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.