lessons on war

Today I readied Calvin for his school’s Civil War day. The students were allowed to choose sides, to soldier for either North or South. I clad Calvin, no doubt as a Yankee, wearing a navy henley with metal buttons that I’d bought at Salvation Army, then put on his matching canvas cargo vest and rugged boots. Just before we put Calvin on the bus, Michael lovingly instructed Calvin to go kick some Confederate ass. As the bus pulled away, I wondered what the school might be teaching the students about the Civil War, about war in general, and wondered—doubted actually—if they'd be focusing much on slavery's part.

Calvin is borrowing a Union cap for the day. He’ll be all dressed up in his uniform just like the other girls and boys, and they’ll wage a fake Gettysburg battle. Unlike the others, however, he’ll be oblivious to the lesson. He won’t learn about the bloody conflict between the boys and men from the Northern states and the boys and men from the South, about the vicious clash over slavery, about the Confederacy's stubborn and greedy refusal to end the barbarous institution.

This morning as I dressed Calvin, I heard a story on National Public Radio about President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, the first visit by a sitting President since the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities in August of 1945 killing as many as 220,000 Japanese and Korean men, women and children. Yesterday, I’d heard an interview with Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor who had been a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl when the first bomb was dropped. She described the horrific event:

In that moment, I saw the bluish-white flash in the windows.

And the next thing I felt was floating in the air—obviously the blast of the bomb flattening all the buildings in the city. And the building I was in was falling, and my body was falling together with it. So when I regained my consciousness, I found myself in the total darkness and silence. I tried to move my body, but I couldn't, so I knew I was faced with death.

Gradually I started hearing faint voices of my classmates who were with me in the same room in the dark. They were whispering, mother, help me. God help me. I am here. I can still hear the voices.

Then all of a sudden, a strong male voice said, don't give up; I'm trying to free you. And somebody was shaking my left shoulder from behind. And he said, you see some sunray is coming through that opening; get to that direction as quickly as possible. Crawl.

So I crawled in the total darkness, and I got to the opening. And by the time I got there, the building was on fire. That meant most of the girls were burnt to death. Although that happened in the morning, it was already very dark, like twilight. And the two other girls managed to come out, and three of us looked around. And in the darkness, I could see some dark moving objects approaching to me. They happened to be human beings shuffling from the center part of the city to where I was.

They just didn't look like human beings. I called them ghosts, ghost-like people because their hair was standing up. They were covered with blood and burned and bludgeoned and swollen, and the flesh was hanging from the bones. Parts of their bodies were missing, and some were carrying their own eyeballs in their hands. And as they collapsed, their stomach burst open, intestines stretching out. Everybody was slowly shuffling. Nobody was running and shouting for help. Nobody had that kind of physical and psychological strength left.

Well, we three girls were reluctantly in good shape. We could walk. We could carry. So we went to the nearby stream and washed off the blood and the dirt from the bodies. And when the darkness fell, we just sat on the hill, and all night we watched the entire city burn.

Her story moved me to tears, and as I helped put Calvin's thin arms through his sleeves, I thought about war and about murderous bombs with names like Little Boy and Fat Man. I lamented domination, racism and bloodshed, demagogues and bullies, fearmongering, jingoism and powerlust, and I shudder to imagine a reckless, callow, bigoted, impulse-driven, insecure man like the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, with his finger on the trigger of our nuclear arms.

Then I ponder my little boy, his missing white-matter, his seizures, poor vision, volatile behavior, protracted development, and wonder what it was that all went wrong. Was it some sort of chemical that blunted his brain? Something in the air, in the water, in the food we consumed? And I imagine his small body shivering in the wind today, out on a vast field where little kids re-enact a bloody war, my son an innocent bystander as miniature troops storm by, many dropping like flies, and I mourn those lost in innumerable wars and in places like Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan.

And then I was soothed by the memory of a passage from Leaves of Grass, written by Walt Whitman, whose dying son he held vigil for on a cold night during the Civil War. He says, in part:

Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people ...

And I realize that if we could live by these words, perhaps there would be no war, no battle lessons, no thirst for power by tyrannical men, no desire to keep some people out or to box others in, no fear of persons different from ourselves, no contempt for those who have little nor praise for those with more, no scorn for unfamiliar beliefs or hunger to oppress the weak, the poor, or those with darker skin. If we learned our lessons once and right, this place we call Earth could be one big loving world.

Photo by Mary Booth Scarponi

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