches in New York and questioned the truth of any connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, although President Bush and Vice President Cheney had drawn the association with regularity. My seatmate's whole body leaned over to the right -- literally. "I feel so sorry for you," he said. "How cynical you must be to think that the president would lie."
Now, nine years later, I feel sorry for all of us. If only, like the Beatles' Revolution 9, played backwards by disc jockeys of the day, we could rewind this tune. The false statements and lies that were used by President Bush and his team to drive the nation to war and occupation in Iraq have caused immeasurable heartbreak with thousands upon thousands of lost and damaged lives -- U.S. and allies' personnel, Iraqi civilians and military, international journalists and bystanders. The financial costs to the U.S. have reached $800 billion, according to the American Progress Center's Iraq War Ledger, and the ticker is still going.
Now we know that President Bush and his team lied repeatedly -- investigative researchers at the Center for Public Integrity documented 935 false statements about Iraq in the two years after 9/11 (memorialized in a song by Harry Shearer). More than mere harmless "pants on fire" posturing, these statements violate the federal criminal law.
Now that Bush and Cheney are no longer in office, the law can reckon with them on this and other outrageous incursions, such as wiretapping without warrants and torture. And prosecuting is a mighty good idea if we are to have a robust democracy down the road.
President Bush deceived Congress in two direct ways -- one was a speech; the other was a letter sent to Congress, stipulating that he had met the prerequisites set by Congress in order to launch a war into Iraq.
The speech came on January 28, 2003 : the State of the Union message personally delivered to both houses of Congress. Two-thirds of the speech was devoted to Iraq, and much of what the president said was simply false. It was here that President Bush asserted that Iraq was buying the uranium needed to build a nuclear weapon from a country in Africa. The "sixteen words," later retracted, were known to be untrue. Their deceptiveness was unmasked when former Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote that he had traveled to Africa before the war at the behest of the Bush administration and had reported back that Iraq was not buying uranium. (As told in Fair Game, Wilson's statements spurred a vicious White House reaction targeting his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame.)
President Bush also said that Iraq was procuring aluminum tubes for nuclear weapons, but that matter had already been dashed as wrong by the International Atomic Energy Agency, noted Joby Warrick in theWashington Post. Finally, President Bush said, as my Ohio seatmate parroted, that "Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al Qaeda," but those connections had been debunked immediately after 9/11 by counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke.
Things only got worse in the weeks after the State of the Union. Congress, as the branch of government charged with declaring war, had set stipulations in October 2002 that President Bush had to satisfy before a war could be launched in Iraq. Rather than meet them, the president flouted them. That is, he lied. On March 18, 2003, the president literally signed, sealed and delivered letters stating that a war in Iraqwas a "necessary" action against those who "planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." Not only was war not necessary, Iraq had not aided in the attacks of 9/11.
The president's letter also certified that Iraq posed a "continuing" threat to the U.S. As the president knew, it did not -- it had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and none were in development. The president admitted this to Prime Minister Tony Blair before the war, according to leaked British memos obtained by international lawyer and author Philippe Sands.
Piling on the false statements, the president stated in the letters, untruthfully, that "peaceful means" would not protect the U.S. But weapons inspectors were peacefully in Iraq and, while they had found no WMD, they were willing to continue to look. In addition, the president blew off the UN Security Council andrefused to fulfill the requirement for a critical second resolution before going to war (it would have been vetoed). International lawyers objected vehemently to the rejection of this diplomatic process, and this has become an ongoing scandal in Britain, where the Iraq Inquiry has been taking testimony, much of it damning, on the start of the Iraq war.
Lying to the U.S. Congress is a federal crime under Section 1001 of the federal code, and working in concert with others to lie to Congress is prohibited by conspiracy laws under Section 371. These are not mothballed laws, but ones that are being used regularly to charge others with crimes. Former Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens was criminally charged for making a false statement to Congress in denying any use of steroids. The American League's 2002 Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada pleaded guilty in 2009 to making a false statement to Congress about his knowledge of other players' use of banned substances. Of Tejada, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Durham said, "People have to know that when Congress asks questions, it's serious business. And if you don't tell the truth -- and we can prove you haven't told the truth -- then there will be accountability." Tejada was placed on probation, ordered to do 100 hours of community service and required to pay a fine of $5,000.
Not even that modest level of accountability has been applied to President Bush. Lying about knowledge of steroids is obviously a blip on the scale compared to lying about 9/11, WMD and the need for war. We still have had no clear explanation of why President Bush and his team drove the nation to war and occupation in Iraq; in fact, in his book, Decision Points, the former president said that he had no apologies even though no WMD were found, and he thought the world was better off for the war. He was completely oblivious to the suffering of so many who lost loved ones or were injured, displaced, tortured and permanently harmed.
We need to put any future president on notice -- now -- that lying to Congress about the need for war is serious business. Prosecution under the criminal laws of the United States is the best way to hold President Bush accountable. I'd like to find that man from Ohio; I think he'll agree -- we can't let him "get away with it."
In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced a new special unit to investigate abusive lending and packaging of mortgage risk that led to the housing and financial crisis. These abuses began years ago, under the Bush administration and possibly before. Yet since it's widely felt that impunity for banks and financial institutions hurts our economy and undermines our rule of law, the president's proposal was well received.
In the same way, treating Bush administration officials with impunity for their criminal actions undermines the Constitution and the rule of law, which is why we need a special prosecutor to investigate them. Impunity for the powerful doesn't just breed cynicism and anger in the public; it helps ensure that misconduct, criminal or otherwise, will be repeated. It creates a dual system of justice, corroding democracy itself. The longer we wait, the greater the damage and the higher the price we pay.
Take the Iraq War. The Bush team falsely told Congress that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction threatened us with a "mushroom cloud" and that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in cahoots. They said a military effort would be a "cakewalk," lasting five months and costing $50 billion. In fact it lasted over eight years, cost more than $1 trillion, killed more than four thousand Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and injured tens of thousands of our troops.
If it seems as though there should be a law against this, there is; it just hasn't been enforced.
Conspiracy to defraud Congress is a federal crime; a proper inquiry into whether the Bush administration violated the law is required. So is a comprehensive investigation into the origins of the war, whether or not criminal activity was involved. So far, the U.S. has refused to undertake a full-scale inquiry to ascertain "what the president knew and when he knew it."
Doing so wouldn't be quixotic or backward-looking. Other democracies have acted. Britain and the Netherlands undertook investigations of their involvement in the Iraq War, so why can't we? Britain conducted extensive hearings, calling former Prime Minister Tony Blair, among others, to testify. While the British inquiry panel has not yet issued its conclusions, the Netherlands inquiry found Parliament was deceived and that the Iraq war was contrary to international law.
Lying to Congress and the American people to sell a war is an especially dangerous thing to treat with impunity. Presidents need to know that they will suffer serious consequences if they try it -- that they could realistically be found guilty of a federal crime, or, if the misconduct doesn't rise to that level, that official inquiries and disclosures could shame them forever, damaging their standing and legacy.
Other misdeeds of President Bush and Vice President Cheney also require review: Torture and mistreatment of prisoners violate the anti-torture statue and possibly the watered-down War Crimes Act. Authorizing illegal wiretapping violates the federal anti-wiretapping law. Both would carry a criminal penalty and both must be investigated.
Refusing to review possible criminal misconduct by the Bush administration also cripples American power. It makes it harder for the U.S. to condemn impunity abroad. How effectively can we argue for the rule of law in Syria or Iraq or anywhere else if we don't apply it fully here at home?
And it leaves Americans open to foreign prosecution. If we refuse to act, other countries will investigate and prosecute U.S. officials who may have violated criminal or international law. If their citizens were mistreated in Guantanamo, or torture took place on their soil, they can claim jurisdiction. Right now, Spain is launching an inquiry into top Bush administration lawyers who greenlighted torture.
In the long run, no matter how much the U.S. tries to duck accountability, there will no impunity. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was finally prosecuted for torture and murder, despite 27 years of evading it.
In the U.S., there is no statute of limitations for certain cases of torture, including when death results. One day, there will be prosecutions for the misdeeds of the Bush administration. Then the whole story of torturing and mistreating detainees will be spread out on the table of history for all to see. The question is, how long will we have to live with impunity and how much more damage to American democracy and power will we suffer until that day comes?
“Here at last is a book for everyone who is outraged—or just bewildered—that Bush, Cheney and other top officials escaped prosecution for their many flagrant violations of the law. Will there really be no consequences for the men who lied us into war, compromised our civil liberties, and made "waterboarding" and "Guantanamo" household words? Passionately, clearly and concisely, Elizabeth Holtzman lays out how it happened, how the Bush Administration secretly sought to immunize itself from prosecution, and how we can still hold the perpetrators accountable.” —Katha Pollitt, author of Subject to Debate
“This book makes a vital contribution to addressing the abuses of power of the Bush administration. Unfortunately today, nearly three years after the end of the George W. Bush administration, our nation still labors under the many excesses of that era. Holtzman’s book offers a cogent and elaborate account of that time period and important insights into how we can prevent those from recurring.”—John Conyers Jr., author of The Constitution in Crisis
"Elizabeth Holtzman, who helped bring President Nixon to justice in the Watergate hearings, now takes on the bigger, deeper and even more crucial task of investigating—and exposing—exactly how President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney started an illegal war, subverted civil liberties, human rights and the law itself, and then used the national trauma following 9/11 to cover it up. Start to read Cheating Justice, and you won't be able to put it down."— Gloria Steinem, co-founder Ms. Magazine, writer and feminist activist
Despite the many misdeeds of and abuses of criminal law by the Bush administration, there has been no accountability. Former U.S. representative Elizabeth Holtzman pairs with lawyer and journalist Cynthia L. Cooper to explain why we can't "just move on." They lay bare how the Bush-Cheney administration broke a multitude of laws and betrayed American values, and exactly why and precisely how we, the people, must bring them to justice for their crimes, their cover-ups, and their deceit.
Backed by strong evidence gleaned from "astounding" research, Holtzman and Cooper argue that the Bush administration not only violated various U.S. laws but also changed many laws to escape prosecution for their crimes later. The authors demonstrate how a failure to hold George W. Bush and Dick Cheney accountable would set a dangerous precedent for the future leadership of America.
Bush and Cheney deceived Congress and the people to drive us into a war in Iraq; they claimed the right to wiretap illegally and to eavesdrop on citizens; and they authorized torture, upending laws and breaching international treaty obligations. Yet, both Bush and Cheney are boldly unabashed about their offenses. In his memoir, President Bush makes no apologies for his decision to start a war in Iraq, though no weapons of mass destruction, the ostensible reason for the war, were found there. And once out of office, Bush proudly said, "Damn right," about his approval of waterboarding, a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law. Recent revelations about the extent and depth of their crimes, catalogued in detail here, make the need for accountability imperative.
As a member of Congress and part of the committee that investigated and held hearings on the conduct of President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, Elizabeth Holtzman condemns Bush's adoption of Nixon's claim that he acted in the interest of national security. Using Watergate-era reforms as a model, Holtzman details the steps necessary to undo the damage that the Bush-Cheney administration inflicted and explains how we can establish new protections to block future presidents from similarly abusing the law. Cheating Justice is not only a call to empower the American people, and a firm insistence that the nation's leaders are not above the law; it is also a blueprint by one of America's top legal minds for bringing Bush to justice and protecting the future of our democracy.
Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D. is Founding Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good (www.faithvoices.org). She was a professor for twenty years, directed the Fellowship Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, a prominent advanced research institute, and from 2001-2002, was a Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School Center for Values in Public Life. Her latest book, Saving Paradise, co-authored with Rebecca Parker, was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 2008.
[Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini co-authored this piece. We led the team that organized the Truth Commission on Conscience in War and are members of the leadership team for "The Soul Repair Project."]
By year's end, 40,000 U.S. troops will return from Iraq and, according to President Obama, "America's war in Iraq will be over." But the long nightmare of the Iraq War will not be over for either side of the conflict. The U. S. will see a new surge of suffering, and it will not be over for generations.
The fatalities will not end when the troops come home. Though veterans are only 7% of the population, they are 20% of all U.S. suicides, 6000 a year, an average of 18 a day. Veterans under 30 have record-breaking suicide rates, despite mental health screenings for returning troops, better research on and treatment of PTSD, and increased VA suicide prevention programs. Between 2005 and 2007, the rate among veterans under age 30 rose 26%; in Texas, rates rose 40% between 2006 and 2009.
Recently, VA clinicians proposed another cause for suicide, a wound they call "moral injury," which may aggravate or precipitate PTSD. As Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman notes in Trauma and Recovery, once someone begins to recover enough from PTSD to construct a coherent memory of their trauma, they can reflect on their experience. Then, the moral and religious questions emerge.
Moral injury is a wound in the soul, an inner conflict based on a moral evaluation of having inflicted or witnessed harm. It results from a capacity for both empathy and self-reflection on moral values, which means it happens to healthy human beings. The current wars are especially morally compromising because the lines between innocent civilians and combatants are so blurred. Even women, children, and pets can be dangerous or be used as shields.
Though an action in war may have saved someone's life or felt right at the time, a veteran may come to feel remorse, shame, or guilt for having had to inflict harm that violates his or her core values. Moral injury can result not only from active behavior, such as torturing or killing, but also from passive behavior, such as failing to prevent harm or witnessing a close friend be slain. And it can involve feeling betrayed by persons in authority. Just having to view and handle human remains can sometimes cause it.
In betraying their most deeply held moral beliefs, veterans often cannot forgive themselves and can no longer make sense of the world. They often abandon their faith. Such moral anguish is not PTSD, not a temporary medical or psychiatric disorder to be "treated," but a lifelong spiritual and moral struggle to live honestly, courageously, and compassionately with memories of war. It can take a long time to reconstruct a world of meaning in which it is possible to see how one's life matters to others.
The term moral injury names a deep and old dilemma of war. It may be a new clinical concept, but the moral anguish of warriors defines much literature about war from ancient times, such as the Greek Iliad, Indian Bhagavad-Gita, and the Hebrew prophets in the Bible, to the present, in memoirs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, secular clinical approaches to such feelings usually treat them as neuroses that inhibit individual self-actualization and interfere with authentic urges and feelings. Veterans are, therefore, often misunderstood and struggle with moral conscience, loss of meaning, and spiritual despair in isolation.
In Packing Inferno: the Unmaking of a Marine, Tyler E. Boudreau, a former Marine Captain and veteran of Iraq, reflects on the apparent inability of societies to learn about the torture war inflicts on the souls of veterans, despite the many witnesses in works of art and history. He concludes that societies have understood it only as much as they really wanted to learn about it and its deeper meaning. For instance, after World War I, the prescribed process of reintegration silenced and pathologized the moral suffering of veterans, treating "shell shock" as an individual inability to put war behind.
Not everyone was so unable or unwilling to understand, Tyler observes. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf portrayed the suicidal anguish of Septimus Smith as if she were a veteran herself. Tyler notes:
She was just a writer. That tells me, if nothing else, that the information was there. The capacity to know existed. It wasn't beyond human understanding. They weren't too primitive. If Virginia Woolf knew about combat stress, everybody else could have known, too. They did not know because they didn't want to know.
Still, not even Tyler could face telling the truth about war. After he left the Corps, he worked as a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO), which required him to call the parents of wounded Marines. He could not bring himself to call soldiers' families and report honestly that, among the wounds they suffered, "Your boy is coming home with a broken heart." Never once was he able to say it, and he regrets it still that he did not.
We have to support veterans in telling the truths of war. Though the term moral injury is new among VA clinicians, the concepts underlying it ring true to many spiritual and religious people. We know that the loss of faith and meaning, the sense of isolation, and the self-condemnation characteristic of moral injury cannot be repaired by short-term therapies. While around 90% of the public claim a spiritual affiliation, only around 40% of clinicians claim one. VA psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who received a MacArthur "genius" award for his work on PTSD, noted in 2002,
Medical-psychological therapies...are not, and should not be, the only therapies available for moral pain. Religious and cultural therapies are not only possible, but may well be superior to what mental health professionals conventionally offer.
Rev. Dr. Kent Drescher, who works with veterans, notes that the more judgmental and punitive a veteran's idea of God and religious authority, the more difficult is the recovery from moral injury. Veterans who grieve the losses of war and seek ways to make amends for the harm they have done need trusted places to have conversations about meaning and ethics with others who understand such issues. They need the company of others who understand the lifelong struggle to be their best selves after they have violated their deepest moral values. Recovery includes the restoration of trust in a power strong enough to carry the weight of all inner anguish and honest prayers, and, for many, it comes through trusting in a benevolent spiritual power who is deeply moved by injustice, violence, and human suffering.
Religious professionals are familiar with the personal transformations that occur in worship and community practices when they are repeated over time. Such activities embed the moral values of the community in the whole person and support their being lived out. More veterans seek counsel from clergy than from clinicians, and the clergy they need are those willing to offer a benevolent and caring presence. In addition to veterans who seek out clergy themselves, those in clinical treatment who ask moral questions and express grief, contrition, and shame are usually referred to chaplains because the formal training of mental health professionals does not include theology, discussions of faith, or philosophical questions about evil.
Veterans who do not identify as either spiritual or religious also need communities where they can explore their moral struggles and address their moral injury. More such spaces need to be created, and more civilians need to be trained in understanding the moral injury of war. Whether support for moral injury in veterans occurs in religious or secular spaces, we civilians must understand that we are not only to serve as witnesses of veterans' struggles, but we must also engage in our own ethical questioning in relation to war.
Moral injury is not only about "them;" it is also about "us." In his powerful testimony at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War, Tyler Boudreau challenged the members of the audience to remember that they will never be able to speak the truth about war until they can speak the truth about themselves. Moral injury is an issue for civilians, not just veterans. Regardless of our personal positions on a war, a society that engaged in warfare must come to terms with its responsibilities for its effects and with its own moral injury.
The hidden wounds of war do not heal when left unattended; instead, they may fester for years in depression, homelessness, addiction, and a half-lived existence finished by suicide, which doesn't end the suffering for those who knew and loved the one who died. Unattended, moral injury will linger for generations. Understanding moral injury is a necessary first step in a much longer societal healing process. We should begin that process today.
In celebration of the MLK Memorial Dedication, we are also giving away books by Dr. King. Enter for your chance to win hardcover editions of recent titles released by Beacon Press: Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Why We Can't Wait, The Trumpet of Conscience, "All Labor Has Dignity," and MLK: In Word and Image. One grand prize winner will receive ALL SIX BOOKS. Five winners will receive one book of their choice. For more information and to enter, see the Beacon Press website.
Today's excerpt is from All Labor Has Dignity. People forget that Dr. King was every bit as committed to economic justice as he was to ending racial segregation. He fought throughout his life to connect the labor and civil rights movements, envisioning them as twin pillars for social reform. As we struggle with massive unemployment, a staggering racial wealth gap, and the near collapse of a financial system that puts profits before people, King's prophetic writings and speeches underscore his relevance for today. They help us imagine King anew: as a human rights leader whose commitment to unions and an end to poverty was a crucial part of his civil rights agenda.
“It seems to me that what the Pentagon Papers really demonstrated 40 years ago was the price of that practice,” he said. “Which is that letting a small group of men in secret in the executive branch make these decisions — initiate them secretly, carry them out secretly and manipulate Congress, and lie to Congress and the public as to why they’re doing it and what they’re doing — is a recipe for, a guarantee of Vietnams and Iraqs and Libyas, and in general foolish, reckless, dangerous policies.” -- Daniel Ellsberg in the New York Times, June 8, 2011
Rev. Robert N. West, UUA President, and Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) hold a press conference on Nov. 5, 1971 concerning Beacon Press' publication of "The Pentagon Papers" and ongoing harassment of the UUA by the FBI. Photo courtesy Robert N. West.
Forty years ago this month, the New York Times began publishing excerpts from what has been popularly referred to as "The Pentagon Papers," and officially known as "the Report of the O.S.D. Vietnam Task Force." The papers, which were smuggled out of the RAND corporation by Daniel Ellsberg, were published a few months later by Beacon Press as the Senator Gravel Edition of The Pentagon Papers: The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking in Vietnam. The story of their publication is a gripping tale, one that involved heroic stands by Ellsberg, Senator Mike Gravel, Beacon Press director Gobin Stair, and UUA President Robert West against immense pressure from the Nixon administration.
It has taken four decades for the government to officially release the papers. We aren't worried here about the new, "official" publication affecting sales: the five volumes-- a whopping 7,000 pages-- have long been out of print, and were never a commercial "success." In fact the cost of producing the books combined with the associated legal fees was a huge financial burden for the press. Loans from the Unitarian Universalist Association and a significant donation from the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, combined with smaller donations from supporters and from other publishing houses (led by a $2,500 donation from Random House), helped allay the enormous expense. But the reasons for publishing the papers were never financial:
In 2002, during an interview with Susan Wilson in preparation for Beacon’s 150th anniversary, Stair referred to The Pentagon Papers as “a test of our purpose,” before concluding, “We were publishing what needed to be published." (From "Beacon Press and the Pentagon Papers" by Allison Trzop)
We aren't sure why it took forty years for the government to declassify these papers, but we look back at that moment in the history of Beacon Press with great pride. Subpoenas, FBI investigations, and even calls from President Nixon himself deterred neither Beacon Press nor the Unitarian Universalist Association from doing what was right, and it is our goal today to function by the same principles that guided those brave decisions.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Yesterday, we posted the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Today, we share the responses of Jay Michaelson, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, and Christopher Stedman.
Jay Michaelson is the author of the forthcoming book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. He is the founding director of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews and their allies. In 2009, Michaelson was included on the "Forward 50" list of the fifty most influential Jewish leaders in America.
The Jewish tradition is crystal clear that one is never to celebrate the downfall of one's enemies, even though the human tendency is to do so. We see this pattern again and again.
For example, Proverbs 24:17 reads, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Note that Proverbs 11:10 says that, “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy," but that does not mean there should be such shouts. The two verses together suggest that while it is human nature to rejoice when our enemy suffers, we are called upon to do better.
Another example is at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. At the time, the Children of Israel sang the famous Song of the Sea, whose lyrics explicitly rejoice in the death of the Egyptians (Exodus 15:4). But in The Talmud (Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b), a story is told that God rebukes the angels for singing along. “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing," God says. Once again: it is human nature to rejoice, but we are called upon to do better.
Jews around the world recently concluded the Passover Seder. This entire ritual celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and part of that story is indeed the demise of the Egyptians. Yet when the ten plagues are recounted, the tradition is to spill a drop of wine for each one. Our joy is incomplete when others suffer.
Yes, it is human to fist-pump in the air when a murderer like Osama Bin Ladin is killed. But such vulgar displays of our basest emotions is precisely what religion is meant to curb.
Author photo by Sebastian Collett.
The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and is the subject of the documentary film, "Raw Faith." She is the author of several books, and edited four volumes for Beacon Press, including Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond.
I find myself deeply disturbed by the death and collective responses to the death of Osama bin Laden. When I say "disturbed," I don't mean merely intellectually, but psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. I have found myself drained of energy, withdrawn. And I've had to ask myself why. Shouldn't I be happy, gratified that a monster of evil is now gone from the face of the earth? I note the celebrating crowds on television, in New York and Washington, DC, and understand their very human response, but I'm not there.
I think my disturbance comes from having to contend with conflicting values that all have their measure of truth--and yet none has the whole truth. And so I'm trying to reconcile these disparate values.
With the rest of the nation, I have witnessed the overwhelming grief of the families of the 9/11 victims. I have seen the pictures of the dead, read their stories. I have heard the goodbye messages of spouses, the children left without a father, the way victims jumped to their deaths, some holding the hand of a friend. I understand why the survivors want justice, and whatever closure they can find, and so they welcome the news of bin Laden's death.
I also understand the significance for our nation, in bin Laden's death. He has been not only the perpetrator of much suffering and death, but he had become the symbol of our impotence in failing to rid the world of terrorism. He has been thumbing his nose at us for ten years, making us fear what might happen next. The President's main job is to protect his people, and so Obama had to pursue Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Which brings me to the next point. I have little doubt that the Seals were ordered to kill Bin Laden, whether or not he was armed, whether or not he surrendered. Taking bin Laden prisoner would have invited an international media circus for a trial that might have lasted years--and further provoked all kinds of national and international conflict. We weren't going to let that happen. He was going to be killed and then buried at sea. He was shot first in the chest, I would guess, as would be the normative first shot, and then shot in the head, to assure the death. I also understand the necessity of this decision, and if in fact I am correct, I do not fault Obama for proceeding in this way.
On the other hand, I am a minister and a wife and a mother. I abhor violence. In particular, gun violence disturbs me, for I have personally lost family members to gun violence, as have so many others in our gun-crazy country.
And then I imagine the scene in the compound that night. I imagine the fear that everyone in that compound must have felt as the Seals attacked. I expect Osama bin Laden knew he was going to die. One of his wives watched him shot to death, another identified the body. A number of his children were present in compound. What did the wives and children experience?
Still another dimension to this whole scene is that of the warriors. The Seals carried out what appears to have been an almost flawless plan in dangerous circumstances: their courage and skill are admired by all. And yet the man who killed bin Laden and whoever killed the three others will have to live with the memory of that night: the fear in the eyes of those who were killed or wounded, the gaping wounds, the blood pouring out--all this, and the knowledge that they they took a human life. This is what we ask of our warriors. To do these horrific deeds for us. We don't want to see the pictures. Obama spared us from that.
So what it comes down to, for me, is this: the terrible grayness of morality. The evil that we're all drawn into. The violence that is a part of our lives. The fallenness of us all. There are no good guys and bad guys, except in relative terms. We can only try to see as clearly as we can and act with as much integrity as we can. The Kingdom of God is not as yet at hand. Heaven help us.
Christopher Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is at work on a memoir to be published by Beacon Press.
Last Sunday night, I was preparing to go to bed early for the first time in months when I made the mistake of checking Twitter. I’m no longer a Christian so I do not begin and end each day in prayer like I once did, and it’s probably fair to say that Twitter has become a replacement ritual.
And there it was: Osama bin Laden had been located. Osama bin Laden had been captured. Osama bin Laden had been killed.
My twitter feed erupted with emotions. Cheers, jeers; even tears. But mostly cheers.
I understand the impulse to celebrate such news, but the tenor of some of what I’ve heard and seen troubles me in the same way I was bothered by those burning American flags in the Middle East nearly ten years ago. As a Humanist, I struggle to understand the “eye for an eye” mentality. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” Today I worry about what America is becoming.
In times of trouble, I often reflect on the unifying words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” he wrote. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
I am concerned when I see people celebrating death; when I hear word that thousands of my fellow Bostonians flocked to Boston Commons Sunday night for what was essentially a pep rally. Again, I understand the desire to mark this occasion, but I wish we could muster the same enthusiasm to celebrate the importance of life – to unite in the face of domestic intolerance, not just that which lurks in evil lairs overseas.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Today, we have the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Tomorrow, we will post responses from Rev. Marilyn Sewell, Christopher Stedman, and Jay Michaelson. (UPDATE: read part 2 here.)
I read about the assassination of Osama bin Laden as a Muslim with a strong Niebhurian streak. This is to say: we have to be clear-eyed in the recognition of evil, we have to put a stop to it if we have the ability and we have to seek peace in multiple creative ways. Niebhur believed this with regards to America's battle against Nazism, the Prophet did this with regards to the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, who were intent on destroying the fledgling Muslim community.
As has been said about Bonhoeffer, the Christian pacifist who plotted to assassinate Hitler: when you see a crazy man driving a car into a group of children, you have to stop the man.
America did that when it came to Hitler, Milosovic, and now bin Laden. In this case, it happened with targeted precision such that very few others perished in the actual operation. There is little doubt there will be more life (meaning, literally, fewer people being killed) in the future as result of this death.
I love my country, I love my flag, and I find absolutely nothing in the teachings of Jesus that supports the assassination of the terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden had, by all accounts, moved to the periphery, and we've been mesmerized by the developments in our Arab spring, where countless citizens were taking to the streets in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, to say that bin Laden was precisely the kind of leader they don't want.
And then we shot him.
Jesus talked about vengeance when He tweaked the notion of taking an eye for an eye. He told followers to match their enemies' evil with prayer and love. The most unthinkable evil (bin Laden) calls us to love.
And that's immeasurably hard, according respect to someone we just don't respect, giving fairness and decency to someone who's responsible for the death of so many.
But that, nevertheless, is the rule. I think those crowds celebrating bin Laden's death outside the White House that night were clinging to the idea that his death would somehow balance the scales. It hasn't and it won't. Killing -- and burying him at sea -- stole our opportunity to bring him to trial, and let him defend himself -- with complete transparency in our judicial system, not a military tribunal. It robbed from us an opportunity to reaffirm that these are our values -- and to remind the world that we are bigger than a terrorist act. By treating bin Laden far better than he ever thought to treat those he killed on 9/11, we could have told the world that even our most despised enemy can expect fairness and decency. We could have told everyone that we are bigger than that.
Or, rather, I wish we were.
Author photo by Marc Yves Regis.
Dan McKanan is the author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. He is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.
The tenets of Unitarian Universalism do not require me to respond in any specific way to the death of an enemy. Instead, Unitarian Universalism—as would be the case for most other faiths—offers me a rich array of resources for developing an authentic individual response. These resources include the Unitarian Universalist Principles—which are commonly affirmed by Unitarian Universalist congregations but not doctrinally binding on individual Unitarian Universalists—as well as the collective stories of those who have preceded us in the faith.
Two of the Principles shape my own response to the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as the deaths of enemies in general. The first principle, which affirms “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” suggests that my response to the killing of an enemy should be one of prophetic protest. “Not in my name!” I say to all those who celebrate bin Laden’s death as retribution for the murders he perpetrated on September 11. If all people, those who kill and those who are killed, have inherent dignity, then mourning and reconciliation are better responses to violence than retaliation.
The question, of course, is not specifically about the killing of enemies but more broadly about the death of enemies. What would my response be if bin Laden had died of natural causes at the end of a long life? In that case, I think, the appropriate response would be simple mourning. Indeed, in one sense the death of an enemy is more an occasion for lamentation than the death of a beloved grandparent. My thinking here is shaped by the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of existence.” If all life is interwoven, then every enmity is a rip in the shared web—and the death of an enemy means we have lost our best opportunity to weave the broken threads back together. We often use the phrase “celebration of life” to describe the funerals of our friends, and when those friends have lived full lives those funerals often have a truly celebratory feel. That is as it should be. But even if bin Laden had lived to be a hundred, his death would have been an occasion for sackcloth and ashes if he had remained unrepentant, and thus unreconciled with all those he harmed.
In reaching beyond the UU principles toward the shared stories of faith, I turn especially toward the story of Jesus, because I identify as a UU Christian, just as other Unitarian Universalists may claim Jewish, Buddhist, pagan, or humanist identities. Like other Christians, I find in Jesus’ story reason to hope that death does not have the last word. Some would express this hope in dogmatic claims about resurrection and eternal life; I prefer to speak more tentatively about the experiences of Jesus and his friends. In the face of the death-dealing powers of empire, Jesus lived a full, rich life. Even after the empire killed him, his friends experienced him as still alive in their circle. When they gathered to break bread and tell stories, they felt he was there with them. Curiously, Christians have seldom reflected on what this experience might teach us about the death of our enemies.
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect that some of Osama bin Laden’s disciples and admirers are currently having an experience not unlike that of Jesus’ disciples between Easter and Pentecost. In the midst of their mourning, they may have felt bin Laden’s spirit still moving among them, still inspiring fervent love for their faith and fervent hate for those of us they regard as enemies. Many of us may regard this analogy between bin Laden and Jesus as monstrous. But perhaps what remains alive of bin Laden’s spirit is not so much his hate as his fervent faith. In his own life, that fervor was terribly twisted; as it is carried by his followers, it still has the potential to be untwisted. If death does not have the last word, our mourning of bin Laden’s death should lead us to redoubled efforts to reconcile with his friends.
The people of the United States, of course, have ample opportunities to pursue such reconciliation. Many of bin Laden’s most devoted followers remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. (Many who never had much to do with him are also held there, but here I want to focus on those who are truly enemies—those who committed horrible violence out of twisted love for bin Laden or for Islam.) For ten years we have treated these traumatized and idealistic young people as if they were not part of the interdependent web, as if their suffering could not hurt us, as if they had no gifts to share with the world. Bin Laden’s death can be a time for us to open our ears to their voices and our hearts to their truth. I am not suggesting that we “forgive” them without talking to them, but simply that we start treating them as human beings rather than enemy combatants. Some of them may be more than ready for reconciliation. Others may not—but even for those, a bit of kindness may open up a long path toward repentance.
As I write these words, I am conscious that many of us may feel more visceral enmity toward those who have harmed us personally, or even toward our political rivals, than we do toward bin Laden. It is easy for me to preach about what the U.S. should do in Guantanamo; much harder to pursue genuine reconciliation with my own most intimate enemies. When I mourn bin Laden’s death, I mourn those enmities as well. And, since all life is interwoven, it is likely that reconciliation with those intimate enemies will create more chances for reconciliation with bin Laden and his friends.
Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and CNN. He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. This post originally appeared on his blog The Faith Divide at the Washington Post.
As I listened to President Obama explain the chain of events that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Eric Greitens. Eric’s doctorate at Oxford was on the effects of war on children. Imagine my surprise when he told me that he was training to be a Navy Seal.
“But you know how terrible war is, you have been with the orphaned children,” I sputtered. “How can you participate in it?”
“It is guys with guns that end wars, Eboo,” he told me.
Eric deployed four times over the last ten years, earning a bronze star and a purple heart. One of his missions was to command a Navy Seal cell that targeted al Qaeda. It was likely some of Eric’s buddies - guys he trained with, maybe guys he trained - that got bin Laden.
Eric titled his book,The Heart and the Fist, for a reason. He knows as well as anyone that you may well need the fist to crush evil but you need the heart to radiate good. The fist is fine for defeating enemies, but the heart is what builds societies.
That’s what I liked about Obama’s speech yesterday. He was very clearly our commander in chief - recounting how he told C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to make the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden his top priority, getting frequent briefings on the relevant intelligence and giving the final order that authorized the fatal mission. His demeanor was focused and serious. ‘I did what had to be done,’ he seemed to be saying.
Vanquishing evil is necessary but insufficient.
Obama seemed most human to me, most American, most presidential, when he spoke of life, not death. He recalled America in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a nation shocked and grieving, a country focused more on community than revenge:
“On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.”
That line brought to mind two key moments. The first involves George Bush. A lot of Americans think of the fist when they think of the post-9/11 George Bush. But I think at least as defining as his roar at Ground Zero and his boasting of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters was his visit to an Islamic Center six days after 9/11. There, he spoke movingly not only of Islam being a peaceful faith but about how Muslim women with headscarves ought to feel safe in this country:
“I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.”
He went on to make it clear whose side he was on, which America he hoped to build.
“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”
The second moment took place nearly a year later, on September 25, 2002 - Bruce Springsteen at the United Center. During the climax of “The Rising,” as Springsteen was singing - Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life), Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life) - I saw out of the corner of my eye a young woman in a Muslim headscarf, eyes closed, hands raised.
Woody Guthrie had a message scrawled on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”
Sometimes you need the aid of guns in that mission. But when we think of who we want to be, not just what we need to destroy, American guns are second to American guitars.
The war in Sri Lanka has been over for almost two years. I've been back to the island twice in that time. My most recent trip took me up to Trincomalee on the northeast coast this past December where I was doing some volunteer work at a home for girls. I also wanted to see how the city and its people were putting the pieces of their lives back together again since war's end. Government propaganda aside, no one on this island believes that this is going to be an easy process. Ethnic distrust and hatreds between the Tamils and the Sinhalese; 300,000 civilians forced into IDP camps after the war; families separated from one another; civilians used as human shields in the last days of the conflict-- these are memories that are not dislodged easily.
This was my second trip to Trincomalee. My son and I had been there during a short-lived cease fire in 2002 and had witnessed a city nailed shut by war. I remember how silent it was. This December, Trinco, as it is known here, had shaken off war's stupor and come to life again. The sounds of buses, trishaws, and cars competing for one square lane in the center of town told me that there was petrol again. I was plunged into a shopper's paradise. Plastic Santas, Christmas tree ornaments, and toys all hung outside the Muslim shops, and the downtown area was marching to the beat of shoppers and bala music. Religion wasn't a factor here. Christmas was an excuse to celebrate. For Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims, it was a time to eat, dress up, give gifts, and visit with family and friends. People were cleaning their houses and cooking in preparation for the festivities.
Along with everyone else in Trinco, I went down to the open air market in the center of town and bought vegetables and curry leaves. But mainly what I bought were mangoes. Lots of them. Jaffna mangoes to be precise. They are known as karatacolomban . I knew about them because for the better part of 20 plus years, no one south of the war zone could get hold of them. Roads were closed. Trains had stopped. Commerce between north and south had come to a standstill. Someone had told me "You'll know when the war is over when the Jaffna mangoes appear again."
And they had!
I made a little fist of victory with my hand, stuffed them into my straw basket, and headed back to the orphanage. In my other bag I had a kid's badminton set, a couple of stuffed animal, two puzzles, some Bombay sweets, and lots of hair clips.
Make no mistake. War's residue remains part of the daily fabric of life in the northern part of this island. And it will be that way for years, if the present is any barometer. The final bloodbath in this civil war took place in Mullaittivu, less that 100 kilometers north of Trinco. Fishermen displaced from their homes in the last weeks of the conflict still wait in Trinco to be allowed to return to their villages. Half an hour inland sit Sinhalese villages that were overrun by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). The villagers are in the process of moving back to their land that was razed and burned, their homes destroyed. Many are still trying to find family members from whom they were separated in the final weeks of the conflict. Others, newly released from the IDP camps, come home to houses with no people in them, or to no home at all. The wounded wait for the government to deliver on its promises of rehabilitation. Tamil fruit sellers in town worry that the Sinhalese have retained control over the market. And almost two years after war's end, roads that scream for repair are still lined with Sri Lankan Military, young Sinhalese soldiers in bunkers bearing rifles. The aftereffects of war linger with stunning tenacity.
There is also the small matter of several very large waves that destroyed 900 lives on Dec. 26, 2004. This December, on the day after Christmas and under a driving rain, Trincomalee stopped and remembered. The Buddhist temples held special ceremonies, the Hindu kovils special poojas. We took the girls from the orphanage out onto the beach and organized an impromptu ceremony of our own. From there we went inside and lit candles in memory of the victims. I looked at the girls standing there. Some were too young to have much of a memory of what had happened. Others had lost family members that day, a moment in time that explained why they were standing in front of me now.
Part of recovery from war's trauma, from any trauma, is the process of re-finding the life and the person you were before the trauma. This past Christmas, the people in Trincomalee did just that. The women got out their saris, wrapped themselves in elegance and set off bearing fruits and cake to see friends and relatives. A friend went to buy a new shirt. We had cake and chicken at the orphanage, swam at the beach and dove between each other's legs. It was all part of the process.
There is much still to do on this small island of twenty one million people. Part of that long, slow journey towards recovery begins with a cake, a pot of something boiling on the stove, a new shirt and a bala dance. Sometimes the rest can wait for another day.
"You should not have to be subjected to being raped or sexually assaulted because you volunteered to serve this nation." -- Susan L. Burke, lead lawyer in a case filed this week against the Department of Defense.
On Tuesday, two men and fifteen women filed a class action lawsuit against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and current Secretary Robert Gates, claiming that the Pentagon leadership failed to protect servicemembers against sexual assault. We asked Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, about her book, which chronicles the lives of several women serving in the military, and the accusations in the case.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I was unhappy about the Iraq War from the start, but I wanted to hear what the soldiers who had actually been fighting it thought. Then I met my first woman soldier, and she told me, "There are only three things the guys let you be if you're a girl in the military: a bitch, a 'ho, or a dyke." She also told me that no one believed that she'd served in a war because she's a woman. Then I discovered that more women were fighting, being wounded and dying in the Iraq War than all US wars put together since World War Two. All that made me know I had to write about women soldiers.
How long did it take, and how many people did you end up interviewing?
I interviewed for about three years. I interviewed over 40 women who'd served in Iraq, as well as some who had served in Afghanistan and earlier wars. I also talked to male soldiers. Of all these people, I picked five women to spend a lot of time with, visiting their homes, seeing them several times, talking to them for many hours, both in person and on the phone.
What surprised you in the course of your research and interviewing?
I never expected to hear so many stories of the women being relentlessly harassed, sexually assaulted and raped by their own comrades – while they were training or actually at war. I was also surprised by how engaged in ground combat these women were, despite the Pentagon's ban against women doing this job. They were raiders and gunners and guards. They were fighting.
Finally, I was surprised by how much I liked and sympathized with the women, and how touched I was by the idealism of the young.
A play was produced as a direct result of your book. How did that come about, and what was it like for you to see your book come alive?
I wrote the play myself, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Then, through sheer luck, I found a director (William Electric Black) who had a theater ready to go. He suggested I expand the play, and he figured out how to stage it.
It was humbling to see the words come alive on the stage, but as the play was in the words of the real soldiers I had interviewed, it was also odd. As I watched the actors perform, I could see the actors, the real soldiers behind them like ghosts, and hear the words in my head as I had written them down – all at once. I also learned how many fewer words you need when a human being adds expression and gestures to them. I learned how much I could cut!
What kind of effect has the book and play had as far as you can tell?
The effects have been gratifying, and numerous.
Top members of the Defense Department have read the book and implemented some of the changes I suggested.
I have been invited to testify to Congress twice on behalf of women soldiers.(Read testimony from May 2010 here.)
Many articles have been written about the book and its subject, here and abroad. (The book is out in Italy now.)
And a lawyer named Susan Burke came to see the play, and subsequently read the book, and then she contacted me and we met. She said she was inspired by the soldiers' stories to start a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of military women who have been sexually assaulted while serving. That suit is now a reality.
I have also received dozens of emails thanking me and the soldiers -- and the actors -- for bringing this great injustice to light.
Last, but not least, the real soldiers came to see themselves portrayed in the play, and it was a moving experience for them, the actors and the audience alike.
The class action lawsuit you mentioned accuses the Department of Defense of allowing a military culture that fails to prevent rape and sexual assault, and of mishandling cases that were brought to its attention. The case claims that the Pentagon violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Can you explain the claims in the case? Do you think that the leadership has failed to protect service members?
This case came about for several reasons. Too many female servicemembers have reported rapes and assaults only to be countercharged with threat of court martial to keep them quiet. Military culture fosters and encourages a blame-the-victim attitude that intimidates women out of telling anyone about sexual persecution. And among those cases that are brought the trial, the vast majority are either dismissed, or result in non-judicial and absurdly light punishments for the perpetrators. The details are in the book, but, in short, the command from the top down has done little to either prevent or punish the sexual harassment and assault of its female servicemembers, and this has been the case since women were first allowed into the military over 100 years ago.
During the Civil War, the Press of the American Unitarian Association—the fledging publishing house founded in 1854 that grew into Beacon Press—published a tract called A Soldier's Companion.
This handy booklet, intended to supply Union soldiers with solace and inspiration, included hymns, anthems, poems, and practical instructions. Some 57,000 were distributed, free of charge, during the course of the war.
Amid songs and hymns about freedom and temperance were allusions linking the American Revolution—the patriotic fight for independence from England—with freedom for all mankind. References to abolition and the dreaded fugitive slave laws were scattered throughout the booklet. The poem “Wipe out, O God! The Nation’s Sin,” for example, warned, “There is no liberty for them / Who make their brethren slave.” Songs like “Arouse, New England Sons” invoked,“Free! While the very homes you’ve made / Beside your fathers’ graves/ Are pillaged, if ye dare to aid / The panting, flying slave?” Luminaries such as Harriet Beecher Stowe altered classics to fit the cause; her lyrics to “America, the Beautiful” included the lines “Let Freedom’s banner wave / Till there be not a slave.” A Soldier’s Companion also contained practical advice to men in the field. Soldiers were warned, for example, to “sleep as much as you can,” avoid “all use of ardent spirits,” and “wear flannel all over in all weathers.” (From A Brief History of Beacon Press by Susan Wilson.)
In the years since, many Beacon Press books have examined the issues faced by soldiers at war and upon their return home.
During the course of the war in Iraq, many veterans have become increasingly disillusioned, and increasingly vocal. Many began seeing the war as damaging for the country, and especially for the men and women fighting overseas. In My River Home, Marcus Eriksen, a veteran of the Gulf War, charts his personal shift from proud Marine to self-destructive veteran to engaged activist protesting the injustices of the Iraq War with Veterans for Peace. Eriksen made sense of this transition only after a fascinating adventure traveling through the heart of America, down the entire length of the great Mississippi River on a homemade raft.
More American women have fought and died in Iraq than in any war since World War Two, yet as soldiers they are still painfully alone. In Iraq, only one in ten troops is a woman, and she often serves in a unit with few other women or none at all. This isolation, along with the military's deep-seated hostility toward women, causes problems that many female soldiers find as hard to cope with as war itself: degradation, sexual persecution by their comrades, and loneliness, instead of the camaraderie that every soldier depends on for comfort and survival. As one female soldier said, "I ended up waging my own war against an enemy dressed in the same uniform as mine."
In The Lonely Soldier, Benedict tells the stories of five women who fought in Iraq between 2003 and 2006. She follows them from their childhoods to their enlistments, then takes them through their training, to war and home again, all the while setting the war's events in context.
Berkeley peace activist Sophia Raday never imagined she would fall in love with an Oakland police officer and major in the Army Reserve, much less marry one. Barrett is loving and loyal, but in his world a threat lies around every corner, and so he asks Sophia to stay in Condition Yellow—always aware that her life may be in danger soon. Sophia's heart-wrenching yet humorous narrative about coming to a new understanding of peace and partnership gives hope for healing the deep divisions in our country, from the front lines of a most unusual union.
As the planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Aidan Delgado was in the process of enlisting in the U.S. Army Reserve. Two years later, he arrived in Iraq with the 320th Military Police Company. As he witnessed firsthand the brutality of the occupation and the abuse of unarmed Iraqis, Delgado came to believe that war was immoral and ran counter to his Buddhist principles. He turned in his weapon and began the long process of securing conscientious objector status. His book is urgent reading for anyone who cares about American ideals overseas, and for all those who understand why peace is patriotic.
In the early 1970s, Penny Coleman married Daniel, a young Vietnam veteran and fellow photographer. Soon, Daniel became deeply troubled, falling victim to multiple addictions and becoming strangely insecure. He suffered from what we now call posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After Coleman left him, he committed suicide.
Struggling to understand Daniel's experience, Coleman began investigating the history of PTSD; she found clear cases of the disorder as far back as the Civil War. In Flashback, Coleman deftly weaves psychology and military, political, oral, and cultural history to trace the experience of PTSD in the military up through the Vietnam War. She then focuses on Vietnam to show why this war in particular led to such a high number of PTSD cases, many of which ended tragically in suicide. Like the soldiers listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, these men are casualties of war.
With record numbers of American soldiers returning from the Middle East already suffering from PTSD, Flashback provides a necessary lesson on the real tragedy of battle for soldiers and their families, something that continues long after the war ends.
On the wall in my study is an index card with a quote on it from Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. "We are communal histories, communal books," it says. I carry those sentiments into the classroom with me five times a week at the university where I teach, as I try to communicate to my students why stories matter, why books matter, and why, by God, we should all read. Sometimes I am so busy proselytizing the virtues of literature that I forget to look inside and ask myself "Why does my own writing matter?" I write because I love writing and because I think it changes lives—sometimes in ways that we can't possibly anticipate. I suppose our books are, in this sense, like our children. We send them into the world, and they do things that we never intended them to do, things that are sometimes confounding, often improbable and even heart stopping. They make their way in the world totally independent of us. Maybe that is ultimately what a book launch is all about.
Having said this, I've also had moments of real doubt over the past four years about whether writing has the power to change anything. I have spent the past eight years of my life writing about Sri Lanka, a country that has been at war with itself for thirty plus years. I lived there with my son in 2001-2002 and then returned after the 2004 tsunami. In the fall of 2005, a cease-fire hung in the balance, and it became possible finally to get up to the Tamil north. I felt that I really needed the Tamil perspective on this war for the book I was writing. In Jaffna I stayed in a makeshift guest house where I was the lone guest on a street where every house had either been destroyed or abandoned. I spent my days talking to students, to people who were part of demining operations, to people whose children had been forcibly recruited by the Tamil Tigers, and to people who had suffered war loss compounded by tsunami loss. And at night I came back to the guest house and wrote about them. I struggled with what I was doing up there as a writer. The people in Jaffna didn't need me sitting at my computer; they needed aid and they needed for this war to be over, the very things I could not give them. Was I using these people, I wondered, as nothing more than material for my book?
With the war in Afghanistan occupying the news, Congress, and President Obama, we offer this dispatch from J. Malcolm Garcia, author of The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul. Garcia has worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star and a regular contributor to the Virginia Quarterly Review. His travel essays have appeared in Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Non-Required Reading.
In August, I returned to Afghanistan for the seventh time since Sept. 11, 2001, to cover the presidential election in which 41 candidates were vying for the top post. When I arrived it was a lovely 100 plus degrees in Kabul, and the traffic was worse than ever. This is what happens when a city built to house 1.5 million people takes on 3 million. Unless it was absolutely necessary to take an automobile, I walked with my translator everywhere I went. It could take up to three hours to drive what was at most a 30 minute trip just two years ago.
I could not go alone anywhere outside Kabul. Wardak, Logar and Ghazni provinces, minutes to a few hours outside the city, are now under Taliban control. So all the traffic and reconstruction activity in Kabul was weird; sort of an illusion of security and progress that in reality doesn't exist at all.
As former Liberian President Charles Taylor defends himself against charges of war crimes in Sierra Leone, you should read Philip C. Winslow's post about that's country's brutal civil war here. Winslow wrote the piece after three commanders in that war were found guilty on multiple counts of war crimes.
Angola's decades-long terror often was called “the worst war in the world.” The civil war left as many as 1.5 million people dead and millions more maimed, orphaned and homeless. The description never seemed overstated.
Following a bloody struggle that ended with independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola plunged into a Cold War-fueled regional conflict that eclipsed all that had gone before. The Marxist government of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) was backed by the Soviet Union, with Cuban fighters and others on the ground. Jonas Savimbi's UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) rebels were armed and supported by the United States and an aggressive, interventionist South Africa. Hopes for peace flickered for an instant before ill-timed elections in 1992; UNITA lost, and Savimbi re-started the war with intensified brutality. This chapter of the tragedy lasted for the next ten years.
On a perfect Memorial Day morning, I bicycled out of Boston to a Veterans Affairs medical center in Jamaica Plain, to see if there might be a commemorative service for patients. It's no longer an inpatient facility, and was closed for the holiday. But as I rounded a corner not far from the hospital, I heard The Marines' Hymn ("From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli...") and a medley of other armed forces songs booming off the walls of a highway overpass. At American Legion Post 76, small flags were stuck in the lawn, and spectators snapped pictures as a color guard formed up in the parking lot. A half dozen former soldiers, young and no longer young, stood at parade rest holding flags and old bolt-action carbines and exchanging a few wisecracks while the sound system was adjusted. There were short speeches, a prayer and a song with the refrain "God Bless the U.S.A," and several of the spectators sang along. The parade was short because the post is close to the highway and an intersection, and the color guard marched out of the driveway, around the building and back to the starting point.
I was struck by the span of their ages and the conflicts in which they served. The post's last World War I soldier died a couple years ago, someone said. The World War II veterans moved with deliberation, and a couple of the Vietnam vets looked to be getting creaky knees, although Vietnam seems not that long ago.
One Navy man there was Eddie MacDonald, in his late eighties. MacDonald was an underwater demolition specialist and among the first to hit the shores of France clearing mines in advance of the D-Day landing. Another Navy man, in uniform and with a lot of stripes on one sleeve, was gently said to have "seen a lot of war service"; everyone shook his hand or patted him on the back.
Joe Ratta, aged 81, an Army tank driver in World War II, was there and so was his younger brother, Frank, an infantryman in Korea. Next to Paul DeCoste, a six-foot-plus Marine who served in Vietnam, were two young men – both named Mike – from our current Iraq and Afghanistan era. When the speeches were over and the service plaques had been handed out, the good-humored crowd ambled past the flags and headed for the bar.
"This goes on in every little town across the country on Memorial Day and Veterans Day," Joe Ratta told me later. He added that every civilian cemetery in the country is covered by a veterans' organization such as the Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Ever notice the small flags in the cemetery on Memorial Day?" Joe asked. "We put them there every year." This year the Jamaica Plain post placed 1,500 flags on veterans' graves in Forest Hills cemetery alone.
Ten years ago this spring an historic international treaty came into force banning antipersonnel land mines. Although the U.S. has not joined the 156 nations who ratified the treaty, American forces have not used antipersonnel mines since 1992, and have destroyed three million stockpiled mines; call it a reluctant phasing out of an indiscriminate weapon that U.S. forces have used since the Civil War.
Now a world movement to ban cluster weapons is gathering pace. It’s possible that this time around the U.S., which has not used cluster munitions since 2003 in Iraq, will join, helping make the weapons and their explosive sub-munitions a military artifact. So far 96 nations have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) and seven have ratified it. The treaty will enter into force on the thirtieth ratification.
Civilian deaths and disabilities from antipersonnel mines have been well documented. The unnecessary suffering and a persistent international campaign brought about the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty. Cluster munitions casualties are less well known, in part because the weapons have been used in fewer countries, about 30. But where they have been used, the terrible wounds and denial of land access have led arms control experts, doctors and civil society groups, under the umbrella of the Cluster Munition Coalition, to demand that this weapon be added to the list of prohibited weapons along with antipersonnel mines, dum-dum bullets, poison gas and blinding lasers.
Although antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions are in different military categories, they have one thing in common: catastrophic results for the civilians who come across them. America’s massive bombing of Laos from 1964 to 1973 still claims casualties today. One is Ta Douangchom. “I was living in a village called Ka Oy . . . in southern Laos. I was a farmer. One day, I was 28 years old at the time, I went out with my two sons to look for food and found a strange object. It looked green.” You can read the rest of Ta’s story here.