Alistair Noon: Guerillistan

Far from the regions in ruins,

the retreats and fire-fights,

the sentries under bare lights

draped by urgent spiders,

the rails run on to the horizon.

My breath stays shallow,

my tendons don’t tighten

when a low-floored, noise-reduced tram

gleams round a corner on time.

The nocturnal documentaries

repeat their routes, like flies,

but the reports are defused mines:

I never dream of a truck in flames.

Bassan, the cirrus looks

like a ceiling for an airbus,

for its midrib and veins.

The cumuli march, the backs

of their heads in shadow,

a bright light on their faces.

Did you fly to Amman,

to bump eastwards by coach?

Is your wife extracting wisdom teeth?

Have they published your research

into water at high altitudes?

The door is slow as it slides

to the outside. What comments

do you have on the weather events,

the peanut butter sandwiches

snowing onto peasants?

Mohammed, the glass is thick

that makes a city into sky.

For ten months, you laughed

from the upper circle

at the faces of the Lost

in the delta of arrivals.

Outside, the upward throttle

of leaves. You played chess

in a transnational mall, cadged

phrases from the language

beyond passport control.

Can you see the Armed Men?

Where’s your sleeping bag unrolled?

Are you listening in Freetown

to night gunfire again?

I was thinking of Thebes.

No place to debate with friends

what justice might mean

then pass your wives and workers

as you climb to the vote,

nor order with informants

and a deficit of consumer goods,

but where travellers die for their name,

and frenzy dismembers the young.

The Chinooks flock across it.

An evolutionary advantage not to pause

on plane surfaces, but rest in corners,

of the Atlas of World History, say.

Once, the wings of a wasp

struck up billows of dust

on my wardrobe-top,

a helicopter landing on the Kush.

Wherever I moved, it found

no windows I opened.

This is my stop.


Adam Green: Scene a Few Miles to the West of Nod

We come up in silence. In bright still air. That slight bleached out look which you get in dreams or cut-aways to the far off past. The quiet air of the country punctured softly by birds. Before us a field. It is a large brown field, wide and still, in the channels and rhythm of a recent ploughing. Across the ridges and troughs of its dug up earth, brought to the surface, tiny worms lie scattered. They are squirming a little in the sudden air, the colour of flesh against the dark new soil, thousands and thousands across the whole wide field. Near the eastern edge we see the ground is disturbed. There are marks of footprints, two sets side by side then a zone of chaos. Like a fight has taken place. There are no worms in this section. There is only the earth and the odd straggle of a root, tiny and white and thin like hair. In the disturbance of the soil two distinct circular dents stand out, a body‘s width apart, as though someone has fallen heavy to knees. There seems like there could be a pattern to the constellation of steps and the relation to the dents but it falls away. The sun all around is a flood of light, the angle of morning. The air is very still. Beyond the nearby fence sheep graze in groups, heads down to the grass. In the blue sky above birds start to descend.

End of scene.


Claire Saponia: The pacifist Pacifist

I don’t want to fight this because

fighting this is also war.

So what is the peaceful pacifist

supposed to do? Equanimously

sit cross-legged, eyes closed and

lightly smiling at atrocity and its

allies? Do I let enemies maul each

other and then me, should I

accidentally get in the way? Do I

love them, all the same, sit tight,

ommm and hope for the best?

I have no special reason to get

hysterical. We live sufficiently apart

for me to delete you from my wad

of preoccupations. I simply have to

sell off the TV, carefully avoiding a

morning tendency towards BBC

online, Radio Four, Guardian-Buxton

Spring deals at WH Smiths – in all

national railway stations – and a

history of serious guilt complexes. I

could start eating animals again,

maybe even on a daily basis. I could

take up judo or kung fu in the name of

self-defence, christen the world a dojo.

My dojo. I could build a cyclone B

plant for fun and tell all the journals

I no longer read: this is how it’s done.

I could write about these adventures

and invent some others, like the one

where I met Gandhi and we secretly

took Elevenses in his back garden.

And then I became him.

And we copied ourselves into myriad

Gandhis because the elevenses we

took were actually aphrodisiacs and

love got all randy on an empty stomach.

How different it would have been had

love multiplied relative to us.

– – – –

a break from respite

just as long as both

sides bleed; hostages

of mind and body,

hijackers of mind

and body,

no new ideas are required.


Lydia Stryk: American Tet

Scene: Jim alone in his garden

(American Tet takes place in the spring of 2004, the first anniversary of the Iraq War—a moment in time in the ongoing conflagration.)

JIM: The thing about nature is. That nothing dies. Or death–being dead– just doesn’t apply. Nothing dies. You can kill it. Starve it. Drown it. Torture it. But it comes back to life. Or forget life. It just comes back. It’s there again. Forget then. It’s here. That’s why gardening reminds me of war. Fighting a war. They’re that close. Feeding, starving, nurturing, poisoning, raising, cutting down. I would basically be considered a killer. If you would ask my daughter. A life-long professional killer. For thirty years I got paid for organizing and implementing effective destruction of a given enemy. And now I’m a gardener. I’ve killed men, women and children. In cold blood. From no further away than I am standing from you. I’ve scorched fields and defoliated forests. And I have all kinds of medals to prove it. Life is not a value I believe in personally. Life is in fact without value. It’s just a force. Everything lives to live. That’s all. Last year, Elaine and I stopped moving. Finally. Neither of us comes from here. Neither of us likes it here, particularly. But neither of us could stomach ever moving again. I’m still young. But I’m sick. So I took a part-time desk job. The misty winds of Agent Orange have destroyed my lungs. Elaine thought it would be good for me—therapeutic, she would say—to make myself a little garden. So I did. Here in the backyard next to the shed. I have my corpses lined up here. My seeds here. Sometimes when I am gardening I think of the past. Or my family. That crazy daughter of mine. Of Danny over in Iraq. But mostly, I tend to stop thinking. Which is why gardening is such good therapy. You’ve got one bare hand in the cool wet soil. The other around the root of a tree. You lay it in there. Fill that hole up. The bed? The grave? Or you’re pulling up a weed with strong, deep roots. And there’s a moment, when it gives in, gives up, and then you have the whole damn thing in your hand, you can feel it trembling. Is it alive in that moment, or dead? That’s the mystery. And the fact is. I don’t know if I’m alive or dead. This is my little secret. No one knows this. The confusion of the gardener. And the soldier.

End of scene.


Joel Vega: The Fifth and Careful Season

Beyond October, before the lure

Of orange, the swarm flies across

Nevada’s skies.

Listen, the talebearer says,

Listen as they drag the weight

Of distances from as far as Peru

And Cebu.

Head, thorax, abdomen,

Two antennae, six legs.

Lepidoptera. Scaly wings

Open (inhale) close (exhale)

The dusty breath

Of mute birds.

What is an army of itinerant moths?

A catapulted piece of the moon,

Flung to earth from the Sea of Tranquility.

But ours is a season of agitation

When guns in an arid land

Hound orphans, their pain looming,

Bigger than a mountain.

Tonight, the moths seek shelter

In mossy ribs of fallen logs,

Their wings encoding

Secret trajectories of storms.

What we hear though is neither

Typhoon nor hurricane

But the solid rain

Of ricocheting bullets

Hissing in the dark.


Harvey Pekar: Comic of the Real

Article and interview by Erich Christiansen, 2009.

Harvey Pekar is one of the true pioneers of the comic book art form. Since the early 1970’s, his monthly series, American Splendor, along with a more recent group of graphic novels, have broken new ground—by coming down to earth. After the myth-creating fantasy of the first half of the century, followed by the frenzied taboo-breaking of the underground comix of the 1960’s, Pekar extended what comics could do by using the medium to tell stories of his own life as a file clerk in the V.A. hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Rather than superheroes saving the galaxy, he chronicles the battles, victories, defeats, and impasses that ordinary people face in everyday life. And, as often happens in real life, his stories have no clear resolution, but instead provide a glimpse into the real moments that make up our existence.

Pekar and his work were brought to mainstream attention by a feature film, also called American Splendor, in which he was played by Paul Giamatti. More recently he has gone back in time to tell stories of his own childhood and adolescence, as in 2005’s The Quitter, which tells, among other things, the story of his life as a street fighter in tough neighborhoods.

But Pekar is no narcissist; although autobiographical, his writing is always conscious of being part of a larger world. Take, for example, Our Cancer Year, co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner (creator of political comics, like Real War). This book chronicles his fight with cancer—while against the backdrop of the Persian Gulf War that was then taking place. As the opening lines put it, “This is a story about a year when someone was sick, about a time when it seemed that the rest of the world was sick, too. It’s a story about feeling powerless and trying to do too much…” And Pekar has used his art to tell other peoples’ stories, too. One of these was that of Robert McNeil, a black Vietnam veteran with whom Pekar worked, whose story became the subject of Unsung Hero (originally serialized in the pages of American Splendor). Pekar shows how global events intersect with individual lives. For example, in 2007, Pekar published Macedonia, the story of graduate student Heather Roberson, who goes to Macedonia to do research into how that country was able to avoid its ethnic tensions becoming an armed civil war. Her goal was to show how wars can be prevented, how violence is not an inevitable part of international politics. During her journey, she talks to various government officials and international volunteers, all working to resolve long-standing conflicts between the Macedonian ethnic majority and the traditionally marginalized Albanian minority. She gains hope from their struggles and dedication, which at the same time is tempered by the recalcitrance of age-old ethnic prejudices that she also encounters.

Pulse: Was part of the appeal of this project for you the fact that this topic dealt specifically with ethnic violence—seeing as how you grew up Jewish, and also lived in some areas and through some eras marked by racial turmoil?

Pekar: That might have been an element to it, but I’ll tell ya, what really excited me was the fact that I didn’t know a lot of this information until I met the woman that I write about. I thought it was interesting and I thought that people didn’t know it, and I wanted to bring it to their attention.

The inquiry in this book was about preventing war per se; that is, armed conflict between armed forces. But in The Quitter, you also write very eloquently about fighting on the street, to gain respect, both from others and yourself. So do you think there are parts of life in which violence is acceptable, or at least unavoidable?

I really don’t think so. I don’t think I was right in doing the things that I described. I mean, I fought to build up my reputation and stuff like that. But I should have just let people alone.

One of the parts of ‚Macedonia‘ that struck me was about the Albanian fighters giving up their arms. Because the main question was, how are they going to rely on the government to protect them when it never has before? Would you say that this reflects at all on something like the gun control issue in this country, or are they two completely different things?

I don’t know if it’s completely different, but if you’re a minority population and there’s a real danger that you’re gonna be attacked by a majority, I can see more reason for maybe wanting a gun then.

I was just thinking in terms of people who live in safe neighborhoods where they don’t feel the need to own a gun and defend themselves. It seems like it’s easier to be pro-gun control when you live in that kind of area than when you live in a high-crime area.

That’s possibly true. I can understand why you say it seems, but actually, probably more people are killed that carry guns than that don’t carry them. They’re prone to violence; they’ve already got the gun with them, if somebody messes with them, they just shoot them. I mean, in some areas, that’s kind of commonplace.

What do you think the contribution of art is to these issues? Specifically, what’s the advantage of telling this story through comics, over telling it through an essay or article? And what can comics offer that other arts forms can’t?

I don’t know if it has any advantage. Let me tell you why I got into comics. First of all, I happen to think that comics are serious, and prose and movies and television, I mean, they’re all on the same level. As I’ve often said, comics are words and pictures, and you can do anything with words and pictures.

So the reason that I got into comics, was—frankly, it had a lot to do with opportunism. I mean, by the time I started into comics, which is in 1972, I had already been a jazz critic since 1959. I had ambitions to be a bigger name and everything like that, probably a lot of people do, although not too many will admit it. I had got sick of comics when I was around eleven years old because they were so predictable, I mean, y’know, they’re for kids… the superhero stuff and that crap, so I got sick of it. But then in my early 20’s Robert Crumb moved to Cleveland, around the corner from where I lived. I became acquainted with him and I saw some of his stuff. What I was primarily interested in was meeting another guy who was a jazz record collector, ‘cuz the more jazz record collectors I knew, the more I could trade with, and the bigger collection I would have. Crumb’s roommate, though, said “Man, you really oughtta take a look at some of Robert’s work, ‘cuz it’s really good, y’know.” And more to be polite than anything else, I said “Ok.” When I saw this stuff, it was really good—it was parody, y’know? Sorta like Mad, in a way. It was good to see Crumb just tackle people directly. And then I thought, Jesus Christ, you can do anything in comics. Why shouldn’t you be able to do all kinds of stuff? Comics are used in an extremely limited way, although they’re not implicitly, limited. So I thought… o.k., realism, I mean there was no realistic movement in comics like there were in other art forms. There’s so much not done here, if I could just take a shot at something new I might get a footnote in history. But fortunately it did work out better for me than that.

You made your reputation writing about the very personal, everyday battles and triumphs. Do you think it’s especially important now, given the current world situation, to tell ordinary people’s stories in that way?

Well, I don’t know if it’s more important; it’s certainly as important. I mean, it’s autobiography, and autobiography is a big deal, whether it’s in film, or prose, or what, comics. When I started I had a few reasons for writing autobiographically. One was that, I was really interested in talking about mundane events that really could mark a person—but rarely get talked about. I thought that was one failing of comics that should be dealt with. That was one reason and another was—although I don’t know if this is anywhere near as important —before I did comics I used to be like a class clown or a street corner comedian. And I used to tell stories about myself and my friends.

I just think it’s really striking how, in your work, you don’t really have a distinction between the personal and the political. You talk about the results of these big global things, like the Vietnam War or the Persian Gulf War, but as they impact ordinary people. For example, you didn’t set out to try to tell the comic book story of the Vietnam War, but you talked to this co-worker that you had, and you got his story and preserved it.

I had special access to this guy. And he had a real interesting story, a unique story, and like a zillion other people with fascinating stories, his wasn’t told. So I thought I’d like to get this one in the books.

One thing I keep getting when I talk to people who have been through the kinds of ethnic conflicts you write about, is the stumbling block around the question of hope. There just seems to be this cynicism about whether a situation that has gone on for so long can ever get any better. And this element was present in your book too, especially when you portray people with lingering ethnic suspicions. So I guess the question is: how do you cultivate hope? I know that’s a big question, but I assume there must have been some kind of optimism that inspired you to take on this project in the first place.

Yeah, well, I guess the main hope I have is that people will finally come to their senses. I mean, I was just thinking about it, about how a multitude of ethnic groups have gotten together in the United States and for the most part, with some notable exceptions, have gotten along well. But when you have two [groups of] people fighting over the same area, it can go on for centuries and centuries. In the States, when all these people were coming from all over the world, I guess it just seemed too overwhelming to start trouble, with one group against another against another. But when two ethnic groups have been at each others’ throats for centuries, they demonize each other, and tell lies about each other.

While I was reading ‚Macedonia‘, I had Ornette Coleman’s song “Peace” in my head. That’s because of the contrast between the title and the uneasiness, the irresolution of the music. And in the situation described in the book, there’s a will toward peace, but it’s on the edge, always tentative, never quite resolved. What do you think?

I think that people are afraid to take the last step. They’re afraid to trust each other. Like this thing in, Israel/Palestine is just insane. It’s just insane! I mean, being Jewish and seeing what the Jewish people are doing over there, it’s so obviously self-defeating. And here I am being brought up to think that Jewish people are really smart and all that, and yet [over there] they’re tryin’ to lord over a buncha people who don’t like them, that never have accepted them, and that are more numerous than the Jews. Oh, it’s just insane.


Susan Griffin: Feminine and Masculine

A discussion on war and conflict with eco-feminist author Susan Griffin

Susan Griffin is a poet, essayist, and playwright. She was born in Los Angeles California in 1943. The Second World War and the holocaust are events that have had a lasting effect on her thinking, threading in and out of many of her books. Her writing has been described as a body of work which “draws distinctions between the destruction of nature, the diminishment of women and racism, and which traces the causes of war to denial in both private and public life”. Her book Woman and Nature has become the pivotal and founding text of eco-feminist ideas. At the same time, Women and Nature is a prose poem that moves away from traditional conventions of sociological writing. Her book about memory and war, A Chorus of Stones, incorporates new combinations of memoir and biography. A Chorus of Stones was a finalist for both the National Book Award as well as for the Pulitzer Prize. Ms. Griffin has been named by Utne reader as one of the 100 most important visionaries for the new millennium. She has also been the recipient of a Macarthur Grant for Peace and International Cooperation.

Pulse: Reading your book Women and Nature (1978), and being of the generation that grew up after that book was written, it can seem that the challenges women in most Western societies once faced have changed. Many of our experiences as women in the West have been free and full of opportunities due to strong and clear voices like yours that came before and paved the way for us. While we sense the power in your writing and thoughts, there is also a part of us that has a hard time seeing women through this book’s lens. Have things really changed, or are we naïve to react in such a way?

Griffin: Largely because of the women’s movement, there has been a great deal of progress. But we cannot take that change for granted. Not that many years ago the idea that women are equal to men was ridiculed and yet many also denied that women were facing inequality. Now, in the same way that racism has ceased to be socially acceptable, so has sexism. But in many cases, the change is only on the surface. You need to look at real indications, such as pay scales and boards of directors and the number of women in powerful governmental positions and even more importantly, from my point of view, how great an influence feminist values and attitudes (as opposed to the traditional values of masculinity) are being heard in the public arena.

Would you describe the relationship between women and men as one of conflict?

I don’t feel women and men are, on a deeper level, in conflict at all. We have been placed in conflict by history and various institutions. But that is not the real story. Instead we are both suffering from a system of values that is called masculine but really only serves might and power.

We need to look at the question of how discrimination against women is connected with environmental destruction, which is the subject matter of Woman and Nature. Both philosophically and psychologically, the denigration of women is tied to the denigration of matter, of the material world and the earth. This denigration is founded on the separation of spirit from matter. Once nature (matter) and women (who are associated with matter) are stripped of spiritual meaning (which is to say any meaning at all) we become raw material to be used or abused with impunity. These ideas are deeply embedded in our culture. They are consciously believed by some and unconsciously by many others, both men and women. If we want full equality we need to address and change these ideas, which are also, by the way, psychological structures that encourage denial (so dangerous in the age of global warming) and scapegoating of all kinds, including racism.

Do you think it is idealistic to imagine that one day we might be able to see ourselves as both feminine and masculine, that we might be able to recognize that those two things are distinct parts of being human and that each human knows them both?

I don’t think that is idealistic. In fact, it is realistic because that is who we really are. And until we begin to see that what we call masculine and feminine are social constructs that contain qualities that we all have, that are human, we will continue to suffer both individually and as a society from a kind of fracture, a painful and destructive split, in which our reason is not really reasonable and in which we do not learn from our emotions.

Expanding on this a bit: in reading your work, one understands that perhaps it is man’s own emotion that he sees in women, and it is this that he both wants to access in himself and yet also fears. It is a state of „no control” and so he craves to be seduced by it and yet finds it difficult to accept. What are your current thoughts are about this, and, as women, don’t we do this too?

Yes. I expand on this at length in a book I wrote on pornography which is called ‚Pornography and Silence‘. It is not a book that calls for censorship so much as a deeper understanding of what is really going on in pornography, which as a genre provides a classic example of projection. I suppose I ought to write something about this apart from the subject of pornography because some people have misread that book as being anti-sexual. In fact, it is pornography that is anti-sexual, covertly expressing fear (if not terror) toward sexual experience precisely because one cannot be in control of sexual desire, pleasure or orgasm. This explains the appeal of all those corny chains and restraints etc.

Do you see ways in which denial is related to this idea of man fearing emotion, and women being taught to fear it too?

Yes. As a culture we often respond to loss and death by denying feeling and with attempts to exert power and dominate. This may seem rational until you see how often we respond like the Bush administration did to 9/11. After being attacked by Al Qaeda, he launched an invasion of Iraq, a country that in fact was itself in conflict with Al Qaeda. An analogous situation would be when a man loses his job and then beats his wife. I am not saying that you should just sit around ‘feeling’ and do nothing in response to a crisis. But until you allow yourself to know your own emotions, you cannot respond in a constructive way.

Your work is about moving beyond the boundaries of form and perception. Do you think these boundaries are real? Do we set our own limits? Create our own forms?

We are always creating forms and repeating the forms we have been given. Even the most creative forms are made from old forms. Take jazz for instance which mixes African music and Spanish rhythms with classical opera and African American spirituals: jazz itself constantly creates new kinds of music.

Are boundaries real? Some are. The walls of the human cell constitute a very intelligent boundary that can detect what will be nutritious or what will be harmful. Those walls only let in the good stuff. One of the reasons that toxic radiation is so harmful to the body is that in addition to being harmful to DNA and cellular functioning, it destroys cellular boundaries. So some boundaries, as long as they are not rigid, are vital to our survival. But other boundaries are imagined. The idea that women are inferior in math and science is a boundary we need to move past. There was a well known author who served on the board of NEA for a while who openly said he would not give grants to women writers because he said we had inferior minds. That is a boundary that we need to get past. Having the courage to cross such boundaries is important. But boundary crossing can also become a fetish; it can become empty, as in a product such as Proctor and Gamble’s “all new” detergent.

Do you think it is sometimes necessary to go to extremes in order to break these delusions of denial?

I have to know what you are calling extreme to answer that question. In other words, I can’t answer it in the abstract. One person’s extreme is another person’s bright idea. If you are talking, for instance, about using violence toward other human beings for social change, I would say I am against that. Though I am not against self-defense. It’s sometimes very hard to draw that line and one should never draw it abstractly as in ‘that person or country or company or organization’ is going to harm me one day so I’d better initiate an attack. Abstraction will lead you to do things you will regret and that are, in the flesh, often cruel if not immoral.

Is seeing a situation clearly and specifically sometimes a matter of accepting it, of looking at it without judgment? Do we have to do this before it will change?

Acceptance does not imply stupidity. Acceptance means that you have simply taken in the reality of what is, and though this may seem easy, it is not. Depending on how traumatic or painful an event or a situation is, it can take years to accept the reality of it. Judgment often gets in the way of acceptance. It’s a covert way of appearing to master a situation. But I am not categorically opposed to judgment. I believe some actions — the abuse of children, the bombing of unarmed civilians, torture — are wrong and those who do these things ought to be brought to justice. We must declare collectively that these actions are wrong, as we did in the Nuremberg trials. In fact, bringing perpetrators to justice often helps bystanders or even victims to accept the reality of painful events. Acceptance, not without but separated from judgment, can be important if you want to understand larger social patterns that create immoral acts. And added to this mix, discernment is crucial. To refine your perceptions, to look carefully, to use the same intelligence the walls of your cells do in differentiating one thing from another.

Do you think we create conflict as a way of finding knowledge?

I don’t think we create conflict in order to know. I think conflict can arrive from ignorance. Then conflict is just reality knocking. And in this way, a conflict can create us, at least if it gives us an opportunity to know ourselves.

How do you see the relationship between living from this place of radical honesty and our ability to widen our boundaries, increase perspective and understanding in our private lives and perhaps also in the wider world?

I like this phrase “living from a place of radical honesty.” Authenticity. It’s much like the experience of hearing a note that is right on pitch. In that state, you often open your heart, feel more deeply, and see more clearly. So of course you do widen your boundaries: It’s a natural part of that state of mind.

Would you say this is the main meaning of our lives? To awaken like this?

Yes. And to love.

You write that the word secret has an erotic edge. If we live in this kind of honest and lucid state, without secrets, is there still eroticism? Is there still mystery? Isn’t this something we need as well?

Of course. The world is an erotic place. We are fields of energy. We are always exchanging our selves, our breath, our consciousness, with trees and air and the sun and water and other people and the food we eat. Every sound we hear vibrates in our own bodies. Every thing we see becomes part of us. The more we are honest, which means being present to ourselves, the more alive we are to the world, the more we feel this Eros. So of course there is mystery. The mystery of otherness which comes from respect, from really taking in existence. The mystery that a tree exists, for instance. All the science I have ever learned about trees does not erase the mystery of its being. Nor has that science erased the mystery of my own being either. But I love these mysteries. They are not the same as secrets. Because you feel them and know them and even swim in these mysteries. They do not occlude love (as secrets do), they invite it.

That’s beautiful! To realize that mystery invites love, and secrets occlude it. In that sense, secrets also lead to denial. And in politics, as you suggest, it is often denial that people follow because it gives them a false sense of control. In accepting the truth and the mystery, in not denying it, are we left feeling unsafe?

Well, yes. When you give up denial, you will feel unsafe. But then another kind of safety builds. It is more like a state of trust. Not in fate or some god who will always make things go your way but in existence itself, the depth and profundity of it all. This is a far more realistic sense of safety, and you realize over time it is also more reliable and you don’t have to sacrifice either your intelligence or the full dimensionality of your emotions to have it.

You write: “There are events in our lives that we cannot understand because we keep a part of what we know away from understanding.“ Would war be impossible if we didn’t keep this part away from understanding? Is this the same idea as not denying the masculine and feminine within ourselves?

Yes. But who is the “we” here? War is not an event caused by individuals. Our part in it may be just to have relinquished power to a dictator or an unwise leader—such as we had on 9/11.

I can’t answer your other question here because it would take too long. I wrote a whole book about it (Chorus of Stones). Only I will say that gender is basically a system of denial and it’s a system that I believe came from war and in turn helps to aid and abet war. Briefly, the qualities which are supposed to be masculine are really the qualities of a good and loyal soldier—not feeling, denying fear, being tough, aggressive etc. You need to make men into good solders if you’re going to build an empire. So our idea of masculinity got invented to make soldiers. Our ideas of femininity I think got invented from the separation I mentioned between meaning and matter, but also from the need to keep the home fires burning, to have someone to create a place that is peaceful, yet at the same time stripped of any meaning in the polis or public sphere; a place that doesn’t threaten the war makers, where the wounded, tired soldiers can go to repair. And where we can preserve that which is really at the core of human experience – feeling, sensuality, mutual sustenance, nurturance.

As you write, the desire to avoid humiliation and shame plays a very big role in politics. Is this the biggest cause of conflict?

No. But it is underrated. Especially among political leaders. It inhibits courage. And it’s a common feeling in a society based on competition and rank and domination. We all have it.

William Blake talks about how brothels are built with the bricks of religion. Do you think it is our suppression of emotion that causes us to have to contend with humiliation and shame? If we were living honestly, in touch with our desires and emotions, would there even be any such thing as shame?

That’s a great question. I think it should stand by itself, speak for itself. The question is true.

As we discussed our questions for you here, I began wondering what your thoughts are in terms of the role or existence of paradox. It comes up a lot in your work: the way both one thing and it’s opposite is somehow true: war is about tradition, but it is also the way we advance (physically, technologically); we want to connect to the world and people around us and yet fearing this connection, we see ourselves as alone…

I actually love paradoxes. I remember when I learned this world as a girl, I tried to use it as much as possible. And probably still do. Paradoxes are not intrinsically bad. I believe our current view of the physical universe is paradoxical – that matter is made of both particle and waves at the same time. War is a tradition yes, but it is also an orientation, an approach. It is in us, in a sense, and we live in a culture that supports that tendency or that possibility more than others. For this reason, I don’t think the innovation that comes from war and the tradition of war is a real paradox. They belong to the same intent.

Freud talked about paradoxes being explained in the unconscious. But also, opposites are attractive (and attract each other as in positive and negative charges). Two strong colors against each other are very exciting to behold.

In your books, you write very beautifully about Germany and its history. I’m wondering if the subject of war led you to Germany, or if it was your experience with Germany that led you to the subject of war?

War came first and then Germany. I grew up in a generation shadowed by the holocaust, which was still happening in the year I was born, 1943. So ever since I learned about the holocaust, which was when I was about 7 years old, I turned my thoughts to this history, with anguish but also with the desire to learn. This must have been intensified because I was adopted by a Jewish family. Most of my family of birth came from Scotch, Irish and Welch backgrounds, but there were some German ancestors and some who were probably Jewish though they “passed” as gentile. Probably because of the war, no one talked very much then about German ancestry. In that period many people demonized Germans, including me. Once I began writing about nuclear weapons, I naturally wanted to know if there was a connection between these weapons and the holocaust and I found one in concentration camp Dora. After that I made several trips to Germany and made deep connections with several German men and women with whom I felt empathy in response to the stories they told me. So in a sense war brought me to demonize, whereas trying to understand war brought me to connection and compassion.

Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2010.

Photographed by Stefania Zamparelli

Billy Bang: Violence, Veternas, and Violins

A discussion with jazz master Billy Bang.

Interview by Erich Christiansen, 2010.

Billy Bang first came to prominence in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, as one of the few jazz musicians playing the violin. He co-founded the acclaimed String Trio of New York, then went on to make a number of records under his own name, always a vital member of New York’s downtown improvisational scene. His career gained new attention in 2001, when he released the first of two albums that dealt with an aspect of his life that until then had not been touched in his music: his time in the Vietnam War.

Born William Vincent Walker in 1947, Billy’s family moved to the Bronx when he was an infant. As a child, he was first able to play music at a school he attended in Harlem. Students there were assigned instruments according to their size; so being of slight build, Billy received a violin rather than his preference, the saxophone or drums. He later earned a scholarship to a prep school in Massachusetts, where he not only gave up playing the violin, but also encountered racism and class disparities with his privileged classmates. He returned to the Bronx, and at the age of 18, received his draft notice. Billy served in the infantry, including in the Tet Offensive, attaining the rank of sergeant during the course of a tour of duty. After being mustered out, he dealt with a number of war-related psychological problems that the Veterans’ Administration of that time was seemingly ill-equipped to address. He briefly studied law at Queens College, before becoming involved with a mysterious revolutionary group who called upon his military expertise to help them buy guns. On one such buying trip to Baltimore, he instead bought violins from the pawnshop he was visiting—and thus his life in music was reborn.

In his subsequent twenty-five years as a musician, Billy has made two Vietnam-themed albums, both on Canada’s Justin Time label: 2001’s Vietnam: the Aftermath (on which he played with musicians who were mostly fellow veterans) and 2004’s Vietnam: Reflections, which included contributions from Vietnamese musicians.

Pulse: I’m going to start off with sort of an abstract question, but that’ll get us rolling, anyway. How would you characterize the relationship between music and traumatic events, whether personal or political? In your view, what is music’s role in healing?

Billy Bang: Speaking from a very personal point of view, since I have been playing music, it seems to have helped my personal traumatic event, my time in the war, in Vietnam. I believe it culminated to more of a formidable help for me when I started writing about the experience through music. In other words, I had to think more about it, and bring it to the forefront of my mind. I’d been avoiding it, not wanting to face that part of my life, and it’d been stewing in me like a cancer. But once I was obligated, in 2000, to deal with it directly, that’s when I saw a big change in my own personal healing.

You address this in the liner notes to Vietnam: the Aftermath when you write: “This project has been in my mind for at least thirty years. My inability to confront my personal demons, my experiences in Vietnam, has been a continuous struggle.” And a little later, you say that because of this: “At night I would experience severe nightmares of death and destruction, and during the day, I lived a kind of undefined ambiguous daydream.” I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that, about the ways that not confronting this, of not expressing it, affected your life during that time.

Well, I think it really hurt a lot of my life between the time I came home and the time I wrote Vietnam: the Aftermath. The years seemed to just go by like a fog. When people were speaking with me, or to me, I didn’t know if I was really speaking to them, or hearing them. I was trying to avoid a lot of things. I didn’t want to face the reality of the problem I had. I tried to seek help, though. I went to see different psychologists, through the Veterans’ Administration, the hospital, but for some reason I didn’t seem to relate to the psychologists themselves. I couldn’t understand how they [could] wear my shoes during that time and understand what I [was] dealing with. They had all the books in the world to help them understand me, but I just could not relate to them, not living like I had lived, coming up in the ghetto, coming up with a single mom, and onto Vietnam. So I dismissed what they said, I just dismissed it. I never stayed long enough to get any real help. Maybe I never gave people the proper chance or opportunity.

I think a lot of it was my fault. I did well, bringing up a family, but I think I could have done a lot better. It’s difficult to differentiate the problems; I don’t always know if I’m having a personal problem with a person, or if Vietnam is haunting me at that moment. Honestly, it wasn’t until 2000 that I felt that I was reborn to the innocence that I remember when I was 17 years old. As though I lived through 30 years of my life—and anything in between was a big fog for me.

You say also in those liner notes that the project finally happened only when it was suggested by Jean-Pierre Leduc of your record label, Justin Time. Do you think you would have eventually done an album like this anyway, or did it take an outside catalyst like that to make it happen?

I’ve always wanted to do this. But I didn’t have the finances or the courage to try. “Bien Hoa Blues,” which is on the CD, was written 20 years earlier. That had always been in my mind. But I was under the gun when he offered it to me. I had just moved back from Berlin, back to America. I was at my daughter’s house, and I’m sure her and her husband were getting sick of me. I needed finances badly. But even when they suggested that project, I didn’t take it; I told them I would get back to them. To me, it was too personal to put in public. I never wanted to talk about it; most veterans don’t talk about Vietnam. Most veterans from any war don’t talk about it.

That’s true. Both of my grandfathers were in the Second World War, and they would tell stories about their military service, but about the actual fighting, they would never say anything.

Right. When you have these horrible incidents and nightmares, you’re not proud of them, you don’t even want to talk about them, you know? I never wanted to publicly think about it. I was under the gun though, as I said, I needed the money badly. So I tried to reverse it on them and make some demands, ask them for X amount of dollars up front. I told them it would allow me to concentrate on the music and not have to make me hustle and work for rent and food; I could just focus on this project, and get it done in a reasonable time. They agreed, so the ball was back in my court.

You mentioned a minute ago the other vets and others who have gone through this experience, and I saw in one interview that you said, “We weren’t really fighting for any nationalistic cause. We were fighting to get the hell out of there, at least I was.“

Right. And get back home in one piece. Hopefully.

Was that attitude widespread?

No it was not widespread. Maybe [among] a lot of the minority cats. But no, there was a lotta guys over there from the John Wayne syndrome, people who were fighting for America. It’s really hard for a black American to think of oneself as an American. We’d just started voting – we were still seeing dogs and water-hoses being put on us—this was right during the Civil Rights movement.

It seems that over the years most of the media images of the Vietnam War centered on the experiences of white soldiers. What was it like being a black soldier during this time?

I don’t know why it was centered on white soldiers; although we make up 20% of the population, I think we probably made up 40% of that war. But statistics are not my thing. We were drafted. And it was that, or go to jail for five years. It was just pretty much the lesser of the two evils. It was not like, “Wow, let me go join this conflict because, whoa, we gotta save our country.” There are some people who might’ve believed that. “Let’s go fight communism,” or something. It was only after I came out of the war that I found out it was basically being fought for multiple conglomerates with capitalistic concepts. I didn’t know these things before I went into the war. The Pentagon Papers coming out really spelled that out for everybody. Yeah, but you see, I went in the service in ’66; a lot of people became a bit more educated in the early seventies. Even I did. In the late sixties, I was in a neighborhood where the elderly black folk were still under the concept of people such as W.E.B. Dubois and the NAACP. Their concept was to go into the army – it’s only good for a person – rather than being out in the streets, doing nothing. That was the general concept.

But if I would have looked further into Dubois… he went back on his own word about “closed ranks.” In 1917 he wrote this article, about Blacks should join the army for World War I… And the year that they came home after the war, 1919, was called the red summer; that was the time of the most lynchings this country has ever seen. If I had been knowledgeable of these things, then I would have had a way to make an opinion based on factual things, based on the yin and the yang of education, or balance. I had just the one, straight ahead, narrow minded type concept that I was getting from everybody. Everybody except my mother, I have to tell you that. She’s the one who made me sit in front of the t.v. so I could watch Malcolm X; she’s the one who showed me this black person being handcuffed because he resisted the war. She was the one who was trying to turn me to [avoiding the war by going to] Montreal. She was the only person that would point me in that direction. And I regret it to this day that I didn’t listen to her.

You spoke a minute ago about coming into that situation from the Civil Rights movement. Many people see this time as also having a profound influence on the music being made. One example is how jazz had become freer and more exploratory during the ‘60’s, a time when black people were fighting for their freedom in the Civil Rights movement.

It was all under the banner of liberation. Liberation in the struggle, liberation through the music. It’s probably why I went to that style of music, because it was radical and it was against the system, it was something very new in our heads. Even then, the elder black folks in the neighborhood did not like John Coltrane: couldn’t stand him. And they didn’t like the later recordings of Miles Davis; he was also considered an enemy. We were going to our local candy store and we had a Coltrane tape up loud—not super loud, like the way kids have today—but where you could hear it. And the guy said, “Turn that off. Get that outta my store. Don’t ever come back in here again with that awful blah, blah, blah.” He was into, maybe, Charlie Parker, or something like that. But even those guys were radical for their time. So everyone has their different points, but once you get settled and satisfied in your area, it’s hard to move on to newer things. And that’s true for everybody; that’s beyond ethnicity and religion and things. Once you become comfortable in your area, it’s hard to move on. I never became comfortable, I was always looking, searching.

Do I have it right that you didn’t play any music during the war?

No, not at all. God, no. Not one note. The only music I played was the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. Music was the furthest thing from my mind.

So you didn’t get to hear any of the Vietnamese music either, then?

Not that I remember. I remember hearing it only in Saigon, which I very rarely went to, because it was off limits for us, but we had to pass through there to go to R&R. It was only after the war that I made a conscious effort to try to seek it out because I felt very guilty about trying to hurt people who never did anything to hurt me. I tried to learn more about the people who I was badly misinformed about, tried to share, or learn from them so I can share, in the future, and understand. Because it’s misunderstanding and ignorance that brings us to war and to hate. I thought the more I could learn and understand, the less ignorance I would have and the less hatred I would have, especially [concerning] the people I was forced to fight.

Can you give us any insight on what’s going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on what you went through?

I see the same problem today as we did then. I think it’s worse today, though, to be honest. Because it’s beyond nationalism, it’s a religious situation now. It’s jihad for them, for the Afghans and the Iraqis. They feel people tramping on their religion, on their life, on their whole being. So they’re fighting with every tooth and nail to counteract that. And I think even the Vietnamese didn’t have that much counteraction in them. And also the style of war is different. We didn’t have that many explosives on the road, , I.E.D.’s. There were a lot of booby traps that were meant to kill, but these folks are dealing with so many explosives; there’s so much maiming going on. So it’s a more horrific type war, I think. And for those who are not being hit, just watching this and experiencing this, I think their nightmares are much more traumatic. All wars are bad, but I somehow think the one today is even worse. Cause I can fight a guy about money, but I wouldn’t want to fight a guy about his religion.

I’ve read that you first started playing the violin by chance, since in your school’s orchestra you were each assigned instruments based on your size. But you’ve stuck with it over the decades, even relearning it after not playing for years.

When I came out of Vietnam, I really wanted to play music. I thought that was the safest and the purest thing I could do without hurting another person in life. Maybe there’s something I can do to bring some happiness and some joy. I tried the flute, but I just couldn’t get it under my grasp; the only instrument I truly know something about is the violin. I know it’s not jazz; but I believe you can take any instrument and get your inner thoughts and your inner feelings to come out through that instrument. It’s a vehicle. So I went back to the violin. I just dedicated my life to trying to play music. I left the materialistic world. I didn’t have to drive a big, bright red Cadillac around the streets of Harlem, and have nice, shiny alligator shoes and a silk suit. I didn’t care about those things anymore. I just wanted to try to bring some peace and harmony into the world, because it would redeem my own soul.

I don’t really know how much this has been made public knowledge yet, so I ask on behalf of our readers who don’t know, but I know from having been talking to you that you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer, and are going through some pretty intensive treatments for it. How are you doing?

Not so great. I’m just hoping I can get through this and hopefully I can lick it and it won’t come back, but I’m not quite sure. Because it is a process. It’s actually lung cancer I’m dealing with. That doesn’t seem so positive to me, but… I do all I can out here. But maybe I’ve done all I could for the world. There’s not much I can say about it; it’s just God’s way, you know.

And this cancer is due to exposure to Agent Orange—am I right about that?

Well, I also smoked cigarettes for all this time, but I started in Vietnam. So that’s part of it. And the other part, too, is that they believe it was because I was exposed to the Agent Orange in Vietnam.

So your time in Vietnam is still profoundly affecting you, in life-changing ways, even after all these years?

Sure, that’s true. Yes, that’s really true. I gave up on trying to fight it, and now I just have to accept that it’s going to be this way.


Photograph by Stefania Zamparelli


Chris Hedges: War as a Force of Meaning

Interview by Andrea Hiott, Princeton, NJ, 2009.

Christopher Hedges is an American journalist, author, and war correspondent. After first earning a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and a B.A. in English Literature from Colgate University, he began his journalistic career reporting on the conflict in El Salvador in the mid-1980s. He then learned Arabic and lived in the Middle East for seven years, mainly serving as the Middle East Bureau Chief for ‘The New York Times’. In 1995, he went to Sarajevo to cover the war in Bosnia. He has also covered the war in Kosovo, and has investigated and written on issues of terrorism. In 2002, he received the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. Among his many and varied books are the bestselling ‘War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning’ and ‘What Every Person Should Know About War’.

Pulse: In your writing, you take the stand that war is inevitable. Do you believe war will always be a part of our lives?

Chris Hedges: It’s not a matter of what I believe or don’t believe. It’s a matter of human history and human nature. There’s nothing in human history or human nature to indicate that war is not a near constant in human existence. I’m not interested in utopianism; I’m interested in what’s real. I have lived through many conflicts and watched how almost everyone in a society signs on for the intoxicating dark elixir of nationalism and war.

Is this because we are searching for meaning? Does war tempt us with this immediacy?

It’s the attraction of Thánatos: it’s the power of death, the seduction of death. Nationalism is a form of self-exaltation and racism. In wartime, you suddenly feel part of the collective. Instead of being alienated and alone and atomized, you feel like suddenly everyone has become your brother or sister. It’s a false kind of camaraderie but the feelings are seductive; you feel that you’ve been elevated to a kind of nobility, called to work for a noble cause. You get off on violence. There are many dark, atavistic forces that go into seducing people to support a war. It’s difficult for most people to remain rational.

Is another tempting aspect of war the moral lines it claims to draw? The command to do something ‘for the good of the country’?

War reduces or destroys the anxiety of moral choice. You’re told by the state that it is now legal to murder. Everything in defense of the state or the group becomes moral no matter how heinous it is, and that’s a great relief to most people because they don’t have to think anymore.

Do people see this differently once they experience war?

It depends on where you are. If you are in a wartime society but not in a conflict, you think in one way. If you’re actually in combat, you think in another. If you are in combat, it’s the lust or eroticism of violence that you might feel. Adrenaline rushes. It’s like ingesting drugs.
When it comes to the reasoning behind war, once you are in a war, you can’t believe the national myths anymore. You realize how dirty it is. If you’re at home, away from the actual conflict, then you continue to imbibe the myths. That’s why there’s a huge disconnect between people who come back from the battlefield and listen to this patriotic cant and know it’s shit, and people who continue to get off on it because it’s about self-adulation. In the end that’s what the patriotic stuff is really about: it’s about exalting “us”.

Because people want to believe they’re on the right side?

It’s more than being on the right side. It’s that we want to feel we’re engaged in a noble cause, a crusade; we’re making the world safe for democracy; we’re overthrowing tyranny, we’re bringing liberty. We have all these wonderful abstract ideals and we get to identify with those ideals; we fall into this false belief that somehow a projection of our own power will make those ideals realized.

And the reality of war never does that?

War is always tragic; violence is always tragic. It doesn’t save you- – even in support of a supposedly justifiable cause — from the pernicious effects of violence. The real tragedy of war is that there are times when people are faced with a choice between their own extinction or the use of violence to protect themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, their city, or their nation. When you’re in a war, you’re in it. When you’re in a city getting hit with 2000 shells a day and constant sniper fire and there’s no food and they’re trying to extinguish you and you’re hanging on by your fingertips, that’s when you confront reality. That’s why I say I’m not a pacifist because I know there are moments — very rarely but they do happen — when you must choose between your own annihilation and the use of violence to survive.

Once the conflict is over, if one hasn’t experienced it firsthand, then doesn’t one forget the pain of it? Otherwise, how would war regenerate so soon?

It’s more than forgetting. We have powerful social and political organs that romanticize war. Every generation seems to have to learn the truth of war on its own.

Can a government ever see war honestly?

All governments lie. Most people in power seek the perpetuation and expanse of their own power. That’s why they do it.

And that requires lying?

In every government I’ve ever covered, it does.

Is it real power though, this traditional political kind?

Well it’s power to the extent that you let it be power. For most people it works. Most people are fearful of such power. Most people obey the rules. Even when those societies embark on heinous enterprises.

Do you think Stalin or Hitler felt real power? Didn’t they show their lack of real power in their very desperation to sustain it with so much death?

That’s like Richard the Third. What they find is that they don’t control power, power controls them. They become its servant. The only way you have power is when you’re not frightened of power, when it doesn’t have the ability to control you.

Do you believe in progress when it comes to historical processes surrounding conflict?

No. Progress doesn’t exist. Time is not linear; time is cyclical. Societies mature, degenerate, and die. That’s history. The whole concept of linear progress is a myth. It doesn’t exist. And it’s what is used to anesthetize a population so that they just agree to everything the technocrats and those in power tell them. It’s not real. We don’t morally evolve. The tools change, but we don’t. The belief in moral progress is the great curse of the Enlightenment.

Moral progress doesn’t exist?

Well, we can make moral progressions both as individuals and societies. But we also make moral reverses. The idea that we are the culmination of something, that we’re moving towards something, that there is such a thing as collective moral progress is a myth. And once you believe in collective moral progress (that our generation is the culmination of what came before), you become Utopian, and once you wed that belief to violence, you become criminal. Which is what the war in Iraq is: it’s a Utopian venture. Utopianism is very dangerous because it’s not based in reality. Every genocide in human history was carried out by idealists, people who were going to remove human impediments to progress, which is what we think we’re doing in the Muslim world.

You write that war is always manufactured by people in society for their own purposes. Do people consciously create war for their own benefit?

Certainly. People like Karl Rove are consciously doing this. They know very well the manipulation that they are engaging in and the effects of it. One of the most important books — one of the most frightening manuals for the manufacturing of consent — is Walter Lippman’s book from 1922 called ‚Public Opinion‘. He writes quite openly in this book that he is providing the elite with a manual for the manufacturing or creation of mass opinion. His book is only one: there are many more such books. These people know damn well what they’re doing, and it works. That’s what advertising is about.

What if people became aware of the tools that are used to manipulate them? Do you think the manipulation would change?

No, because facts are irrelevant. People don’t respond to facts; people respond to emotions. Emotion always trumps reason; reason comes later. We have this Enlightenment idea that reason is paramount. It’s not. All sorts of great writers in the 20th century have obliterated that idea, people like Beckett, Joyce, Proust, Jung, Adler – but we still cling to this naïve belief that we are rational beings and that reason moves us to make decisions. Reason never moves us to make decisions. And that’s what the manipulators of information understand.

Are you saying that emotion is a negative force?

No, I think the problem with the opponents of militarism and the consumer society is that they don’t understand the importance of rhetoric. In ancient Greece, if you were training a philosopher you taught them in rhetoric first. The problem with opposition movements — just look at one turgid human rights reporter after another — is that they don’t understand, in the way the corporate state does understand, that rhetoric is paramount, that rhetoric is what moves people. The question is ‘how do you marshal that rhetoric?’ Once you control the airwaves, you can saturate people with such rhetoric. Most people think in clichés, including most intellectuals.

You’re saying that people pick up on these sound bites and then use them as facts without questioning them?

I’ll give you some examples. Before the Iraqi war, I tried to explain how, with the occupation of Iraq, we were not going to be greeted as liberators. I spent 7 years of my life in the Middle East, I speak Arabic. Based on that understanding, I tried to explain that democracy is not going to be implanted and then emanate outwards across the Middle East. People would then say to me in response, “Well, Saddam Hussein killed his own people”. That’s a perfect example of what the writer Robert Lifton coined a ‘thought-terminating cliché’. All discussion ends once a cliché like this gets used. People use sentences such as “Saddam Hussein killed his own people” to thwart any kind of real thought.
Another example: I just had a dinner here in Princeton with a bunch of Princeton professors at which I got into a terrible argument over the war in Afghanistan. They said: “The Taliban throws acid in women’s faces,” and immediately that became another thought-terminating cliché, paralyzing real discussion. When you have these kinds of slogans and clichés pumped out over the airwaves day in and day out, they control how you think, or they become so overpowering that you can’t think. They give you the language by which you speak. So even if you have disquiet about something, you’ve been robbed of the language to express that disquiet. As soon as you start using the phrase “War on Terror”, for instance, you’ve already allowed them to create the linguistic paradigms through which you understand a situation.

Who is the “them” here? Everyone in the media? Where are people to get their information, or even know what they’re up against?

From books. There’s no comparison between reading Karl Popper and going on the Internet. It’s the difference between an image-based culture and a print-based culture.

Going to the source takes a lot of time and effort. In the short term, it’s much easier to just let yourself be manipulated.

Which is why most people are manipulated. Even at this table of highly educated nationally known Princeton academics that I mentioned earlier, I thought every single one of them had had their brain shut down.

So drastic?

Well, yeah. As if the fact that a bunch of psychopaths going around throwing acid in people’s faces was enough to characterize a whole people–

But it’s understandable. Don’t you think it’s understandable that it would be the most horrific act that would become the cliché? One can never underestimate fear.

Fear is a potent force. These people work overtime to make us afraid. The capacity not to be afraid is the first step. I think it was Aristotle who said that courage is the most important virtue because without courage, you can’t practice any of the other virtues.

But is talking about the media as our enemy really any better than saying Afghanistan is a place where “the Taliban throw acid in women’s faces”? Isn’t there a way in which, over time, things change by learning about “the enemy” from a face-to-face perspective rather than by dealing in the abstractions that come from fear? Your books seem to suggest the importance of such nuance, simply through your own view and the depth of your experience. Is contact the factor that really changes relations between cultures or countries?

It is extremely important to cross cultural lines, which means you have to learn the language and you have to live in the culture. Truly stepping into another culture challenges a lot of your own assumptions; it allows you to stand in the shoes of people on another divide and look at your own society. It’s a very useful tool or mechanism for breaking down stereotypes, but it creates a kind of existential crisis because you begin to understand that your nation is not a nation that’s been blessed by God or that is somehow more virtuous than others. Certain foundations begin to give way.

Why is that so difficult to take in?

Because it’s scary. Because you end up like Beckett: language itself becomes a kind of lie. There is no beginning, middle, or end. The self, as Proust grasped, constantly mutates: the self that we were, we are not. Most of the time we don’t know the forces that are driving us, we don’t understand them, we don’t even name them because we can’t. Once you descend to that level, it does produce a kind of terror, because you destroy the capacity for order and you begin to grasp the utter chaos of life and the fact that the universe is morally neutral.

But in the end, is facing that reality the only road to true communion, to any real connection with another human being?

The one thing that connects us and the thing that is most subversive to all systems of power is human kindness, compassion. The more you express that kindness to people who are defined within your culture as ‘the enemy’, the more subversive that becomes to those who wield power. That is the true essence of meaning in human existence. Life is not a battle between the forces of good and evil; it’s the battle between small, blind, dumb acts of human kindness and a great overarching evil. I think hope comes from the fact that none of the inquisitors and clergy and dictators have ever been able to crush it. And that’s the secret of human immortality, that love. Not a sentimental kind of love, but a capacity to have empathy in spite of everything. It exists. The more you try to organize it, the more fleeting and elusive it becomes, but it’s there.

Do you believe in forgiveness?

I had a great theology professor who said: ‚Only God can forgive‘.

Well…. Then there’s Einstein who said: ‘I want to know how God thinks; the rest is detail’. How come God can forgive and we can’t?

There are things I can’t forgive. In the Torah it says that of all the sins murder is the one for which you can never be sure of forgiveness, because the only person who has the capacity to forgive is the murdered victim.

What does this un-forgiveness do though?

It’s not a choice.

You don’t believe in free will?

I do believe in free will, though we are biologically determined more than we’d like to admit. I am saying: I’ve seen terrible crimes, and I can’t forgive the people who’ve committed them.

I’m not saying one should forgive, or can. I’m just trying to understand what that lack of forgiveness does.

It’s like asking the people who came out of Auschwitz if they can forgive their guards.

Can they?

No. I think you can understand, as Primo Levi did, the humanity of your guards. But reaching that point and knowing how easy it is to become a killer if the roles were reversed, how hard it is to resist – that destroys what most victims do which is sanctify victimhood, which I’m against. But once you reach that point, as Levi did, where you can see yourself in your own tormentors, then life becomes very hard to bear. That’s not the same as forgiveness, but it takes a great deal of moral courage.

Maybe we have to accept these things about ourselves, collectively, in order to find a way of no longer being at the mercy of them.

Most people don’t accept that about themselves. And if we were in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, you wouldn’t ask those questions. Because literally, by walking out this door, people would be trying to kill you.

That’s true. Talking about this would be ridiculous in the midst of any war situation itself. Still, something led to that situation. It didn’t just happen; it didn’t just occur.

Well things did lead to it but it wasn’t the fault of the Muslims; it was the fault of the Serbs. Slobodan Milosevic decided to use the whole Yugoslav army to create greater Serbia. That’s the difference between Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Havel let Slovakia succeed and didn’t try and stop it by force, and so the Czech Republic and Slovakia are now next to each other. Milosevic wouldn’t allow that, and when Croatia tried to secede, he started a war.

What I’m trying to see is the cumulative context that allowed those two different conditions to happen. To say Havel is a hero and Milosevic is a monster might be true. But there is a context to all of it that allows for something like clarity in contrast to one that only allows for violence and pain. I’m trying to see the difference there.

There are external forces that create conditions that precipitate violence over which you have very little control. Once you experience trauma, it controls you; you don’t control it. Repeated trauma changes the physical composition of your brain. There’s nothing you can do. I’ve lived this. It’s not a matter of not wanting it. I’ve spent most of my time trying to forget it. Unfortunately when you go to bed you often have nightmares which are really the re-visitation of trauma. It’s not a nightmare; it’s trauma that you keep buried in this cotton wool of forgetfulness. And it’s exhausting to fight against it. It’s brutal. That is the very real, palpable struggle of people who suffer from trauma and for someone to turn to them and say you should forgive is laughable if it weren’t so insensitive to what it is they are undergoing.

Perhaps violence perpetuates itself until it is fully seen. Violence can look like its own cure, can‘t it? To try and suppress such things is a covert kind of violence against oneself. Perhaps, on some level, such suppression is out of one’s control though.

It’s the difference between being intellectually aware and emotionally aware: they’re two different things. One can understand the affects of trauma, but one can’t understand trauma. Understanding the effects is useful. It’s the difference between somebody who’s been raped, and someone who is describing a rape.

You’re right, of course. Asking someone to forgive such trauma is like talking to the mind about something that the body remembers. But can we talk to the body instead?

There are certainly ways you can cope. But that’s just coping; it’s still there. You don’t overcome it; you can’t. I’ve interviewed combat veterans who are 80 years old and if you push the right buttons, they start to cry.

Once you feel connection with human beings – once you know love – don‘t you see that while it doesn’t necessarily heal these wounds, it does open up a whole new space where one can breathe freely, regardless of what one has experienced? It‘s not a matter or either/or, is it? I don’t think love dismisses any experience of pain. Don‘t both these things exist, always?

Evil is as much a part of human existence as love. I have seen how random death is, and how people who perpetuate acts of evil can live without being punished or harmed. This is reality.

And yet you still have faith. You still write that ‘To survive as a human being is possible only through love’. You also still believe in God. How?

Because God is a verb, it’s not a noun. The whole point of having faith is that it doesn’t make sense. The whole point of having faith is that the tangible reality around you argues against it. That’s what faith is. If the tangible reality made faith logical, it wouldn’t be faith.