Among the Dead, Prayer for Our Enemies

Memorial Day: We should mourn for all who have died because of militarism.

by John Samuel Tieman
May 31, 1993

I remember the first time I prayed for an enemy. It was just outside An Khe, a village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. A helicopter gunship rocketed some North Vietnamese regulars who were about to attack us. I prayed for those kids. My top sergeant berated me for my prayer. I realized then that my enemy was not the North Vietnamese, not the Viet Cong, but militarism. As for the first sergeant, he was a good man who was simply unaware, unaware of the fact that loving an enemy means loving specific people, North Vietnamese in this case.

Loving can also involve mourning. We mourn the loss of people loved. If we truly love our enemies, then we truly mourn their loss. For it is we the living who have lost a loved one. In this way can we realize not only the humanity of an enemy, but our own humanity as well. 

In the Tao Te Ching, a victorious warrior is advised to dress for mourning. Perhaps that’s a bit extreme by Western standards. But it is to the point, for it makes the warrior and his neighbors consider what has been done. War is no victory parade. It must be seen for precisely what it is, a choice. A painful choice. A choice that calls for mourning. 

Memorial Day honors soldiers who died for our country. Since I’m a Vietnam veteran, that’s OK by me. I would expand the memorial’s concept, however. I would like a day in which we mourn for all–men, women, children, soldiers, civilians, friends, enemies–who died because of militarism. The Iraqis, for instance.

Greenpeace estimates that at least 120,000 Iraqi soldiers and 76,000 civilians were killed during the war. Since then, the civilian death toll related to the war and its aftermath has reached perhaps a quarter of a million. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, between January and August of 1991, 50,000 children died as a direct result of health problems brought on by the bombing of the Iraqi infrastructure. Total deaths among children are estimated to be 170,000.

Can we mourn for 170,000 dead Iraqi children? I suspect the answer is “Hell No!” That answer is disturbing, because the opposite of mourning is not rejoicing; the opposite of mourning is being numb to suffering.

Or perhaps, instead of expanding the concept of Memorial Day, we should create an entirely separate day of mourning. Perhaps we should simply mourn for the children of the world. A Children’s Memorial Day. Consider the following. According to UNICEF, 1.5 million children have died in wars during the last 10 years; 4 million are disabled by land mines, firearms and torture; 5 million live in refugee camps; 12 million lost their homes in a war. Whole generations have lost years of schooling. Millions are vulnerable to famine, illness and disability. UNICEF admits that it cannot measure the numbers of orphans or the psychological traumas brought on by war.

And consider also that the United States is the world’s leading arms merchant. I recall reading somewhere that the third leading cause of death in Cambodia is land mines–mostly American-made land mines.

A Children’s Memorial Day would have a civilizing effect on us, for, in addition to mourning for these, the littlest victims of war, it would allow us to mourn what we have become. And to love ourselves for what we can become.

Being civilized is not something we are just given. In many ways, civilization is a constant series of choices and assents. Granted that from the cradle we are given language, culture and so forth. To be a peaceful society, however, this we choose. To be peaceful in our language, in our actions, in our prayers, to this do we assent. And assent and assent again and again, for in each instance when we feel threatened are we required to assent anew to peace.

I once heard another veteran, a North Vietnamese poet, say that every time he shot an American, he first aimed at the heart of that soldier’s mother. And for that soldier, and for that woman, did he mourn.

Let me be perfectly clear. I do not begrudge our veterans their parades. I’ve marched in a few myself. I ask my neighbors to join us old vets, to mourn for all soldiers and all civilians, to mourn for all victims of militarism. And to mourn those people by name. Yes, to mourn for Robert, my childhood companion, a 20-year-old who died in ‘Nam in 1968. But to also mourn for Ahmed, a 5-year-old stranger, who died in Baghdad this year for lack of clean water. And to mourn for their mothers, their fathers, their families, relatives, neighbors, friends. To mourn. To love.

Originally Posted in the Los Angeles Times


Whitman in Sacramento

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Last night I joined several other poets and an audience that crammed into an independent bookstore in my city. We were there to celebrate Uncle Walt—Whitman, that is.

The host and organizer, a young poet who writes under the name of SliC (Stuart Livingston Canton), had assembled a range of readers from the poetry community, each of us assigned a particular passage from Leaves of Grass; through fortuitous chance, the Nepalese poet Yuyutsu R.D. Sharma, currently on a U.S. tour, showed up to read Walt too. The poems were chanted, shouted, hurled. Our bodies became electric. We were a cosmos. 

That is to say, there we were in a tiny bookstore in Sacramento, California (as, at one point in “I Sing the Body Electric,” sirens outside wailed past) but we were large—we contained multitudes.

Many in the audience were there to celebrate Whitman’s poetry though their own lives had taken some difficult turns; one with liver cancer; a stroke survivor who walks (and writes) with difficulty now; another cancer survivor who nursed her husband through several difficult years of ALS before he died.

Most of us read from pre-printed scripts, but one young poet—who began by railing against Whitman and his poems before reading three poems he seemed to have made peace with—held a small clothbound “Selected” sans dust jacket. Bob Stanley, Sacramento’s current poet laureate (who closed the reading with “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”) read from a battered, coffee-table-sized clothbound his grandfather had presented to him many years ago.

 Yuyutsu (Yuyu) (who was made a shaman at the age of seven) read passionately while the bright turquoise muffler around his neck swayed against his black suit and his right arm swept the air for emphasis.

 We looked for Walt under our boot soles. Am I wrong to imagine that I felt Walt’s impassioned and egalitarian dust mingle with the motes of dead soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them together welling up as we heard again: “Tenderly will I use you curling grass./ It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men./ It may be if I had known them I would have loved them…”


Al Naml: the Ants

by Maryam Abdul-Qawiyy

On the weekends, my mother hand-washed our clothes at the river. Bending over and slapping the clothes into the water, she would occasionally look up to see us flap around. We children teased the slippery current with our bodies, playing with other children as their mothers sliced the water with heavy clothes as well.

At dusk, when our bodies were shriveled and pale, it was time to go. We each carried a bucket of damp clothes up the river bank. The buckets weighed us down as we trudged up, up; passing the duende tree, the spirit tree. My mother halted at the top of the bank, caging us behind her with her legs and arms. The bucket handles slid out of her grip. We peeked around her flowing skirt and saw ants—everywhere.

Red ants, fire ants, army ants marched tiny streets into the ground. They looked like black and red jelly beans come to life; some were bigger than I knew ants could be. Like an army, they defended their territory and spread out over the walk way toward the clothes line, our home, and the rest of the village. Some of the other women went back down to the river with their scurrying children; others stayed and watched the site. The red swarm covered the ground like bubbling grease in a frying pan, their red specks trembled in unison.

My mother carried my baby sister on her hip and the three of us older children hop-scotched around the swarm and thankfully did not encounter a single bite. We hurried into our home, relieved. But when the darkness adjusted we saw tiny specks on the walls, moving. Our insides crawled.

The walls and ceiling were covered, completely. The ants carried bats, spiders, and scorpions out of the screen-less windows. Some of the ants had silvery wings and flew with their prey dangling beneath them. Some of their victims squirmed and struggled as they were nipped to death. My mother, who was holding my baby sister, ordered us to sit in the middle of the bed. The mosquito net would protect us she said.

She grabbed the Quran and her tongue curled with Arabic sounds. We scooted close around her, making a semicircle. “Ma, are the ants gonna eat us?”


We tried to ignore the wiggling cloud of insects that surrounded us. My mother opened the Holy book and recited: “In the name of Allah the Beneficent, the Merciful. Surah Al-Naml. The story of the Ants.” Her Arabic tongue spoke to the air and we gazed at her mahogany colored skin until, suddenly, we were the only living beings in the room.

They had quietly departed, just as they had entered; my mother had spoken to the ants in prayer, and they listened to her plea.


When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes

by Publius

             I have to interrupt a standardized test in order to give a standardized test.

             I am in the second week of giving a standardized test that isn’t a test, because nobody gives a wank about this test.   The only reason we’re giving this test is because the district paid millions for it.   We bought it, so we give it.   But everyone — kids, teachers, administrators — knows it doesn’t count, because, right after we bought it, the state mandated another test.   One that counts.

             The test that doesn’t count is thirty pages long, and contains four questions that demand full-length essays.

             When we finally finish the standardized test that doesn’t count, I’ve also been directed to have the kids grade their own essays.   This isn’t because The Central Office wants the kids to reflect and review.   It’s because Downtown doesn’t want to bother grading all the tests that don’t count.   So this will take us another day or maybe two.

             But today I’ve got to take the whole morning, interrupt the test doesn’t count, and give a test that’s really a test.   No Child Left A Dime, as my colleagues put it.   A serious standardized test, one that has actual consequences.   A test that’s really a test.   This is one of several such national tests I will proctor this semester.

             All this takes the best part of two weeks.   And what did I have to stop?   Reading Romeo And Juliet.   Writing literary criticism.

             Is this really what progressive education has come to?   That I should give a national standardized test, which interrupts a standardized test that doesn’t count, which in its turn interrupts reading Shakespeare and writing an essay?

             I work in a school district that was founded on the ideals of Friedrich Froebel and Johann Pestalozzi, a district that welcomed the philosophies of John Dewey and W. T. Harris.   And I mourn for those visionaries, for my colleagues, for my kids.    And for me.


Poetry journal: Car driven by ‘messiah’ hits synagogue

by Peter Oresick

Yesterday I headed to Costco for apples, the oversized and spotless Granny Smiths that they sell so cheap, leaving from the Chatham campus and driving along Shady Avenue through Squirrel Hill to Homestead, and I passed this grand commotion (story, too-good-to-be-true, above), complete with TV newsvans, at Poale Zedeck synagogue, and I even rubbernecked, but I had no idea, no clue even, that it was the Second Coming, as reported. (Can I get a witness? My late and saintly mother, Mary, would want me to be a witness at the Second Coming.)

At first I guessed it was about the exhumation and reburial story, the Poale Zedeck Orthodox rabbi who, earlier in this week, blocked a family’s attempt, citing Jewish law, to remove an ancestor’s bones from the sacred orthodox spot in the suburbs to Homewood Cemetery in Point Breeze–Henry Clay Frick,  interdenominational ecumenism–but I digress, that’s just another good story  that suckered me in:

Today the story seems to me like a time warp, something that happened earlier in Pittsburgh, or should have, in the late ’60s or early ’70s most appropriately. I love that the synagogue characters are actually named Pollack and Dubinsky, that they pin down the suspect and remove his shoes,  so he won’t run, of course, and the quote from the seemingly disembodied & high perp named Disabato, who says, “he and a friend were ‘hanging out at my apartment, and I got a call from God telling me to do this,’ the complaint says. ‘I’m not crazy,’ he said. ‘I’m just doing God’s work.'” God used the  phone in the ’60s, not 2010.

But I think the whole experience is better left alone, just abandoned by Oresick the poet here in this notebook, and not shaped into a poem. Billy Collins would write this poem . . . which is why he’s Billy Collins. Oresick drives on to Costco to buy the apples at a great price. And eats them for a week.

Morally Ambiguous Teaching

by Publius 

            I have a student teacher this year. Her name is Chloe.   I also have to give a standardized test this week.  

            So I’m stuck.   Do I give the test honestly?   Or do I do what I really do?

            As one administrator put it, “This test has no educational value.   Do as you will, as long as the scores improve.”   I need a ten point gain this quarter.   I’ve been a teacher for so long that I can get ten points by winking at kids at the right time.   Which is more or less what I do.  

            Once a kid asked me, “Why don’t you just give us the answers like the other teachers, instead of this half-cheating thing you do?”

            So Monday I’m torn.   Do I model the honest teacher?   Or do I show Chloe the world in which she will make her living?

            Before class, I begin by explaining to Chloe how, last year, the department had a long meeting, during which we agonized over the morality of standardized testing.   Is it moral to give the test at all?   If we give the test, is it ever moral to cheat?   How can teachers even evaluate the morality of testing we don’t value educationally?   And so I explained to Chloe this question and that one and on and on until – I was struck by another question.  

            When did teaching become morally ambiguous?


The Birthday of the Red Baron

by John Samuel Tieman

Perhaps the most memorable character from the First World War is “The Red Baron.”

Manfred Von Richthofen died about 11 AM on Sunday, the 21st of April in 1918. There is almost nothing about his death that is not disputed, the exact time, the manner of death, even who shot him. But there is one thing certain.

He was 25. His 26th birthday would have been on the second of May.

Von Richthofen is a romantic character. And I say ‘romantic’, and I say ‘character’, because, in the popular imagination, there is little of the real person that survives. Snoopy has been shot down by him several dozen times. There is a pizza named after him. His red triplane is emblematic of the romance of aerial combat and, indeed, The War To End All Wars. When I enter “Red Baron”, my computer’s search engine brings up 2,900,000+ entires, three out of the first five being the beagle, the pizza and racing bikes.

What survives is a caricature. The red Fokker triplane. The long scarf around the neck. The rattle of machine guns. The noble last salute between victor and vanquished.

All of which, in this time of war, is exactly what I am the least interested in. I am interested in that kid, that sad kid who died so many years before his time.

The myth of the Red Baron has obliterated the fact that that actual man, Manfred Von Richthofen, lived a rather narrow life. He entered military school when he was eleven, and spent the rest of his life in uniform. He like hunting. He liked riding. He seems to have had no intellectual interests. He was an indifferent student. He never traveled. He only spoke German. When I see photographs of his rooms, there are hunting trophies but no books. While he had the social graces of his class, there is little indication of enduring friendships. Rumor of a brief war-time liaison notwithstanding, he seems to have shown little sexual interest in women or, for that matter, men. My point is not that I find any of this remarkable. My point is that I find it young. The guy died before he had time to do much beyond go to school and kill people.

Not everyone who dies in war is young. But most are. So it is curious that, when we read about World War I, many of the histories dwell on the youth of the technology rather than the youth of the soldier. Powered airplanes were barely a decade old. Machine guns were a relatively new technology. Putting machine guns on airplanes, then crafting aerial tactics, all this was new. Yet, when I read about Richthofen’s most famous dogfight, against British Major Lanoe Hawker, V. C., I sadly note that no one else notes that Hawker died at age 26. The man who killed Richthofen, Canadian Captain Roy Brown, was 25.

Not long ago, when I was watching “The Newshour” on P. B. S., I once again paused for that moment when, in silence, they show names and pictures of those who recently died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have grown accustomed to those usually stern pictures of young folks in uniforms. But sometimes, when the military photo is not available, there is a picture of this kid at a ball game or a party or some such.

But nothing quite prepared me for one photo. A Private First Class in her wedding dress. I seem to recall that the linguistic root that gives us infantry also gives us the word infant.

Life never gave Manfred Von Richthofen much of a chance. But then neither do we. We want to see him as The Knight Of The Air. The Red Baron. Or a pizza. A cartoon. It’s easier to see him as a cartoon. Why? Because if we see him as a kid, if we know him as sad, lonely, traumatized, maybe, just maybe, we would see him as someone just like us. But we can’t. We don’t dare. Why? Because it’s easier to kill a cartoon.

Thus the greatest lie of any war, regardless of what side you are on – that the people we kill are remarkably different. That because they have a different language, a different religion, different race, that they are nothing like us. That the enemy is never just a kid. That the enemy is never sad, lonely, traumatized. That the enemy never wears a wedding dress.