Thursday, February 16, 2012
Swan Song XXXII--Blinders
I don't know what teaching pros would call it--maybe a strategy, a means to an end. I proposed that war can be as glorious as any human activity, offering, as it does, the daily opportunity for men and women to sacrifice themselves for others. Heroism is almost a by-product of battle. Hence, Memorial Day. If it weren't, well, glorious, how is it that one of the joys of my father-in-law's life was reuniting with the motor pool he was part of from Normandy to Berlin. He gave years of his life for his country. Years. My own father too. War may well be more selfless than any other human endeavor.
On the other side of the ledger, war is as close as we may come to hell itself. Horrors abound, some--many--of which never fully depart a haunted mind. Years later, those who fought can be gutted by memories that flash back as if out of nowhere. War's horrors are hellish.
Literature hits most of that continuum. There's a ton of heroism in Tim O'Brien's "Things They Carried," for instance, but it's mostly embedded--look what kind of sadness and grief and horror these guys are going through in the name of what?--fighting communism, I guess. You can't help feel sorry for them. Still, put that story over on the left--war as hell. No one dies for anyone else really--the grunt who is killed just drops like cement, "zapped while zipping," the others keep saying.
In the film Glory, a black Union regiment during the Civil War, freed slaves from the South who go to war against those who'd enslaved them, die on the field of battle when they're basically canon fodder in a battle that required immense sacrifice. There's glory in Glory--you might say there's abundant life in the death of those men. Maybe you could say they fought a greater evil than death itself.
The Hurt Locker has selflessness, all right, but mostly it's a story of war's addictive powers because it offers an intensity of drama unattainable in civilian life. James, the man who defuses bombs in Iraq simply can't sit home and take care of his son, can't abide days when the most difficult decision he faces is which kind of Cheerios he's going to slip from the shelf. He returns, despite the horrors. He relishes them. Lives for them.
Where do we put such things on the continuum? That's the strategy I worked at. Read a couple of stories and poems about war, watch a film or two, and plot out where each of those sits--war as horror, war as glory.
I was talking about something, some idea, some poem, some story, out of nowhere, on the very last day, pacifism jumped into my mind. Once upon a time, students in the college where I teach were primarily from the Christian Reformed Church; today, most are "Reformed" of one tribe or another. But we're more diverse than we were in every way, and it stuck me suddenly, up in front of class, that it was possible there might be a Mennonite or two sitting in front of me. So I asked. "Are there any Mennonites in this class?"
A young lady in the second row raised her hand shyly.
No moment in the classroom this last semester struck me with such force. Immediately, I wondered what it must have been like for her to have to read all this war stuff, to watch all this war stuff, to study all this war stuff. What on earth must she have thought of a Christian education that left no room for what she must have been taught religiously all of her life. How could I be so blind to a whole tradition of Christian thought that would have found it sacrilege to talk about war in any glowing terms whatsoever. Rupert Brooke? She may have thought herself in hell.
Here I am, I told myself, my very last semester of teaching, still saddled with blinders. There'd been no place on that continuum for her. She was left off the chart of my impressively functional teaching strategy.
After the class, I called her over. "I want to apologize," I told her. It never occurred to me that I might have a Mennonite in here--I'm really sorry."
She wasn't angry. She smiled, in fact. "When I came here, I knew what I was getting into," she said, and then she left.
It's my last semester, but I still have so much to learn.