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War is Not Good for the Environment. Our Cultural Heritage, or Any Sentient Being

Armed conflict zones result in endless suffering of innocent civilians, permanent refugee camps , invalidism of injured combatants, destruction of cultural heritage sites and dismembered families and communities.  Photo © copyright Unicef 2021

 

By the time active military engagement ended, the United States dropped three times as many tons of bombs on North Vietnam, a country the size of Illinois, as were dropped by the Allies in all of the Second World War...Three million Americans served in Vietnam: 58,000 died there. The United States got nothing for it.   

 

-Louis Menad, "The Free World"

 

I was reading Menand's chapter on Vietnam in The Free World the very week that most of the American troops in Afghanistan came home. The bases that fed and employed the local populations, bases as large as cities, were abandoned in a middle-of-the-night clandestine operation to prevent Taliban attacks during retreat.

 

The United States got nothing for that 20-year war either. Osama was bivouacked in Pakistan so why, exactly, did we go in?

 

The women of Afghanistan benefited greatly from the American occupation, however. A short-lived gift. What will happen to them now?

 

I've known a few war reporters, and to a person they are addicted to the adrenalin rush of war. They then feel remorse, and often cannot wind down, sleep or eat for months, or years. Like soldiers and humanitarian relief workers, reporters often suffer from PTSD. They witness cruelty, barbarism, murder, famine, loss. Sometimes, like some humanitarian workers, soldiers and reporters disappear from civilian life entirely, re-enlist ad infinitum, volunteer to cover stories ad infinitum, and stay in the field for the rest of their lives following the footprints of war across the continents. There are plenty to keep them busy.

 

And then there are the soldiers who become humanitarian workers—swords into ploughshares. I am always honored to meet them. This week I received an email from Robert Macpherson's publicist asking if I'd blurb his debut book, Stewards of Humanity; Lighting the Darkness in Humanitarian Crisis.  Macpherson is a former infantry officer in the U.S. Marines with service in Vietnam, Iraq, and Somalia. After retiring as a Colonel, he enjoyed a second career with the humanitarian aid agency, CARE. He lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife, Veronica and service dog, Blue.

 

A service dog. That says a lot, enough for me to consider saying yes to the publicist, that I'm happy to read the book and write a blurb. The only caveat is the prose: it has to be strong. I wasn't disappointed. Here's an excerpt, by permission:

 

Upon leaving the clinic, I thought about how sheltered I had been. Although I experienced war and conflict, I traveled within a bubble. If I were injured, the Marine Corps would find and rescue me. When I went to a rest area away from combat, there were cans of Coca-Cola and other staples of American life. Wherever we were assigned, we brought our culture, language, and as much of our lifestyle with us as logistically possible. In Somalia, though, I was pushed outside my psychological comfort zone. Combat was horrendous, but I was trained for it. This was the first time I directly encountered the long-term results of armed conflict on the innocent.

 

Some statistics: According to Unicef and Save the Children , 426 million children are living in conflict zones, 1/5th of the world's children. 27 million children will be born into conflict zones this year.

 

 

It's hard these days to imagine a planet without war, or the environmental and human degradation that war amplifies, or causes. Armed conflict impacts all of us, even if we live protected lives far away from the battlefield.  What can we do here, from the relative safety of our homes? At the very least, we can monitor the foreign policy initiatives and arms sales of our government. After all, we are the only nation on earth that unleashed an atomic weapon to "end" a war.

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Tell Your Story Here

This year, more than 400,000 refugees have landed in Greece. Photo: Courtesy UNHCR
A friend’s daughter, Sarah, recently graduated from college, and went to the island of Lesbos to teach English to Syrian women in a refugee camp. We are Facebook friends and I noted that she’d put up a post or two during her three-month “mission,” the word relief workers use to describe their forays into the netherworld of refugees and the internally displaced, as the UN calls them. There is a lot of jargon in this netherworld. I think the word “mission” originated in the religious relief organizations, of which there are many. The word “testimony,” of which more later, also comes from a religious tradition. Relief workers are, by definition, outsiders, yet often find it impossible to stay neutral in their opinions, especially in a war zone, and when they write about their experiences some say they are “giving testimony.”

Sarah posted Facebook photos with short captions, not of her refugee students, but of herself, a friend or two, I recall, a cerulean sky. I didn’t ask if she kept a journal; somehow I knew she would. Then her three-month EU visa was up and she left Greece for Morocco where she has been studying Arabic. She was never a constant Facebook user, but I missed the occasional posts she put up from Lesbos. I was confident she eventually would write her story and perhaps use some of these posts—photos and text—as well as her journal entries to document an essay.

Then a phone call from Sarah’s father, Steve, reassured me that all was well with Sarah in Morocco, more than well. Steve is a physician, enough time had passed for Sarah to obtain a new visa for Greece, and together father and daughter met in Lesbos for a couple of weeks--a short mission--to work in the same camp where Sarah had been before. She had missed her students and reunited with some of them; others had moved on. Steve worked with mostly Congolese refugees in a clinic. Such work is challenging, taxing, and often very upsetting.

Relief workers are expected to sign time-limited contracts, not to stay on and on, or shift agencies and take on other missions one after another. They get hooked. They have to be encouraged to take R&R, take care of themselves, and one small way to do this is to keep a journal and to use Facebook to write long captions to their photos. Social media now amplifies journals and emails; it’s a useful tool.

It was not difficult to gather stories for my book, “Another Day in Paradise,” even though the logistics were often daunting. Eventually, I traveled to London, Amsterdam and Geneva for editing sessions, and emailed drafts back and forth numerous times. Without exception, all the workers were avid readers, kept journals, and had a fundamental understanding of how to shape a story.

Now Steve and Sarah, father and daughter, after just a short time “in the field,” have many “witnessing” stories of their own. I look forward to reading them.  Read More 
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