Today, with the Iraq occupation fading from our daily news and political discourse, and when discussed mainly in detached, strategic or polical terms, I thought I would offer a poem about the violence, from someone who has never been in war. I wrote this in February 2003, anticipating the horror of what everyone then thought would be a long, gruesome siege and urban battle in Baghdad. Of course it has now turned out to be just such a horror there and in Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi, even if it occurs in slow-motion and out of our sight. With the specter of United States troops remaining for an indefinite period, and who knows how much more brutal urban fighting and civilian "collateral damage" will occur, this poem suddenly has a new immediacy.
Fair notice: it is a very sad and graphic (not violent) war poem, but we must grapple with the pain we are causing as a nation. Because our government has censored the reality of this war from us, we must rely on our own imaginations, centered in our loving hearts, to feel the pain we are causing. If we cannot face that pain, even in print, we can never generate the empathy needed to put an immediate stop to this and all future wars. The conclusion, consistent with all real theology, offers hope. (I changed the last work in the title from "siege" to "surge")
LETTER FROM A FAMILY UNDER SURGE
Only one of them died, Mr. Bush, the night our recovering little enclave
Exploded again under your newest killing scheme.
A jagged chunk of concrete crashed through our window
And cracked her little skull.
But she stayed conscious a long time
Shrieking and wailing from the splitting pain of mortal injury
But even more from the dizzying disbelief and soul-wounding
Knowledge that a grown-up did this to her on purpose
She looked at me with pleading, prayerful, black Arab eyes
Wanting desperately for me to make this all better
Like I had always done before
But somehow knowing I could not
I felt I was betraying my own baby as she bled out on my bosom
And being powerless to stop it?
Do you know the unholy torment of the look in your others children’s eyes
As they realize their own mother cannot protect them?
My second little girl lived two more weeks
She had a cold, just a little cold
Before the lights went out, the water stopped
The sewage and garbage began to pile up, the bodies to rot
All the medicine ran out
The doctors could not move, nor could we.
You did not count on our resolve to fight you in the streets
You thought we would accept your purge
Your conquer and plunder of our ancestral lands
You are both foolish and arrogant to believe that only you know the truth
That only smart bombs and titanium armor breed courage
She got a cough, then a fever, then the fluid began to take her
She gasped for days, determined to outlive this horror
But the bubbling hot, fire-stoked, thick mud in her lungs was too much
Two dollars worth of penicillin would have saved her
Just after her last breath, my oldest son, a sweet, smart 16-year old,
Burst out the door in a terrifying bloodlusted rage
Wholly lost in hatred and vengeance he flung himself wildly at your guns
Futilely and insanely
AND WITH MORE COURAGE AND
PURE BEAUTY THAN I HAD EVER SEEN
He hurled rocks and broken glass against your bullets
For a flashing instant I was so proud of him
But then I realized he too was about to die in front of me
Shredded by a close-quarters, urbanized-warfare, anti-personnel unit,
By which you mean a slaughtering machine
My oldest daughter, barely Fourteen, I swear, Mr. Bush, she just died of grief
She simply could not live in a world where
Human beings actually do this to each other
She wanted to be a mother one day
To labor to create and nurture life herself
She had no place in a world of men who could destroy it so causally
I watched my second oldest boy, a proud, but half-starved Twelve-year old
Say a Prayer for my soul just before I closed my eyes for the last time
Can you imagine the pain, Mr. Bush, of watching your young child
Watch you die?
With my last conscious act I prayed that he would live through this
That one day he would come to your country
Show up on your door step
And looking you right in the eyes
Drop to his knees to wash your feet
So I can know that for at least one moment in your life
You were able to experience
The true heart of God
And to learn
What all the Christs of all the ages have meant
By the word Love.
You see, true divinity appears mad in world of pride and vengeance. Washing the feet of the man who ordered the killing of your entire family? Who would do such a thing? The answer most relevant to Twenty-First Century America: Jesus, but not, I am sad to say, the Jesus touted by our imperial, violent Christian right.
The mother's final prayer for true love looks like weakness in the US American world where might and vengeance rule; looks like pure fiction from a Muslim, whom we are popularly taught understand only force and violence. This is precisely the problem. Until we can imagine a world in which hatred is met with love, until we are able to meet hatred with love, we will never live in peace and love ourselves. That's what I mean when I say that divinity and true love are highly radical, even dangerous today.
I cannot claim to have the courage to live true to these teachings always, or even most of the time. I can only do my best. Each of us can only do our best, but we must at least make the attempt. For who else is there?