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Father At War
Reflections of a father with a son in Iraq by Francis Pauc
Father & son
Francis Pauc is a graduate of West Point, Class of 1980. He served as an officer for six years after receiving his commission, five of those as a helicopter pilot. He had a gradual change of heart that started after he met his wife in Germany, and became a pacifist. Now, despite his best intentions, his oldest son is in the Army and deployed to the Middle East. His youngest son is graduating high school and will also join the military.
These letters, and other articles that he has have written over the years are his efforts to work for peace in a violent world. Thus far, he feels he has been very unsuccessful. His own flesh and blood is following the path that he rejected. This hurts him a lot. He says: “It would be easy for me to say, ‘Screw it’, and stop trying. I won’t stop. I will keep writing and speaking out, because it needs to be done.”
Iraq War: Forever changed our lives
Letter to Editor of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published March 20, 2013
Tuesday, March 19th, is the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The total monetary cost of the war is well in excess of a trillion dollars. Over four thousand American troops died in the conflict, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
After all of this expenditure of lives and treasure, Iraq is no more secure, and no less violent than it was before we invaded the country to take down Saddam Hussein. Our country is not any better off either.
Although the statistics about the war are impressive, they are also somehow distant and impersonal. For most people in the U.S. the war has always seemed far away and not quite real.
It is not that way for our family. Our son went to war in Iraq. He was in combat there, and he killed a person. He came home a different man. When Hans came back to us after a year, I looked into the eyes of a stranger. The boy we knew is gone, and he is never coming back.
For us the Iraq war is very real and very personal. We have not suffered nearly as much as other people have. However, the war has forever changed our lives.
Finding the Exit
We haven’t seen Hans since July. He calls frequently. Often the calls are about money; more specifically, his lack of money. He does occasionally call just to talk. He tells us about his work. Hans seems bored and restless. He has no interest in re-enlisting. The thrill is gone.
After having spent three years in the Army, Hans has realized that things are not what like he thought they would be. The Army keeps sending him to schools to get him eligible for promotion to sergeant, but the truth is that Hans really isn’t interested in becoming a sergeant. Obviously, he would like the pay increase that goes along with a promotion, but Hans sees what the NCO’s ( non-commissioned officers ) do for a living, and it doesn’t appeal to him. Hans joined the Army to drive tanks and blow things up, to put it bluntly. He enlisted to do things that were exciting. Sergeants don’t necessarily do exciting things. Sergeants train people, they write reports, they inspect equipment, they order supplies. Hans looks at a future in the Army as being progressively duller and less active. He’s probably right.
When Hans talked about his prospects in the Army, it reminded me of a conversation I had with my company commander in Germany back in 1984. I remember that I was in the break room in the barracks with Major Rose. He was trying to fix an ancient television set, and we started talking while he was attempting to resurrect this device. I told him how much I liked flying Blackhawks, and how I really did not want to get stuck in a desk job. Major Rose stopped his repair work for a moment and looked at me. He was a thoughtful man, and he patiently tried to explain to me that, as I rose in the ranks as an officer, I would get less and less flight time. I would become more of a manager, and less of a hands-on leader and a line pilot. My reaction was similar to Hans’ feelings. I liked flying and I liked being a platoon leader. Why couldn’t I just stay where I was, doing what I was doing?
The Army doesn’t want people to stay where they are. The Army wants people to be in constant competition with their peers. The military uses an “up or out” philosophy. A soldier either moves up in the ranks, or he is forced out. Competition is fundamental to the military culture. It’s all about winning or losing. It has to be that way, because in war losing can mean death. It is true that other institutions have cut-throat ways of selecting their leaders, but the military has made competition a way of life.
Hans is pondering what he wants to do in a life outside of the Army. That is difficult to do because the military is all-consuming. The Army doesn’t give a soldier time to consider the future; there are too many things happening in the present to allow for that. As his departure date approaches, Hans will have to look more closely at his options. It is often hard for a soldier to even imagine civilian life while he or she is still enmeshed in a military culture. I did not know how it felt to be out of the Army until I was actually out.
Hans still wants the adrenalin rush. The Army provides that. There are many petty and mindless activities in the Army, but they are tolerable because interspersed within the boring routine are moments of sheer terror. It cannot be denied that people do exciting things while they are in the military. I flew helicopters at 140 knots at treetop level, and Hans drove Abram tanks across sand dunes at 60 mph. Even in peacetime, things get crazy, and that is why a person puts up with all the rules and regulation. There is always an element of danger involved in the profession, and that, by itself, is attractive.
Hans won’t get a desk job or work in a factory unless he absolutely must. He is thinking mostly now about working on an oil rig in the Gulf. He talked to me about pirates that roam the Gulf of Mexico. I was blissfully unaware that such people existed. Hans assured me that there really are pirates, and they don’t wear funny hats or say, “Arr, Matey.” I’ll take his word it. I actually think that Hans likes the idea because it gives him a reason to carry a 9mm Beretta. He still wants an adventure. I hope he finds one.
Which is the Better Path?
Yesterday, Peace Action sponsored a rally at the Milwaukee County Courthouse to mark the 11th anniversary of the American war in Afghanistan. I planned on attending the rally. It seemed important to me to join others to speak out against an apparently endless, useless, and mostly forgotten war on the other side of the world. Our son, Hans, killed a man during combat in Iraq, so I am very aware of the damage that our wars cause, and ending these wars is both a personal and political issue for me.
I didn’t go to the rally. Something else came up. Mohamed, a young man who emigrated here from Tunisia, called me to set up a time when we could meet and study Arabic together. Mohamed has been teaching me Arabic for the last few months, and it is difficult for us to synchronize our schedules. The only time that worked for Mohamed was exactly the same time that rally was being held. I decided to spend the time with him.
I spent about an hour with Mohamed, talking and drinking coffee at Culver’s. We did work on some Arabic grammar, but we also took time to just talk. Mohamed told me about his very pregnant wife, and about their continuing efforts to buy a house. He told me about going to the noon prayer at the mosque ( he met me right after that service was completed ). I told him about my struggles with our grown up kids. I told him about how my wife, Karin, teaches religious education to little kids at our church. He told me about what was taught to the Muslim kids. Mohamed told me about what it was like to grow up in Tunisia when it was still a police state. That reminded of a story about my wife’s uncle, who was a soldier in the German Army during the Nazi regime. Before we knew it, our time was up and we each had to move on to other pressing matters.
I am sure that everyone that attended the Afghanistan rally was trying to work for peace. I have been to numerous demonstrations over the years, and I know how they generally run. The purpose of a rally is to wake people up. It is an attempt to point out an injustice and to galvanize people into action. There is great value in this. At rallies there are lots of signs and speeches and shouting from the rooftops ( maybe not in a literal sense ). I have also noticed that there is usually not a lot of listening on anybody’s part. A rally is not designed to promote a discussion; it is designed to ram home a message.
Did I work for peace by spending an hour in a restaurant with Mohamed? We barely mentioned any of the wars and chaos that curse our world. We hardly even thought about politics. We talked mostly about mundane things; the kinds of things that concern most every father or husband. We talked about our faiths, our families, and Arabic grammar. In many ways it could be considered a rather boring conversation. However, over the course of several months and many such conversations, Mohamed and I have established a relationship. He is no longer just a young man trying to teach some old guy a new language. Mohamed is now my friend, and I hope that I am that to him too.
Mohamed and I often disagree, but we can speak honestly to each other. I talk to him partly because I want to understand Arab culture and the Muslim religion. More importantly, I want to know Mohamed as Mohamed. I want to know him as person like myself, who has similar fears and hopes. I want to be part of his world, and I hope he will be part of mine.
How do we create peace in this world? Do we make heroic efforts to end wars and strife? Do we make small attempts to reach out and touch others, and then try to build trust on an individual level? Should we do both?
Lessons Learned from Hans Part 2
I tend to over analyze things, and to look for meaning under the surface of things. Sometimes that tendency gets me into trouble, but in my discussions with Hans it was often necessary in order for me to understand him. Hans uses words sparingly, and his answers to my questions were sometimes evasive. I have drawn some conclusions from very limited information, and I have had to trust my intuition. This means that I may be dead wrong on certain topics, but I also may be dead on.
We were eating at a restaurant one afternoon, and Hans told me a story. He was on a mission with his unit. His unit’s job was to provide escort security for the sergeant major whenever he traveled. Hans drove Caimans in Iraq; they are armored vehicles that look like Humvees on steroids. He talked about getting out of the Caiman to take a dump. His unit started to receive incoming fire, but Hans took the time to wipe himself before going back into the vehicle. Hans told us that he could tell by the sound of the incoming rounds how far away they were. He went to describe the various sounds that bullets make depending on the distance they are from a person. It was a funny story and we laughed about it.
Later I thought about what Hans had said about the sound of the incoming rounds. How does a person learn to judge the distance of incoming fire based just on the sound of the bullets? That isn’t something that you can look up on Google. That sort of knowledge must come from personal experience. That sort of knowledge probably comes from repeated exposure to people with guns actively trying to to kill you. That tells me that Hans was shot at much more often than he initially led us to believe.
Hans also told me about life at FOB Kalsu, where he was stationed in Iraq. While he was there, his unit received mortar and rocket attacks several times a week. Hans got used to it, and they all slept in bunkers, but I cannot help to think that frequent attacks would make a person uneasy. I know that if somebody lobbed a grenade in my backyard, I would not sleep well afterward. The truth is that Hans sleeps very poorly. Part of that may be hereditary; I don’t sleep worth a damn either. However, Hans’ experience in Iraq cannot have helped matters.
Hans had almost no contact with the local Iraqis while he was there. The U.S. soldiers were actively discouraged from interacting with the people in their area. To a large extent this is understandable. Iraq was a country known for IED’s and suicide bombers. U.S. soldiers were completely unable to tell friend from foe, so everybody was treated as a potential enemy. Hans viewed all Iraqis with distrust during his six months in the country. Based on his experiences, he had some reason to fear members of the local population. So, was Hans there as an ally of the Iraqi people, or was he there as a member of an occupying force? I don’t know. I do know that Hans has no desire to ever go back to the Middle East, and that he is wary of anybody that even looks like they are Iraqi.
Hans told me about his escort missions. He talked about being on duty for twenty hours straight. He talked about going days with minimal sleep. How does a person function in that kind of environment? The answer is to that is drugs: caffeine and nicotine, in large doses. While in Iraq Hans lived on energy drinks and cigarettes. He still does. While he was at home, he started each day with a can of Monster and a Newport. That was every day, without fail. Also, while he was home, he would go out drinking with his buddies.
Nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol are integral parts of the military culture. It was like that a generation ago when I was in the Army, and it hasn’t changed one bit in the last thirty years. Hans did not have access to alcohol in Iraq and Kuwait, but he consumed plenty of nicotine and caffeine while he was deployed. The people at my office sent him and his buddies packages full of cigars, cigarettes, and chewing tobacco. They used up everything we sent them.
The Army offers a lifestyle of extremes; a soldier moves between moments of sheer terror to periods of utter boredom and back again. Legal drugs are the simplest ways of dealing with emotional problems. The three drugs I mentioned provide short term solutions, and they create long term problems. In some ways Hans is a typical soldier, dealing with his issues in the usual way. I can’t blame him. With the exception of nicotine, I used the all the same chemical fixes.
Hans told me, “Therapy is for the weak.” He was smiling when he said that, so I’m not sure if he was completely serious. Hans takes a certain perverse pleasure in messing with my head. Hans has seen an Army shrink since his return from deployment. He has some issues, and he is geting help. I am almost certain that Hans has no intention of opening up to a therapist. I think he wants chemical solutions to psychological and spiritual problems. This isn’t surprising; it’s the American way. I just know from experience that approach doesn’t work well at all. To his credit, Hans has talked about his problems to some extent. In a way, it really doesn’t matter who he tells, as long as he doesn’t keep everything inside.
Hans told me that he is skydiving. That doesn’t surprise me. He also told me that he plans on going to Air Assault School to learn how to rappel out of helicopters. That doesn’t surprise me either. Hans joined the Army for the adrenalin rush, just like I did. Whether they admit it or not, that is why most people go into the military. I got my thrills flying a Blackhawk over the trees at 100 knots, and Hans got his kicks driving a tank across the desert at 60 mph. These activities may seem pointless and immature, but they make for great stories later in life. At some point in life, all you have left is your stories.
Hans is a brave young a man. I’ve told him that. Even aside from the thrill seeking, he has shown me that he has a lot of courage. Hans has an inner strength that was probably always there, but it is more apparent to me now. I wish with all my heart that Hans had not gone to war, but since he did, I can see better who he really is. Maybe he can see that too.
Lessons Learned from Hans Part 1
Hans came home from the war. He spent three weeks with us. During that time, I tried to get to know our son again. Hans has changed since we last saw him. There are some good changes, but there are quite a few that seem unsettling. I’ve made some observations, and they are by no means objective. These are just my impressions of our son the soldier.
I have to tell you upfront that I do not and cannot understand all of Hans’ experiences. It is difficult in the best of circumstances to know the feelings and thoughts of another person. In this situation it is especially challenging because Hans has seen and done things that I have not. There is a qualitative difference between his military life and my own. Although I performed hazardous duties as an Army helicopter pilot, I served during peacetime. Hans came under enemy fire; I never experienced that. Hans killed a man; I never did. No matter what Hans tells me, I will never fully comprehend what happened to him in Iraq. There are parts of his life that I simply cannot touch.
I spent as much time with Hans as I could while he was visiting us. When he talked, I listened. Sometimes I would sit with him on our front porch, as he smoked Newport menthols and sipped on a can of Monster. Sometimes we would go out to eat and have a couple drinks. Often Hans was passive, and I had to rouse him from his lethargy to do things. I convinced him to Half-Price Books, and we stood around reading graphic novels. One time we went to Gander Mountain so Hans could look at guns.
Hans likes guns. More importantly, he understands them. While we browsed through Gander Mountain, Hans explained a number of things to me. Hans doesn’t like pistols with carbon composite stocks. He told me that the stocks are too light. He explained that, as a person fires off rounds, the balance of the weapon changes slightly and the shooter has to adjust his aim. Hans scored Expert with a pistol in basic training, and he is very familiar with the 9mm Beretta, one of the weapons he carried in Iraq. He likes the .45 revolver, but he doesn’t like the feel of a Glock. As I listened to Hans talk, it became obvious to me that he knew about weapons in a very intimate way. He talked about them in a very professionally. Rightly so. Hans is a professional soldier, and he knows his tools.
Hans always carried at least three weapons when he was in Iraq: he had the 9mm Beretta, the M-4 rifle, and a shotgun. He carried a shotgun because it was the only weapon for which he had a non-lethal round. If trouble started, he could fire the non-lethal round with the shotgun. If that didn’t have the desired effect, well, then things started to get lethal. Hans told me all about his firearms; how they worked, when they malfunctioned, how he had to clean them. For six months these weapons were his constant companions.
Hans has a conceal/carry permit from Texas, where he is stationed. He wants to buy a Beretta 9mm to conceal and carry. I asked him why he wanted to get a pistol so badly. Hans told me, “I feel naked when I am not carrying a piece.” Somehow I can understand that. Hans isn’t one of the local NRA fanatics who has a gun fetish. Instead, Hans is a man who carried a loaded weapon with him almost constantly for six of the most intense months of his life. The weapon became part of him, part of who he was. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Hans feels awkward without a firearm.
I told Hans about the shooting at the Sikh temple shortly after it happened. He listened to me, and his only question was whether or not the shooter was former military. The next day I read on the Internet that the killer was an Army vet. I told this to Hans while he was working on his motorcycle. He glanced up at me, shook his head, and said,”That really isn’t a big surprise.”
We started talking about the shooting at the temple. Hans didn’t seem particularly shocked. He remarked that people get shot each and every day, and nobody seems to care. The media doesn’t swarm around when some drug dealer gets killed, or when a kid catches a stray bullet during a drive by. Somehow people regarded this attack as extraordinary, when in reality it wasn’t. Hans had seen enough of death to know that.
Hans then told me about his feelings toward the Iraqis. Actually, he explained to me that he feels nervous and paranoid whenever he stops at a gas station or convenience store that is run by somebody who looks like they are from the Middle East. I asked him why that was; the guy in the 7–11 isn’t from Al-Qaeda. Hans told me that when “you get shot at by a person from that race”, you don’t trust people who look like that. In his head, Hans knows that the guy at the gas station is just a guy. In his gut, he doesn’t know that. Part of Hans is still in Iraq. Part of him never came home. I asked Hans how a person works through these feelings of distrust. He just shook his head at me and walked away.
Politics don’t matter. Certainly, they don’t matter to Hans. He doesn’t even vote. He told me that, while he was in Iraq, the only thing that mattered was doing his job and getting himself and his comrades back home safely. He wasn’t concerned about democracy or oil or anything like that. What mattered was caring for the welfare of his buddies and doing his duty. He doesn’t see himself as a hero or a patriot. He just sees himself as a survivor.
At age twenty-five, Hans doesn’t have much of that youthful idealism left. On the other hand, the narcissism of adolescence has been completely burned away too. Hans sees the suffering of others, and he is concerned with helping them. He knows from experience what it means to depend on other people, and what it means to have them depend on you. He now has a level of empathy that he never had before.
Hans wrestles with doubts. He told Karin and myself that he doesn’t believe in God. I’m not so sure about that. I think it is more like he doesn’t believe in God’s followers. I saw a bumper sticker once that said: “Lord Jesus, protect me from your disciples.” There is a huge disconnect between what Hans has been taught about God, and what he has experienced in God’s creation. It is obvious to Hans that people have preached one thing and then practiced something very different. Hans has been very adamant that he wants no part of the institutional church.
Before Hans ended his visit, Karin and I took him to eat Mexican food at El Senorial. It was a Saturday afternoon, and we met my younger brother, John, at the restaurant. John is Hans’ godfather. After eating and drinking, John asked if Hans would go to church with him. Hans respectfully declined the offer. After a few more beers, Hans became more amenable to the idea. In the end, all four of us went to the evening Mass at SS. Cyril and Methodius Church. Hans partcipated in the liturgy, and he received communion. I never got the impression that he was just going through the motions. He wanted it to be real.
Hans is a redneck by choice. The years in the Army and the years of living down in Texas have left their mark. One of the first things he did when he arrived at our house was to install his CB radio in his truck, along with the eight-foot whip antennas that go with it. Hans has a big, black pick up truck with two bumper stickers. One says “Army”, and the other says “Kiss my Rebel Ass”. Hans only listens to country music in his truck.
Hans likes barbecued ribs. I asked a guy at my work where to get ribs, and he suggest that we go to Speed Queen. The place is in a neighborhood that is very poor and very black. The ribs they make are execllent, and worth the trip. I asked Hans if he wanted to drive to the place on 12th and Walnut in his big, ol’ truck. Hans told me that he considered that to be a bad idea. I laughed.
I have other thoughts about Hans and the Army and the wars. I’ll get to those in the next letter.
Losing His Religion
Hans came home on Saturday. Our son was deployed with his Army unit in Iraq and then in Kuwait, and we hadn’t seen him for over a year. Hans drove up here from Fort Hood, Texas in his huge, Dodge pick up truck. He came the whole way with only making a few stops to buy gas and energy drinks. Karin and I talked with him briefly when he arrived, and then he crashed in his bedroom to sleep for twelve hours.
On Sunday morning, Karin and I got ready to go to church. I was serving as lector that day, and Karin was going to help distribute communion. Hans was up already. He had been outside smoking his first Newport of the day, and he saw that we were getting ready to leave the house. We had not asked him to come to Mass with us; we didn’t expect that he would. Hans is a reluctant church-goer; this has certainly been true since he moved away from home.
Hans is not much of a talker. He uses his words sparingly, and it is rare that he will just start a conversation on his own. However, when Hans saw that we were getting ready to go, he began talking to us. He said, “I don’t think that there is any hell except the hell on earth. There is no God. If there was a God, He wouldn’t have let me see all of that fucked up shit in Iraq.” Then he said rather definitively,”I’m not going to Mass.”
Obviously, Hans’ remarks bother me. However, I won’t attempt to refute them. First of all, any dispute at this time would be counterproductive. Secondly, I am hard pressed to show him where he is wrong. Based on Hans’ recent experiences, he has a pretty solid argument for his views. Hans killed a man in Iraq during combat. He’s seen corpses, and he’s seen intense suffering. He and his comrades have been the targets of mortars, rockets, and small arms fire. Hans has told us only a little bit about his service in Iraq, and what he has told us is grim. Hans has confronted the problem of theodicy in a very real and personal way.
How does a good Catholic boy become an atheist? I think part of the answer lies in how we taught him about God. We tend to teach our children that God is all-loving, and that somehow He will make everything all right. We focus on the image of a gentle, nurturing God who brings sunshine and rainbows. We forget about the other side of God; the God that ordered the Flood, the God who nuked Sodom, the God in the Book of Job. We have taught Hans about a God that doesn’t correspond to the events in the real world. Is it any wonder that he does not believe in Him?
One of the standard answers to problem of suffering in the world is that it is all our own damn fault. People say that all evil is due to human wickedness. That answer simply doesn’t cut it. I do not buy the notion that the sins of men cause tsunamis or typhoons. The fact is that innocents suffer, and there is no denying that. Clearly, many of humanity’s wounds are self-inflicted. Hans is a witness to that. I can understand our son’s inability to worship a deity who seems oblivious to fratricide among His children. It doesn’t make sense.
Faith is often destroyed by hypocrisy. Can I blame Hans for his disbelief when our leaders, who wear their Christian faith on their sleeves, sent Hans to fight people who had never done him any harm? Why should Hans listen to religious people who babble on about love and peace, but have no problem with our country waging endless wars?
It has been said that nobody who fights in a war returns unwounded. I know this to be true. Hans has been damaged. Physically, he looks all right. Deep inside he is just as badly injured as a person who comes home missing an arm or a leg. His soul is disfigured. He’s different. He’s changed.
Hans is correct in that there is a hell on earth. I am not sure if there is a place of eternal damnation, but I am convinced that we taste hell while we live in this world. We also experience a bit of heaven while we are here, but Hans can’t see that now. Some day he may.
Is our son lost? Maybe, for now he is. That’s okay. When he finds his way back, he will have a mature faith. Hans might not believe in God, but I still believe in Hans. More importantly, God believes in Hans.
Seeing Through Different Eyes
Back in January I went to the Islamic Resource Center in Milwaukee to sign up for an Arabic class. The Islamic Resource Center ( IRC ) is located in a building that it shares with a medical clinic near the intersection of Edgerton Avenue and 27th Street in Greenfield. The place was nearly empty the first time that I visited there. That was a pity because the inside of the IRC is much more inviting than the outside of the building. It reminds me a bit of the homes people have in Mediterranean countries; the exterior of the center seems cold and impersonal, but the interior is full of beauty and warmth. The IRC contains art and books and the faint smell of coffee. It is a place that is simultaneously exotic and welcoming.
I signed up for the Arabic class with Lee, a friend of mine from work. Lee was fascinated by the beauty of the Arabic script, and he wanted to learn how to write it. I had studied Arabic thirty-some years ago when I was in the Army, and I wanted to return to it. For Lee the class was going to be something new. For me it was going to be a process of remembering things that I had long forgotten.
Studying the language reminds me of what a woman told me when our children were in the Waldorf school. At that time the Waldorf school students learned both German and Spanish as part of the curriculum. Barb, an instructor at the school, explained to me that our children were not learning Spanish and German to necessarily become proficient in those languages. The purpose of learning Spanish was so that the child could experience a Latin soul, and the study of German was there so that the student could experience a Teutonic soul. I found Barb’s words to be very moving and very profound. A language expresses the soul of a culture. Arabic is the voice of Islam, and it is a way to experience the Muslim soul.
Arabic is at once both beautiful and harsh. The writing is an art form that seems to flow of its own accord. The spoken language is guttural, but somehow also melodious. Arabic is grounded in this world, but it can also be used to describe the works of God.
Our Arabic instructor was Abdel-latif Oulhaj, a teacher at UWM. He was good, really good. Abdel-latif was clearly a very competent teacher with a strong grasp of the subject matter. More importantly, Abdel-latif had a passion for his work. It was obvious to me that he loved the language and he loved to share it with others. Enthusiasm is infectious, and Abdel-latif was definitely enthusiastic in the classroom.
The hallmark of a good class is when a student regrets that it is over. The months went by quickly while we studied Arabic. Both Lee and I were sorry when the course was finished, because we weren’t finished. We felt like we were just getting started. The class was a beginning, not an end.
I am grateful to the people at the Islamic Resource Center for offering the Arabic class, and for providing me with the opportunity to learn more about Islam and about Arab culture. I became aware of new things. I remembered some old things. The class enabled me to see the world through different eyes.
On Pentecost I served as lector during the 10:30 Mass. Immediately after the liturgy was complete, a man approached me and said, “I’m going to tell the priest this too, but you didn’t say one word about the troops! It’s Memorial Day weekend! I’m so upset about this!” The parishioner rushed off before I could respond to his remarks. He was busy tracking down our priest. His passionate comments were not completely accurate; during the prayers of the faithful, we did ask God to remember those people that had given their lives in the service of our country. Apparently, that was not sufficient for this gentleman.
If I had had the opportunity, I would have told the irate parishioner that I had served in the Army, and that our son has seen combat in the Iraq war. Fortunately, our son has survived his battlefield experience. I agree wholeheartedly that we, as Catholics, should honor our soldiers and pray for them. We should do that on Memorial Day and every day.
If I could, I would ask our congregation to pray for our troops, and then take our prayer a bit further. We ought to also pray for the civilian non-combatants in our wars, the women and children who are killed or wounded simply because they get in the way of the fighting. If we can do that, then we might also find it in our hearts to pray for the enemies of our nation. Perhaps we could pray for the members of the Taliban who have died in battle, leaving behind widows and orphans. These people are also created in God’s image, just like our son. God loves them too.
Chapter 29 A Piece of Ribbon
Napoleon Bonaparte said that a soldier will fight long and hard for a piece of colored ribbon. It’s true. Ribbons, medals, and plaques are usually without any monetary value, but a soldier will often keep them for all of his life. It’s hard to explain why this is. It might be because a particular award represents some act of courage or some level of skill. It may be that the object reminds the military person of some important event. Usually, a medal or ribbon means nothing to a person from the civilian world. It only has value for somebody that is part of the military culture. It is something that sets the soldier apart from the other people.
When Hans came home to visit us after his basic training, he brought along some of his Army certificates and awards. He had an award for marksmanship with a pistol. He had scored second best out of all the men in his unit. He was very proud of that, and he wanted me to see it. He wasn’t bragging or anything like that; he just wanted me to know what he had accomplished. It reminded me of when I had received my West Point class ring, or when I had earned my flight wings. Hans had a fancy piece of paper, and he had a piece of metal to pin on to his uniform. For him it was a big deal.
While Hans stayed with us, we took a trip one day to see my folks. Hans brought his awards with him to show to his grandfather. As we sat in my dad’s living room, Hans pulled out his treasures and let my father hold them. My dad looked at them and congratulated Hans on the fine job he had done. Hans thanked him, and then Hans seemed to straighten up just a bit.
Right above the sofa in the parents’ living room is a saber and scabbard. It was a gift from me to my folks from many years ago. I was at West Point when I bought it for them. There is a tarnished brass plaque under the saber that says: “To my parents with love”. My dad has had that hanging on the wall for over thirty years. I am almost certain that Hans has noticed it there.
During that same visit, my father gave me a little box. It contained a silver coin commemorating the service of those people that were in the military during the Korean War era. My dad said, “Here Frankie, I’m starting to give my stuff away. I figured you’d appreciate this.” I took the coin and thanked him. My dad seemed sad.
After Army basic training, Hans insisted on wearing a t-shirt that the guys in his unit had designed. The shirt had a black background with the names of the unit members written on the back of it. On the front of the shirt was a picture of a tank, along with bloody battle axes and scantily clad, anatomically improbable women. The shirt was tacky, violent, and sexist. It was also Hans’ favorite, because it reminded him of the bond that he had with the other troops that shared his struggles in basic training.
For years after I had resigned my commission, I kept my old uniforms at home. I had my dress uniform from West Point, with all of the gold braid on the sleeves and the shiny brass buttons. I kept my dress greens with the few ribbons that were attached to them. I didn’t have any medals because I had served during peace time, but I did have a pair of wings. I kept the uniforms partly so that I could show them to Hans some day. I had the uniforms in our bedroom closet until Karin decided that they would be just as happy in a suitcase in the basement. We had some flooding in the basement one spring, and for a long time none of us thought of the suitcase that had been sitting on the floor.
I eventually thought of it. The day came when I wanted to show my uniforms to Hans, and I realized that they weren’t in the closet any more. Karin told me about the suitcase and I went into the basement to find it. When I opened it I found a mass of moldy, rotted fabric. Everything the suitcase was wet and smelled bad. I threw it all out.
I was livid. Karin couldn’t understand why I was so angry. She said that it wasn’t like I was ever going to wear the uniforms again. That was true, and it was also irrelevant. I wasn’t just tossing out some old clothes; I was throwing away part of my past. Karin and I proceeded to have a loud and nasty fight. Hans commented to me years later, “Yeah, I remember that one. That’s when you and Mom started going to therapy.” Actually, that wasn’t what sent to us to therapy, but that incident did come up in conversation.
Maybe it would be better to just let go of all the accumulated military paraphernalia. It would nice to say that these trinkets no longer matter, that they no longer having any meaning or power. The problem is that they are symbols of a continuing struggle, and that story is not finished yet. These things will always exist, even if only as memories.
Iran and United States of America
Letter to Editor in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 26, 2012
Every day I read something about the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Iran. Each day there seems to be a new threat of military action by Iranians or by us. The U.S. and Iran have been adversaries since the fall of the Shah, but it seems like we have never been closer to war than we are now. I take a personal interest in this situation because our eldest son is presently deployed in Kuwait with his Army unit. If The U.S. and Iran do go to war, our son will necessarily be a part of that.
I can understand the concern of many people, especially the Israelis, regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. What I don’t understand is how a bombing attack on Iran by Israel and/or the U.S. will effectively end Iran’s potential for becoming a nuclear power. I cannot see how a bombing raid can make a lasting difference in Iran’s attempts to produce an atomic weapon. Bombing the Iranian facilities might set back the program for a few years, but it wouldn’t eliminate the problem.
Perhaps the idea is that if we bomb Iran, the Iranian people will rise up against their government. I don’t see much evidence in history to support that notion. It is more likely that an air attack on Iran would cause the population to rally around the mullahs. When we bombed Germany during World War II, did the Germans rise up against Hitler? When we bombed North Vietnam, was there any attempt to overthrow Ho Chi Minh?
If the dream is to achieve regime change in order to halt the nuclear research, that means we have to invade Iran. I cannot see how that would end successfully. We just finished an attempt at nation-building in Iraq, and that did not turn out well. Our efforts in Afghanistan have not achieved our goals. An invasion of Iran is bad idea, a very bad idea.
To my mind, the only rational solution is to this issue is to work out some kind of political arrangement with Iran. Unfortunately, the time available to cut a deal with Iran is limited. We are running out of time to find a peaceful solution, and avoid an unnecessary war. My son may be running out of time too.
Thinking and Feeling
Frank writes about his feelings on “reflexive killing.”
I read the article by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman about reflexive killing. The most shocking thing about reading his essay was that I wasn’t shocked. My overall reaction was, “Well, yeah, of course… “The truth is that from a military point of view everything that Grossman wrote made perfect sense. War is about killing. In particular, it is about killing your enemy in the most effective way possible. As George Patton said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country. “That statement was true seventy years ago, and its true now.
As I have mentioned before, our son was involved in combat in Iraq. His unit was ambushed. He returned fire, and he killed a man. Could Hans’ response be considered reflexive killing? I bet it was, and maybe it saved his life. A firefight is not a good time for a person to consider the moral consequences of his or her actions. There is no opportunity in a life-or-death situation to think things out. You just do it.
If the people in ROTC are teaching reflexive killing, they are just doing their jobs. A military organization is duty bound to teach its members how best to survive in combat. Unfortunately, preserving the lives of our soldiers often means taking the lives of other people. It hurts me that Hans killed someone, but it would also be terribly wrong if the Army had not adequately trained our son to defend himself when attacked. I wasn’t there, but it sounds like Hans reacted as he was trained to do. He probably did not have the time to think or to feel.
Well, now he does. Hans will have the rest of his life to replay the movie in his head. He didn’t want to tell us about the attack, but then again, he felt like he needed to say something about it. I believe that it bothers him at some level, and I don’t think that feeling will go away for quite a while. Hans will make peace with his actions, but he has been changed by them. Reflexive killing is a short term solution that results in long term problems. Hans survived the attack. Now he has to survive the aftermath.
Rather than focusing on the instruction of young people in reflexive killing, it might be more useful to look at the reasons why they find themselves in a position that necessitates the use of violence. It is too late to stop the action when a young man is driving through the Iraqi desert and gets attacked by people who really hate him. That is way too late to change anything. We have to stop the violence well before the crisis occurs.
I suggest we ask questions. Why do young people like Hans enlist or join ROTC? Why did I go to West Point? Why do we, as a nation, keep sending our youth to fight people that they don’t know or understand? What opportunities can we offer to young persons that allow them to demonstrate their courage and commitment without taking other human lives? We need to look at the circumstances that set the stage for war. We have to get ahead of the game. Once somebody signs on the dotted line and makes a commitment to the military, it is too late to tell them killing is wrong. We have to influence people before they make the choice to be soldiers. We can’t wait until they pull the trigger.
Maybe I Heard Him Wrong
Frank publishes this essay with the permission of his son Hans who is now serving in the military in Kuwait.
Hans flies back to his unit in Kuwait today. He has been on his mid-deployment leave for the last two weeks. He spent his time in Texas with his friends, some of our family members, and his big, ol’ Dodge pick-up truck. Karin and I had hoped that Hans would come up to Wisconsin to visit us, but that didn’t happen. He has called us a number of times while he’s been in the U.S., and we talked quite a bit.
I came home from work around noon on Wednesday, and Karin told me that Hans had called her in the morning. They had talked for awhile about small stuff, and then Hans had talked a little about his time in Iraq. Karin told me that Hans had said that, while in Iraq, he had shot a dog. Apparently, the dog was wild and aggressive. Then Karin told me that Hans had said something odd: he had told her that he had shot somebody, but it hadn’t bothered him that much. Karin said that maybe she hadn’t heard him correctly, and that Hans had been still talking about shooting the dog. Maybe she had misunderstood him.
I shrugged it off. I hadn’t been there for their phone conversation, so I had no idea what Hans had actually meant to say. I was tired, and I took a nap for a while.
Wednesday evening, I was home alone in the house. The phone rang. It was Hans. We talked. He told me about his truck and all the detailing that he was having done on it. We talked about the weather down in Texas. Hans told me that he was getting antsy about going back to his unit. He mentioned that he kind of missed how everybody in his company had worked together while they were in Iraq. He told me how all the guys had really looked out for each other while they were there.
I said to Hans, “Mom told me that you had to shoot a dog in Iraq. Did you? “
Hans said, “Yeah, it attacked me and it was biting my hand, so I had to kill it.”
I paused for a moment, and then I asked him, “When you were in Iraq, did you shoot someone?”
Hans immediately replied, “Yes.” No hesitation. I had asked a simple question, and he had given me a straight answer.
I took a breath. Then I asked him, “Did he die?”
Hans said, “Well, yeah, I guess so…I must have pumped thirty rounds into him.”
“Aaaaw fuck “, I thought.
Hans said, “ There was an ambush…they bombed the first vehicle…we fired back.”
I said, “ I’m sorry, Hans. I’m sorry that had to happen. I’m sorry that you were in that situation.”
Hans replied, “It didn’t really bother me. I slept okay that night. I’m all right.”
Hans was very quick to tell me that he was okay. I wonder if he said that because it is true, or because he wanted to reassure me, or because he is trying to convince himself that he is all right. Maybe it is a combination of all three things.
Hans told me, “Hey, don’t tell Mom. I don’t want her to freak out. “
Well, I told Mom. How could I not? She didn’t freak out, but it hurts her. I waited a couple days to talk to Karin about it, but she needed to know. She had to know.
I told Stefan too. He needs to know what happened. It may not change his decision to join the Army, but he needs to understand what is real.
I talked to some guys at work about Hans. Most of them are vets; some saw combat. One friend of mine who was in Vietnam told me, “Frank, be proud of him. He did his job!”
That’s true. I am proud of Hans. He is a very brave young man. He did what he had to do to defend himself and his comrades. But still…
A man is dead. I know nothing about the man that Hans shot. Hans probably doesn’t either. I do know that all life is sacred. I do know that every human life is precious. I do know that somebody, somewhere mourns for this man.
I am grateful that Hans is alive and unhurt. However, I believe that this will leave a mark. It will change Hans, and this event will affect any number of people, now and in the future. Karma is real, and things have been set in motion. Every death is a tragedy, but not every death is a waste. It is possible for good to come of this. It depends on how we react to the event. It depends on what we learn from it.
In a way, it seemed odd that Hans didn’t come up to visit us. Now it makes more sense. It was probably hard enough for him to say what he needed to say over the phone. It would have been much harder for him to look us straight in the eye and say it.
I am grateful that Hans told me what he did. That shows that he trusts us and loves us. He knows that we love him. I spoke with our priest, and told me to be patient and to wait. He suggested that I be there for Hans, if and when he decides to speak about this again. He told me to listen. I’ll do that. I can do that much.
Please pray for Hans. Pray for the man that died. Pray for us all.
It is still hard for me to accept what Hans told us. Maybe I heard him wrong.
Politicians Mocking Sacrifice of Soldiers
Letter to editor of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of Dec. 21, 2011
Our son just arrived in Kuwait from Iraq a couple days ago. He was one of the last troops to leave Iraq. His recent deployment in Iraq has been very stressful for my wife and myself. People have tried to reassure us by telling us that he is defending our nation’s freedom. They say that our son is risking his life to protect the rights that we hold dear.
It is more than a little disturbing that, while our son is serving overseas, the Congress of the United States has been actively working to undermine the Bill of Rights. Both houses of Congress overwhelming passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 which, in Section 1031, allows the military to arrest and indefinitely detain any suspected terrorist without that person being able to have access to a lawyer or a trial. This would apply to any U.S citizen at any time, anywhere on U.S soil. People might try to dismiss this and say that the law will only affect terrorists, but this law is a direct assault on the rights of every American. If President Obama signs this law, nobody is free.
It is hard enough for us to worry about our son as he serves his country overseas, but we know that he is doing what he believes is right. He is defending the U.S. Constitution. His comrades are doing the same. It is an absolute travesty to watch our elected officials make a mockery of the sacrifices of these soldiers.
On Wednesday Stefan announced to us that he had invited the high school’s Army recruiter to visit our home at 3:15 PM the following day. I don’t know if Stefan’s ADD kept him from giving us any more notice, or if he just likes the element of surprise. Stefan had mentioned his desire to join the Army previously, but Karin and I had hoped that this was only a passing fancy. I guess not.
Stefan got home from school just before the recruiter showed up on Thursday. Stefan seemed excited about the visit. Generally, he embodies that adolescent sort of ennui, but not on Thursday. He kept looking out the window for the soldier to pull up in his car, and he quickly went outside to greet him when he did show up.
I had made some coffee before hand. We all sat around the kitchen table; Karin, Stefan, the recruiter, and myself. The sergeant introduced himself and then started his spiel: “Well, I’m kind of a visual guy, so I brought some papers here for us all to look at…”
I responded, “ Naaah, I don’t want to look at those.”
The soldier looked at me and said, “ Okay, well, we don’t have to look at these forms right now. Stefan approached us and told told us that he is interested in enlisting.”
I turned to Stefan and said, “ My impression is that Stefan has his heart set on joining the military. Is that right?” Stefan nodded. The sergeant turned to us and said, “And I assume that you folks approve of this?” Karin and I simultaneously replied, “NO.” Awkward pause. I said to the recruiter, “ So, is there anything else we need to talk about?” The sergeant looked at me and asked, “ Sir, were you in the military? I noticed you have a footlocker with “ 2LT “ stenciled on it.”
I had forgotten about the footlocker. It sits on the floor in the hallway, filled with stuff that I should have tossed out years ago. I had been issued the footlocker just before graduating from West Point, and had been told to stencil my name “ 2LT Francis K. Pauc “ on the top of it. That was back when most of my worldly possessions fit into the footlocker. I wonder what other relics of that part of my life are scattered throughout our house.
I told the recruiter that, yes, there had been a time when I was a second lieutenant. Then I asked him if he had seen the sign in our front yard that said “ War is not the Answer”.
He replied, Yes Sir, I saw your sign. Everybody has the right to his own opinion.” Glad to hear it.
Enough of the small talk. I gave the sergeant a brief history of our family. I told him that I had gone to West Point and then served six years as an officer during the Cold War era. I explained that later I had become an anti-war activist, and that then, through an ironic twist of fate, our eldest son had joined the Army, and that he is presently deployed in Iraq. I tried to make it clear that having one son overseas was hard for us, and that the prospect of having both our sons at war was a bit too much to handle.
I mentioned that Hans, our oldest boy, has called us once from Iraq to let us know that he was okay. Hans had said that he hadn’t been shot at for several weeks, and that the neighbors only tossed mortars on to the base a couple times a week. Oddly enough, Karin and I didn’t find his words comforting.
The recruiter said that we were drawing our forces out of Iraq, and it was getting better. I told him that Hans was going to be one of the last troops to leave Iraq. He will probably turn off the lights and lock the door on his way out. However, he is staying with his unit in Kuwait because the odds are that something else will go to hell in one of the other nearby vacation spots.
The sergeant said that he had been in Iraq for twenty-seven months, and that overall it had been a good experience for him. Maybe so. The recruiter also told us that his fiance had been in the service for five years, and she had never been deployed overseas. Then he mentioned that she was a dental hygienist. Apparently, oral hygiene is not a big priority in the desert.
The truth is that if Stefan enlists, he will get deployed. Guaranteed. I remember when Hans graduated from basic training, his commander said flat out that all his troops were getting deployed. It wasn’t a matter of “if”; it was just a matter of “when” they would go.
I told the sergeant that soon Stefan would be an adult, and he could make his own decisions on the matter. In a few weeks my opinion won’t matter; it might not even matter now. He will do what he needs to do. I respect that. I am willing to accept Stefan’s choice, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. I won’t do anything to try to stop Stefan from enlisting, but I won’t cheer him on either. The recruiter said, “ Sir, we don’t try to push parents to sign a waiver before the young person is of age.” I replied, “Good, because I’m not signing anything.” Stefan smirked.
The sergeant asked Stefan what he hoped to do in the Army. Stefan told him that he wanted to be a mechanic. The recruiter explained that Stefan had taken the aptitude test, and that his chances for becoming a mechanic were good. He said, “ It all depends on this young man’s test scores and on his choices…” I interjected, “And on the needs of the Army.” The sergeant looked at me and chuckled, “Yes, and on the needs of the Army.”
The Army, like most organizations, will promise a new recruit damn near anything, but this usually done in good faith. However, when push comes to shove, the Army will do what it wants with you. Stefan might get trained as a mechanic, but if the Army needs him to carry a rifle instead of turning a wrench; then, by God, he’s going to carry a rifle. That’s how it works.
I told the recruiter that my main concern wasn’t that Stefan might get hurt. Stefan just broke his thumb doing bike tricks. Two years ago, I had my leg crushed by a forklift at work. You don’t have to go far to get hurt. My real concern is that Stefan gets put into a situation where he has to take the life of another human being. Killing a person, justifiably or not, scars the soul of the killer. The recruiter mentioned that he was an aircraft mechanic himself, and that he had never had to fire his weapon. That’s true, but that might have just been dumb luck. I mentioned that I had never been in a war, and I was okay with that. However, right now, our country is at war, and it is kind of crap shoot as to whether or not a soldier will have to kill somebody else.
The recruiter kind of glossed over the fact that Stefan would be trained how to shoot and do all of that sort of thing. He focused on the idea that Stefan would be trained as a mechanic. I told him that as a plebe, I learned that the job of an Army officer was to be “ an expert in the management of violence “. That implies hurting somebody. Soldiers kill people. That is what armies do. Stefan needs to understand that. I made sure that Stefan heard all of this.
The discussion wound down. I told the recruiter that the date to remember is February 9th, 2012. That is Stefan’s birthday. When that day rolls around, it’s game on. Until then, we’re done talking. The sergeant took his leave, and we all said goodbye. His seemed eager to go. Stefan wanted to go too. I gave him a hug.
Stefan plays guitar, and he writes his own songs. I am kind of lame bass player. I told Stefan that, before he leaves for basic training, he and I will record a song together. He can write it. I’ll play whatever he wants. I have a friend from work who is a drummer, and he will help us out. Another friend, who is a blues guitarist. will help with the recording. I want to have one song with both of us playing. I want to have something to listen to when Stefan is far away.
Not Really that Surprised
After Mass on Sunday, Stefan announced to Karin that was enlisting in the Army as soon as he turned eighteen. Well, actually he can’t join up until after he graduates from high school in June. The Army requires a person to have a diploma. Stefan seems to have his heart set on becoming a soldier; I didn’t notice any hesitation at all when I talked to him about it. This turn of events is hard for Karin and me. Our oldest son, Hans is still deployed in Iraq. We never expected to have both of our sons in the military.
Karin was clearly upset by Stefan’s decision. She complained about the fact that military recruiters were in the schools, talking to minors. I’m not sure that eliminating recruiters from Stefan’s high school would have made that much of a difference. If a person wants something, he will find it. If Stefan really wanted to learn about the Army, he would have found the necessary information easily enough, even without any soldiers in his school. I know that the recruiters use propaganda effectively, and I doubt that they tell young people the whole story. They are there to sell a product, and they use whatever gimmicks they have available to attract teenagers. In all fairness, despite the smoke and mirrors, the recruiters do have something tangible to sell. They can offer things that actually are of value.
J.P. Morgan once said, “ A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.” When I first talked with Stefan about his enlistment, he gave me all the good reasons for doing it. He told me about learning to become a mechanic, about getting money for school, and that sort of thing. Later, I talked with Stefan again, because I wanted to hear the real reasons.
I asked Stefan to sit down with me for a while. I asked him if he was angry with us. He said that he wasn’t. I asked him if he understood that what he was doing would hurt his mom. He told me that he knew that. I asked him if all of this had anything to do with getting the hell out the house, and becoming independent. He emphatically said, “Yes.”
There is a lot to be said for leaving home and starting a life on your own. It takes guts, and it is remarkably difficult to do in our times. Many young people are staying home with their parents strictly for economic reason. Does a guy in his mid-twenties really want to have his mom asking when he’s going to be home at night? No. Young adults are stuck at home because they can’t find a decent job that will allow them to function independently. Sadly, the military is one of the few options that will allow a young person to move out and spread his or her wings.
I asked Stefan what else was on his mind. He looked at me and said, “I want to have an adventure.” I sighed. I know how that feels. I wanted an adventure when I was his age, and I went to West Point. Adventures are good things. They carry with them an element of risk, and they force a person to grow up. A young person like Stefan wants to see the world; our house and our town are too small for him now. A person has to roam and wander before he can settle down. Stefan could easily get a job here as a welder, and make good money at it. But if he gets a steady job now and stays put, will he wonder later what it’s like in the big, wide world? I suspect that he would wonder, and I suspect that he would regret putting down roots before he had experienced other places and people.
Stefan is physically very active. He just broke his thumb while riding his trick bike on the half pipe. He likes to push himself and stay fit. He wants to try things that are difficult to do. He wants to test himself. I can see how the Army would attract him.
While we talked, I remembered things. I remembered some of what I did when I was in the Army. I remembered qualifying as a marksman with the M-16. I was about Stefan’s age, standing in foxhole, and leaning on a wet sandbag, trying to pick out dark green targets that popped up from the morning fog that swirled in the distance. I remembered firing off a round, and sniffing the acrid smell of gunpowder. I can still hear the loud “pop “ as I pulled the trigger, and then the tinkling sound as the hot, brass cartridge fell to the ground next to me.
There were other memories too. I remembered walking across a glacier in Alaska. I remembered the first time that I flew solo in a helicopter. I remembered being in the Mojave Desert and seeing the moon rise over the mountains. Some of the memories sucked. There is a lot about the Army that is brutal and vicious and stupid. However, despite all of that, a lot of it was fun.
I asked Stefan if he understood that he might be put into a position where he would have to kill another human being. He said that he understood. Maybe he really doesn’t understand what that all entails, but I do believe that he has thought about it in a serious manner. That is all that anybody can do.
I did not and I will not tell Stefan what to do. He knows how we feel about this decision. He is an intelligent young man with a big heart and a stubborn streak. He has to follow his own conscience. In reality, he is doing pretty much the same thing I did thirty-five years ago for almost exactly the same reasons. I can’t fault him. I am sad that I don’t have a good counter-offer. I really don’t. I wish I did.
Essay for the Zen Center newsletter
Father at War bumper stickers
Us and Them
When I joined the Army, many years ago, I was issued an olive drab, scratchy, woolen blanket that had the letters “ US “ stenciled on to it. I asked another soldier why the Army insisted on writing “ US “ on all the blankets. He told me that it was so we knew that the blanket was ours. Then he smiled and told me that the word “ THEM “ was written on all of the Soviet blankets.
Us and them. The eternal desire of humans to choose sides. Where does it all start? Do you remember the first time that you picked players for your kickball team? The idea of people being “ either/or “ is deeply ingrained in our minds and hearts. We spend our lives separating the sheep from the goats, and other people do the same for us. We want to know who is with us and who is against us. Why?
Choosing sides is a way of defining ourselves, albeit in a negative manner. Instead of looking at who we are, we look at who we are not. We can say things like, “ I am not a fundamentalist, “ or “ I am not a Democrat “, and we effectively build a fence around our lives. We decide to whom we will listen, and who we will ignore. We attempt to establish an identity through aversion. It’s a hollow sort of identity, because even if we cut off all the people we dislike, we still don’t know who we are. We’ve only made our world a lot smaller.
Defining ourselves is a waste of time anyway. Zen makes it clear that we don’t really know who we are. Other traditions say the same thing. Christians from St. Paul through Thomas Merton have said that we see through a glass darkly, that we do not and cannot really understand ourselves. I often have to use the loudspeaker at work to call somebody to the office. There is a time delay on the intercom, and I hear my words a few seconds after I say them. I always think about how strange my voice sounds, and I wonder if that is really how I sound to the rest of the world. If I have trouble recognizing my own voice, how can I recognize the person inside my head?
As Pink Floyd sang in “ Us and Them “ :
“And who knows which is which and who is who,
Up and Down,
And in the end it’s only round and round and round…”
Who we are is a mystery that we cannot solve, and we exhaust ourselves in the attempt.
Perhaps each person has a unique, immortal soul that is their true self. Even if this is true, a person can never fully experience that self. I know that I can’t. What I experience is the shifting, changing personality that responds when somebody yells the name “ Frank “. It is hard for me to see that I am constantly changing, and hopefully growing. Other people point it out to me, and sometimes they don’t do that in pleasant ways. Most of my classmates from West Point do not acknowledge me any more because the man they knew, or thought they knew, thirty years ago is gone. I still have the same DNA and social security number, but I am no longer the person I was at age twenty-three.
“Don’t know “ mind helps. Once I accept the fact that I do not know who I am or what I am, then I can become whatever I need to be. It’s an oddly liberating notion. If I can’t figure out who I am, then it is a useless to try to define others. “ Don’t know “ leads to the idea that all things are in a state of flux, and all things are connected. If all things are connected, then there is no “ us and them “. There is only us.
What do We have to Offer?
Two weeks ago my wife answered our home phone. To her dismay, the person calling was a Marine recruiter looking for our youngest son, Stefan. Stefan is a high school senior, seventeen years of age, and very athletic. To a recruiter our son is fresh meat. My wife, Karin, was a bit freaked out by this call because our oldest son, Hans, is presently deployed in Iraq with his Army unit. Our immediate thought was, “ Oh no, not another soldier in our family. “ We asked Stefan about this recruiter, and he denied having ever spoken with the man. That’s a good answer. We were okay with that.
I was reminded of this incident on Saturday when Karin and I were at the Milwaukee City Hall for the rally against the war in Afghanistan. One man spoke to the group about the need to get proponents of nonviolence into the schools to talk to the students, just like the military recruiters do. I thought about that, and I asked myself the question, “ What would we say to these kids? “ How would we counteract the propaganda of the military recruiters?
I’m afraid that anybody trying to argue against the message of the U.S. military in our schools is at a great disadvantage. We can say that the recruiters rely on flashy advertising, and that they tell the young people only half the truth. However, even if they quite often use smoke and mirrors to confuse the unwary, it has to admitted that they actually have something real and physical to sell. They can offer money and benefits and jobs. Therein lies the problem for people trying to oppose the war machine. We don’t often offer much that is tangible.
As a case in point, I would have to say that, for the first time in his adult life, Hans has some measure of financial security. In the Army he has a steady paycheck, he has health benefits, and he has a roof over his head. Granted that isn’t much, but it is more than he had before when he was struggling to find work. In theory, he could retire from the Army with a pension in his forties. What do we, as peacemakers, have as a counter offer? Nothing. There aren’t many career fields in nonviolence. In economic terms, we don’t have anything to give a young person trying to make it in the world. This is a problem.
I don’t know why young women join the military. I do know why young men join up. So, I will restrict the next set of comments to my area of expertise, and look at what the military has that young men would want.
Young men want an adventure; not all of them, but many of them do. In any case, guys that are attracted to the military are restless and ambitious. They want to see the world, and they want to change it. I remember that when I went to West Point, there was a song on the radio from Simon and Garfunkel called “ My Little Town “. The chorus of the song was, “ Nothing but the dead and dying in my little town! “ That was my theme. I couldn’t get away from home fast enough or far enough. I wanted to experience everything that I could as fast as I could. To a large extent the Army satisfied that desire. It still does, and it sells that. As proponents of nonviolence, do we offer young men an adventure?
A young man also wants to prove himself. When I was at West Point, I had somebody telling me the entire time I was there that I would never be good enough to graduate. Well, I did graduate, and mostly it was to prove that I could. A young man needs a rite of passage, and in a perverse sort of way, the military provides that. If we are to promote nonviolence, we have to provide that too. There has to be some kind of challenge involved.
The military has all the best toys. I know that sounds silly, but it is God’s truth. I remember flying Blackhawk helicopters, and it was a rush. Hans likes to drive tanks. Young men like to fire large caliber weapons. There is a strange ecstasy in blowing up inanimate objects. It’s fun; it just is. I’m sorry, but we can’t match the military in this area. This is what they do best.
It seems to me that we generally talk to young people about war in the same way that we talk to them about using drugs or engaging in risky sexual behavior. We rely heavily on fear tactics and on an appeal to morality. So, how well have we done with keeping kids clean and sober? How many virgins do we have out there? We may influence a few young people by taking about the horrors of war, but often in their minds they believe that they are immortal and they cannot imagine any harm befalling them. We have meet the youth where they are. We can’t rely on the arguments that appeal to old men.
I was told once that in order to eliminate an undesirable behavior, you have to provide a viable alternative. If we don’t want our young people to be killers, we have to give them other choices that make sense. Youth is idealistic. We have to be able to give young people a chance to serve and to make the world better. We have to address their desire for a career and for material possessions. We have to give them a chance to get a little wild and take a few risks. I admit freely that I don’t know how to accomplish all of this. However, I do know that right now we really don’t have much to offer.
The Gifts of Youth
During the peacemaker retreat, John Carmody spoke extensively on the subject of adolescent brain development. He focused on the fact that the prefrontal lobe in the adolescent brain is not fully activated until a person is about twenty-five years of age, and that this means the person does not yet have the ability to properly plan ahead or foresee the long term consequences of future actions. He pointed out that insurance companies make use of this information to determine their rates for younger drivers, which stay high until the person turns twenty-five. He also talked about the fact that the U.S. military also uses this information to recruit candidates that are in their late teens or early twenties. The gist of Mr. Carmody’s lecture was that young people cannot effectively make choices that have consequences that would affect them the rest of their lives, and that the military recruiters prey upon their lack of foresight.
I think that John Carmody’s presentation was excellent and that his scientific evidence was very compelling. However, to me, it felt a little one sided. He pushed hard the idea that young people make rash decisions that an older, more experienced person would not make. True enough. Yet, somehow when I listened to him talk, it was like listening to the grumblings of an old man. A person could easily get the impression from his talk that everybody under twenty-five years of age is a sucker, and I don’t think that is true.
A young person certainly can be reckless, and that may truly be due to an underdeveloped prefrontal lobe. However, a fully developed brain can also be used improperly. Often as people age, they become over-cautious. I have listened to older people talk a job to death, coming up with all sorts of reasons that something cannot work and should not even be attempted. An older person sometimes focuses on the limitations and the drawbacks of life. Young people don’t usually do that.
It is true that a young person can be swayed by bad influences. Army recruiters probably fall into that category. Young people join the military to do things that are dangerous and not terribly rational. On the other hand, young people also throw caution to the wind to do wonderful things. Francis of Assisi was in his early twenties when he answered God’s call. Therese of Lisieux was a teenager when she became a nun. It could be easily be argued that these two people were not properly using their prefrontal lobes when they made their choices; in fact, nowadays both of them would probably be in therapy or under medication.
I don’t know how it is for a young woman. I do know that a young man wants to have an adventure. Our culture seldom provides an opportunity for an adventure; in fact, we actively discourage adventures. The military does offer adventures. That is one of the prime selling points. I think back to 1981 when I went to Army flight school to learn how to fly helicopters. I graduated from there and I flew for five years. I flew at treetop level at 100 mph and I flew in lousy weather. It was scary at times. I look back now and I shake my head and think to myself, “ Man, that was nuts. “ Then I smile. I don’t regret it at all.
John Carmody implied that the military appeals to the baser instincts in young people. It offers violence and intense excitement. The military also appeals to the best parts of young people. My experience has been that youth is idealistic. A young person wants to make a difference. Quite often, a young person wants to serve a higher cause. One of the tragedies of war is that many times the best people of a generation are the ones who answer the call of duty, and then are destroyed in the process. The military offers a life that requires courage, loyalty, and integrity. These are good things, even if they are misused to further a darker purpose.
If young people, like my son, are attracted to the military, it is possibly because we ( my generation ) offer them no good alternative. What do we offer a young person so that they can prove themselves? We offer a young person the chance to get a suitable education in order to acquire a socially acceptable job in order to raise a white bread family in a quiet neighborhood. We offer young people a grey, boring world. If we are going to stop the military recruiters, we need to have a real alternative that allows a young person to be brave, selfless, and a bit crazy. We need to be young.
Thoughts on Retreat at Marquette University
The retreat at Marquette made a deep impression on me, although not in a way that I had expected. The following are some of my thoughts. Use them in the blog if you think that they are appropriate.
Yesterday I attended a peacemakers retreat at Marquette University. For me it was an unexpectedly intense experience, and it caused me to ponder a number of things. The time that I spent with other people in the Chapel of the Holy Family has given me a different perspective on nonviolence, and how it should work.
As you are probably aware, our eldest son is presently serving as a soldier in Iraq. This is a painful situation for my wife and I, especially since we are very much opposed to America’s wars. I had thought that perhaps participation in this retreat would be a healing experience for me. However, I found it oddly distressing in some ways.
I managed to get into a rather intense discussion ( okay, it was an argument ) with one of the presenters. It was ignited when a person from the group asked for the presenter’s opinion on people offering up prayers for the American troops during Mass. The presenter was adamantly opposed to such prayers, and he considered them to be abominations. He maintained that they just promoted the military mindset in the church community, and helped to perpetuate war. Anyway, that is how I understood his remarks.
I took the man’s remarks personally. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I did. I blurted out, “ Are you saying that people shouldn’t pray for my kid in church? “ The presenter responded by asking if the people in the church really understood what they were praying for when they offered a prayer for the soldiers. I admit that quite often the people at Mass respond to the community’s petitions absentmindedly, but I know for a fact that the folks that know our family are praying for Hans when they pray for the troops. The presenter then made the analogy that praying for the troops is much like praying for Don Corleone. He said it is like praying for a mafia hitman’s success in killing his enemies and then safely returning home from the carnage.
That was way over the top. Whether he knew it or not, the presenter had compared my son to a murderer. At that point I walked out of the meeting, and I only returned because two people literally dragged me back into the chapel. I was upset for a variety of reasons. I was shocked by the man’s lack of empathy, and it amazed me that a man preaching on nonviolence would remind me of a Puritan.
I am not spiritually advanced. I often think and say very foolish things. I think that I can accept it when other people do the same. If a person is praying for the troops, they may in fact have something dark in their heart that is akin to the “ War Prayer “ from Mark Twain. More likely, they have the intention to protect a loved one. I think that people can be nudged into a deeper sort of compassion with little steps. For instance, if I can pray for our troops today, maybe later I include innocent non-combatants in my prayer. A little later, maybe I can see the suffering of the families of the enemy forces. I might even get to the point where I can sincerely pray for my enemies. I encourage people to pray for the troops, and then I suggest that they take it just a little further. I think that works better than damning the prayers for our soldiers out of hand.
I wrestle with this sort of thing at work too. A group people at my workplace have decided to send packages to Hans and his comrades in Iraq. To drum up support for this venture, they have decorated the company lunchroom with American flags, military models, and a variety of patriotic slogans. I find the whole scene to be abhorrent. Many of these people know my views on the wars, and they know that this sort of imagery makes me uncomfortable. However, they really want to help the troops, and this is the only way they feel that they can do it. They are collecting things to send to Hans because they love him, or because they love me. Their intentions are pure, although the execution of these intentions is somewhat clumsy. Even if I don’t like the way that my coworkers are trying to show their compassion, I have to admire the love that motivates them. They really do care.
Likewise, a friend of ours from our parish bought us a present. She went to a church bazaar and bought my wife and I a pewter figurine that shows Jesus embracing a combat soldier. Suffice it to say that this is something that I would never have purchased on my own. To be honest, we still haven’t taken it out of the box. I may not appreciate the aesthetic value of the this figure, but I have to be grateful for the concern that caused the woman to buy this gift for us. She did it out of love.
Life is messy. Things are not all black and white, and we deal with various shades of grey. What I am learning from the retreat is that I need to take people as they are, and graciously accept whatever they have to offer to me. A number of people at the retreat asked me about our son, and I received a couple unsolicited hugs. I did experience agape at the retreat. It came often came from people who had been strangers to me, but now are my friends. I also received it from those who have known me for a while. I am grateful to all of them.
Letter to the Wisconsin Peace and Justice Network
Now that the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is over, it might be worthwhile to think about how we have changed as a nation in the last ten years. This suggestion might seem like overkill, seeing as we have been deluged with articles and programs about 9/11 for the last several weeks. Most of these news items dealt with the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks and how the events of that day made an impact on their lives. In fact, it would appear that all we have done recently is ponder the changes wrought by the falling of the Twin Towers. Well, we haven’t really looked at much except the human interest stories. The stories of tragedy and heroism are important, but they distract us from looking at the larger trends in our society that, to my mind, are more significant and more disturbing.
First off, we are a nation at war. This may be stating the obvious, but we went from be at peace to a state of continuous warfare literally overnight. Our initial response to this unexpected act of aggression was understandable and justifiable. Our wars have long since ceased to be either of those two things. Our invasion of Iraq was immoral and illegal. Our current operations in Afghanistan are senseless and ineffective. We have thrown away over a trillion dollars and sacrificed the lives of thousands of soldiers and non-combatants during the last ten years. It is difficult to see what we have achieved by spending all of this blood and treasure.
When President Bush announced the War on Terror, we collectively went along with the premise that terrorism has to be confronted wherever it appears with whatever forces can be mustered against it. Whether we knew it or not, the people of this country agreed to fight an endless war. Victory in the War on Terror meant, and still means, the total and complete elimination of all terrorist activity in the world. This is much like waging global war against cockroaches; no matter how hard you try, you are not going to kill them all. We signed off on the idea that we should always be at war, and that is exactly what we have achieved. Much like the ancient Romans, we are now a society for which war is normal. War is the background noise in our lives, and we ignore it whenever we can.
After 9/11, we as a nation also bought the idea that there is such a thing as complete safety. We decided with the passing of the Patriot Act that we would give up various rights in order to be safe. We agreed to onerous searches at our airports, and we agreed to abominations like the prison at Guantanamo. The 9/11 attacks terrified us and we lost our nerve. With each passing day we give up a little more of our liberty for an illusion. Helen Keller said that “ Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men experience it. “ She saw things more clearly than we have.
We are a nation that is deeply divided. 9/11 initially brought us together, but our actions since then have driven us apart. We don’t trust each other any more. We have become much more suspicious of immigrants, especially of Muslims in our country. Many of our politicians have become demagogues, spreading fear rather than encouraging cooperation. We know how to yell, but we have forgotten how to listen.
I have been speaking in generalities. However, if we think about it, probably each of us have suffered in a concrete way because of the 9/11 attacks. For example, our eldest son is presently serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. My wife and I are afraid for him, and his deployment is the long term result of how 9/11 changed this country. For us, our son’s participation in the war is just as real and personal as the original destruction on 9/11 was for those people who suffered then. Even after a decade, people are being hurt by those attacks.
Osama bin Laden wanted to cause damage to the United States. In some ways he was more successful than he ever imagined.
Mirror in the Funhouse
Letter to editor of Catholic Herald newspaper
On Saturday afternoon I went to the freak show. I drove to West Allis to be part of the protest against the Neo-Nazis that were speaking at the city hall. I went there partly to show my opposition to this hate group, but I also went there because of a sort of perverse curiosity. It was like back in the old days when people would go to carnivals to see the Bearded Lady or the Elephant Man. I wanted to see the monsters.
Nazis. The archetypal bad guys. Somehow, over the years, these people have morphed from being the most dangerous force in human history to comic book characters. The real Nazis murdered millions of innocent people, and the Hollywood versions show up in Indiana Jones movies. It is hard to take the current update of this madness seriously until we remember that, at first, very few people paid attention to Hitler either. Eventually, the whole world took him seriously.
It was pouring rain when I got there. I had too arrived too late for the initial rally, and the crowd was starting to thin out. There were police everywhere dressed in all of their riot gear. I worked my way to the barricade to see the Nazis. There were a handful of them standing together next to City Hall, surrounded by a fence. The fence was surrounded by cops, who were standing behind yet another barricade. It was hard to see these men through the crowd, and it was difficult to hear the speaker. The counter-protesters were chanting and pounding drums to drown out the Nazi spokesman. The Nazis held up American flags and they had a flag with a huge swastika. They also held up a Polish flag. That seemed a bit odd; doesn’t anybody remember September 1939?
Every truly effective lie has a kernel of truth. The Nazi spokesman, Jeff Schoep, told some good lies. He took actual events, like the attacks on whites at the State Fair, and spun them into all-out condemnations of blacks. He started his ravings with a few facts, and then he twisted the truth to make it work for him. He was effective at times because he really seemed to believe the venom he was spitting out, and that passion showed. He also said a lot of nonsense. He railed against the Jews. He complained that the crowd of people in opposition to him were all Communists. I found this to be completely absurd until a young man standing next to me decided to unfurl a large Soviet flag and wave it around. Nice move.
Many years ago, I attended a lecture by Alistair Cooke, the BBC journalist. He talked about how he had been a reporter in Germany in the 1930′s. Cooke spoke fluent German and he told the audience about how had listened to Hitler’s speeches. He said that the mad rants of Hitler were just over the top dramatics; things that made it to the newsreels. Cooke said that Hitler was more often quite subtle. He would speak to the German people about the things cared about: their homes, their families, and their country. Then he would play on their fears; the things that made them worry and lose sleep at night. He would promise them a better future, and mostly he gave them somebody to blame for their troubles.
Picture a nation in disarray. This country is nearly bankrupt. Unemployment is at extremely high levels. Parents cannot provide, or even imagine, a good future for their children. People are losing their homes. The country seems powerless to confront its foreign adversaries. The politicians seem to be corrupt and/or incompetent. So, what country am I describing? Is it the Weimar Republic before 1933, or is it the United States right now?
I have to give the devil his due. Schoep and his compatriots, sick and twisted as they are, still showed a lot of guts by speaking in public to a clearly hostile crowd. The Nazis also had a small group of supporters standing nearby, wearing “ White Power “ t-shirts and looking sullen. The people I worry more about are the ones that agree with Schoep, but do it secretly. I am talking about the folks that spread their poison anonymously on the Internet, or who use codewords to hide their hatred. These are the people that won’t stand up and be counted, but will gladly be part of a faceless mob when the opportunity presents itself.
So, what does this mean for Catholics? In the Gospels Jesus tells his disciples, “ Do not be afraid. “ Why does he say this? He probably says this because fear cripples the human soul. As Frank Herbert once wrote, “ Fear is the mindkiller. “ Fear makes people susceptible to the lies and empty promises of demagogues. A terrified person will often believe anything that offers safety.
Faith in God frees us from fear. Faith also gives us the ability to work for justice. If we believe that God loves us, we can look beyond ourselves and address the needs of others. We can reach out. We can recognize that other people have legitimate concerns. We can have the courage to hold accountable those who engage in violence, whoever they may be, and we can also try to understand why they do that.
We are also told in Scripture to love our enemy. How can I love somebody who is filled with hatred and bitterness? How can I love somebody who is angry at the whole world, including me? Can I look at a member of the National Socialist Movement and see that person as a child of God? I don’t know. I do know that, as I listened to the spokesman talk to the crowd, I kept thinking to myself, “ How did you get to be this way? What happened to you? Where does all this anger come from?” This man wasn’t born evil; something turned him on to this path.
The rally was a distinctly uncomfortable experience, aside from the fact that I was soaking wet by the time I left. It was unpleasant mostly because I saw and heard things that I have seen and heard in myself. I’ve been angry and bitter. I’ve mocked others. I have shirked responsibility and blamed other people for my own mistakes. This carnival had a funhouse mirror as well as a freak show. I looked at the Nazi, and what I really saw a distorted reflection of myself.
It is all about money!
Published letter, (August 31, 2011)to the editor of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
If recent polls are correct, it appears that most people in the U.S. are tired of our wars and are ready for our troops to come home. Ten years of fighting in Afghanistan and eight years of conflict in Iraq have worn out our patience. This is remarkable because we are not a nation that gives up easily. Once we decide on a course of action, we doggedly follow that course, and we often continue to pursue goals that have shown themselves to be unattainable, or even undesirable. Now, we are finally at a point where we can look at our overseas adventures and say, “ Enough. “
What impresses me most is the reason why, at long last, we may be ready to end these wars. For years, people like Ron Paul have condemned these wars for being unconstitutional, and therefore illegal. Certainly, the war in Iraq was started under false pretenses, and qualifies as a war of aggression. There has always been a small, but constant, outcry against the loss of life involved in these wars. However, none of these arguments against the wars have ever made any real impression on people in our country. Moral or legal concerns have never been enough to stop the killing.
The truth is that when we end these wars, it will be for that most American of reasons: we will do it because we are not making a profit. Over the course of a decade we thrown away over a trillion dollars and have nothing to show for it. We may not care about human beings getting killed or maimed, but we care about the bottom line. The wars are ultimately a pocketbook issue. In the end, it’s all about the money.
Supporting Our Troops
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Hans has been in Iraq for about six weeks. He e-mails us at random intervals. I start to panic when we go a few days without any contact with him. His e-mails resemble hastily written text messages; no punctuation or capitalization, and spell check is seldom, if ever, used. His e-mails are extremely brief, but it takes us a while to decipher them. From what he’s said, it appears that his life hasn’t been too dangerous. His unit took some small arms fire three weeks ago, but no action recently. So far, so good.
As time has gone on, Karin and I have spoken to a variety of people concerning Hans’ deployment. The comments that I have received from a number of well-meaning people have ranged from comforting to just plain weird. Our family’s situation often makes others uncomfortable, maybe because we show them a reality that they can’t understand, much less change. I think it is very difficult for other people to handle the notion that our son is fighting in a war that we actively oppose. The whole state of affairs is loaded with paradox and contradiction, so our friends and family grope for the right things to say. Sometimes they miss the mark.
I remember one person commenting to me that our troops are safer in Iraq than they would be in some American cities. I suppose this could be true, but I am unaware of any cities in the U.S. where the neighbors frequently lob mortars into your backyard. The comment seemed very odd to me. It is like a person describing their neighborhood as a quiet, peaceful place, except for when the folks down the street exchange automatic weapon fire. The comment really didn’t make me feel that Hans was any safer.
Another friend of ours heard me talking about my concern that Hans might come home with psychological or spiritual scars. She piped up and said, “ Statistics show that only 30% of deployed soldiers get PTSD. “ I’m not sure why she thought information would be reassuring to me. To me it came across the same way as if she had said, “ You kid has only a one in three chance of getting shot. “ I guess I’ll sleep better now.
A number of people have told us that we must be proud of our son. We are proud of him, but that doesn’t make things any better. It is as if they believe that pride alone would be sufficient to eliminate our angst. It isn’t. We can be proud of our son, and still be worried sick about him.
A woman from my work told me, “ I can’t imagine what you are going through. “ I think that is probably the best comment that I have heard. At least it shows honesty. I don’t expect anybody else to understand what we are going through. I don’t even understand what we are going through. It just is. I keep waiting for the situation to feel normal, and it never happens.
A number of people from work have offered to send packages to Hans and his comrades overseas. I never asked for anybody to do this sort of thing; they came to me about it. I am very grateful to them for what they are doing. It also feels surreal to me. I mentioned to one of my coworkers that I never wanted any of this to happen, and I never dreamed that I would having this conversation with her about sending stuff to my son at war. I am letting my coworkers handle this project. To be honest, I am too closely involved with the situation to know what they should do, and how they should do it.
I don’t know the reasons why people want to help Hans. I can only guess. A few of them know Hans and want show him that they care. I think some want to help Hans in order to help Karin and me. I think that some are caught up in the “ Support the Troops! “ mantra, and this satisfies their need to help the soldiers serving overseas. Some believe that guys like Hans are American heroes. Even though I don’t understand why people are trying to help, it is a good thing nonetheless. They are showing compassion. They are showing that they care.
I think that our culture has a very schizophrenic attitude toward soldiers. We treat them with total admiration while they are serving, but them we forget about them as soon they return home. Soldiers, like most things in our country, are disposable. Veterans for Peace states on their website that 25% of the homeless people in the local area are veterans. There have been numerous articles about the difficulty that vets have in adjusting to civilian life. They can’t find jobs; they can’t find their place in society. It seems so much easier to send a package to a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan than it does to help a veteran return to a normal life in the U.S.. Why is that?
Drone, Debt and Clown on Brady Street
“It’s Not Quite that Simple”
Yesterday I walked with several other people along Brady Street to protest the use of drone warfare. The street was closed down for the annual festival, and it was filled with music, food, and drink. Both sides of the street were lined with vendors of all sorts. There were several bands playing, and there was a trick bike exhibition going on near St. Hedwig’s Church. With a clown and the Grim Reaper in our midst, we wandered through the crowd. To a certain extent we were just part of the show. We gave the people another reason to gawk and stare.
Protests do not encourage dialog. I have come to that conclusion. A sign showing dead children does not usually set the stage for a civil discussion. Our presence at the Brady Street Festival was a provocation, pure and simple. We were there to wake people up. Many people do not want to wake up. They would prefer to sleepwalk through their lives and not consider unpleasant facts. I know that quite often I don’t like to face reality. As we walked, one person shouted, “ Do you mind? I’m trying to have a good time here! “ Yeah, we know. I suspect that one minute after we passed by, that individual forgot that we even existed.
Han’s Facebook page from Iraq
Occasionally, we did bring awareness to somebody. I met a couple people who asked me, “ So, what is a drone? “ The fact that they had to ask that question speaks volumes. After a brief explanation, they would say, “ Oh yeah, those things. “ It was far more difficult to speak to people who already thought they understood what drone warfare was all about. You can’t explain something to a person who already knows all the answers.
To be honest, our placards and slogans were simplistic. We used them as verbal sledgehammers to make people conscious of the world around them. Sometimes people shouted out things at us that were mean or meaningless. However, sometimes people had questions or comments that deserved well-thought-out answers, and I didn’t often have those answers. To my mind, the problem with our demonstration was that we got people’s attention, but then we usually didn’t follow up with conversations that could change hearts and minds.
I did have one long conversation. I spoke with a man who had known our son, Hans, many years ago when his children and our kids all attended the Waldorf School of Milwaukee. He was shocked to learn that Hans is now serving in Iraq. He offered comments that he thought would comfort me. He said things like, “ I hear that we’re pulling out of there soon, “ or “ It’s safer there now than it was a few years ago. “ He meant well, but his words really didn’t help me at all. For one thing, I don’t believe any of that, and even if what he said is true, my son is still in danger. The man had a lot of well-intentioned advice, but no real understanding of our family’s experience. He had his opinions about why Hans must have joined the Army, but he couldn’t see the subtleties involved in our son’s decision. I tried to express to him that Hans’ enlistment had many causes, that it’s not quite that simple. I still haven’t sorted out all the reasons why Hans has chosen this path in life, and I doubt that Hans knows all of the reasons either.
We ended the demonstration on a street corner right next to the Army recruiting booth. I love irony. I stopped at the booth where the soldiers effectively ignored me. I would have ignored somebody like me too. It made me sad in a way. I am connected them intimately, and they will never know it. That is loss for me and for them.
“Is your Son Proud of You?”
On the afternoon of Saturday, July 16th, I joined with Bob Graf and several other people at Bastille Days to demonstrate against our various wars, and specifically to protest the military use of drones. A couple people in the group were dressed as clowns, Don Timmerman was dressed as Death, and the rest of us looked relatively normal in a counter-cultural sort of way. In any case, we spent an hour and a half wandering through the French festivities with our signs and slogans. We didn’t fit in well with the music and merrymaking. We were a generally unwelcome reminder of the reality of war, a reality that most people would prefer to ignore.
I have mixed feelings about our presence at Bastille Days. Times are hard, and people want to forget their problems, at least for a while. That is why people go to festivals in the first place. They go to have a few drinks, eat some food, meet with friends, and listen to music. Usually, they do not go to a celebration to hear about the carnage of war. In a way, I felt bad for shocking or upsetting the partygoers. They deserve a break too. At times, I felt like I was there just to piss in their Cheerios.
I carried a large sign and I often walked through the crowd by myself. I guess that we were supposed to stay together as a group, but I lost the track of the rest of the demonstrators and I really didn’t try very hard to find them again. I found that my interactions with the people at the festival were better when I was on my own. Perhaps one crazy person isn’t nearly as threatening or annoying as a herd of them. Most people stared at me, some tried to ignore me, and a few of them struck up a conversation. Some people shook my hand; some gave me the finger. There was always some sort of reaction.
When I did speak with a person, I always mentioned that my son is serving in Iraq. Generally, that took away some of the edge. I had a good talk with one of the staff members who was an Iraqi vet. I also spoke with a young black woman. Both of them offered to pray for my son, and they tried to assure me that he would be okay. Even if they didn’t agree with what I was trying to say, there was a feeling of a common humanity. That was good enough.
My comment about my son the soldier did not always have the desired effect. When I had rejoined the group, we walked past a man who clearly was unhappy to see us. He said, “ I fought in Vietnam for your freedom.” I told him that my son, Hans, was serving in Iraq. The man responded by asking “ Does your son know what YOU are doing?” Well, Hans definitely knows what I do. I took him to an anti-war demonstration at the corner of Water Street and Wisconsin Ave just weeks before the U.S. invaded Iraq. He went with me on a Peace Action bus to a protest in Washington DC in January of 2007. When he was eighteen, I took him to the Quaker Meeting House to learn about being a conscientious objector. Hans knows all too well what I am doing. So, I told the man, “ Yes.”
He came back at me by saying, “ Do you think that he is proud of YOU? “I tried to sidestep that question by telling him that I was proud of my son. The guy wouldn’t let go of it. He said, “ I didn’t ask you that. Do you really think that your son is proud of YOU?” I told him, “ Yes.” He sneered and said, “ I doubt it.”
Well, that hurt for a variety of reasons. What hurt most was that I hadn’t been honest with the man. The true answer to his question would have been, “ I don’t know. “ I wish with all my heart that my son is proud of me, but I don’t really know that. Hans and I have had an unspoken agreement; I don’t give him grief about joining the Army, and he doesn’t drill me about my anti-war activities. I respect his decision to serve as a soldier, although I don’t like it. I hope that he respects what I am doing, but I don’t know for a fact that he does.
A friend told me on Sunday that the relations between a father and a son are like a minefield. There is so much potential for anger and resentment. Sometimes the best that can be achieved is for each person to agree to disagree, while still trying to love each other. Sometimes we can’t get along, not because we are so different from each other, but because we have so much in common. It’s a paradox, and it seems to affect every generation.
Since the demonstration on Saturday, I have written to Hans to ask him if he is proud of me. I haven’t received a response from him, and I don’t expect to get one. Hans is very adept at avoiding difficult questions, and I suppose that he would rather cut off his own arm than tell me how he really feels about me. In a sense, it doesn’t matter that much what he thinks about my actions. I still have to follow my conscience regardless of what he would say. It would lift a burden from me if he told me that he respected what I do. If he disapproves of my attempts to promote peace, I will keep trying anyway. It will just be a lot harder.
Letter to Friends on Francis’s son leaving for war
On Friday evening we said goodbye to Hans. He wanted to get on the road. It’s a long drive to Fort Hood, Texas from here, and we could tell that he was getting nervous. It was still light outside and there was a strong, hot wind coming from the south. Hans had all of his Army gear packed up. He was standing in the driveway, wearing a t-shirt from his basic training that had a picture of an Abrams tank on the front of it and a images of bloody battle axes on the back. He was leaning against his Dodge Ram truck, an absurdly large vehicle with a bumper sticker that says “ Kiss my rebel ass “. He was smoking a Newport and fidgeting.
Hans had come to visit us two weeks ago. It would be our last chance to be together before his unit deployed to Iraq. His deployment was always on our minds. We were mentally rehearsing our farewells all the time he was here. My wife, Karin, and I knew that it would hard to let him go, but I didn’t think it would be quite so disturbing. I tried to prepare myself for his departure, but I still wasn’t ready for it. The truth is that I was never going to be ready.
There was so much that I wanted to do in the two weeks that Hans was with us. We did some things together, but there were still loose ends. Hans and I had conversations about weapons and life in the Army, comparing our respective military experiences. There were awkward silences between us that spoke loudly. There were words left unsaid, because we already knew these things. Hans knew that we didn’t want him to join the Army, and he knew that we love him even though he did. He knew that we fear for him, and we all knew that the future is in God’s hands. During his visit, we weren’t so much divided by our differences, as we were separated by our similarities. Is it possible for a father and son to have too much in common? I asked anxious questions in order to receive evasive answers: “ Are you scared? “ “ I don’t think about it. “
Hans threw his rucksack into the back of the truck. Karin noticed that there were a number of empty Monster cans in the truck bed. She told him that they might fly out of the back of the truck and hit a car behind him, and that they should really clean out the truck before he leaves. Hans rolled his eyes in exasperation and said, “ Maaaaaaawm. “ Then he helped her to get the trash out of the truck. He grabbed his two duffle bags, each of which probably weighed as much as he does, and tossed them into the truck. He carried them easily, displaying his strength without meaning to do so.
Karin wanted a photo of Hans next to his truck. He sighed and stood near it with a sullen look. Then she wanted a picture of Hans with me. Once again Hans showed a clear lack of interest. Then there were no more pictures to take.
It was time. I had thought for days about all that I would say to him. None of it seemed important any more. I looked up at him, shook his hand, and said, “ I love you. “
Then it was Karin’s turn. She smiled at Hans and said, “ Will you give me a hug?” Hans frowned and replied, “ No. “ Karin argued, “ But Hannah ( Hans’ sister ) gives me hugs. “ Hans said, “ She’s Hannah. I’m not. “ So they shook hands and Karin wished him well, and she told him how much she loved him.
Hans got into the truck. He adjusted the GPS and then revved up the engine. The Dodge spoke out a loud, rumbling bass as Hans backed out of the driveway. He waved once and then Karin and I watched him drive away. We stood there until there was nothing left to see. Karin went into the house and cried.
I don’t know if there was a way that we could have done it better. That kind of goodbye is always painful. At some point, every son leaves home. That’s just reality. What bothers me most is that Hans didn’t have to leave this way. Hans shouldn’t have to go to war. He shouldn’t be going to Iraq. No American soldier should be in Iraq. This war is unnecessary, and so is all of this heartache. It could have been different.
Country Must Find Another Solution
Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel June 25, 2011
Father & son at War
We just don’t get it. We never learn. Our country had been at war for almost a decade, and it is clear that our government is determined to continue with the same futile policies. It doesn’t matter if Bush is in office, or if Obama is running the show, we keep spending billions upon billions of dollars to fight wars that we cannot win. We keep sending young people, like our son, into combat for no good reason. Back in 2001, we started with one war; now we are fighting three of them ( Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya ), maybe four, if you count the drone attacks against Pakistan. We seem unwilling or unable to end any of these conflicts.
I don’t pretend to know the answers for resolving all of these struggles. I believe that each of these fights has a unique set of causes and each will require a unique path toward peace. I do know that endless military action has done nothing but bankrupt our nation, both financially and morally. Americans are world-renowned as innovators. Our great strength lies in our ability to find new solutions to problems. As a nation, we need use look beyond the use of violence and find peaceful solutions to our overseas conflicts. We need to learn something new.
The Best Option for Our Youth
Published in the Chicago Tribune June 20, 2011
America has been at war for almost a decade. For nearly 10 years we have been sending our young men and women to fight overseas. Now it is the turn of our own son to go. Hans is going with his unit to Iraq in a couple weeks; it will be his first deployment.
Many years ago, I was also a soldier in the Army. I joined up for the same reasons as our son. I wanted an education; I wanted to earn some money; I wanted to have an adventure. The military was the best choice for me in a time of limited options.
What bothers me is that now, over 30 years later, the options for young people are still very limited. Our children are growing up in a world full of violence, unemployment and fear. Why is it that the best we can offer to a young person is the opportunity to carry a gun and kill somebody in a country far away?
Who is to blame for this situation? Well, people my age are running the show now, so my generation is at fault. Through our ignorance and arrogance, we are passing on a world to our children that is no better than the one we received. We let our kids down. I let them down.
What about War as an issue for the Catholic Church
Unpublished letter the Catholic Herald in Milwaukee June 2011
Human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures. We can adjust to difficult situations. If we suffer an serious injury, we become accustomed to the resulting pain or disability. I, like many others, have had this experience. Eventually, our new circumstances, however unpleasant, become the new “ normal “. We can even forget how things were before we were hurt. Our ability to adapt allows us to function and move forward.
This adaptability also has a dark side. We can become numb to evil. We can grow used to violence and greed in our world. After awhile, we start to believe that things have always been this way. Not only that, but we start to believe that things always will be this way, and that there is little that we can do about it. I have heard fellow Christians decry the evil that surrounds us and then say, “ Oh well, it’s a fallen world “, as if that fact excuses us from trying to alleviate the suffering of others. It is tempting to give up and just accept the things that are unjust. It is easier to turn away, and ignore humanity’s wounds. However, it our duty to God and to our fellow humans to make an effort.
To its credit, the Catholic Herald has tried to remind us that there is injustice in our world. More to the point, people like Father Yockey and Archbishop Listecki have tried to rouse us to actually do something about issues like abortion. They keep showing us that, even after many years, evil is not normal and it is not acceptable. They nudge us to make a difference in this world. This encourages us to act as Christians.
I think that we should also look at other issues besides abortion. For instance, this nation has been at war for a decade. We are presently involved in three wars, none of which make any sense. Even if you regard these wars to be morally acceptable ( I don’t ), they steal resources away from the poor and lowly in our world. Perpetual war has become the new normal in our country. We don’t even remember what it is like to be at peace. Regardless of the cost in human life and in treasure, we continue to fight and kill because we have adapted to this form of evil. We are numb to the suffering because it is so far away, and yet it is so familiar. It is what we know.
Our son is going to be deployed with his Army unit to Iraq in a few weeks. He is a soldier, like I was many years ago. I am not blind to the evil of these wars. I am not willing to accept things as they are. I may not be able to stop the bloodshed. I may not be able to keep our boy from getting hurt, or to prevent him from hurting someone else. However, I am going to try. I am going to make am effort. It’s my job.
Stations of the Cross
Unpublished letter the Catholic Herald in Milwaukee, April 2011
Stations of Cross
Good Friday, 2011
I participated in the Stations of the Cross march downtown on Good Friday. These are my thoughts on the event. Use this article if you feel that is of value.
Good Friday was cold, windy, and grey. The weather was appropriate for us to pray the Stations of the Cross downtown on Wisconsin Avenue. There were probably about thirty people in our group. Some people had signs, some carried what represented a coffin, and one person in the group carried the cross. Most of the times we walked together in silence, or at least we tried to be silent. We prayed as we walked from the Federal Building west to Gesu Church at Marquette University. We remembered the sufferings of Christ and we prayed for an end to our nation’s ongoing wars. The mood was solemn and subdued. That too was appropriate.
One thing that I noticed as we made our way along Wisconsin Avenue was that we were invisible. A few people honked their horns as they drove past, but in general nobody noticed us. People ignored us, just like they ignore the wars that never end. To most everybody that were on the street, we were irrelevant, just like the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. People looked at us, but didn’t see us; they heard us, but didn’t listen.
In thinking about the Passion of Christ, I wonder how he felt when suddenly he didn’t matter any more. All at once, all of his teachings, and miracles, and healings were irrelevant. It must have hurt terribly to be hated by the Jewish leaders, but I wonder if it hurt more for Jesus to stand in front of Pilate and to know that this man couldn’t possibly care less about him. It has been said that hate is not the opposite of love. Apathy is the opposite of love.
I would like to say that I was inspired by our march. That would not be entirely true. It is hard to care about peace and then realize that very few people feel the same way. It is hard to be part of a tiny minority of believers and realize that maybe things aren’t going to get better. It is hard to work for peace when you know that your eldest son will be going to war in a couple months. It is hard to keep going.
Our culture urges people to ignore the evil around them. Even Christians do this. I wrote to a good friend of mine about my fears and worry regarding our son’s deployment to Iraq in July. My friend responded by writing, “ We live in a fallen world, as a result, there will be conflicts. “ I am sure that my friend wrote this to comfort me, but I found his comments to be frustrating. His words sounded fatalistic and dismissive. That wasn’t his intention, but that is how his words came across to me.
It is easy for us to give up. Some people can even find reasons in Scripture to throw in the towel. How many times have I heard people quote Jesus when he said, “ You will have the poor with you always. “, and then they use that as an excuse not to help the poor? Why bother? Why bother working for peace when there will always be wars? Why not wait for Christ to return and fix everything? Why?
We work for peace, not because we believe we will end all wars, but because it is our vocation. Jesus said, “ Blessed our the peacemakers “, not “ Successful are the peacemakers “. We keep at it because this work needs to be done, and because we are called to do it. I regret that I am not able to prevent our son, Hans, from going to war. He has made his choices and he must follow his own path. However, if I keep working for peace, I just might be able to keep another young person from participating in this violence. Maybe. It gives me a reason to hope.