True Strength, in Lyla’s Prayer and Song, and How I Came to Mine Quite Late

Lyla June Johnson joined us last month at the Lincoln Memorial from her ancestral homeland of Diné Tah, what the Mexican-American War, through violent conquest, defined and delineated for us as the states of the American Southwest. The Mexican-American War was a war that American general and president Ulysses Grant would describe in his memoirs as: “one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation” and “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war…I thought so at the time…only I had not moral courage enough to resign.” I’m convinced that Grant’s life and soul were irrevocably and forever wrecked by the moral injury he sustained from his participation in the Mexican-American War. However interesting it would be to think on how that war effected Grant and drove him in the years before, during and after the Civil War, Grant is not the purpose of this post, Lyla is, and by extension, my own inability to act fully on my own feelings and beliefs for too many years.

Lyla spoke after I did at the Lincoln Memorial. In contrast to my speech, which was filled with anger and sorrow, and offered only bitter reflection, Lyla offered healing and hope, and a path forward for all of us, even the diseased war-makers, as she aptly, and compassionately described them. Please take the time to hear her words, her prayer and her song:

Here is my speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Please listen/watch both and note the difference. I’d like to be more like Lyla.

Thank you to Chris Smiley for filming all the speeches and music performances at the Lincoln Memorial and at the White House. You can watch all the videos here at Chris’ Youtube channel.

Note that the title of this post is True Strength. I see that strength in Lyla, as I see it in so many of my comrades in the Peace and Justice community, so many of them women, I would say most of them women. Not discounting my brothers, but many of the most influential people on me, these past years of my life, have been women, my sisters.

I see that strength so especially when women like Lyla are willing to see the war-mongers and war-profiteers and pray for them, when people like Lyla seek to heal those whom I decry and detest. Where I want to tear down, set ablaze and destroy, where I want to let loose and satisfy an anger, a hate, a desire for bloody and savage revenge that haunts and cripples me, Lyla looks to comfort, to fix and to sooth; her way brings peace. Inside of me the cycle of violence is still spinning, and that weakens me so that I can never be strong, so that I can never recover, so that I can never find relief and rest. Only when that cycle of violence is truly broken, and to do so, the entire cycle must be embraced and touched, as Lyla demonstrates, can peace and justice be achieved. In order to do so, to break the cycle of violence, both within ourselves and within our societies, True Strength must be had.

With that in mind, this notion of strength and the unfortunate, and all too frequent absence of it, I want to share a talk I gave at the semi-annual conference for the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee in St. Louis last month.

For a long time after my resignation from government service and the war in 2009, I hedged on my actual feelings of aversion to the war, my sincere moral disgust with the killing, and my honest intellectual rejection of war and violence as a solution overseas and at home. I had harbored these feelings and beliefs for a long time before 2009. I hadn’t believed in the necessity of the war in Iraq in 2003, my colleagues in the Secretary of the Navy’s office can attest to that, but I was overtly agnostic at best, and I certainly was not filled with any principled degree of resistance, as I had not been personally touched by that vicious cycle of violence that was yet to come, so my connection to the war was abstract and academic.

As I explain in the video below, and in the video I talk about some personal history I have not shared before, some things I discuss go back to high school and the first Gulf War, my ability to lie to myself during my time in the Marine Corps, during the wars, to make excuses, to justify and incur responsibilities and obligations that required me to look past the immorality, the illegality, the lies, the simple WRONGNESS of the wars, in retrospect, was breathtaking. For example, if I were not to take command of Charlie Company, 4th Combat Engineer Company in 2006 when that opportunity came about, then other, less capable, less competent officers would take command which would risk Marines and Sailors to get killed; so I volunteered, accepted the command, went to Anbar Province and back to a war I knew was corrupt and was wrong. And on and on the justifications and excuses would go on, for years they went on, cloaked, camouflaged, and be-knighted with responsibility and obligation for the lives of others, all this moral justification in my head to allow my participation in an immoral war.

What my point in that reflection at the war tax resistance conference in St. Louis was how after I left the war and government service is that I continued to hedge my actions in relation to the wars. That rather than being set free, as I thought I might have been, I still aspired to be a part of the establishment, to be a part of something that “mattered” because I wanted to influence and have an effect on a peace process in Afghanistan, something that if I had the courage to look at what really existed in my mind and in my heart I would have known did not not exist from the American government’s perspective.

I was aware of a desire for peace within elements of the insurgency, as well as other parties within Afghanistan, including Hamid Karzai’s government, however our own government was, by far, the biggest obstacle to peace in Afghanistan – this was one of several reasons for my resignation in 2009. I, however, held out hope that, concurrent with the escalation of the war or after the escalation had failed, by 2011, when it had been agreed between President Obama and Gates/Clinton/Petraeus/et al. that a draw down in Afghanistan would begin, that serious negotiations would take place to end the war in Afghanistan. I was shockingly naive on two counts: 1. that someone who had been so disloyal as me would ever be allowed back in again, and 2. that the escalation of the war in Afghanistan was ever anything more than a stage play to make it look like Obama had done all he needed to do to “win” and allow the US to retreat, the same feat Petraeus had performed for Bush in Iraq just a few years prior. As in Iraq the same held true for the Afghans, once we were gone whatever happened to them could be pinned on them as the Afghans being too corrupt, not brave enough, not up to to the task, too sectarian, falling back on centuries old conflicts, or whatever specious soundbite the media talking-heads would gleefully regurgitate on the evening news. The president would be a war time president, Gates and his generals would get a chance to win and redeem themselves for Iraq, and Clinton would be a hawk for her presidential run in 2016, and the defense budget would keep going up – as I was recently reminded, the defense industry spent $27 million lobbying Congress in just those last three months of 2009 – and there I was thinking I might accomplish something by hanging out with Ron Paul and John Murtha in Congress and going on the Today Show

 

However, at the time, my thoughts were that I could somehow play a role as an outsider and go back into government service at a later point, as many who resigned in protest of the Vietnam War did. I thought maybe I could play a role in the negotiations that I suspected may be occurring, although I had no idea to the level that they were actually occurring with the Taliban, although with American involvement – again our government, the United States, being the greatest obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. I kept my true feelings about war and violence in check, determined to be a realist and a professional, but only contributing to and engaging in a fraudulent and rigged game, perpetuating an industry of war and a phony intellectual foreign policy and defense establishment in Washington, DC, a community whose only requirement for entry, promotion and prominence is allegiance and a pronounced demonstration to the greater good, or should I say God, of the war industry.

In my earliest talks and writings upon my resignation from the war, I believe I was more earnest in speaking for US withdrawal from the war, but as my belief in possible reconnection with the establishment, and my position with a think tank began, my views became more moderate, more reasonable, more sensible…i.e.. more palatable to Washington, DC and to the money that keeps the city and its people afloat.

I’m no longer in DC. I’m no longer captive to those interests. I also don’t make a ton of money any more, more like no money ;), and I now live with my family again in NC. But I have strength in my heart, in my mind and my soul.

I owe that strength to many people. A lot of it to one lady in particular: Diane Baker; who may be the strongest person I’ve ever met. It was meeting her in Dallas in the summer of 2012, staying with her and her husband Tom that really shook me and made me realize that I was a coward for not embracing and articulating what I actually knew and believed about violence. It was never anything Diane specifically said, but just who she was. Her presence, the dignity with which she spoke and carried herself, and her commitment to life and peace. I haven’t been the same since I met her. Now, to be sure, Diane was no magic potion for me, and there is certainly still LOTS wrong with me, but I feel the last many years I have written, spoken and acted much more forcefully and honestly than I did prior to staying with her. If you have had someone like that in your life, and I believe we all have many people who have influenced us in many different ways, make sure you tell them.

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With Diane Baker (middle) at VFP convention in Asheville, NC, 2014

Here is my talk at the War Tax Resistance Conference on hedging on my own morality. I hope this will help and maybe inspire some other people. Please take this talk for what it is worth, but at the very least for an understanding that life is very truly a journey. Today, typing this in a coffee shop in Durham I am living the values I imagined living as a 17 year old high school student.

Wage Peace.

 

Bless My Sword, Make Me Holy, and I Shall Commit Thy Crimes…

For anyone looking for a graphic depiction of the institutionalized militarization of Christianitity and/or the institutionalized Christianization of the American Armed Forces, I wanted to share this photo of me, a second lieutentant in the Marine Corps, getting my sword blessed by a Navy Chaplain as part of an official sword blessing ceromony for newly commissioned officers in 1998 at the Quantico Marine Corps Base Chapel.

Feel free to share or use this photo as you wish, particularly with those who argue that Islam is the only religion that is utilized for murder, conquest, greed, violence, profit, control, demagoguery, pillage, brainwashing, etc.

Unclaimed Remains

Veterans For Peace and nine allied peace groups held an anti war rally at the Lincoln Memorial, along with other observances in Washington, DC last week as Memorial Day was observed in the US, thousands of men, women and children were killed, injured and made homeless by American bombs overseas and US defense corporation profits exceeded the marks set in previous years. Nothing new, go back 150 or 200 years and the same things would have been written.

I have things I do want to share, but I want to provide Sarah Mess’ poetry by itself here. Sarah is a veteran of Somalia and her poem, Vietnam on My Mind, is staggering.

“Longevity is Nothing Without Dignity”

The film follows the story of S. Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran and trained lawyer, whose wartime experiences transformed him into a revolutionary non-violent pacifist. In 1986, Brian and several veterans fasted for more than 40-days on the east steps of the U.S. Capitol to protest against the war in Central America.

Then, in September 1987, Brian and other Veterans Peace Action team members sat on the tracks to protest a weapons train carrying missiles and bombs bound to be used against peaceful civilians in Central America.

Instead of the train slowing down for the protesters on the tracks, the conductor increased the speed of the train to three times its legal speed limit. Brian tried to get off the tracks, but the speeding train struck him, cracked his skull, and tore off both his legs.

Today, Brian continues his efforts to fight for peace on his prosthetic limbs. Please join him and stop illegal American wars and other covert military actions waged against peaceful sovereign states and citizens internationally.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/final-production-for-paying-the-price-for-peace/x/11474221#/story

 

An Excellent Article On Moral Injury

Quite possibly the best article on moral injury I have read. Thanks to The Atlantic and to Maggie Puniewska.

Healing a Wounded Sense of Morality
Many veterans are suffering from a condition similar to, but distinct from, PTSD: moral injury, in which the ethical transgressions of war can leave service members traumatized.

MAGGIE PUNIEWSKA JUL 3, 2015

Amy Amidon has listened to war stories on a daily basis for almost a decade.

As a clinical psychologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, she works with a multi-week residential program called OASIS, or Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support, for soldiers who have recently returned from deployments. Grief and fear dominate the majority of the conversations in OASIS: Amidon regularly hears participants talk about improvised explosive devices claiming the lives of close friends; about flashbacks of airstrikes pounding cities to rubble; about days spent in 120-degree desert heat, playing hide and seek with a Taliban enemy. Many veterans in the program are there seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

But many of Amidon’s patients talk about another kind of trauma, a psychic bruise that, unlike PTSD, isn’t rooted in fear. Some of these soldiers describe experiences in which they, or someone close to them, violated their moral code: hurting a civilian who turned out to be unarmed, shooting at a child wearing explosives, or losing trust in a commander who became more concerned with collecting decorative pins than protecting the safety of his troops. Others, she says, are haunted by their own inaction, traumatized by something they witnessed and failed to prevent. In 2012, when the first wave of veterans was returning from the Middle East, these types of experiences were so prevalent at OASIS that “the patients asked for a separate group where they could talk about the heavier stuff, the guilt stuff,” Amidon says. In January 2013, the center created individual and group therapy opportunities specifically for soldiers to talk about the wartime situations that they felt went against their sense of right and wrong. (Rules of engagement are often an ineffective guide through these gray areas: A 2008 survey of soldiers deployed at the beginning of the conflict in Iraq found that nearly 30 percent of the soldiers in each group encountered ethical situations in which they were unsure how to respond.)

Experts have begun to refer to this specific type of psychological trauma as moral injury. “These morally ambiguous situations continue to bother you, weeks, months, or years after they happened,” says Shira Maguen, the mental-health director of the OEF/OIF Integrated Care Clinic at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and one of the first researchers to study the concept. Examples of situations that might precipitate moral injury are betrayals by those in leadership roles, within-rank violence, inability to prevent death or suffering, and hurting civilians. Sometimes it co-exists with PTSD, but moral injury is its own separate trauma with symptoms that can include feelings of shame, guilt, betrayal, regret, anxiety, anger, self-loathing, and self-harm. Last year, a study published in Traumatology found that military personnel who felt conflicted about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a combat situation were at an increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior afterwards, compared with their peers who didn’t have that same sense of ambiguity. The main difference between the two combat-induced traumas is that moral injury is not about the loss of safety, but the loss of trust—in oneself, in others, in the military, and sometimes in the nation as a whole.
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