Tuesday, April 26, 2005

From Iraq

The following is from an ex-student of mine; he graduated from high school last year and, apparantly, has fallen in love in the most unlikely of places (he is Gunner's Mate in the Navy) and in the most unlikely of circumstances (in the midst of a war).

He's not even twenty and he writes better than I do.

I always feel sad when the sun goes down. But then she is replaced with the scream and fire of the guns, and I am no longer sad. I am glad to be alive, behind these cannon, instead of on the shore, hearing the scream and not the boom.

This is a tiny, dark place, and in it's confines, I am a god.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Little Asian Girl

Today in AP English we continued our discussion of a film called The Color of Fear." The conversation turned to and then orbited around the use of language: Is it racist when somebody refers to Mexican gardeners?

"No, I have Mexican gardeners--that's what they are. It's simply the truth."

"But why do you have to say Mexican? Why not just say gardeners?"

"If somebody said they had a gardener in California, it's most likely they are Mexican. And I garauntee that if anybody here was asked to picture a gardener they would automatically picture a Mexican gardener. So why is bad to say what everybody is thinking?"

And the debate raced on. Then she raised her hand just as the bell rang, and I told the class they had to stop and listen because I already knew what was coming...not the specifics...but the thing which she needed to say and everybody needed to hear.

"When I was a Sophomore two kids were walking behind me and one of them said 'Get out of the way little Asian girl.'" She cried as she tried to find the words. Of course she found them because she had been thinking of them for two years. "What they said was true...I am Asian and I am little. That's the truth. But even though it was true, there was more behind the words. That is what hurt."

She is the best teacher these kids have ever had, speaking of what lies behind the truth, seeing it and finding the courage to speak of this place which is beyond words.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Rwanda, U.S.A.

The following excerpts are from a book about to be published (taken from Harper's Magazine) about interviews of Hutu men imprisoned for killing Tutsis in the genoicide in Rwanda. Some of it is, obviously, tough reading...so if you're having a good day you may want to skip this one. However, for those who are stout at heart, it's worth reading. These words are not just the words of men living in some unreachable place, some foreign jungle of godless, demon-like primates. These are the words of intelligent, articulate and sometimes loving men...men who perhaps resemble those you sit next to on the bus, whom you jostle as you walk down the crowded city street, even those who you live with.

PANCRACE: Cutting corn or bananas, it's a smooth job, because ears of corn and bunches of bananas are all the same--nothing troublesome there. Cutting in the marshes, it was more and more tiring, you know the reason why. It was a similar motion but not a similar situation. It was more hazardous. A hectic job.

In the beginning the Tutsis were many and frightened and not very active--that made our work easier. But at the end only the strong and the sly ones were left, and it got too hard. Too often we would get all mired up for nothing. Plus, the marshes were rotting with bodies softening in the slime. They were piling up, stinking more and more, and we had to take care not to step in them.

ELIE: God and Satan seem quite contrasting in the Bible and the priest's sermons. The first one blazes with white and gold, the second with red and black. But in the marshes, the colors were those of muddy swamps and rotting leaves. It was as if God and Satan had agreed to cloud our eyes. We did not give a damn for either of them.

All the important people turned their backs on our killings. The blue helmets, the Belgians, the white directors, the black presidents, the humanitarian people and the international cameramen, the priests and the bishops, and finally even God. Did He watch what was happening in the marshes? Why did He not stab our murderous eyes with His wrath? Or show some small sign of disapproval to save more lucky ones? In those horrible moments, who could hear His silence? We were abandoned by all words of rebuke.

LEOPORD: It is awkward to talk about hatred between Hutus and Tutsis, because words changed meaning after the killings. Before, we could fool around among ourselves and say we were going to kill them all, and the next moment we would join them to share some work or a bottle. Jokes and threats were mixed together. We no longer paid heed to what we said. We could toss around awful words without awful thoughts. The Tutsis did not even get very upset. Since then we have seen: those words brought on grave consequences.

ALPHONSE: Some offenders claim that we changed into wild animals, that we were blinded by ferocity, that we buried our civilization under branches, and that's why we are unable to find the right words to talk properly about it.

That is a trick to sidetrack the truth. I can say this: outside the marshes, our lives seemed quite ordinary. We sang on the paths, we downed some beer, we had our choice amid abundance. We chatted about our good fortune, we soaped off our bloodstains in the basin, and our noses enjoyed the aromas of full cooking pots. We rejoiced in the new life about to begin by feasting on leg of veal. We were hot at night atop our wives, and we scolded our rowdy children. Although no longer willing to feel pity, we were still greedy for good feelings.

The days all seemed much alike. We put on our field clothes We swapped gossip, we made bets on our victims, spoke mockingly of cut girls, squabbled foolishly over looted grain. We sharpened our tools on whetting stones. We traded stories about desperate Tutsi tricks, we made fun of every "Mercy!" cired by someone hunted down, we counted up and stashed away our goods.

We went on with all sorts of human business without a care in the world--provided we concentrated on killing during the day, naturally.

This last man says they were not wild animals--and the way he says it leaves do doubt of the veracity of this statement. These men, even as they slaughter other men, are human--they return to civilization each night, to rest before the next day's bloody work. In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlowe struggles to relate the horror of the atrocities he sees--and the ultimate horror, of course, is seeing himself: a man deluded by the idea of dichtomies...civilization vs. barbarity, religious zeal vs. baseness, morality vs. genoicide, good vs. evil, white vs. black. But what he finds is that savagery exists in civilization--is, in fact, engendered there. The most religious, civilized men, he finds, are the ones who condone the most barbaric acts towards natives.

Art mirrors life, in Africa and in America; these murderers are witnesses. Humanitarians, politicians, the media all look elsewhere as the machetes fall. Of course they look away. Who wants to see his own arm holding a bloody blade? Africa (whether it's the Congo or Rwanda) is not so far away...and neither is Iraq for that matter. Leopord tells us of the words they used to speak against the Tutsis. These words are the same words we utter every day against...well, fill in the blank. How often do our words result in mass murder? How often do our words set the stage for mass murder? We are not wild animals, but neither are the Hutus. As Alphonse tells us, to think so is to trick yourself, to trick yourself out of seeing the truth.

And so, the ultimate question is, naturally, what is the truth? Are we barbarians waiting for the moment to fall to our bloody day's work? Are we simply waiting for the barbarians to come for us, to destroy our civilized world?

Is there a difference?

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

I miss my boys

Two of my former students are in Iraq.

One joined the war only a couple of weeks after the first strike. His unit was in charge of guarding a road into one of the major cities the U.S. had occupied. When he came back he looked healthy and excited to be back. He told of 130 degree heat (in the shade), the Iraqis he'd met, doing the "job". He said he was going back because our troops were dying, that it was unsafe, that the military needed more competent people like him--and that, ulitmately, we needed to get all of our soldiers the hell out of there. Too many were dying, every day...his friends, his American comrades.

Another ex-student is stationed on a ship, so he doesn't see the war up close. What he does see is low morale and incompetence. He says it sadly: "I'm surrounded by people who cannot even practice basic hygiene." Many of these sailors are on the ship, he says, because they needed a way out of a crappy existence. They don't follow orders, he says. They don't want to lead. He says it is up to him to teach them discipline and raise their self-esteem, that the "great" U.S. military is anything but. I can hear how tired he is through his writing. Each month I get another communicado, and I can hear how isolated he feels: a smart, clever young mind, a noble guy wanting to do good and surrouded by mediocrity.

If either of these men were to come to harm, I don't think I could ever recover my hope for our country and our world. Sometimes, it is necessary to die, and sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice our young people. This is not one of them. I want them home.