Sunday, June 21, 2009

Humanity in the eyes of a militant

strategy and tactics

been in the wars?

war baby
war bride
war crime....... that which violates laws of war... if laws are effective wartime. ................Rachel Bentham, from her poem War – the Concise Version

I sat one seat behind Norman, Ted, Roane and Annie as they struggled to define the indefinable; can we distinguish the difference between civilians and soldiers in armed conflict. As the bus rolled through the Egyptian darkness for more than an hour, I thought about the Hamas militant who I had given a soccer ball. I thought about Michael, my son in Iraq even more. It was his image that made me realize I had to respect Kadar as a human being first, before I judged him as a fighter who embraced violence as a legitimate path to resistance.

It was a teachable moment worthy of its place in their debate, but all I did was listen. Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t until I was in the air between Cairo and London the next morning that the profound parental dilemma registered a significant temblor. Its aftershocks sporadically rattled my psychic nerves for the next two weeks.

Roane’s case abdicated the moral high ground to international law. Even though he firmly believed the right of Hamas to resist an unjust and inhumane occupation, he wanted to be clear about the distinction between killing an armed fighter as opposed to the innocent civilians wrongfully discarded under the convenient flag of collateral damage. I agreed completely.

Norman didn’t really oppose this view, but he had articulated a vastly different perspective a few hours earlier when he made a speech as we were leaving Gaza. Standing next to several Hamas “militants” at the Rafah border crossing he said “We are always prepared to defend the rights of innocent civilians to be protected during armed conflict, to be distinguished from the militants who are fighting. But I ask you to look at these men. Do they deserve to die?” On the bus he was defending his statement, and I completely supported him too.

After more than an hour of intellectual bartering, the group declared the debate to be a moral quandary. Once more I agreed. It was the right conclusion. But as soon as the discussion ended, my agreeable silence began to evolve into rock solid failure. Why didn't I speak up, and what was I forgetting?

The “militants” at Norman’s side had been our security escorts all week. Kadar was there adding weight to the militarily imposing posture of the group. The truth though is I really don’t know his name. It was another lapse of consciousness among the troubling search for understanding that began in the courtyard of an orphanage.

Rewinding my memory to that day, I had carried 22 soccer balls off the bus at the SOS Orphans Village in Rafah. The balls were obviously meant for children. They were donated by people from Juneau who supported the our delegation's mission to protest the blockade of Gaza. To transport so many to the other side of the world, they were all deflated and stuffed into an old canvas duffel bag. It also contained a pump in case one wasn’t available wherever I gave away the balls.

Once we entered the courtyard, it became clear that we wouldn’t be interacting with children that time of the day. And the place stood apart from much of what we had seen in Gaza. It was an oasis among the destruction and poverty that had staked claims over so much of the territory. So we decided not to leave all the balls there. Six or eight were taken back to the bus to be given away at the community activity center that was next on our itinerary.

Splitting up the balls created a minor problem. I might need the pump at the activity center, I thought, so I should pump up the balls before leaving the orphanage. I took one out of the bag and began to fill it with air.

Almost immediately Kadar eyed the canvas bag and ascertained there were many more balls inside. As I finished pumping up the first one, he began implying he wanted a new soccer ball for himself. I didn’t want to engage with him so I allowed the language barrier be a convenient aid to ignore him. For a while it seemed to work.

After the first few balls were full or air, Kadar and several others began kicking them around the concrete pavilion that had soccer goals at either end. Thinking that the impasse was over, I resumed pumping up the other balls. And I continued doing so even after most of our group left to tour the facilities.

That’s when Kadar came back and resumed his quest to have a new soccer ball. I became acutely aware of the sternness of his voice, as if he was free to intimidate me because I was temporarily beyond the collective cover of the group. I didn’t appreciate the pressure he was applying, which made me resist his request even more. I tried to explain in my own forceful language that the balls were for the children.

Using few words of English, he told me he had a son. Instinctively I didn’t trust him. When he caught my glance at his left hand that was void of a wedding ring, he changed his story to say it was his brother’s son.

But it wasn’t the words, or Kadar’s concerted effort to communicate, which began to soften my resistance. It was the pleading look in his eyes. There wasn’t anger, or authority, and certainly not the intimidation I felt when the exchange had begun. I saw nothing but sorrow.

Without realizing someone from the orphanage would translate my question, I asked him how old his nephew was. His eyes brightened. He was eight, Kadar replied. The edge between us was gone, and we began to pump up some of the balls together. One of his comrades joined us. I began to see them both differently. They weren’t enjoying their assignments of escorting a bunch of foreign peace activists, I thought to myself. Maybe they drew the short straw.

As I got comfortable with them, I noticed how the other Palestinian men were observing what was going on. It was here that I thought about Michael and some of the mundane duties he was assigned during his first deployment to Afghanistan. I remembered an essay I had written just before he deployed to Iraq for the third time. It was about my anxiety imagining him being judged by the Iraqi people as a heartless soldier. The proverbial light bulb switched on. That’s exactly how I had been treating Kadar and the others with him.

Kadar became fully human to me in that moment. He was no longer a security figure, nor a physical or emotional threat to me. I reached in the bag and handed him a ball. His eyes glazed over almost as if he was holding back a tear. We both looked around and noticed no one from our delegation was present. Acting quickly yet slyly, Kadar took the ball and ran out of the compound. When he came back, we pumped up some more.

For the rest of the day, each time Kadar and I crossed paths, he looked at me and said “Rich” with a smile. More than a few times he reached out with his hand and each time I took it.

When we got back to Gaza City that afternoon, Ted asked about the soccer balls. I briefly confided with him what had happened. “You should have given them all one” he told me with a smile and laughter that made me wonder if he had the key to some small universal truth.

The next day, as Kadar stood beside Norman at the border, I didn’t see him as a militant. I saw Michael’s spiritual brother. He was a child once and I knew he still possesses the innocence of one at some level just as we all do.

It’s a simple story that could have ended here, as a minor revelation of how morally blind I had been. I shouldn’t have needed the soccer balls as a way to be open to the human being inside Kadar. Michael should be my constant reminder that all soldiers are human first, and as he told me after his last tour ended, they all hate war.

Perhaps I had succumbed to the unconscious and regressive phenomena of group dynamics, because I never opposed the oft spoken resentment about the presence of our security escorts. The late Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of The Road Less Traveled, describes this as laziness. “It is simply easier to follow, and much easier to be a follower than a leader. There is no need to agonize over complex decisions, plan ahead, exercise initiative, risk unpopularity, or exert much courage.” Did I carry this weakness onto the bus too?

On the other hand, Norman’s humane gesture toward all of them raised the bar above the notion that compassion and understanding are permitted only during the quiet hours between the conflict. For me to have interjected this story into the debate on the bus would have been shallow and incomplete. For out of the analytical hindsight comes a far greater anxiety than wondering how Michael is treated by the Iraqi people. Is it the repression of this deeply personal moral quandary that forced me into silence on the bus?

How does one forget the full tortuous meaning of his son’s military service during a war? Michael has been in Iraq and Afghanistan too many times to imagine it’s not real. Yet I hide from the parental betrayal that dresses me down every time I’ve been enraged after reading about children being killed by an American airstrike or artillery barrage. It’s not that I condone our national cowardice coldly disguised in economic terms like the cost of sound business decisions; it's hours later after my anger subsided that I’d wonder if Michael’s life had been spared by the very acts I have come to despise.

Too often I avoid this dilemma by choosing ignorance. I won’t ask Michael if innocent lives were lost so he’d have a better chance of coming home alive. I also won’t tell him I wish he’d refuse to participate in the war, not because I think he’ll resent me, but because I can’t judge him on the basis of my experiences.

I understood Norman completely. None of them deserve to die. They all deserve to live free of warfare initiated by the powerful and wealthy. I understood Roane’s viewpoint too. We have to have laws, and there are good intentions in the international laws of warfare even if they lack any power to prevent needless wars. They justly distinguish between soldiers and civilians.

Michael and Kadar understand something I never will. War is worse than hell. But as Chris Hedges famously wrote, it gives us meaning. It will continue to do so until we learn that laws will never be effective as a means to define war’s rights and wrongs. Only those that have lived through it as soldiers and civilians, witnesses caught in the middle, can possibly understand this deeper than the intellectual convictions so many of us passionately hold.


annie said...

Thank you so much Rich. So many parts of our trip swim in my mind and heart.

i'm bookmarking you. it was a pleasure sharing the gaza experience with you.

Amy Paige said...

Always good to read your thoughtful insights. Thanks, Amy

Anonymous said...

bravo rich. well said. but to clarify one thing: for me at least the anxiety about our security guy's presence was not based on a dehumanizing of them as individuals nor a disregard for their lives, it was about;
a) in times of serious civil unrest with the palestinian political parties persecuting each other's members, one cannot expect to hear uncensored opinions with party security staff present. viz: journalistic integrity.
b) on several occasions they actively tried to stop us from going out, meeting people, etc. i know they are decent people just doing their job, but had we not talked to their superiors and really demanded more freedom of movement, our ability to talk, interview, learn and share would have been much reduced.

i hugely appreciate your observations about recognizing the humanity of these guys, irrespective of their role as soldiers or militants.
but that doesn't mean i have to agree with or accept everything they do.

its not a trivial point: to disagree with someone is not to dehumanize them. when i oppose military operations i am not disrespecting soldiers, i am disagreeing with their choices, which is a very respectful and human way of engaging with equals, and a necessary one in any kind of democracy. we should not confuse the two things.


Rich in Juneau said...

I agree Maggie. Nothing is black and white. There were instances, and always will be, when it would be appropriate to exclude them from meetings. But there were more than a few times the word "goons" was carelessly tossed about. Ultimately, we all faced a tenuous situation. If we imagine ourselves as on a higher plane of understanding, we might consider that we should sometimes be the first to yield for the sake of openness and trust.

anita said...

Hi Rich, Thank you for your thought provoking article. During the trip I wasn't very aware of our security escorts until people started to complain about their presence. It wasn't until I got home and had time to reflect that I realized that on one occasion they did prevent a woman from talking to me. I don't think I called them 'goons' when I was in Gaza (being unaware) but I have since I came back. Thank you for reminding me of their humanity. I won't call them 'goons' again - even here in Canada. (and I'll try not to call those menacing Chinese security people 'goons' again when I'm at a Tibetan rally)
I think it is part of the practise as a peace activist to keep our hearts open. Ram Dass apparently kept a photo of Richard Nixon on his shrine!! I felt no menace from our security escorts in Gaza. I also understand how their presence would undermine people's willingness to speak openly. There is always so much to consider ... so thank you for the quote from Scott Peck too! Wishing you peace! I hope your son comes home soon, safe and sound.

by Rich in Juneau