War Stories – First Meeting

For those who could not make it to the Oregon Humanities sponsored War Stories group I’ve decided to put the material online. We had a full house and it was amazing. We had veterans of Vietnam, Cold War, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well as civilians with family members who fought in WWII and Vietnam. Family members with people in the military currently, and I was delighted to see that we had people who don’t have family members in the military; they just want to understand veterans more.

The first piece we spoke about was an excerpt from Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe:

In the fall of 1986, just out of college, I set out to hitchhike across the northwestern part of the United States. I’d hardly ever been west of the Hudson River, and in my mind what waited for me out in Dakota and Wyoming and Montana was not only the real America but the real me as well. I’d grown up in a Boston suburb where people’s homes were set behind deep hedges or protected by huge yards and neighbors hardly knew each other. And they didn’t need to: nothing ever happened in my town that required anything close to a collective effort. Anything bad that happened was taken care of by the police or the fire department, or at the very least the town maintenance crews. (I worked for them one summer. I remember shoveling a little too hard one day and the foreman telling me to slow down because, as he said, “Some of us have to get through a lifetime of this.”)

The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping – somewhat irresponsibly – for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive.

Something that would make us feel like a tribe. What I wanted wasn’t destruction and mayhem but the opposite: solidarity. I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers, but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever really happened. Surely this was new in the human experience, I thought. How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?

Those kinds of tests clearly weren’t going to happen in my hometown, but putting myself in a situation where I had very little control like hitchhiking across the country seemed like a decent substitute. That’s how I wound up outside Gillette, Wyoming, one morning in late October 1986, with my pack leaned against the guardrail and an interstate map in my back pocket. Semis rattled over the bridge spacers and hurtled on toward the Rockies a hundred miles away. Pickup trucks passed with men in them who turned to stare as they went by. A few unrolled their window and threw beer bottles at me that exploded harmlessly against the asphalt. In my pack I had a tent and sleeping bag, a set of aluminum cookpots, and a Swedish- made camping stove that ran on gasoline and had to be pressurized with a thumb pump. That and a week’s worth of food was all I had with me outside Gillette, Wyoming, that morning, when I saw a man walking toward me up the on ramp from town. From a distance I could see that he wore a quilted old canvas union suit and carried a black lunch box. I took my hands out of my pockets and turned to face him. He walked up and stood there studying me. His hair was wild and matted and his union suit was shiny with filth and grease at the thighs. He didn’t look unkindly but I was young and alone and I watched him like a hawk. He asked me where I was headed.

“California,” I said. He nodded.

“How much food do you got?” he asked.

I thought about this. I had plenty of food along with all the rest of my gear and he obviously didn’t have much. I’d give food to anyone who said he was hungry, but I didn’t want to get robbed, and that’s what seemed was about to happen.

“Oh, I just got a little cheese,” I lied. I stood there, ready, but he just shook his head. “You can’t get to California on just a little cheese,” he said. “You need more than that.”

The man said that he lived in a broken-down car and that every morning he walked three miles to a coal mine outside of town to see if they needed fill in work. Some days they did, some days they didn’t, and this was one of the days that they didn’t. “So I won’t be needing this,” he said, opening his black lunch box. “I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

The lunch box contained a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. The food had probably come from a local church. I had no choice but to take it. I thanked him and put the food in my pack for later and wished him luck. Then he turned and made his way back down the on ramp toward Gillette.

I thought about that man for the rest of my trip. I thought about him for the rest of my life. He’d  been generous, yes, but lots of people are generous; what made him different was the fact that he’d taken responsibility for me. He’d spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay. Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word “tribe” is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with. For reasons I’ll never know, the man in Gillette decided to treat me like a member of his tribe. This book is about why that sentiment is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning.

It’s about why— for many people — war feels better than peace and hardship can turn out to be a great blessing and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.

It’s time for that to end.

I wanted to talk about some specific ideas he brings up in this piece. Mainly, “How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?” 

We spoke about the human animal. Are we wired to be self destructive? Do we have any rites of passages in our modern society. This idea kept coming up all night.

Paul Dage, a Vietnam veteran who will soon lead his own discussion group soon in the Eugene area, asked about the definition of true courage. Is the brave man who is more willing and able to run into danger have more courage than the coward who despite his nature runs in to help?

The second piece we spoke about is one of my favorite war poems of all time:

Dulce et Decorum Est

BY WILFRED OWEN

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

We spoke more about how the military makes people go in the CS gas chamber still today more than “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria Mori” which translates to it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But the idea of adulthood and rites of passage did come up again.

We were able to get one more poem in before we had dinner (Jonathan Oak made Sloppy Joes!).

The Prey

By Adil Abdullah (translated by Soheil Najm)

Like a flock of eagles on their wounded prey

The furies have descended on Iraq

In spite of all their hatred for each other.

Each night they return to their lairs

Under the wing of darkness,

Oblivious to the blood

That smears their mouths.

But shame will seize their souls

When they discover, in the morning light

The prey they feasted on last night

Was the flesh of their own children.

This is a powerful contemporary poem about our current war in Iraq. We spoke about the symbolism of the “Like a flock of eagles” and the powerful line “Oblivious to the blood/ That smears their mouths.” And of course the end “But shame will seize their souls/ When they discover, in the morning light/ The prey they feasted on last night/ Was the flesh of their own children.”

This was even more powerful knowing that we had two Jordanian born people in our group.

After that we ate food together. At around 8:10 our guest speaker, the new artistic director for Profile Theatre, Josh Hecht spoke about his upcoming writing workshops and invited us all to be a part of it. Profile Theatre is partnering with the Writers Guild of America to tell veterans’ stories.

Josh ended the night. All and all it was a great night filled with poetry, healthy discussion, and food and drink. We didn’t get to all of the poems I had printed out, but in case you are interested here they are:

God’s Money

By Adnan Al-Sayegh (translated by Soheil Najm)

On Al-Hamra’a street

The religious man passes with his prayer

beads

The pauper passes with his barefoot dreams

The politician passes, full of schemes

The intellectual passes, lost in thought

Everyone passes in a rush, and pays no mind

To the beggar on the sidewalk, poor and blind

Only the rain is dropping in his palm

To God outstretched.

Tomorrow the War Will Have a Picnic

By Abdul Razaq Al-Rubaiee (translated by Sadek

Mohammed, written on the eve of the U.S. attack on

Baghdad in 2003)

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Decorate the hospitals with medicines, bandages

And sharp lancets.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Dust off the graves

And dig fresh ones—

War detests the smell of rotting corpses.

Wash up with mud, then

Brush your teeth white so they’ll gleam

In the darkness of its pompous entourage.

Throw fragile joys out of your heart—

War has no use for bubbles or balloons.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Prepare your bodies for pain

Your limbs for amputation.

War’s affection is heavy-handed—

It loves to mess with your body.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Abandon delicacy

And laughter.

War does not like chocolates

Or kissing in public—

These things are not good for the heart

Of the war

Which is having a picnic tomorrow.

Empty the salty streams

From the faucets of your eyes.

The war’s blood pressure is high,

Its arteries hard,

So it doesn’t like salt in its food,

Or on your cheeks.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Break mothers’ hearts now,

So the force of their tears won’t expand,

Cracking the crust of the earth,

Nor sleeping volcanoes erupt

Inside our chests.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Turn off the moon hanging over the roof

So it won’t dim the tracers and flares

That light up war’s path.

Let death come in beauty and comfort, soft

As a pillow of angel’s feathers.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Let’s close the parks,

The gardens,

The flowered balconies,

To allow it to stroll at its ease.

Sweep those big, messy clouds from the sky

So they won’t get airplane wings all wet

And swerve them from precise, pinpointed

targets.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Plant flowers,

For graveyards will grow.

And besides, they will cheer up the dead

Who will hang in garlands from our necks,

Awaiting the Judgement Day.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Store water, bread, and air.

Because the war gets hungry now and then,

And if our tender bodies aren’t enough to

satisfy it—

Our childish pranks, our innocence, our

dreams—

It will be compelled to eat the buildings,

Bodies sleeping in graves,

Books, streets and biscuits.

It will be forced to eat unshakable mountains,

Statues and stones—

Anything to feed its body of smoke,

Bullets and shrapnel.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

We must go out to meet it—

Out of our bedrooms, our

Schools, barbershops, public libraries,

Mosques, shelters, One Thousand Nights and

a Night,

Caves, post cards, fields, graves, trenches,

Bread bags, soft drink bottles,

Al-Tawhidi’s Isharat, tooth brushes,

Ibn Malik’s Alfiyah, Rawdhat Aljinan, family

trees,

Cradles and news bulletins.

We have to come out from our

Skins and our milk names to meet it,

And join its parade

To the Al-Sallam graveyard.

Tomorrow the war will have a picnic:

Abandon delicacy,

Laughter,

Dancing,

Childhood,

Women,

Beds,

Cups of tea and milk,

Classroom desks,

And what’s left of dreams

Splintered in corners.

No more chocolate,

No more kissing in public—

Things like these

Are not good for the health of the war,

Which is having a picnic tomorrow.

If you would like to be a part of our next discussion group, please come out. It’ll be on the first Tuesday of January, at Post 134 (2104 NE Alberta Street, Portland Oregon 97211), at 6:30pm. I hope to see you there. Free, all ages (mature conversation), and dinner!

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