Chris Hedges says “War is a force that gives us meaning.” Join us and share in the meaning making of our very own Imre Toth who traveled to Vietnam this year to revisit the places he served as a medical doctor for the armed forces. We will also explore the meaning making of our historic ancestor, Julia Ward Howe, and others. During Joys and Sorrows we will invite space to honor and remember those in our own lives who have served in the armed forces.
A few years ago I heard BU professor and historian Andrew Bacevich speak at a church I served. He told us, that “how we remember war,” defines what we mean by peace.” He went to say that some nations define peace as harmony, tolerance and respect, while others define peace in terms of dominance. He believes, that after almost 19 years of continues war since 9/11 we as a nation fall into the second category. That with our proclivity to use force, we understand peace only in terms of conflict. This I why, I have spent the last three days, immersed in Andy Carrol’s book “War Letters” reading over 200 letters written by soldiers of the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, and Desert Storm. Letters, steeped in the soldier’s experiences of mutual respect, harmony, and forgiveness that stand in contrast to the cultural messages of war as dominance.
Andy Carroll, writes in the introduction of his book that every American soldier wants us to know that war is cruel and is to be avoided except to preserve the integrity of our constitutional values and democratic principle. A message too ofter lost in the mythology of the warrior so revered in our culture. I still remember when Cory Remburg was honored during a state of the union address a few years ago as an exemplar of the American spirit. What I didn’t know then was that Cory lost sight in his left eye, the use of his left arm, and lives with a traumatic brain injury after being nearly killed during his 10th tour in Afghanistan. What the president should have been talking about in that patriotic moment was the political move that put him in harm’s way, and the support he and other veterans now need. What we need to be talking about , as tensions now build with Iran, is how we as a nation can change the meaning we make of war and peace.
Andy Carroll’s book of letters and other books written by soldiers, give me a personal sense connection to someone who has served. A connection hard to find, as today less than 1 percent of our population serve in the military, in contrast to 5 percent during Vietnam and 10 percent during WW2. In the soldiers letters to home these young men, many of whom did not return, lift up their most authentic and faithful selves by which we can remember them and war.. While it is true that the letters written from those serving during Civil Warm WWI, and WWII were optimistic, and filled with the loftiness of ideals, the GI’s of the cold War era, from Korea to Vietnam and beyond sent home different accounts fraught with doubt and confusion, and they openly questioned if risking death made any sense or did any good for old glory or anything else. Consider this story from Captain Molton Shuler, Jr. a thirty-year-old father of two children who was a reserve office attending Law School in South Carolina when he was called back into service at the outbreak of the Korean War. Shortly after writing this letter Captain Shuler was wounded by shrapnel near Chorwon North Korea and though his wounds were not life threatening, he died at the Tokyo Army Hospital because of hepatitis-infected plasma. A few weeks before he died, He writes to his wife:
There is a reason for my good spirits tonight. I went to church. Picture a grassy hillside surrounded by mountains. And a rugged looking, crew haircut chaplain dressed in fatigues standing by a government issue folding podium with a red velvet cover and a brass candelabra minus candles, all placed on a couple of ammo boxes.
Then just left of the pulpit, as you face it, you find a battered, 30 odd key olive drab organ, A GI pianist seated on a five gallon gasoline can. And the pews and the occupants? Well, they are roughly terraced rows with a handful of soldiers, mostly a little dirty and bedraggled, trying to keep from becoming more soiled by sitting on their helmets. You find a rifle loaded with a full clip, beside each man. And down in the front row are 3 Korean boys who just sang a couple of hymns in their native tongue, self- conscious to be sure, but, even so, attesting to God’s presence in the hearts of a people torn by war. And God is in this “chapel” so near you can almost reach out and be touched.
Reading this, I can imagine they played on the drab green organ the old hymn my grandmother use to sing- I come into the garden, Do you know it? I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the rose, and the voice I hear falling on my ear the son of God discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known. I like to imagine the comfort this moment brought to his wife. That in the heat of war her husband, was sustained by his faith that at the heart of creation lies a good intent, and in the face of death, he was not alone.
Letter after letter, the soldiers struggle to come to terms with war. Richard Cowen, wrote his mother on his 22nd birthday, shortly before he died in the battle of the bulge: “I try to live by my ethics, but the day comes when you feel they ask too much, that they are super human. So, mom I have settled on a rawer creed, to live honestly with myself…I’m pretty grown up aren’t I? I still plan on you tucking me in when I get home.” And it’s in this honesty where I find the compass setting of my heart for understanding war, “for war is our greatest teacher if we could we could just learn from it says” therapist Joseph Bobrow. He works with veterans who struggle with a debilitating sense of soul injury, a wounding in the place of their deepest values. A struggle evident in the increase of suicides among young vets. To heal, Joseph says, veterans need a place to put themselves back together again. A place where people listen and give witness to their humanity. A witness that welcomes the possibility of grace and reconciliation.
Here is a such story that begins with a letter dated November 18,1989 left at the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.:
For twenty-two years, I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only 18 years old that day we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you did not take my life I’ll never know. You stared at me for so long armed with your AK-47 and yet you did not fire. Forgive me for taking your life. I was reacting just the way I was trained, to kill V.C or Gooks, hell you weren’t even considered human, just gook/target, one in the same. Since that day in 1967 I have grown a great deal and have a great deal of respect for life and other peoples of the world. So many times over the years I have stared at your picture and your daughter. Each time my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt. I have two daughters now myself. One is twenty. The other one is twenty-two. And I have been blessed with two granddaughters, ages one and four. As of today we are no longer enemies. I perceive you as a brave soldier defending his homeland. Above all else I can now respect the importance that life held for you. As I leave here today, I leave your picture and this letter. It is time for me to continue the life process and release my pain and guilt. Forgive me Sir, I shall try to live my life to the fullest, an opportunity that you and many others were denied. I’ll sign off now Sir, so until we chance to meet again in another time and place, rest in peace.
Richard A. Luttrell, 101st Airborne Div.
Duery Felton, a park service curator, instantly knew he had to include the photograph as well as the several lines from the letter in an upcoming publication the National Park Service was assembling called Offerings at the Wall. In 1996, a good friend of Lutrell’s saw the book and shared it with Lutrell who had not seen the letter or the photograph since he had had left them at the wall seven years earlier. The pain of the memory was so great that Luttrell realized it might never go away unless he tried to return the photograph to the daughter of the slain Vietnamese solder. With assistance from Felton who returned the photograph, and the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, Luttrell was able to convince the newspaper in Hanoi to publish the photograph with the article. Miraculously , a copy of the paper made its way to a tiny farming village where the family of the soldier recognized it. Several days later Luttrell received a short, translated letter, forwarded from Vietnam by fax, written by a woman identified only as Lan. The message read:
Dear Mr. Richard, the child that you have taken care of through the picture for over 30 years, she become adult now, and she has spent so much sufferance in her childhood by the missing of her father. I hope you will bring the joy and happiness to my family.
A few weeks later, Lutrell found himself face to face with Lan in her village. The moment she saw him, Lan burst into tears and embraced Lutrell. “I am so sorry” he said to her also crying. Lan forgave Lutrell and the photographer of her and her father now rests on a small altar in Lan’s home.
Stories such as this, help us to find the flower blossoming among the ruins. May we open our own hearts to our veteran’s stories, their pain, their faith, their courage and give witness to the blossoming of their wellbeing. May we as well, hold our government accountable for the misguided missions that put their souls in harm’s way. May we together, live with this knowing that grace and reconciliation is an ever-present reality.