My True Names
by Caroline LeBlanc
It is happening again. Daily we hear not only the news of atrocious
violence among people disconnected and removed from us but also of violence
done by and to Americans in distant lands: lands where our help
is met with a mixture of gratitude and resentment, welcome and violent rejection.
Once again our some would say naive, some would say self-serving
national self-image as the great savior of the oppressed has landed us in a
situation where the oppressed say, No, thank you, and our emissaries,
US soldiers, are caught in the contradiction of it all.
The impulse to dehumanize is all too human. Americans dehumanizing enemy Iraqis and/or terrorists; men dehumanizing women; lighter skinned dehumanizing darker skinned; civilians dehumanizing soldiers; disciples of nonviolence dehumanizing those who would employ violence. And vice versa. The need to believe in the correctness of our subjective perception is so strong that we take impassioned stands, often degrading the other in the process of countering their different view. Yes, the impulse to dehumanize and project rather than embrace our inner shadow is all too human.
This is no abstraction for me. For six years I was an Army
nurse. For the past four years my son has served on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
between North and South Korea. For ten years, between 1968 to 1986, my husband
was an Active Duty Army officer. Since 1993 he has been an Army Reserve officer.
Since January 2004 he has been on volunteer active duty in the Iraq War theater.
Since my adolescence in my working class family I have been involved with many
levels of healing as well as peace and social justice work. Daily Ive
had to come to terms with the opposites within myself and my world our
I read an Amnesty International report on the sexual harassment
and rape of female US soldiers by their male counterparts in combat areas, assaults
that are reportedly overlooked and unpunished by the soldiers chain of
command. Then I go to the local army base where I see polite, wholesome looking
men and women interacting with great respect. Most are young adults. Many have
young families. As poorly paid as they are, many are the first in their families
to have a chance to build a life beyond the limited opportunities afforded their
ancestors. If they are killed in our war on terrorism their families will get
a pittance in death benefits.
I talk to devoted, overworked human service workers in the Army community. They are often family members themselves, helping other stateside family members cope with the daily meal of fear and loneliness that sinks like a stone into the pit of the stomach during the soldiers mobilization on dangerous assignments. The husband of one woman with six-year old twins will be home from Afghanistan for three months before being sent to Iraq for a year. I encounter sincere military leadership working to prevent the very real risk of reunion violence only to be attacked in the press as apathetic or negligent when a sensational tragedy occurs. Although I have never aspired to be an Army insider, I nonetheless inquire about helping in my own way. I encounter a defensive Army hierarchy, suspicious of and closed to the outsider who is not loyal to traditional Army ways.
I hear reports of soldiers disciplined for abuse of Iraqi
prisoners and debates over governmental treatment of suspected terrorists. Then
I see a news picture of a soldier comforting a crying comrade who has just watched
some explosive blow up an Iraqi child. And I hear of hospitals and schools being
rebuilt. The latter do not usually make the headlines. As one Army officer wrote
in a private communication, if it bleeds, it leads.
I am angry as I finish a novel about the oppression of Muslim
women. Then I catch a cab driven by a handsome young Muslim immigrant, new on
the job. He gets lost and stops the meter four times to consult his map before
we reach my destination. His charming apologies cover his vulnerability
and his shame? and allay my fearful projections a bit. In broken English,
he voices his relief when we reach our destination Thanks God.
He will provide. I tip him generously.
Medical personnel in a field hospital in Iraq write me describing
how US soldiers on duty in the middle of the night donated blood on the spot
for an Iraqi enemy combatant. The man was bleeding out and needed
a type of blood no longer in the blood banks stocks. He had been shot
by Iraqi police while trying to launch a grenade at US soldiers.
My own pacifist and nonviolent preferences (which, by the way, I can become pretty violent about promoting), and opposition to this war in particular, bump into my husbands and sons belief that this is a good war and soldiering is an honorable warrior calling. My personal desire for a safe, comfortable life with loved ones nearby is jeopardized by the determination of those loved ones to be warriors and healers in the most distant and dangerous places, serving their country without questioning the wisdom of its leadership and its policies. And still our love is deeper than the divide it bridges.
My quiet resentment stirs when I see luxury, oversized
SUVs and trucks; polluting snowmobiles and four wheelers burning the oil that
Mr. Bush insists was NOT the reason we invaded Iraq. Still, I ride with friends
in their SUVs, drive miles on errands and complain about gas prices like everyone
I reach a slow boil when I think about how little
this war affects the lifestyle and decisions of most Americans
and how people complain when our lifestyle is simply inconvenienced but not
dangerously threatened. And I resent how the war has impacted my life. Because
the military is calling up reservists, pockets of our civilian population are
now experiencing what professional soldiers and their families in our all-volunteer
armed forces cope with day in and day out. For most people though, the face
of war becomes more human for only as long as we are forced to take in a news
image, much as the face of cancer becomes human for only as long as we or our
loved ones are affected.
Given the popularity of sporting events and the outrageous salaries of professional athletes, I can only conclude that this testosterone driven aggression is valued and admired by a wide cross section of our population. Is our ambivalence toward the soldier combatant contradiction or paradox? Some find Pat Tillmans sacrifice of his football career and his life in service of his country an act of integrity and courage. Others shake their heads in confused disbelief at his foolishness. The line between toxic and non-toxic aggression is not clear-cut.
My heart sinks when my mention of compassion for US soldiers
and their families is met with a quick change of subject or a determined, and
often escalating, attack on our countrys actions and the implied attack
on anyone who would support those actions. It sinks even deeper when such a
reaction comes from people who profess to value love, peace and compassion above
all else. My body feels their unconscious distaste and fiery aggression alternately
cooling or heating their response despite their intellectual loyalty
to the noble principles they hold dear. I become silent, immobilized by the
pain of the rejection and the effort to contain my own aggressive emotional
reaction to their response.
I wish I could find a feel good spin on this; that
there was some enlightening or inspiring resolution I could wrap up with. But
I can only find hard questions; hard personal challenges; and a very hard, hard
call to feel love and compassion for victim and terrorist alike; civilian and
soldier alike; American and Iraqi alike; man and woman alike; conservative and
liberal alike all those shadows of mine manifested in the outer world.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh has devoted his life to peace work with orphans of the Viet Nam War and with Viet Nam veterans. He teaches a simple little chant that grows out of his longer poem, Please Call Me By My True Names. It goes:
Please call me by my true names
Please call me by my true names
So I can wake up, wake up
And the door of my heart will be open
The door of compassion
The door of compassion
I ask you. Please. Please call me and the warriors beloved to
me by our true names names that describe all the opposites we try to
hold within the arms of both/and so that we may wake each day with hearts
open to compassion.
And I, in turn, pledge to call YOU by your true names so that
we can wake each other with hearts of compassion.
And meanwhile, let us all rejoice in the great compassionate dance
of sun and earth that will bring us spring. Thankfully, this dance is given
to all of us despite our folly, regardless of whether we remember our true names
or not and regardless of just what my or your particular true names happen to
Caroline, a poet/writer, artist and psychotherapist, lives in Adams, NY.