Military Zen

My ears have been perked to the rise in suicides in the military of late. It occurs to me that all through history, lives are sacrificed in order to shift thinking. In the past years, I’ve been struck by the attention to “war crimes”- soldiers tried for “mistreating” prisoners of war–crimes within crimes– and the absurdity of it all. And now this~ those sent to kill others, killing themselves–and each other. No doubt, just another in a line of wake up calls for our generation.

Facing Forward

“Why do they have to keep their eyes facing forward Mom?” my sons ask. We’re watching the film, Annapolis, about the Naval Academy.

“They have to keep their focus,” I answer to my boys, though what do I know of soldiers. My best guess is that the “mid-shipman” is trying to see if he can provoke the plebes to react. He is testing their strength in the face of anger or fear.

As a “liberal” family, we don’t typically watch movies about soldiers, but we are visiting my father who just bought a home in Annapolis so I thought it would lend a nice sense of place.

As a young teen, I lived on the army base at West Point where my physician father was stationed. I saw soldiers run on the road or in the woods behind my house, in full fatigues with heavy backpacks and boots in the heat of July. I saw their heads shaved. I was there when the first women were admitted to the Academy. I watched soldiers march on winter weekends in the cold stone courtyard paying off demerits. I saw them faint in summer pageantry. I knew that plebes couldn’t date. I’d eaten in their mess hall and knew there were hoops to jump through even before you got your food.

Despite my Army upbringing, I don’t get war. I’d like to see the military do something else with their talents and resources. I know it’s not that simple, but I did stumble upon something that shed some light inside of my own troubled heart and that is what I wanted to share. That question my boys asked, “Why do they have to keep their eyes facing forward,” stayed with me, and was there waiting for me when I woke the next morning. In it, I began to understand something more about military training.

That “facing forward” teaches presence to what is right in front of you-without letting yourself be distracted by whatever is going on inside of you-fear, anger, exhaustion and no doubt, self-doubt. In this way, I realized that military training was very Zen, although I’m not an expert there either. Despite spewing insults, assaulting weather and pain, great fatigue, and whatever else the human mind can conjure up in the form of suffering, these soldiers are required to remain present to the task at hand.

How they carry this type of presence into the battlefield, I don’t know, but I’m sure it serves all who do. With deep presence, there can be no resistance, no fear, no need for escape. But I wonder, what of that quality of presence can they salvage from their experience? What, if anything, are they able to bring back home?

From what we know of veterans, they simply can’t remain present to all they saw or did or endured. They turn away. And in that action they reap heaps of punishment on themselves, as their own drill sergeant. Or they become their own enemy, and take their own life.

But what if they were able to keep looking forward? What if their training included such presence after the task at hand? What would come of that?

Great healing I suspect. IN being present, even to that which horrifies us, we release and soften and accept, and then all there is… is love. This truth is echoed in the lives of soldiers who “live” to share their story and fight their way to peace. And in that discovery, each offers his voice to those who proclaim the futility of war.

With this clear vision, the soldier’s amazing ability to focus could be taken into the world in service-in the kind of service, that she doesn’t have to turn away from when she comes home-in the kind of service that he can look in the eye without shame or hatred-in the kind of service that can change the world, one heart at a time. One soldier at a time. One pair of eyes looking straight forward at a time.

I recently viewed the premier of the film, Taking Root, a documentary by local filmmakers about Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan activist, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental work in her country. In the great breadth of her life’s work on behalf of the land and the people, Wangarii convinces the military that their job as protectors includes the land, and so they too join her campaign planting trees.

This opening of thought and service is just a drop in the empty bucket of terror but this is how change is watered. As I revisit this piece of writing following the rise in military suicides, a child of our own arrives in Iraq. He’s not a biological son, but a son of my community, a young man I watched grow up. He was brought to this country from Africa as a young boy and has now been sent across another sea as an American soldier. I know his beautiful spirit. I know “some” of his pain. He lost most of his family in Ethiopia to AIDs. As a child, he watched both parents and his grandmother die.

Though Joseph was welcomed with open arms into our tiny rural community, he faced racial hatred when he went to highschool in town. Perhaps becoming a Marine after graduation was his way of finding place. I know that his childhood dream was to return to his native country and help the children there. He wanted to buy a farm and raise cows, the cows he missed tending on his own family farm in the mountains of Ethiopia.

But America doesn’t fund those kind of dreams, not for teenage boys. Instead we train them to kill others in far away places and then expect them to return “home” and live as if it never happened. The same crimes perpetrated abroad would land Joseph in jail in the states and it is he who will have to come to peace with that.  And it is WE, who hold the responsibility of sending our children to such places of anguish outside and inside of themselves.

And so the military will hire more therapists and increase spending to support soldiers with their mental health or their missing limbs or lost comrades or visions of death and suffering while the rest of us worry about our incomes and the economy which relies so heavily on perpetuating this machine of hopelessness and cruelty.

My invitation then is for each of us to find a soldier’s strength-to face forward in our lives and do the work that needs doing. And to let that work be of service to others, the kind of service that lends itself to other “drops” of change… until the bucket is tipped over, and we have watered a lush new world.

Kelly Salasin, November 2007 & 2008


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