Thursday, September 27, 2007

Acts of Courage: Burma and "The War"

Its still hurts. Old men, now eighty and more, still weep at the memory of buddies being blown to bits at their side. The Ken Burns documentary, "The War" is proving to be an indispensible reminder of those days, more than sixty years ago, when Americans and others performed acts of unbelievable courage, stepping out of landing craft in Europe and the Far East into hails of gunfire and exploding mortar and artillery shells; when men climbed into aircraft on bombing runs with the knowledge that their chances of returning safe were slim at best. Sitting comfortably in my living room, I find such acts to be of inconceivable bravery. I try to put myself in the place of these men and ask myself how it could have felt--and whether I would have had that courage in their situation.

In the light of which, I must say also that I’m in absolute awe of the courage of those Buddhist monks and nuns--and their supporters--who are out on the streets in Burma, protesting the repressive military regime in that isolated nation.

Who said religion and politics don’t mix? There’s a difference, as I see it, between the laudable separation of church and state when it comes to public policy, and the right—the duty, really—of men and women of conscience to make their opinion known, in extreme situations through public acts of protest or civil disobedience.

(A knotty question for myself: does the above include causes with which I personally disagree—demonstrations, for example, outside abortion clinics, where women are accosted and hassled to prevent their access to safe medical procedures? In that instance, of course, the action infringes on the freedom of another human being to follow the dictates of her own conscience, but is it made right by the sincere belief of the activists that their cause is right, their action undertaken for the salvation of their target’s soul? How about the interventions of the so-called “Minutemen” against those who seek to enter the country illegally? There’s a certain moral ambiguity here, which I’m not sure how to resolve. I guess I have to come back to that Buddhist standard that serves me well in most cases: does the action I propose cause harm to myself or others? If the choice is between action and inaction, which stands to cause the greater harm? Of all possible outcomes of my action, which has the greatest potential for harm, and which the least? These judgments are not necessarily subjective, but they may be…)

But this one's about courage. Unless I’m very much fooled by the media, these Buddhist monastics in Burma are women and men who are ready to put their lives on the line for the sake of the poor and the disenfranchised, and whose faith demands that they speak out in the face of injustice. I hear an escalation of warnings that the military brass are activating their forces to intimidate the protestors into submission, and that an unknown number of monks and others have already been killed. The fear, of course, is of a massive retaliation of the kind that killed two thousand people—or three, depending on who you listen to—just a few years ago. That the demonstrators persist despite this well-known history is further testimony to their spirit.

It's a testimony to the human spirit, indeed, that there are always those who have the capacity for this kind of courage. It's also a sad commentary on human nature that such acts of courage are needed.


robin andrea said...

Your last paragraph sums it up for me. It is the thing I never know how to hold without weeping. I don't know how to reconcile that there will always be those courageous ones who risk their lives in defense of what is intrinsically good, and those who act to harm others in their own selfish interests. That this is the world we humans have created is a heartbreaker. I once imagined that there would be a time that life would not be like this, but I have stopped waiting. I once feared that I would not live long enough to see the awakening, now I'm afraid I will live long enough to see another nuclear bomb dropped.

carly said...

P: One wonders why though, men were thrown against machine guns on unprotected beaches and why, when bombardment failed to clear those areas, men were sent in anyway. If one studies the particulars of those battles, one may come to the conclusion that courage would have been to shoot all those in charge. Stupidity is in going along with the surge. Courage is simply the will and good fortune to survive the debacle. Of what real necessity was it to clear all those islands, when they could have just been cut off from supplies and support? Bypassed to put manpower on the main target? There seems to be no glory in any of it to me, just mindless activity.

In the words of the belly gunner recruit, "they seemed like a great bunch of guys, so I said, OK, sounds like fun." Or another, "You never think you're gonna get it until you hear the slugs bouncing off the metal". In the First War they called them cannon fodder, in the Second, nothing changed, Vietnam, still no change, Iraq, still road side bomb fodder.

To me, real courage is a whole different thing. Real courage is the wisdom and strength to take a whole different course. to know when and how and then to act in the preservation of life and limb. To stand up to the glory seekers and authority. About courage and glory, I'll say what the General said, "Nuts".

jen said...

what a remarkable post. courage isn't easily quantifiable these days, but in Burma some amazing men and women are leading by example.