I recently found myself at New York’s Symphony Space, listening to the voices of soldiers. As a National Council on the Arts member, I was representing the National Endowment for the Arts for the release of “Operation Homecoming” (Random House, edited by Andrew Carroll). The N.E.A. gave returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq an opportunity to write down their war time experiences in workshops lead by Pulitzer winning Vietnam era writers. With actors highlighting the evening, (Matthew Modine, Joan Allen, and, most memorably, Stephen Lang) and sitting next to one of the soldier/writers, I had a strange and uncomfortable revelation: a revelation that surely had been bubbling up in me in recent years -- How much of the world’s art and literature is linked to wartime experiences?
The writings of soldiers, or writing about wars in general, has indeed defined our literature and the arts, from Homer to Dante to Hemingway. If you remove works of art that do not in some way relate to, or respond to wars, our cultural landscape would be full of holes (think of Picasso’s “Guernica”). Perhaps that's what Jesus meant, when he warned us “such things (wars) must happen.” He did not validate wars by saying this, but he wanted to make sure we understood the inevitability of them: that our inner malaise will surely be translated into greater conflicts. But to have the Prince of Peace tell us that wars must happen is more than troubling. Must we be haunted by wars as part of God’s plan of redemption? Must art exist as primarily funerary?
In modern times, Rothko, Mondrian and other 20th Century masters wove the horrors of the atomic age into their work, as if to visit Hiroshima over and over again. Rothko gave that post-Atomic glow an ethereal transcendence even as Mondrian stubbornly, and valiantly, insisted on the order of grids against the approaching chaos. In both cases, they were exiled to New York, because of the dark specters of evil marching into their homelands. Surrealism (as the recent MOMA/National Gallery exhibit showed) screamed against the insanity of fear birthed in the trenches of WW1. These artists are often remembered for their anti-patriotic rants, or at best being ambivalent observers, and most definitely being anti-establishment. It is ironic that they are now seen as the establishment in the institutions of museums and academia. But the best of arts still can rise above the institutions and establishment that gave permission for them, or the conflicts that they escaped. The arts speak into a void, creating a moment of clarity, a pause in the frenzy.
Then there are the J.R.R. Tolkiens and C.S. Lewis of the world, whose front line experiences gave birth to the most resonant, faith-filled literature of our last century. Tolkien imagined through the dark trenches, surrounded by dying friends, and chose to speak directly against his own fear by naming one by one characters and places of imagined reality that would later form the basis for The Lord of the Rings. Lewis too, injured in the war, later recounts that his journey from atheism to faith was paved by his sense of loss, inconsolable violation (“the problem of pain”, he called it) that he felt in his bones. Having gone through such horrors is no guarantee of a recovery of faith, but it does suggest that faith and culture are linked to the crisis that surrounds us.
T.S. Eliot would have found this dialogue not so unfamiliar. His war-time journey to write the “Waste Land” could also describe our survey of Darfur and Afghanistan. In the “Four Quartets,” he describes “The unimaginable Zero Summer” of the atomic devastation but ends hopefully in the “still point of the turning world”, producing a rare articulation of the heart’s navigation from fear to love. But today, in the shadows of our current chaos in Iraq, and bullet holes in an Amish school still fresh in our minds, such sentiment can come across as too optimistic and even unkind.
I read recently that most of early Christian art (at least the examples that have survived) were funerary in nature. Apparently, even in the world of faith, art is obsessed with death. Surely, it would be the darkest of confessions for any artist working today to admit that his/her visions are driven by the haunts of war and death, and, like Dante, that imaginative reality is filled with a vision of purgatorio. On the contrary, our recent contemporary art scene is rushing to escapism, lacking in engagement with the present darkness, and even without the disciplined skill to describe the horror. So such a confessional would seem welcome in today’s climate of superficiality. Pausing to listen to the writings of soldiers in “Operation Homecoming,” though, I have begun to see a glimpse of a new kind of realism.
These men and women chose to write staring into the abyss: to record both their fears and hopes, in this time of certain chaos, grieve over lost lives and opportunities; but they also speak well of their pets and ordinary sun-lit days. Theirs is a stark realism, observing the life surrounding the turmoil, wrestling against the fading memories of loved ones, comrades, and the stenches of war. So many of Operation Homecoming pages are filled with emails, which like radio dispatches, they will remain deeply etched in our minds as immediately potent. These are voices that are directed toward our private spheres, but now allowed to be make public: They deserve our hushed attention for their honest grappling with inner turmoil. Their accounts are true “Survivor” tales but without any shred of sensationalism. Told sometimes gingerly, sometimes in expletives, the soldiers seem to dwell, after a while, in my consciousness as my imaginary neighbors, people whom I might encounter in my street, or kick a soccer ball around with. I am surprised at how much humor fills these pages, not the sanitized kind, but the raw, grimy kind that belongs in beer halls and late night comedy shows. Refreshingly free of showmanship, in our glitz-filled cultural universe, their writings serve more than to recount the war: they speak into our lives with authenticity, and remind us somehow that, despite it all, humanity can still reign in a cruel kaleidoscope of fear called war.
There are poignant lessons, of a soldier writing home as he flew over Iraq, a geography lesson that span some 3000 years. “Have you heard of Mesopotamia?” writes Lieutenant Colonel Cohoes to his sons, “ Two great rivers of the word, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flow together here then empty into the Persian Gulf….King Nebuchadnezzar (I can’t say it either) build the hanging Gardens of Babylon about 2,600 years ago.” Of course, in the reading that took place at Symphony Hall, Matthew Modine could not pronounce “Nebuchadnezzar,” either.
There’s an account of a soldier of Korean descent who recounts his adoptive American father and grandfather fighting in their wars. Echoed throughout the book is generational lineage to wars, that it is not an isolated experience to one generation. Then there is Christy De’on Miller, in an essay she called “Timeless,” a single mom/soldier mourning over the loss of her only son, Aaron:
"At times I believe I can learn to live a life without my son. After all, I must. I am certain there are other mothers who have lost their boys – car accidents, war, illness – who can shop for dinner at the local grocer’s without the macaroni-and-cheese boxes suddenly causing them grief. Moms who can roll sausage balls without tears; perhaps the festive food would even cause a smile. But the memory of him is planted in everything around me. Inside of me. So much is gone. Him, or course. But so much of him has been lost, is fading, breaking down. His blanket, his watch, his uniform…"
The writings amplify the details of life, not just theirs, but ours. They let us into the writers’ worlds, to share in their grief, their loss, and their confusion.
Here was another revelation, then, after listening to the account after account of Afghan and Iraqi soldiers and their families that I, too, lived in a war zone. A different, milder version for sure, sanitized and packaged better. Photos of the bright new facades of “you can have it all” condominiums, to be completed in 2010, tell us that we are all better in downtown Manhattan. Their airbrushed architectural renderings are what a friend calls “architectural porn”. But nevertheless I live and raise my family in a place called Ground Zero, and reading the book opened my eyes to see the invisible collateral of a war far away shadowing us everywhere. Yes, even if there is no visible war around, there are less visible battles going on everywhere.
There are visible scars in culture though. The battle is about the imaginative territories of hope against fears, the sacrifice of love against a misplaced devotion, the anger of revenge against forgiveness. It is a battle that rages in the minds of youth as they negotiate the labyrinth of a techno frenzied universe, sharing a communion of broken promises. When the manifestation of such collateral damage ambushes us, like in the pastoral Amish landscapes recently, or in Littleton, Colorado in 1998, in a high school named after a delicate wild flower, we are astonished.
John Hewett, the development director of the N.E.A., and who also happens to be an ordained minister, told me a poignant story recently. When the evil struck the sleepy Amish community near Lancaster, when a gunman/milkman systematically shot girls one by one, there was a hidden story, in what he called “A Miracle Nobody Noticed.” He wrote:
"I’m convinced most of us get through most days without thinking about God much. I was having one of those days a few weeks ago, until I heard about Marian and Barbie Fisher, two of the ten girls in the West Nickel Mines Amish School. Marian, the oldest, was 13. Her sister Barbie, who lived, is 11. When it became obvious what was about to happen that ghastly morning, Marian turned to the killer and said, “Shoot me and leave the other ones loose.” “Shoot me next,” Barbie said. “Shoot me next.”
Two children willing to lay down their lives for their friends. Wonder where they got an idea like that? That’s another miracle nobody noticed."
Perhaps a new renaissance will be birthed out of the “mouths of babes” like these: “shoot me and leave the other ones loose.” Or it may flow out of a grieving mother/soldier like De’on grieving for Aaron, a Marine who lost his life protecting his wounded comrades. Perhaps we will see that whether we are soldiers, or housewives or Pulitzer Prize winning writers (or all of the above), we need to realize that we are not home, at least not yet. That’s the only faith that can compel us to say: “shoot me.” The girl did not complain that “this is unfair,” or argue, “this is unjust:” she just said “shoot me.”
Such fragile, but heroic, voices in the face of violence can easily be ignored, or simply not audible with our doomed ears. It certainly did nothing to stop a milkman from unloading his anger by pulling the trigger. Perhaps such otherworldly gestures look as pathetic, or beautiful, as the string quartet that played on as the Titanic sank. But I submit to you that here, in a miracle nobody noticed, is a bugle call also directed towards us artists. It begins in a belief that our lives are to be lived for others. Arts should let “the other ones loose” from the bondage of decay, apathy and loss. To the extent we are able to do that, to that degree we will see a new language of expression that is not self-centered, but self-giving and generous. Yes, I believe that art can, and ought to, exist apart from wars. But in only place where this has been the case in the history of the world, a place called Eden where a poet named Adam dwelled, is today hidden inaccessibly beneath, or above, the rubble of Iraq.
Operation Homecoming gives us authentic voices that seek be a responsible steward of their experiences. Why would that simple gesture seem so foreign and refreshing? Has our culture become so cynical that we no longer have the capacity to listen without having a wry, critical distance? Or has the media become so profit driven and sensationalistic that they no longer can mediate information responsibly? Because the soldiers have faced certain death, and stood over the rubble that might have crushed them, but having lived, they owned the experience, and chose to tell the tale artfully and carefully. If we all live in a war zone of some kind, should we not do the same? Words alone can impregnate promise or despair in such a precipice: the arts can inspire or despise humanity.
In Jesus’ realism of “these things must happen,” he was also reminding us that our sacrifice, either for just or unjust reasons, would not be the last word. Our efforts, however noble, will not end the cause of injustice. But we are all given a call for self-sacrifice nevertheless. None are exempt, not even a pacifist thirteen-year-old secluded as far away from Iraq as humanly possible. And Jesus knows, first hand, what it means to die an unjust death without picking up a stone, or a spear. Instead, he continues to breath life into us in our funerary songs. By listening to these soldiers/poets, though, we may even begin to feel that life-breath, a hint of a culture of self-giving. Despite the anguish, De’on writes with the same quiet surrender of the Amish sisters :
"My faith doesn’t equal that of Job’s. I question. Why has God cut the fruit from my vine? Taken the only child that remained? Left me with no hope for a grandchild? I‘m certain there can be no more. No more children.
And yet I have no particular animosity for my son’s killer. He’s a nameless and faceless combatant to me. Should I ever have the opportunity to meet him, I hope that I’d forgive him. To me, the buck stops with the Father. His power stings at times. But He’s listened to me; perhaps He’s even cried with me. And yes, I do know what I’m talking about here. It’s a belief, man. Aaron’s words. You either believe in God or you don’t. Yes, I’d forgive. I do forgive. There is absolutely nothing I’d do to keep myself from spending eternity with God and Aaron."
Our path back to Eden is blocked, but there is a way in to the feast of the selfless. Only in these words of forgiveness, utterly stripped down to the core of faith, can echo the Timeless, or the Time-ful, promise of an Easter morning. That is our true Homecoming. Even if the condition is unbearably chaotic, or simply cruel, these authentic voices refracts in our fear dominated cultural landscape, mediating how we can choose to face a new day, and breathing certain hope into our stricken hearts.