Bearing Witness

It's not very often that I see something on a corporate-owned American TV news channel and go, "Wow guys, that was great." But tonight I did. CNN deserves a huge bravo - and a huge thank you - for their special SIXTIES episode about the war in Vietnam.

When the show first started, I could tell within 60 seconds that I wanted to turn it off -- this was going to be really hard to watch. Giving in to my emotional resistance, I thought, "I don't need to watch...I know what happened...I remember it from when it was going on." But I knew I couldn't turn off the TV and feel clean. It was like watching "Schindler's List"; it's not like you wanted to see it, so much as it was your moral responsibility to see it. You can't just let others go through the suffering and not even show enough respect to bear witness. According to Gandhi, bearing witness to the agony of others is itself a soul force.

So I watched the show tonight. And yes, it was painful. But I thought, thank God that someone in the media decided to put war -- real war, the truth about war, the suffering of war, and the stupidity of some wars - on prime time TV right now. We need to see it. We're so vulnerable to the propaganda of our multi-billion dollar war machine these days that it's very easy to either acquiesce, or simply look away.

Earlier today, I asked a woman, "So what do you think about this Iraq situation?" To which she replied, "Oh, I try not to watch the bad news."

"Do you think that will make the bad news go away?" I asked her.
"No," she said, "but it will help me sleep at night."

My thought, unspoken of course, was that perhaps she needed a sleepless night or two. We're living at a time when if you're not grieving, you must not be looking. But also it's a time when if you're not recognizing our power to change things, you're not realizing the power that lies within us. As they said in the 60's, if you're not part of the solution then you're part of the problem. And if you never look at the problem, then it never occurs to you to be part of the solution.

A young man recently said to me about my boomer generation that we were "just a bunch of hippies." He said, "Drugs, sex, and rock and roll. That's all you guys were about."

To which I responded with a chuckle, "Uh, that was just part of the day...!" But then I looked at him pretty intently, saying. "The rest of the day we spent stopping a war. And what are you doing, young man...?"

I'm not a pacifist. I understand that there are times when war would seem the necessary action to the most deeply reflective, considered person. But what was so horrifying about tonight's program about Vietnam is that it showed President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara for what they were - just these guys talking on the phone, almost clueless about what was actually happening, certainly with a sense that something was horribly wrong but without the moral conviction to simply stop it. At one point, it was said that because McNamara had run Ford Motor Company, people figured he was the guy who could figure it all out. Really....?

And the worst part of all, of course, is that here we are again. I don't have any answers about Iraq, but I do know we need to be asking deeper questions....not just about what to do, but about who to a country and even a species. None of this needed to happen in the Middle East. None of it. One bad decision, one selfish action, one imperialistic notion after another, led to all this. And no American, not one of us, should avoid the painful realization that yes, America does have blood on its hands. By the way -- not to change the subject or anything -- but can anyone tell me why the US Embassy in Iraq cost a billion dollars?

So we keep changing the places and changing the names, from Saigon to Baghdad to wherever is next. But we never seem to take responsibility for the part of the problem that might be us.

We continue to play war like a cheap high school drama; it'll all be okay if we just catch the bad guys. If anything, we're doing it now more than ever these days. The fact that they caught the "mastermind" of the Benghazi attack seems like such a cheap piece of theatre to me. The "mastermind"? As in, which one of them lit the match that then got thrown onto the gasoline? Are we kidding? Do we not recognize that if he hadn't, then someone else would have - if that not that night, then on some other night? And if not that embassy, then at some other? They weren't in Disneyland; they were in Libya! There will always be a Saigon, there will always be a Baghdad, and there will always be a Benghazi, until we desire the peace that lies beyond them so much that we are willing to do what is necessary to create a world at peace.

How do we do that? That's a much harder question. But at least it's the right one. And only when we're willing to withstand the discomfort of asking questions to which there are no easy answers, will we at last actually find some answers. The brave and mighty Americans we have lost at war did so much physical suffering for us; let us at the very least withstand the moral suffering of facing what needs to be faced, as painful as it is to face it, because only then will wisdom come.

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