Hi Joan. I'm delighted to be dialoging with you. The essays that make up this book are bound together by the thread of wonder and amazement at what it means to be alive. I think of the book as a celebration of the human condition -- of every aspect of it, from holding a newborn to standing in a slow-moving checkout line, from falling in love to gazing in horror as bombs fall in our name. The book is about the quest for inner peace opening to a quest for outer peace. Each essay starts from the premise that life is sacred and goes from there. Life was sacred when I held my wife's hand as she died, and life was sacred when a seven-year-old girl broke into an enormous smile after buying a conch shell from me at a yard sale. Each essay is a meditation on a piece of life, a search for the underlying miracle.
How did your wife Barbara's illness and death tie in with these columns and this book?
Barbara's illness and death completely shattered my life and changed everything, deepened everything. I more or less dropped everything I'd been doing as a writer prior to her illness, and when I was able to start writing again, my perspective was different. I had no patience for academic trivia, nuanced intellectualism -- my whole urge was to cut to life's chase, to focus only on what mattered, which was the fleeting miracle of being alive in this moment. First all I could write was poetry, because the narrative of my life was broken; I had only fragments and strangeness: bills to pay, an editing job, a teenage daughter whom I loved, who had just lost her mother. Re-establishing a relationship with her was a daily struggle: learning to be both father and (to the extent possible) mother-nurturer to her. This strange new life I was leading -- this unexpected life -- was just beginning to unfold when I succeeded at convincing Tribune Media Services, for whom I worked as a full-time editor, to let me begin writing a weekly column. Many of the essays that make up this book were written in this period, as I was freshly discovering the meaning of grief and the circus of single-parenting. The essays are dispatches from the front, so to speak. And Barbara's death is present in all of them, calling on me to sing from the bottom of my soul of the joys of being alive.
Bob, Alison and Barbara, 1988
Yes, I can see how living through that could change your perspective, big time. In your book, there are a number of very poignant and painful pieces about the [non-monetary] costs of our militant patriotism. Would you like to talk for a moment about what happens when enough citizens share this bunker mentality?
We have to move beyond the sort of patriotism that requires, and is defined by, an enemy. It is my belief that what we do internationally always comes back to haunt us domestically. This is true in obvious ways, of course. Our multi-trillion-dollar war on terror, or war to promote terror , as I call it, is wrecking the economy, generating legions of America-haters around the world and shattering the lives of American soldiers, large numbers of whom return to society emotionally scarred with PTSD. All this produces an immediate negative impact. But fear-dominated governance, and fear-dominated patriotism, has a way of turning in on itself in less obvious ways as well, by creating a context in which armed authority and armed solutions are all people believe in. This creates an increasingly dangerous situation for everyone.
In the book's introduction, I tell the story of a young Chicago woman, the passenger in a car stopped by the police, who was shot and killed by a police officer who mistook her cell phone for a gun. The universal aspects of this story, and so many similar stories, never stop resonating for me. How do we disarm our fears, impulses and miscalculations? Life is precious -- unbelievably precious, sacred -- and if we are governed by fear, we belittle that sacredness in others and when we do that we ultimately belittle it in ourselves as well. Another story that appears in the book is about an Iraq vet who talked at length about looking through the sites of his rifle at an Iraqi boy standing on a roof, who was shaking a stick at the soldiers. The vet told of how close he came to pulling he trigger. He could kill the boy and there would be no consequences for him. it would be just another forgotten piece of the war. He chose not to pull the trigger because he sensed, finally, a larger context, in which doing so was unthinkably wrong, the equivalent of pulling the trigger on himself. And that's what violence always is, or so I believe.
Well put. You discuss the findings of David Grossman, a military psychologist, in one of your pieces. There's an astounding statistic regarding American combat soldiers in World War II. Can you share that rather telling story with our readers?
Military psychologist Dave Grossman, who explains his study of the psychology of killing in his book On Killing , has written of the experience of World War II combat trainers who finally got scientific about the process. They conducted surveys in which they learned that fully 80% of American GIs could not and would not point their weapons at another human being. In a given squad, most of the killing of the enemy was done by a very small percentage of the soldiers -- the psychopath percentage, you might say. The trainers pondered this "problem" and eventually "solved" it. One key change they made in the training of soldiers was having them learn marksmanship by shooting at human-figure targets, not bull's eyes. This was standard by Vietnam and lo, the problem of teaching Americans to kill was solved. This is an abomination of the concept of progress. Grossman points out that the explosion of point-and-shoot video games in the last few decades has had a direct impact on domestic gun violence, as these games inure the players to killing the same way military training does. Combine such desensitization with the easy availability of handguns and the social impact is disastrous. I see Grossman's research as an extraordinary indictment of militarism and a stunning piece of evidence that war does not make us safer. It belies the possibility of a "just war" because good wars require the same debasing of human nature as bad wars do.
What's Hollywood's role in the desensitization which affects how we look at one another as well as enemy combatants? Are they bit players or have they had a larger role in this process?
My concern about Hollywood is less what it does by intention than what it does by default. What it does by default is feed what theologian Walter Wink calls the myth of redemptive violence, a myth as old as recorded history. Things can be set right by taking out the evil jerk, blowing him to kingdom come. This can be done without consequence, without mess. Back in my childhood it was also, to much ironic mockery, done without blood. Today's movies have plenty of blood, plenty of brain matter, but still no consequences that come with good-guy-instigated violence. As a corollary, with a few notable exceptions, Hollywood has no idea how to dramatize effective nonviolent defusing of danger.Violence drives plots, creates tension and resolution, with extraordinary efficiency -- an efficiency that doesn't exist in real life. In the movies, when "mission accomplished" is declared, the credits roll and the audience clears out. In real life, of course, things work a little differently. But Hollywood is Myth Central. One of the neocons instrumental in fomenting the Iraq War famously declared it was "high noon" between America and Saddam. I see the U.S. as a superpower stuck in spiritual adolescence, and Hollywood helps keep us there.
That's a pretty strong indictment, Bob. I don't disagree. All the Dirty Harry posturing makes it difficult to find common ground, whoever you are. And what about the press? Where have they been in all this? Aren't they supposed to be performing a constructive role in presenting the facts on the ground, whichever ground we're talking about?
It's hard to know where to start in discussing the problems with the mainstream, or corporate, media. They've "atoned," these last three or so decades, for the dogged reporting of the '60s and early '70s that advanced the civil rights movement, became deeply critical of the war in Vietnam and drove Nixon out of office. This was the "liberal media's" moment of glory. It lasted about ten years, and the news business has been in repentence mode ever since. To grasp its disservice to the country and the world, we need look back no further than the unanimous mainstream support given to the war on terror, including the invasion of Iraq in '03. There was no room for serious criticism of this folly at the time.
I was thinking also in terms of all the stories that the corporate media either slant or shun altogether. Then, there's the stories that get played again and again: bad news, crime, pieces that emphasize the worst, basest aspects of ourselves [like that video loop of Katrina 'looters' that ran incessantly for weeks on cable TV]. This treatment leads people to feel more isolated, alienated, powerless and feeling besieged from all sides. Which feeds into militarism abroad but also plenty of anti-social behavior at home. Am I exaggerating this aspect of media influence?
What you're talking about is part of the spectator society. Big media is central to this. It purveys nonstop celebrity news and shocking crime news, interspersed with the ho-hum inevitability of foreign policy news, all of it in the hands of experts, heroes and villains. We worship, via the media, disposable gods, celebs who continually get caught screwing up and fall from grace and occasionally re-ascend to heroic prominence. The more people succumb to being mere spectators, the more isolated they become. This is the opposite of what a democracy is supposed to be. Most of our news is about winning and losing. It's laden with emotional triggers that feed fear and rage, which are easily channeled into militaristic patriotism. Such news also feeds do-it-yourself militarism -- violence in the streets, violence at home.
It's not a pretty picture, that's for sure. So, let's talk pragmatically. How can individuals take a public stand against our chronic militarism [or anything else, for that matter] in an age of the Patriot Act, unlimited surveillance, restricted freedom of expression and a cowering or bought-off corporate press?
Individuals can do what they've always done, which is inform themselves and act according to the dictates of their consciences. I don't have any secret remedies beyond that. Of course I would love to see a unified movement emerge that stands for and works for a caring economy and an empathetic politics, and I think we had a taste of that in 2008 when Obama served as a focal point of fervent hope. It was an illusion of course. Obama stood for something less than change as his base envisioned it. The deepest answer I can make to your question, Joan, is that what people should do is refuse to give up. We will continue to be disappointed ... wounded, crushed. The victories will be fleeting. But we can't give up.
Okay. We won't give up. In the meantime, a few more questions. You call yourself a peace journalist. What is this peace journalism, who's out there practicing it, and where did it come from?
I came upon the term "peace journalist" a few years ago at the website transcend.org , in an essay by journalist Jake Lynch. The instant I came upon that term I seized it. I knew this is what I had been, or striven to be, for years ... for my whole career, which dates back almost four decades. Lynch defined the term as meaning someone who reports all sides of a conflict, who reports on the reality of war, not on the propaganda or "who's winning." It's journalism that is truly independent of government and other powerful influences, which is what most journalists, at some level, understand to be their mission. At least they used to understand this.
Well, I really hope it catches on, fast. Good luck with your new book! And thanks for talking with me.
You're welcome, Joan. Always a pleasure. Thanks for the stimulating questions.
Early in his book, Koehler poignantly asks, "How can we stop learning our lessons too late?" He's a chronicler of our times, but not at a distance. It hurts him too as he exposes us to one another and to ourselves, warts and all. "This is the life we all live, full of love and brokenness and miracles" and it is still up to us what we choose to do with it.
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