Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Things We All Carry

In the last couple of days, a book by a Minnesota-born writer, Tim O'Brien, has come to mind a few times. It's titled, The Things They Carried. That particular title comes to mind now and then anyway, but only because it pertains to life on so many levels and for so many people, myself included. All that baggage we carry, all that stuff that follows us around from room to room.

Tim O' Brien is a Viet Nam War veteran, whose stories of his experiences there still haunt us, and I expect him, as well. I first read his novel, Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1979, a whole lot of years ago. I then went on to read everything else he wrote as it came along. In the Lake of the Woods, remains a favorite. It's not just the locale, but the story itself. It so perfectly depicts a particular time in our lives.

Yes, we all carry around some baggage, but I believe war veterans, all war veterans, carry around more than their fair share. One particular story in this collection has stood out over the years as an example of the absurdity, the absolute absurdity, of war, the horrible loss of life and our attempt to make some sense of it, to find a way to maintain one's sanity amidst such utter and complete insanity.

The story is about a soldier named Curt Lemon, who steps on a landmine, something that doesn't just end his life, but scatters his body into pieces, some of which are left hanging from the branches of a nearby tree. His comrades climb up into the tree to retrieve his body parts, and as they do so, one of the men starts singing Harry Belafonte's song, "Lemon Tree." I will not write the words down here. You know them.

This came to mind, I believe, after hearing of the U. S. soldiers who are being accused of, and charged with, war crimes. It appears they killed several people in Afghanistan and then kept some of their body parts, fingers is what they're reporting, a sort of trophy collecting of the most difficult-to-understand nature. I am working on not passing judgment on anyone, even these soldiers who got caught up in war and, perhaps, their own struggle with keeping their sanity amidst the nightmare in which they found themselves. Yes, we can say, "That's horrifying! What kind of people are they? Who would do such a thing!?!"  And the crimes, as reported, are truly difficult to understand. But, when darkness emerges in such circumstances, and it does, can anyone truly say, "I would never...?"

I want to say, 'Never,' and I'm as certain as I can be, that's true. I'm certain you feel the same.  But, I have to ask myself, is that what these young men thought too, before they went to Afghanistan, before they acted so brutally, so callously, against human life? Would their mothers, their fathers, have ever thought their sons were capable of such atrocities?  A military court, no doubt, will handle their cases, but they sealed their own fate when they made the choices they did. And, there are always choices. It starts with one.

I would ascertain we've all made choices, whatever their nature, seemingly large or small, that took us into that strange twilight, if not the darkness, we never thought we'd find ourselves in, only to wake up and see ourselves emerging from the woods, standing at the edge of the field, looking for forgiveness.

Please forgive my less-than-happy foray into this topic. I can't explain why I'm writing this today, but I've always tried to listen and be guided into what I write about, so here it is. I wrote about Wilfred Owen, the World War I poet, in an earlier post. This topic is not new for me. I cannot write about gardens without writing about all the aspects of life, and, as I have mentioned before, the mystery of death is contained in the mystery of life. My impulse is to recoil from this topic, but in doing so I invite fear and I want to dispel fear, in all its guises, including anger.

I received an anthology of war poetry as a gift several years ago, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forche. I don't go there often. It's too painful. I do go there often enough to not forget. Her books dedication:

For those who died
and those who survived

Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956), poet and playwright, wrote powerful indictments against war and those who take us there. Marked for execution, he fled Germany in 1933, and spent sixteen years in exile, including time in the United States, where he was called before the House Committee for Un-American Activities. He returned to Germany in 1949. In his three part poem titled, "To Those Born Later," Brecht wrote, in part:

All roads led into the mire in my time.
My tongue betrayed me to the butchers.
There was little I could do. But those in power
Sat safer without me: that was my hope.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

Our forces were slight. Our goal
Lay far in the distance
It was clearly visible, though I myself
Was unlikely to reach it.
So passed my time
Which had been given to me on earth.

You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped.


  1. War is a terrible thing making other wise sane people do seemingly insane things. A very though provoking post Teresa.

    xo Catherine

  2. Wow. Impactful post. I did something in my 20s that I never dreamed in a million years I would do. Yet, there it was. And is. A big stain on my life. I am constantly having to forgive myself because some days if I'm left to dwell on it too much, it consumes me. Your post gave me something to think about. I haven't expressed myself adequately here, but believe me when I say 'thank you'.

  3. Haven't we all done things we aren't proud of and thought better of later on, perhaps not what others might think atrocities but then again, the eye of the beholder is much different than ours. So I can't say for sure what I would do in certain circumstances if pushed to the brink of insanity. When I was young I could say much more emphatically what I would or wouldn't do and now I can't say as much so emphatically, especially after the last few years of my life with financial and health problems, pushed to the brink, I can't say for sure.

    To Louisiana Belle, I've done things in my past some might be shocked at, but I don't dwell on them as I tell myself, that was me then, this is me now and I can't change the past, I can only go on to the future and do better now.

  4. Such a thought provoking post. Shocking and frightening to think of crazy terrifying stuff that happens. We all have a dark side. It is part of the mystery that is life. There but for the grace of god...

  5. Teresa, I taught that book of Tim O'Brien's for many years in my American Literature classes, and it was the favorite of all among my students. Before he became famous, Tim would read some of his short stories at Macalester College. A few times some of his fans (I among them) would go to O'Gara's for beer after the readings. My students were VERY impressed with that story of mine. I also have Forche's collection and have used many poems in it in class; in fact it's one of the poems on my poetry bookshelf, which is quite large, sitting in my kitchen. If you want to understand the horrors faced by soldiers in Afghanistan, read "War" by Sebastian Junger and see the documentary, "Restrepo" which resulted from Junger and his cameraman's time embedded FIVE times with special forces troops there. Neither the book nor the film are easy to read and watch, but I think it's absolute necessary to expose ourselves to these kinds of stories to understand what occurs in fire fights with these painfully young and brave young men. The first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam war, US Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta's role is descibed in the book and the film. The Taliban do not follow any "rules of war," and need to be destroyed in order for the poor people of Afganistan to return to some level of normalcy. I pass no judgment on any of our soldiers, young and scared in a hellish environment. Horrible as are some of the actions, we don't know until we have walked in their boots.

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  7. How very grateful I am, for all of your thoughtful comments.

    Catherine: Your statement sums it up very succinctly and correctly. Thank you.

    Gail: You are so dear to me. We all have had stains. Erase it from your thought, the only place it still exists. Thank you, for feeling free to express your thoughts.

    Linda: I hear you, girl. As I've gathered life experiences, it hasn't necessarily gotten clearer. I have a much easier time saying, 'I don't know...' I really appreciate your thoughts.

    Joan: I'm so glad you're here. It's such a treat for me to be able to share life with people from other corners of the world.

    Kate: Thank you for bringing your own story of Tim O'Brien's writing. I'm always grateful when I hear of teachers who introduce thought-provoking material, encouraging their students to look at the tough questions. "...until we have walked in their boots." Indeed.

    Manzanita! What thoughtful insights you've brought to our little table of discussion. Your life experiences are a valuable part of this global community. In our somewhat more insulated view, here in the U.S., it's easy to forget our shared world history.

    Glad you found some selections on my playlist that "moved" you :)

    You learned Flamenco in Spain from gypsies on the beach. Sigh.

    What a fine circle it was.

  8. Doing a lot of shadow work now, myself. I actually had a dream the other night in which I was trying to hail a taxi, but though the drivers really wanted to help, I had too much luggage to fit in any one vehicle... My higher self must think I'm REALLY obtuse, because the symbolism is always so point-blank.

    My husband spent time in Turkey at the onset of the (most recent) Iraq war. He was deployed there as a National Guardsman. At the time, he was 30. Where he was stationed in Turkey, was the in / out point for the Iraqi combat troops. They had to come back out of Iraq and sit in Turkey for a few weeks, percolating back into sanity, before they were unleashed into the streets of American again. What he saw from those young boys- a lot of them 18 or 19 years old- was nothing short of horrifying. Total, palpable, observable insanity- exchanging Poloroids of mutilated people- their "trophy kills". It was traumatizing for my husband to WITNESS and he wasn't even a part of it. Those young men were taught to kill on sight- no questions asked, in those early days of the war. What they became is exactly what they were programmed to become. How do we judge? WHO do we judge...?

  9. Kristy: Thank you, for bringing your husband's experience here for an inside look at the horror of war.

    Your dream certainly didn't need a dream interpretation book.... Ah, the things we carry.