When my son was little he lived two lives, one the small, tender and ignorant child whom he was, and the other an imaginary warrior, a hero, tireless, invincible and feared. Little boys shift easily from one existence to the other, live equally in this world and the other, the world of cold fact and the warm imaginary world which underlies it and makes it bearable.
They say that as a fetus we each repeat the evolution of our species, growing from the single cell of Pre-Cambrian seas, to jellyfish, fish, tadpole, lizard, bird, rat, monkey and human and that all these forms lie within us all our lives, buried in layers like an onion. I like to think of that. There is comfort in the notion that what we’ve inherited lives on inside us, that we are the nine-months’ product of a billion years and contain the memory of our long past clear back to the beginning of time.
I like to think sometimes that in our lives from birth onward, having finished those biological steps, we repeat human history in all its stages, from earliest wonder-stricken ape-man to what passes for civilized nowadays, in this age of “guided missiles and misguided men.”
He was an amiable barbarian living in the Bronze Age back then, my wily little Odysseus, my half-pint Hercules. Sword in hand, he strutted about the house and yard, defiant and unconquerable. Monsters, demons and even the gods themselves fell before him. Their broken corpses lay in bloody heaps on the living-room carpet and his triumphant shout carried to the farthest edges of the known world. He knew neither compassion nor doubt, only raw will and the strength of his body.
Soft-hearted mothers, their heads filled with liberal notions about raising children, the sort who forbade their children to have war toys, looked on in horror as he slashed his way across the city park playground. The braver ones gently questioned the wisdom of allowing a little boy such imaginary violence.
What could I say?
“Oh, he’ll grow out of it,” I told them, “He’s a little boy—what can you expect?” And once in a while, “Well, you know, I feel foolish asking him not to act childish.”
Life, I knew, would eventually surprise him with the knowledge that he himself could die. Only when we doubt our personal immortality do we become compassionate and, so, fully human. This, I knew, is the beginning of wisdom and yet, I didn’t want to spoil his fun, to take from him his innocence, to rob him of this brazen pleasure. Only once did I try to warn him, to hint at what he would come to understand in his own way.
One day, he stood on the living-room carpet, his battlefield, steely-eyed and exhausted amid the carnage of his victims. For a moment he hung by thin threads, caught between the two worlds, unsure whether to launch a new adventure or to rest awhile and eat his soup and crackers like a good little boy. I hope that I spoke from love, but perhaps there was some jealousy too. It’s not easy to be a father sometimes, and even grown men often envy the heedless joy of children. I felt the weight of history and he did not.
“You know, son,” I told him, “playing the hero is fun, but in real life it’s the big, strong heroes who die. You and I, and everyone else, we’re descended from men who knew when to run away and hide.”
I could see the confusion in his face. I could see that he wondered if maybe he’d done something wrong, that somehow I didn’t approve of him. I’d spoken too soon and felt ashamed of myself. I wanted to explain about courage, how it isn’t a simple thing, that simply surviving whatever life offers can require more courage than is necessary for a brief bold action. But he, with his uncertain, puzzled look, was too young to hear that.
“It’s OK,” I said, “Have your fun. Some day you’ll understand.”
When I was eighteen years old, I made a difficult decision. The bind I was in really had nothing to do with principles, ethics, morality or theology—though I found myself falling back on them as a justification. But no amount of after-the-fact hair-splitting told the truth.
It was something deeper than that: revulsion.
There was a war going on, half-way around the world in Southeast Asia. Faceless old men seated around conference tables in a city on the opposite end of the continent had decreed that tens of thousands of utter strangers in an insignificant corner of the earth must die. The old men were used to killing strangers on command. They’d had their own turn at it and knew full-well that strangers don’t die willingly; that killing strangers is a dangerous and demanding task requiring young men; that there weren’t enough young men at their disposal who would willingly kill strangers.
The old men were crafty and counted on time-tested methods of persuasion which took advantage of our inexperience and insecurity. They spoke noble phrases appealing to our desire to accomplish great deeds. They hinted at the shame and emasculation that cowardice brings. They bluntly stated the consequences of failure to comply with their conscription: ostracism and imprisonment.
It was a systematic process, as formal in its rules and inevitable in its outcome as the stunting and twisting of seedling trees to produce miniature landscapes. The old men, gnarled and dwarfed in their youth by the same process, mistook their decorative house-plant bowls for the world and their own tortured shapes for natural growth. Whatever qualms they may have had lurking in some small unquiet cranny of their constricted souls were sealed in behind an impenetrable wall of numbers, ideology and words.
I and the young men I went to high school with were required to carry a gray paper card proving that we had obeyed the first of these old strangers’ strange commands by registering with the Selective Service System. Some of us didn’t question what it was that we were being forced to do—not the why of it nor for whom. Others took the first step warily, trusting that it would be possible to avoid both prison and the army by squeezing through one or another of the system’s escape holes.
It was a sort of winnowing and sifting of my generation. Of those who registered, some were selected and others were not. Of those who were selected, some served and others did not. Of those who served, some were sent into combat and most were not. Of those who actually battled some died and most did not.
I chose not to cooperate at all.
It wasn’t really a matter of choosing, since the weighing of alternatives and the words of long-dead saints came to me later, after the decision. It was more like instinctively whipping my hand away from a too-hot wood stove, or turning my head at the sight of a gore-drenched car accident. To kill another—the evil was palpable and overwhelming. I could not approach it.
The old men believed that to kill strangers on command was more natural, more fitting, more human than refusing to kill. They believed in competition, trusted in strength, counted on brute force and demanded compliance. They saw evil everywhere but in themselves and in those who carried out their will.
I’d struggled with my own personal anger, which sickened me. I believed in beauty, whose power I felt all around me and experienced daily. I trusted in love, counted on compassion and demanded justice. I saw goodness and mercy everywhere but in my country’s leaders.
For six years I lived as an undiscovered criminal, subject to arrest and a five-year imprisonment for not obeying the command of strangers whom I didn’t trust or respect. It wasn’t an easy time. I struggled with the possibilities, whether or not to confront them openly by forcing them to imprison me, whether or not to seek political asylum in a foreign country, whether or not to stay and make war on my government. I did none of those things, not really knowing why except for a feeling that none of those seemed to fit my situation.
Looking back on it all, I can see that despite the intensely political nature of the times and of my dilemma, I chose to be a criminal out of personal revulsion rather than ideology. I simply couldn’t bring myself to either comply with, nor to confront, something so vile that I didn’t want any contact with it. I wanted to be left alone, unmolested, unhindered and unattached to anything but what I might happen to meet with through happenstance and recognize as one of God’s innumerable aspects.
I made up my mind that, if arrested, I would refuse to cooperate in any way and serve out whatever sentence was given to me. Beyond that, I tried to simply act as though there was no government to support—or to flee from or to struggle against. It bothered me that my choice lacked anything decisive or dramatic. There wasn’t anything courageous about it and very little that seemed honorable even to me.
I was young enough to still feel a nearly irresistible temptation toward rebellion and martyrdom, to try to make my life seem meaningful through decisive actions. But I wasn’t suited to conflict with evil any more than I was to compliance with it. I hadn’t acquired the skills for lovingly opposing what I feared in myself and detested in others.
I lived in a near constant state of internal conflict, doubt and resentment. At times I felt proud, defiant and cynical, at other times humble, subversive and altruistic. In a time of turmoil I’d chosen inaction, a resistance so passive that I’m not sure it could rightly be called resistance.
It’s difficult to recall how emotionally-charged those times were—difficult, not for lack of memories, but because of how painful those memories are when recalled. The old words–“patriotic,” “duty,” “democracy,” “America”—had lost their meaning. The government’s secret bombing of Cambodia and the insurrectionist bombing of America were both carried out in the name of “peace.” It was an off-kilter Tilt-a-Whirl world and I wanted, desperately, to walk upright and balanced through it. Each time I staggered I cursed myself and my fellow stumblers and the foreign policy carnies who had lured us all onto their ride. But most of all I resented the ride itself.
Had I known then that my ancestors shared my revulsion towards military service it would have helped me. But I had no helpful past to look to, just a gut feeling that ran counter to what the nation demanded. I didn’t know then that there ever had been a legacy of attitudes and feelings, shaped by struggles and desires. I felt but didn’t know the source of feeling.
I have friends who speak of past lives, a long cycle of reincarnation. They explain their hidden urges, their inner life, by saying it is the lives they lead before they were born which makes them who they are today. Perhaps it is so, and if so, I am just too dull to know my own former selves.
I could almost accept that comforting belief, but I’ve noticed that the former lives these friends tell of are always more interesting and more significant than their current ones. People yearn for a story about themselves. We spend our lives looking for explanations, justifications and something which connects us to the past and the future so that the present time is bearable. The tricky part is that all stories contain some truth and none of them contain the whole of truth.
I like to think sometimes that rather than being reborn endlessly in a cycle of past, present and future lives, we are born only once. Yet, in this birth, we are born, not alone, not as an emptiness with only potential, but with the long past of our ancestors, their fears and hopes, their sorrows and joys, their struggles and desires, their failures and accomplishments. Perhaps each of us is the sum of all the long past still reaching toward the future.
Once, I was alone in Strasbourg, where the oldest part of the city lies on an island in the Rhein. I’d come by train, as a tourist with time to kill and curiosity to satisfy on a little day trip. At least, that’s how I explained it to myself later, on the train, after I’d decided to go.
I went, feeling adrift, unsure of who I was or why, worn by weeks of travel in foreign lands, overwhelmed by strange sights and incomprehensible languages and the effort to see and to remember what I saw. I was homesick, tired of my own company, yearning for an end to my sojourn. I went, not knowing what I’d find in the ancient city, vaguely hoping to see some faint trace of my forgotten ancestors, a glimpse into their world.
The island has served as a trading center, administrative capital and fortress since Roman times. It has endured while the empires which seized and lost it came and went. Plague, famine and war washed over it repeatedly. Here, I knew, the world had ended many times and been renewed many times.
I came to a cobbled square near the center of the old city, where a lovely Gothic cathedral, built of rose-colored sandstone blocks, rises. Later, I learned that it is over six hundred years old and took one hundred and fifty years to build and that it sits on the site of a Roman temple. Despite its massive size and the stubbornness of stone blocks, it does not overwhelm you with unfriendly bulk, but draws you to its warmth and complexity. The intricate details of ornamentation seem natural and perfectly in tune with its towering scale. Like a mountain, the worn building unfolds, playfully revealing itself in the changing sunlight and shadows, in sculpted forms large and small, each part contributing to the whole.
They built lovingly and well, those long-ago people. I was proud of them, proud of their patience, their skill, their sense of proportion, their humble audacity. Some of the builders, at least, were probably Alsatian ancestors of mine, for the farther back you trace it, the more ancestors you’ll find. It’s certain that some of the people whose blood I carry had walked in this square and prayed in this place.
Inside, the cathedral was dark, the walls stained by generations of votive candle smoke, and the feeling of a long continuous human presence was palpable. Some of the tourists seemed oblivious, as though it weren’t a church still in use, day trippers dutifully seeing one more sight on a checklist. But most were quiet, aware that they were in a place made holy by unimaginable centuries of human suffering and yearning.
In a little side chapel in the cathedral I found an old wooden pieta, Mother Mary holding the body of her recently crucified Son. I’m not a big fan of Gothic sculpture, with its stiff poses and stylized portraiture, but this one overwhelmed me. The carver had somehow managed to use the restrictive conventions of his time to convey something hauntingly horrible and hauntingly beautiful and utterly human.
The Son was just a scrawny, ugly, broken and mutilated corpse, human in form but without a trace of personality or divinity, only the final impersonal inertness of death.
Her face wore a mother’s expression of profound pain, sorrow, regret and compassion.
The two figures told an old story, one more ancient than the event it portrayed, and one that the carver had surely seen played out in his own time—for only direct experience could inform such masterful work. I’d seen the same tableaux myself, in news footage from Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and South Viet Nam. The horror and finality of the corpse, the crushing grief, were the same in old black and white photos from my father’s war and in video clips from famine-ravaged Sudan, the debris-strewn streets of Belfast, Oklahoma City and Beijing.
Here, in a side-chapel of a sandstone cathedral on an island in the Rhein, there was nothing I could do except to light a brief candle and pray.
History: An unpublished piece from Home Lands a collection of historical essays based on the migrations of my family.