If we choose to create a world at peace, how we remember events of the past matters. Societies often attempt to envelop important past events in shrouds of secrecy or in mythic forms. Nations and despotic leaders are adept at painting themselves as heroic. To learn the important lessons of the past so that we may avoid repeating them in the present or future, we must push away myths and cover-ups, bring down the walls of denial, and expose the truth. We must not allow horrific events of the past, including wars and human rights abuses, to be justified with specious, patriotic arguments.
To create a more decent and peaceful future, we must directly confront the lies and brutality of past wars. This requires an honest appraisal of the past. For this reason, museums are created that introduce new generations to what happened in the Holocaust; and about the US use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The arts can engage our hearts and shake us from our complacency. They can awaken and enlighten us. They can move us to action. They can help us to remember, to make connections and to see the world in a new light. Literature, painting and poetry have the power to ignite the human spirit, but to do so must be rooted in truth and compassion.
The arts can provide the means of understanding the horrors of war. There are many great books that tell and retell stories of war and peace. Some of are Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Erich-Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. A powerful artistic movie that depicts the insanity of war and dispels the myth that war is glorious is The King of Hearts. A well-known painting by Pablo Picasso, Guernica, powerfully depicts the brutality and suffering of war.
Poetry can be an artistic form for understanding the past in a truthful light. I will refer to five of my own poems and provide brief commentary on their meanings. The poems may raise more questions about past events than provide ready answers. They may open our eyes to view the world from new perspectives.
An Irony of History
Here is a simple poem about the atomic bombing of Japan. It tells a very short story of proximity in time. The atomic bombings did not happen in a vacuum. Other events were taking place. The poem opens the door a crack. Perhaps it can also open our minds.
A SHORT HISTORY LESSON: 1945
Dropped atomic bomb
Agreed to hold
War crimes trials
Dropped atomic bomb
The events in the poem happened within the space of three days: the US bombed civilians in Hiroshima (a war crime), agreed to hold war crimes trials for Nazis, and then bombed civilians at Nagasaki (a war crime). It is a war crime to bomb civilians. How ironic that the US committed war crimes in the days immediately surrounding its entering into an international treaty with other Allied Powers to hold the Nazis to account for their war crimes. The poem leaves a question in our minds about US hypocrisy in its actions.
Remembering My Lai
This poem remembers the Vietnam War and the massacre of civilians that happened at the hands of US soldiers at My Lai. Many young people may not have heard of the atrocities committed at My Lai, nor of the name of Lieutenant Calley, who was convicted of ordering the My Lai massacre, and who was soon pardoned by President Nixon. If we don’t remember the atrocities of war, especially those we commit, we are likely to repeat them. Thus, little changes from My Lai in the Vietnam War to Abu Ghraib in the Iraq War.
Our brave young soldiers
shot babies at My Lai –
sentenced to house arrest
until pardoned by Nixon.
Then it was gooks.
Now it is hajjis –
The buck stops nowhere.
It still hasn’t stopped.
From My Lai
to Abu Ghraib –
the terrible silence.
How does My Lai compare with atrocities in more recent wars? What happened at Abu Ghraib? Where does the buck stop? Why is there such disinterest and apathy among the American people? Why the terrible silence? What are our values? Where is our sense of decency and our shame?
Who Was Norman Morrison?
Norman Morrison was a real person, an American Quaker. He had a family. He immolated himself in front of the Pentagon in protest against the Vietnam War.
November 2, 1965
Sitting calmly before the Pentagon, like a Buddhist monk,
he doused himself in kerosene, lit a match and went up in flame.
I imagine McNamara, stiff and unflinching, as he watched
To his wife, Morrison wrote, “Know that I love thee,
but I must go to help the children of the priest’s village.”
When it happened, the wife of the YMCA director said,
“I can understand a heathen doing that, but not a Christian.”
Few Americans remember his name, but in Vietnam
children still sing songs about his courage.
Norman Morrison’s troubling death by public suicide raises many disquieting questions: Why would he do this to himself? Why is he remembered in Vietnam, but hardly remembered in America? Why did he choose to immolate himself under Robert McNamara’s window at the Pentagon? Who was Robert McNamara? Was he a war criminal?
What Was Zaid’s Misfortune?
Like Norman Morrison and Robert McNamara, Zaid was a real person, an 11-year-old Iraqi child whose parents, both physicians, were killed in front of their medical clinic. He became a victim of war, an orphan of war. War creates misfortune. In war there are no winners. To be macho about war is foolish.
Zaid had the misfortune
of being born in Iraq, a country
rich with oil.
Iraq had the misfortune
of being invaded by a country
greedy for oil.
The country greedy for oil
had the misfortune of being led
by a man too eager for war.
Zaid’s misfortune multiplied
when his parents were shot down
in front of their medical clinic.
Being eleven and haunted
by the deaths of one’s parents
is a great misfortune.
In Zaid’s misfortune
a distant silence engulfs
the sounds of war.
War kills children and makes orphans of them. Why do so few people in America care about Zaid’s misfortune? He is but one victim among many, but shouldn’t we care about the pain, suffering and cruelty initiated and carried out in our names? Why are we so silent about war? Why do we think war is an acceptable means of resolving conflicts? Why is Zaid’s misfortune also our misfortune?
Yet Another Hiroshima Day
Each year there is an opportunity to remember what happened at Hiroshima on August 6th, the anniversary of the bombing. It is an opportunity to consider the importance of the day, not only for what happened, but more importantly, for what could happen in the future. The life of every person on the planet is threatened by nuclear war.
ANOTHER HIROSHIMA DAY HAS PASSED
And there are still nuclear weapons in the world.
They are still on hair-trigger alert, weapons
with no concern for you or me or anyone.
They are weapons with steel hearts.
There is no bargaining with them.
They have nothing to say or perhaps
they speak in another language.
They do not speak our language.
They have only one battle plan
and that is utter destruction.
They have no respect for the laws of war
or any laws, even those of nature.
Another Hiroshima Day has passed
and the shadow of the bomb still darkens
the forests of our dreams.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nightmares for those beneath the bombs and for humanity. If we don’t recognize that, we won’t awaken from our too comfortable complacency before it is too late. Nuclear weapons cannot control themselves. We humans must control them. But can we really do that? We thought we could control nuclear power, but then there was Chernobyl and then Fukushima. Do we really believe that we humans are capable of controlling nuclear weapons? Is this illusion of control not really a form of hubris, one that could lead to the demise of humanity? With each Hiroshima Day that passes are we not continuing to play Nuclear Roulette with the human future?
The Arts Matter
We are fortunate to live in a time in which we have the possibility to transition from cruelty to kindness, from selfishness to community, from nation to world, from war to peace, from nuclear threat to nuclear zero, and from killing to nonkilling. May the arts, including the poetry of peace, help to open our eyes and hearts, sharpen our senses, and put us in touch with the truth, beauty and responsibilities of our common humanity, so that we may become a part of the solution so desperately needed to our global malaise. In short, may the arts restore and deepen our humanity and make us worthy of the sacred gift of life.