Death’s War of Words


“Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain. But if the abstract image is overdrawn or depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behavior in war are easily swept aside. If, on the other hand, men reflect too deeply upon the enemy’s common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task whose aims may be eminently just and legitimate.”
(Richard Holmes, Acts of War, quoted by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book, On Killing)

Grossman’s book is about the military history of killing the enemy. And his conclusions are fascinating: getting the enemy killed has not been an historically easy thing to do! Soldiers don’t want to kill other soldiers and many, many of them- based on statistics and evidence gathered from all of America’s wars- have shot over the heads of enemies, or not at all.

Empathy is something we, for many years, thought we learned about in civic class or Sunday School. It may have been enhanced in those settings, but it turns out that our brains are wired for empathy- the million year evolution of our species demanded that we cooperate with each other in staying alive. Mirror neurons in our brains allow us to read, to an important extent, the minds and feelings of others. We can then match our actions to theirs, either consciously or, more often, unconsciously. It’s silly and obvious to say but, under normal circumstances, we know what the person near us (sitting beside us, or in our gunsights), we know how that person feels about their own death. We read it in their face and in their body language in exactly the same way, it turns out, that we feel it in our own body. Thus, it is very hard to pull a trigger. And thus, military trainers needed to do something about that.

And what was successfully taught beginning, Grossman documents, in the early stages of the Vietnam War, was a purposeful, dedicated de-humanizing of the enemy. Slopes, Gooks, and other such words were not only used (words like that have always been used in war), but they were institutionalized during the soldiers’ training! It makes it not so hard, at the time, to kill an old Gook, even one that appears harmless. (Those Gooks are up to no good! They’re not like us! They don’t have feelings like we do! They speak mumbo-jumbo. There are too many of them. They’d kill us if they had the chance! Etc., etc., etc.)

The empathy we feel toward another person that prevents us from killing them, is the same empathy that causes us to share food with a stranger who’s hungry, or to support orphanages, etc. We understand, without jabbering about it, that Death is also a big deal to the Other. The only way we can get past that empathy, the military has shown us, is to artificially re-shape the Other into another, lesser image.

And I’m wondering (which is the point of this off-the-path excursion into war) I’m wondering if we haven’t been encouraged by a whole line of people through history to artificially re-shape and re-make our ideas of Death into something other than what they naturally are. Have we been coerced perhaps into fearing Death in ways most of the world’s inhabitants historically have not? Have we become too eager to fight Death without knowing how or when to stop “raging against the dying of the light” as Dylan Thomas wrote?

I wonder if it might be possible to be able to see our present reality from a slightly different angle? Maybe in the final years we should have a greater opportunity to tend, rather than to mend; to move toward hospice rather than the hospital. It sounds cruel what I’m saying, doesn’t it? But I’m saying that these gentle suggestions of mine have made to sound cruel. We have, so many of us, been trained to be good soldiers in the economic battles, right to the end.

Advertisements

Things I Believe; Things I Wish For..

(from the 2006 firstmorning newsletter)

Things I believe..(you can quote me!):

  1. There’s nothing wrong with ignorance. It only becomes bad if you build a fort around it to defend it against new information.

clip_image002

1938 Book Burning in Germany

  1. If we didn’t know we were going to die, there would be no reasons to paint pictures or compose music.

clip_image004 clip_image006 clip_image008

Cave drawing-France, Mexican String Art, Painting by Toulouse LaTrec

  1. The worst moment in Christian history was the day, in 325, that the Emperor Constantine marched his army through a river, pronounced the men baptized, and declared the Roman Empire to heretofore be the Holy Roman Empire. On that day, Christianity ceased being a movement and became an institution.

clip_image010

  1. The Bible is not a god. It is a collection of documents inspired by human interactions with God. It is the best place to learn about God, but not the only place. Wherever there are birds and wildflowers- those are excellent places for doing that, too.

clip_image012 clip_image014

  1. Anything that is done to intentionally hurt a child is evil.

clip_image016 clip_image018 clip_image020

abandoned- Honduras; propagandized- Libya; overfed- United States

Things I wish:

  1. I wish Bill Watterson was still doing “Calvin and Hobbes.”

clip_image022 clip_image024

  1. I wish Oxfam America, Doctors Without Borders, and Kairos Prison Ministry could have the money that is flushed down the toilet every time a check is written to a televangelist.

clip_image026 clip_image028 clip_image030

www.oxfamamerica.org www.doctorswithoutborders.org http://www.kairosprisonministry.org

  1. I wish the world wasn’t being homogenized into the image of an American suburb.

clip_image032 clip_image034 clip_image036

Krakow, Poland London, England Kyoto, Japan

  1. I wish there was a really good home for every single dog.

clip_image038 clip_image040

  1. I wish Europe and the United States were willing to clean up the three centuries worth of mess they made in Africa.

clip_image042 clip_image044

clip_image046

clip_image048

Refugees in Darfur, Sudan..the world is too busy elsewhere..

Thoughts on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day

Thoughts on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day
(to Ike, written 2004))

I wish they had talked more, And I wish we’d have asked more.
They were our fathers, uncles, teachers, and neighbors,
And that one guy who sat at the park by himself.
They were men, then, and we couldn’t imagine they had been soldiers.

We played in the dirt with our plastic soldiers
and mimicked machine guns in the woods:
Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh…
then spun to the ground in death throes we knew nothing of.
They didn’t tell us how to play, or how men really died…screaming sometimes.
They kept those thoughts to themselves,
sitting on them in a silence which their children did not need to hear about,
because nothing could be that terrible.
Ever again.

Maybe it was a matter of time:
A time when tears did not signal doors opening to what really mattered;
A time when it was best to be busy with the yard, the car, the other thousand tasks which mattered to them but have never mattered to me.
A time when sitting next to others at Rotary or Kiwanis who shared those memories was enough.
Even when we wanted them, so we could compare my dad and your dad, to talk,
they would answer questions, without elaboration, a sentence or two,
then back to the yard or car.

Al hid in a haystack in France for months. Then left for the garage.
Fred’s brother died in a tree, shot while he parachuted. But he’s gotta change the oil today.
Dick was in a POW camp for a year. He ate mice. That damn yard’s getting out of hand.
Dad saw Japanese skulls bobbing in the water but didn’t know what to do about them. And he had to go down to the cellar.

We didn’t know how to ask; and they didn’t know how to tell us, anyway.
So we all got older together during quiet baseball games in the back yard.

When we came back, they’d gotten very old. Dad did, too.
Sometimes he would just sit. I remember him the summer before he died, sitting by the back porch crushing sweat bees with the handle of a hoe.
Maybe I should have asked him then.

The guy in the park shot himself years before he’d gotten old.
And now the rest, all of them that I knew while they worked on their cars or in their yards, or who sat at Rotary meetings each week, and who needed stuff from the cellar, the barn, town… they’ve joined that first one.

Maybe they had all died back then and gone to hell on the shores of France, or on some jungle island, or behind the barbed wire of a camp somewhere in Germany.
Maybe these new lives had so little to do with where they’d been that the silence had to be.
Maybe they simply could not go back there while their kids were playing war in the woods,
because they might have had to die all over again.

Requiescat in pace.
We just didn’t know. .

by David Weber, 2004

The Rapture- if you’re reading this, you missed it..!

Whoops !

rapture

It really is easier to read a novel- or a series of novels – about the Rapture, than it is to read a critical history of Rapture theology. Just as it is easier to “believe” in Creationism than it is to study and understand Evolution. Just as it is easier to maintain a fatalistic view of every single thing that happens (“God did it!”) than it is to face the random nature of many (most?) human and physical events, or to accept an iota of personal responsibility when things go wrong. 

Faith has become a short cut around thinking. The words “I believe” have come to mean that whatever pronouncement follows those words is off-limits in terms of criticism. (Although you are allowed, encouraged even, to verbally punctuate such statements with a hearty “Amen!”)

But is being faithful, toward anything, a legitimate excuse for not thinking? Is thinking about faith a forbidden activity? Personally, I don’t think so. I don’t like dead ends in thought, where questions are no longer welcomed, because then the only thing left to do is to build a fort and be defensive about that arrived-at place of thinking.  And that’s also where Inquisitions and Jihads are conceived.

The theology of the rapture is relatively recent, beginning in the early 19th Century. It was an odd interpretation of scripture which found wide acceptance in the reactionary intellectual atmosphere of the time. Times were, in 19th century Great Britain (where the rapture story began), a’changing. Pastoral countrysides were seeing, with greater and greater frequency, the smokestacks of nearby cities rising in ugly industrial salute to the Coal and Iron being burned and formed in a revolution of manufacturing. Urban areas were growing, along with the attendant urban problems of bad housing, crime, and alcoholism. The rich grew richer as the poor grew poorer. As Charles Dickens wrote of what was happening, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Some people were feeling left out, and powerless, and in need of a “way out.”

And the Rapture is the ultimate Way Out! Every year for the past two centuries someone, somewhere has claimed that this is the year:  This is the year that the Lord returns for his own!  It’s an appealing hope for many people: it costs nothing, it could happen any moment, and it makes those who know they’re ‘going’ better than those who don’t know they’re not going!

The popularity of the Rapture grows wherever people feel out of control. It gives people who believe they will not be left behind, a sense of power- perhaps even, a sense of superiority, over those who will not make the cut. As the doctrine’s popularity has grown, it has become more complex. Schools of thinking have grown about when the rapture will occur in relation to perceived timetables they are able to find in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  On-line resources are available for wills to be read and messages to be sent to relatives and friends who are left here after the rapture to face the horrors of Armageddon, or not.

When Jesus said, on the cross, “It is finished,” little did he know that 1800 years later the rest of the story would be uncovered. Nor did he know it would all be over in 1992, or not.

God, Sex, Goliath, and Other Scary Things..

What’s wrong? Here’s the answer:

(These thoughts are complicatedly interrelated as most of the thoughts in all of our minds are. I admire deeply, though, those persons that are able to simplify in ways that I can’t. Bear with me. I promise some new ideas here that will affect the way some of you see the world from this point on. Really!)

Families, Bands, and Tribes

Our species evolved and spent most its communal history in bands of families and tribes of bands. Families bonded together for security and diversification of the gene pool, and crossed the difficult barriers of geography and suspicion to become bands. The people who lived on that side of the mountain needed to get at animals on the other side of the mountain and- “oh, by the way, while we’re over there hunting can we procreate with your people?”

(Trying my best to simplify- I trust you understand. This is cultural anthropology in the smallest nutshell it’s ever been crammed into.)

The bands became tribes. Not overnight and not automatically, but as populations increased and as climate changes (like ice melt), geographical episodes (like volcanoes), and animal migrations or extinctions occurred, the advantages of cooperation over competition were hard to ignore! Now, Americans, think Ojibway, Dakotah, Chipppewa, or Apache. Those are tribes– they lived in districts, many lived in smaller bands, they spread out over a geography, and sometimes at peace and sometimes at struggle with adjacent tribes. What united them was the geography, the resources they learned to share (Apaches and the earliest horses, for instance), language, and shared DNA. A member of a tribe knew they could move from valley to valley without harm, because that was tribal land. They also knew they might have problems on the other side of the valley, over the mountain, because that was the land of another tribe.

Stories

Stories evolve among any group of people over time and every tribe on earth was abundant with them. Stories informed those who heard them how to think, how to act, and what the tribe determined was important to know. The shared knowledge of tribes through the telling of stories is why we as humans are still vital (too vital from other species’ viewpoints!). The Dakotah had stories about the Cold and Buffalo, the Aleutians had stories about shifting ice and Walruses (is more than one Walrus, Walri?), the Aztec had stories Warm Seas and Fish, etc, etc, etc.

These stories were how children learned. They weren’t “made up” stories. They were truths that had been observed, or thought about; conclusions about the world around them were made, and those thoughts and conclusions were made memorable and interesting through stories. The stories contained the most current truths available.

Now, here’s the part that has everything to do with today: One way to make sure children in a tribe knew their place, understood their role, and knew to never go over that mountain was through fear. Fear works. Has, does, and will. It’s no accident that the purveyor of bad tidings in the Garden of Eden was a Serpent (hissss!) rather than a cow or a chicken (yum!). Nor, continuing with the familiar stories of the Hebrew tribe, was it surprising that the awful, horrible, sneaky Philistines had a secret weapon (Goliath) or that the loose-living, oft-married Samaritans were trash. Both were good reasons to keep the kids who were feeling their wild oats blooming, at home, where having no other gods before YHWH was much more manageable.

More To Come

OK, I’m going to continue with this tomorrow, and I will deal with these two ideas:

1. Humans lived in tribes a long, long, long time- longer than any of us have the ability to imagine. Ideas and concepts are as deeply a part of us as our physical structure or repertoire of emotions are, and as our abilities to stand erect and run evolved, so did our need for stories and the structure with which they were told. Stories are in us. We need them.

2. We live in a time, however, when we do not need to be afraid, out of ignorance, of the people who live on the other side of the mountain. Our tribe is global now. The separations no longer keep us alive by insuring our safety. The separations now, exacerbated by fools, are going to kill us. Our stories must be re-written.

I’m almost 60..

I’ll be 60 this year. That’s a sentence that leaves me aghast and amuses me at the same time. Sometimes I will think for a moment that it would be fun to still have more years in front of me than behind me. But then I remind myself of the people I have- because of my age- been privileged to share this planet with. People like the following whose pictures I just happened onto at oliverwillis.com, a site worth perusing.

Wow! Just look. We know the names of some of these people and not others. But all of these men and women are reminders of what real heroism looks like. Real heroism is about taking action, when retreat would be both excusable and safer. Real heroism happens in silence and isolation, in the presence of real enemies. Real heroism is about focusing not on what you can see in front of you, but what you hope others will be able to see, someday.

These men and women are among my heroes; and I am thankful that I was in this place and in this country at the same time they were. Theirs was an extraordinary humanity and their willingness to share it has made the rest of us, better.

Sully Sullenberger, Katie Couric, the U.S.A: that was the week that was..

“That Was the Week That Was” was an NBC satirical newsmagazine which was broadcast in 1964-65. The chorus of show’s theme song:

That was the week that was, it’s over let it go.                                                    Oh what a week that was,                                                                                    That was the week that was!

Now, insert the word “Country” where the word “Week” was. That’s what I’m talking about, and Sully and Katie are part of it. And Obama’s doomed economic plan, the Republican’s doomed-to-hell economic plan, the suburbs, GM, Thomas Kincaid “paintings”, and many churches, among many other iconic and traditional things and ways of life in America.   That was the country that was.      

Hang with me here; it will all come together a few paragraphs from now.

1. This may seem like it has nothing to with anything here, but it does in a huge way, and that’s why I list it first:

Sully Sullenberger, pilot of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, and the man who successfully landed a disabled jet on the Hudson River last month, is NOT a hero. He IS one heck of a pilot- seasoned, calm, utterly professional, highly skilled, and a real asset to his profession, his race, his family, his community, and his nation. The other 154 passengers on Flight 1549, and their families, love him very much. But he is not a hero. He was doing the job he had trained for and practiced and he did it very, very well. (I’m convinced, after hearing Sullenberger speak several times, that he would agree with everything I’ve just said.)

But media types began the “hero” labeling  immediately, with hopes that hero worship at the glass and plastic home altars would follow. And we, the media sheep, believe our shepherds, and begin genuflecting. Katie bragged at some dinner last night about how she “won” Sully’s first network interview from the other networks.

Two sub-points here, call them 1a and 1b. Ok, 1a: Television stories need exclamation points at the end of as many sentences as possible! They need heroes, not boringly competent people. Just as they need berserk monkeys, octo-moms, and Kim Jong-il. Television demands words writ simply and large and images drawn in bright, shiny colors. They need heroes  and more of them, so they manufacture them by finding individuals who are extremely competent at their jobs, or who play football well, or who are under six years old but know how to dial 9-1-1 when necessary, or who are a dog that barks and alerts firemen to an unconscious child, or who are a cop and gets shot. The media needs these people because I guess we (the American consumer) need them, too. People who watch X-treme Games, or Jackass, or Real Time Videos of Real People Being Injured are beyond staying tuned in through the commercials for a report on anything resembling normalcy. Who wants to see great golf tee shots when they can see a wrestler fall heroically from a high-lift into the turnbuckles, to his death?

1b. Katie, nobody outside an extremely small circle of network insiders gives a rat’s rear about who got the interview first, when, or ever. Nobody except the fellow word-spitting clowns on the local news desk remember, care, or wanted to know in the first place who “broke” a particular  news item. It, like 99.9% of everything, doesn’t matter!  It matters only when you’re part of a culture that believes everything must be won, or lost; that believes for everything that goes wrong or merely not right, there is someone/something to blame; and that believes winning (whatever the game is) is all that ultimately counts.

2. Just as we need bigger-than-life heroes so we may sate our need to vicariously tickle our egos, we have also- being good Americans- sought for too long, that which is too large and too much. For two decades, the suburbs have been growing absurdly fast, filling with homeowners mesmerized by the 300 cubic feet of empty overhead space in the dramatic entryways of crazily huge homes sitting on zero-lot lines, available for nothing down and a first year ARM of only 2%! We have bought cars that are too large, pets that are too expensive, clothes that are too quickly out of fashion, computers that are too old at six months, too pricey college educations that are no longer worth a million extra dollars over a lifetime (as high school guidance once mouthed without critical thinking), too expensive tickets to too many sporting events, concerts, and too many meals out because we’re too busy to stay home and cook, and now the whole too-high hill of too-high hopes is falling. In avalanche fashion.

Jenga! Jenga! Jenga! We’ve been playing a game of pile-’em-as-high-as-you-can, and while there are lots of criminals, we are all guilty. The pile had to fall. The money I made with IPOs in the 1990s- money made without my doing a single thing!- was part of the fall. The credit I’ve used to buy things I didn’t really need, or didn’t really need to replace- that was part of the fall, too. Sure it’s easy to shout red-faced and angry at the Enron parasites and the human cancer Madoff, but I in my tiny way added to the mess of Jenga tiles now covering the table and the floor, spilling out the front door, and out onto the street. I helped make the mess and you did, too, and there is one more huge mistake we can make together, if we let the traditional people-with-answers come up with the answers we desperately need; namely, this:

We can pick up the pieces and start trying to build them back up again, just like they were. 

In normal life situations, cleaning up the mess and starting over would be the right thing to do- in some cases, perhaps even the heroic thing to do! But normalcy as we knew it, as we may soon be pining for it, as we may demand it from a selfish, narrow, screw you standpoint, normalcy is gone for the rest of our lives. (That’s a prophetic statement on my part- a statement born of feelings, guesses, and some basic understandings of human behavior and spirituality; it is not a statement born of formal economic training or knowledge. It’s a statement born of eyes wide open, rather than one formed with mind tight shut.)

I’m afraid the stimulus package has been written and fueled by too many people who believe we can make the country that was into the country that is, again. Even those who oppose the stimulus package are opposing it with a set of tools fashioned with Americo-centric blueprints drawn by social Darwinists who were sitting on natural resources that would never run out, with a great labor supply of people who would always be happy with what they were paid,  and who considered the whole world to be an American franchise.

That was the country that was, remember that. It’s over- let it go! It was bound to fall, and has. We- literally- can spend the rest of our lives bemoaning, regretting, blaming, and finally dying unhappily. Or we can begin to rebuild, like the pioneers whose blood flows in all of us who are Americans. It can be similar to what was, and probably must be. But it cannot be the same. We cannot merely build a new economic Petri dish in which new Enron and Madoff bacterial slime might grow.

Oh, what a country that was…!

(I’ve got some ideas, incidentally, which I’ll write about here in the next day or two. Those ideas, your ideas, our ideas, are what we must start discussing, sharing, modifying, and bringing into being..we must plant seeds of trees we will never eat the the fruit of ! Some of us may even have the opportunity to be real heroes in doing so [the unheralded, self-sacrificing kind]. Go ahead, break that news!)