For Khan Sheikhoun

Aircraft circled in the sky, then turned.
The cylinders beneath their wings detached
And with the grace imparted by geometry
They traced their arc into the town.

What was the sound as they erupted?
Did explosions echo from the walls
Already fractured, crazed with crevices
From bombs and bullets previously struck?

Or was it silent, as the creeping poison
Exited the canisters and, carried on the very breath
Of air, passed softly through the lips
Of people, passed into their blood.

And then, and then, and then the cries
Of anguish, and of agony,
Of pain that wracks the body and
Of pain that wracks the soul.

And the world paused,

Afraid, perhaps, to breathe.

Then:

Unguided aircraft in the sky made descent
And in a mad cacophony of death
Erupted on the runways, in the hangars,
Tearing concrete, metal, wood, and flesh.

For the children of Khan Sheikhoun,
For the parents who will share their graves,
For the well-loved and the disregarded
Whose days ended in the poisoned air:

Justice.

So says the superpower.

But:

Tell me, children (and adults) of Khan Sheikhoun,
Has your life (too brief) been honored
With the blood that stained the taxi-ways
Of this airfield of your killers? Has it?

Tell me, children, do you know
If these explosions, this destruction
Will prevent another scene of horror?
For we have supped full of horrors…

Tell me, children, as I strain to hear:
What is your wish, as you breathe free
The scented air of God’s new life,
What is your wish? Your longing prayer?

More blood?

No?

Oh.

Weep, world, to know the will
Of these departed children:
“To live in peace and joy: No more.
To live in peace and joy: No less.”

Forgive us, children. We have failed.
We did not bring your long-for peace to you.
We have not brought your longed-for peace
To anyone. We have brought death and war.

Pause, world:

Fear to breathe

Until the planet’s children
Live in peace and joy.

No more.
No less.

On Tuesday, April 4th, a chemical attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria killed over eighty people. Western leaders identified the Syrian government as responsible, and on Thursday, April 6th, United States forces attacked the Shayrat military airfield with cruise missiles, describing it as the source of the chemical bombing. 

The very next day, Syrian warplanes took off from the same base and carried out conventional air strikes. The war continued.

Syria 2001 what became of them by Willy Verhulst

2001 photo by Willy Verhulst, who asks, “What became of them?”

Worst and Best

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese air and sea attack on the United States at its bases around Pearl Harbor. The day continues to fulfill President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prophecy that it will “live in infamy” to Americans, and indeed to others around the world. Over 2,400 Americans died in the one-sided two hour battle, the first of some 419,000 who would perish before the war ended four years later.

Hundreds of survivors attended today’s observance at Pearl Harbor, according to news accounts. They honored the friends they lost seventy-five years ago for the dedication and valor they showed on the last day of their lives. War calls upon human beings to offer all they have to give – their talents, their freedom, and their very lives – on behalf of others. They offer it all for their nation, they offer it all for their families, and they offer it all for those beside them.

There is a greatness in that. It calls for the best.

Here in Hawai’i, however, I find it easier to see the price of that greatness. The commitment and the dedication and the valor (which can be found on both sides of the battle) preserve a nation, but also imperil its values. Martial law was imposed on the Territory of Hawai’i within hours, and would not be lifted until 1944. American citizens were detained and imprisoned without criminal charge or conviction. Military courts suspended the writ of habeaus corpus. In fear for their liberty, people buried or burned possessions that linked them to Japan: records, photographs, mementos.

The infamy of Pearl Harbor has company, lots of company: The Bataan Death March. The horrors of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. The firebombing of London. The abduction and rape of thousands of women by Japanese soldiers. The murders of millions of military prisoners, gay men, Romani, and Jews in German death camps.

Lest we assume a virtue that is unwarranted, however, the infamy of Pearl Harbor has plenty of Allied company: The savage campaign on the Eastern Front. The firestorm of Dresden. More firestorms in too many Japanese cities to list. The atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Over 60 million people died in the fires of World War II.

We may, and should, honor the best. We dare not ignore the worst.

As 94-year-old World War II veteran Kenzo Kanemoto told Hawai’i News Now, “If you win, you still lose a lot.”

Let Pearl Harbor Day be one we honor for its summons to peace, for its warnings of the costs of war. Let it stand for the infamy of war itself, and its crushing weight upon humanity. Let it shine as a beacon for peace.

Photo credit: By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=668001

Other Veterans

tule_lake_relocation_center_newell_california-_harvesting_spinach-_-_nara_-_538316

Internees at Tule Lake, California, in 1942.

Last Friday was Veterans’ Day in the United States, which is a day off for those of us who work for Church of the Holy Cross UCC in Hilo, Hawai’i. I wasn’t relaxing on a beach, however (which isn’t where I relax in any case). I was presiding at a funeral.

The funeral of a veteran. A different kind of veteran.

On Veterans’ Day we honor those who serve the country and defend it from war, “who stand between their loved homes and the war’s desolation” (Francis Scott Key). And as Abraham Lincoln observed at Gettysburg, it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Yet there are others who endure the impact of the world’s and the nation’s conflict, and receive no honors, no recognition, no holy day. Evelyn was one of these.

Evelyn was a native-born American citizen interned by the United States Government during World War II.

Between 110,000 and 120,000 people whose parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had been born in Japan, 62% of them U.S. citizens, were ordered from their homes in Pacific coastal states (though not Hawai’i, where it was simply impractical) and housed in camps from Louisiana to California. Evelyn, a college-age young woman, observed that disabled children received no schooling at the Tule Lake, California, camp where her family was sent. So she taught them.

Thinking about Evelyn led me to think about so many others who endure the stresses of war. Gold Star families endure terrible losses in each conflict. Parents, siblings, spouses, and children live each day with anxiety for those they love who go in harm’s way. Support people, some who wear the uniform and some who do not, labor to support those who return. Some they treat for wounds. Some they assuage the psyche. Some they help find housing, or to resume interrupted careers. Some they aid to understand the now-unfamiliar ways of civilian life.

There are other veterans, too. These are the people who live where the war occurs, where if somebody had stood between their homes and the war’s desolation, their efforts failed and desolation came. These are the ones we see bloodied in films and photographs from Syria. These are the ones who come weeping for their dead to shuttered government houses. These are the ones swimming desperately to shore from overcrowded boats, and mourning their drowned children who lie silently on the beach.

In many conflicts, more civilians die than soldiers. They die from bullets and grenades that come their way, they die from bombs and shells, and they die from malnutrition and disease. The catastrophe we call World War II claimed the lives of 21 to 25 million people in uniform. It slew 50 to 55 million civilians, including 19 to 28 million who died from contagion or hunger.

Today, I honor these civilian veterans: the refugees, the interned, the families, the supporters, and those who pray that the shooting and shelling around them will just stop.

Today I honor them, and for their sake, I pray that God’s children will learn the ways of peace, and make no new civilian veterans to endure the sorrows of war.