Distributed June 2002
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
Decades ago, the Cold War and Vietnam came equipped with terms like “red” and “commie,” words which drained enemies of their human complexity. Might the term “axis of evil” serve a similar purpose now? The author can’t shake the feeling that we have passed this way before. This article was written originally for publication in the Friends Journal.
September 15, 2001: In the midst of unprecedented horror, I sense we have somehow been here before. The radio plays “Come together now....” “There’s something happening here....” As if the lyrics for this new world are old.
1962: At age nine I sing the Shaker song, “’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free” in our soothingly white-walled Quaker meeting house surrounded by lush meadows of Pennsylvania farmland. I adore my father’s stories of our Quaker ancestors, their pacifism, their women ministers, their acts of abolition. I understand that much of the world is not like us; we are different.
1965-1973: I lose boys I know or love to every choice they make about Vietnam – to battle with the Marines, to Quaker service at Quang Ngai hospital, to emigration in Canada, to rape in the D.C. jail after a White House protest, to suicide because – because? There are no words. I stand quietly in demonstrations, mourning.
1980: After first forays into writing, trying to find the words, I show a famous writer some of my stories. He says, “You say you’re a pacifist, but you carry a gun.” I am stunned, then intrigued.
1983: I marry a man who did not protest the war, who says it is time to let go of sorrow. He works for the government I distrust, but he helps find the money and ways to rebuild our dying city: He dares to believe you can actually do good from within the system. We argue. He sees the world as social groups, numbers and percentages; I see individual hearts and minds. He pushes me to take a stand, to not be so scared of fighting out loud for what I believe. I don’t feel like a Quaker anymore, nor so different.
1989: My lingering sorrow over losses leads me to Biblical narratives and writers who understood – Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O’Connor: “We are all Christ and we are all crucified” – and we can become the crucifiers, so easily, usually in the name of a religion, or philosophy. I join a Congregationalist church – the people who once hanged Quakers on Boston Common but who now seem to ask as many questions as I do about conflict, inequity and race.
1995: My writing takes me to find the family of the boy I lusted after at age 12 when he ran our 4-H Club meetings on sunny Saturdays before he became a marine and died in Vietnam. Who was he, really? They say he was a good Catholic: He searched for truth, found joy in others, worked for peace – Quaker words, I think. Maybe we were both soldiers in our families’ ways, and peacemakers. Both/and more deeply than either/or. His sister, then training to be a nun, now has three boys, says if there were another draft she would take her sons to Canada in a minute.
1996: I have three boys in our city’s public schools. We still believe in the Dream even though it is so obviously hard. My oldest is beaten in the boys’ room of his middle school – just “because.” My atavistic pacifism says he should walk away, turn the other cheek. But my anger feels pure: I tell him, sometimes, if you have tried all other solutions, it is OK to fight back. He does. He is suspended. I take him to see art for the day. I imagine my Quaker mother’s gentle spirit shaking her head sadly, then sighing, saying, yes, she understands.
1999: At the university where I teach, Vietnam veterans gather with Southeast Asian refugees to talk about how to write their Vietnams. Grizzled, weary poets, journalists, fiction writers remember how the words first tried to come. Across campus, Robert McNamara finds clear words to explain the lessons of Vietnam. I watch in disbelief as the crowd of college boys casually scrutinizes this historic, old man, admiring the power he once held. An hour earlier, a combat veteran, his spine bent over the huge gouge in his chest, asked quietly: How can you have this man on campus the same day we are here? This is the point, always: The official voice never speaks for the personal cost. And in the end, when all the retrospectives and diplomacy move on, beyond the wounded hills, it is the veteran with the rearranged chest, or the refugee, who speaks truest memory.
2000: After years of private struggle with my angers and sadnesses – a child’s long illness, a marriage hammered into shape, my parents’ slow-burn deaths – I awaken one day to realize my little family ship has burst through the clouds and icebergs, and we are suddenly sailing through a time of clarity, calmness and grace. At the Sunday dinner table, my sons swap jokes, tease the youngest, tweak their stodgy parents, until we are all hooting and heeing with laughter. This, I think, is peace.
9/11/2001: Like everyone, I am silenced. The horror. The violence. Plane/building/fireball. Plane/building/fireball. Plane... I know the families’ panic. I remember that slide into the black hole of grief. This new pain has trumped all others. Or has it? I imagine gray-haired 50-, 60 -something men across the country, riveted to these images – plane/fireball – their bodies stilled, remembering. I understand again: Violence of any kind is utterly wrong. This is why we become pacifists. And why we must catch bin Laden, silence al-Qaeda. Both/and?
February 2002: President Bush glints from the podium, tosses off a good sound bite about the “axis of evil,” our new enemy, or at least new buzz words that will do so much and explain the complexities of so little – like “reds,” “commies,” “gooks.” It is 1964 again, when none of the boys I loved knew such words would kill them or uproot them within the next ten years. I try to accept what will be, to understand both sides. But on a surprisingly warm winter day, I look at my fresh-faced sons and am chilled.