a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The yellow ribbons are faded on the cars, but the invisible words still float in the air to lodge in my mind, the minds of us all. A yellow ribbon lingers even on my brother-in-law’s car, though he did not serve, would never have served, as neither of his brothers did. But now his son-in-law is a veteran, not of any war, but still, he was in the line of fire, figuratively speaking, and I’m sure it’s that young man who has influenced this particular yellow ribbon. As it has for many others. The message is personal. Support the troops. Support my loved one in harm’s way.
Support the Troops has nettled me as long as I can remember. Once while we were discussing critical thinking in a Freshman English class, I wrote the words on the board and asked what they mean. Always, the easy answers fly up: Show your patriotism. Keep up their morale. Appreciate what they’re doing for us. Give them equipment they need to be safe. Then, a pause. I wait, and finally someone says, Shut up and don’t criticize anything.
We stand at the corner of Main and South, a group of women, all in black, holding hands in a circle. A few minutes of silence, of centering, before we begin our slow walk down the sidewalk, across the street, and back on the other side. We carry signs expressing our opposition to the looming invasion of Iraq—Mothers Mourn Lives Lost to War, War Leaves Every Child Behind, An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind, Peace, War is Not the Answer, a simple line drawing of a dove. From passersby we draw cold or curious looks, curses, thumbs up, the middle finger. I feel curiously outside my body.
Perhaps it is raw fear, an emotion so rare for me that I cannot acknowledge or even recognize it. I wonder how I have come to this point, a woman with very strong opinions, but essentially a private person and one who knows her own physical cowardice. Even more than fear of physical harm is fear of being exposed, of taking a stand shared by few of my fellow citizens. And of course, fear that I could be wrong.
Questioning the war with Iraq, questioning the way the war was run, was tantamount to criticizing the soldiers themselves. I wondered what Madison Avenue sharpie had invented the phrase Support the Troops, with its coded reminder of Vietnam and the bitterness sometimes directed at soldiers or veterans of that war. Suppose they gave a war, and nobody came, another slogan that on the surface sounded so empowering and hopeful yet laid down the moral imperative that one should resist service. Anyone who did not resist cooperated in perpetuating war. A short step to becoming one of the enemy, not one of the victims.
How can I speak about this? The words enemy, victims, troops, support slip in my mind. How could I answer someone who said, when I acknowledged I did not support the war in Iraq, “But you do support the troops, don’t you?” Do I? Or have I been backed into a corner where I cannot answer in truth, or even know my own mind?
How awkward I felt when I heard my Congressman, a progressive who’d just won a narrow victory over a conservative incumbent, affirm that he “supports the troops.” What did he mean, other than “I have to say this or I’ll never be reelected?” Or did he sincerely mean something I could not perceive?
I need to talk about freedom here, the freedom we’re always told our troops fight for. If I cannot say, “I do not support the troops in the way you mean, I do not support this war and I want them to come back as soon as possible, I do not want them to be maimed or killed, but I also do not want them to maim or kill people,” where is my freedom? Or is it only that I lack courage? No, what I resent is that it’s so hard to escape this net of language, to know that whatever I say is probably going to be misunderstood. I do not want to inflict hurt, because I know the person I’m speaking with has someone particular in mind, a son or brother or sister or husband or wife, a close friend, a neighbor. How can I undermine the troops’ confidence? But that’s exactly the problem. I do not want our soldiers to feel sure. I do not want the people with those yellow ribbons to be sure. I want them to have the freedom to question, in private, even if not in public. How can we ever understand our own feelings or speak with each other if we set these traps of language between us?
If language could fail, perhaps silent witness was best. Yet we could not rely on only our black clothing, our slow procession. We needed those signs, slogans which themselves compressed, distorted, muffled, simplified what we believed. Our very presence was too much for some people to tolerate. “People died so you can stand out here and do this,” one man spat out. Not a statement he thought of himself, but one of those canned remarks, another McSlogan taped over a cauldron of fear and resentment. Except in tone, perhaps not so different from our slogans, shorthand that could not bridge the divide between us.
His comment stung and mystified us. Didn’t our presence show how much we appreciated our right to free speech and the people who guaranteed it? But our minds were running on different paths. We were thinking of citizens engaged in protest and civil disobedience. He was thinking of warriors. Yet if he did appreciate the sacrifice troops had made for our freedom, why did our exercise of it make him so angry? Did we seem accusatory, self-righteous, standing in silence, a rude reminder of what was happening while shoppers wandered up and down Main Street? He didn’t seem to realize we were not there just to remind others. We were there to remind ourselves.
My feeling of dissociation continued for weeks, but it was most intense during these vigils. Only the support of the other women (about eighteen to thirty, varying each week) kept me going. Some of the women I had known before, because they were married, or had been, to people my husband taught with, or because I’d served with them on various committees or met them at parties. Others were strangers to me. But on the street, I felt an intense bond with them all.
At times, I wondered how I had been drawn to an action that made me so uncomfortable. Amazingly, I had been one of the organizers. I became involved because I heard about a meeting at the Town Hall to discuss an invasion of Iraq that looked more and more imminent. Many people I knew were skeptical of the Administration’s arguments about the danger Iraq posed, and unwilling to support a war based on shaky evidence. A preemptive war. In spite of polls showing that a vast majority was in favor of pursuing the “war on terror” into Iraq, I was hoping that many concerned citizens would crowd the Town Hall (my vision of a classic New England town meeting, one starring Jimmy Stewart, I suppose, and exemplifying all the best values of open, if spirited, debate and discussion), but when I arrived I saw that I knew almost everyone. They were “the usual culprits,” known liberals, as well as those proud to be labeled radicals.
But where is everyone else? I thought with disappointment. Where are the ordinary citizens, the ones not even particularly political, the unaffiliated, the Republicans, the middle-of-the-road Democrats? Aren’t they concerned? Don’t they want to know more, knock around some ideas, express some misgivings, ask some pointed questions? A chilling thought occurred to me. Are they afraid to come to a discussion like this? Are they lying low?
The discussion was mostly calm, but tense. Rather than making us feel we were not so alone, it made us feel even more marginalized, certain now that we were the tiny minority the polls claimed. Like members of some shadowy underground, dissidents who could be perceived as a threat to the forces propelling the country to war. It was frightening, but so many of us had been there before, dedicated to causes that had initially been so unpopular, like ending the Vietnam War or limiting nuclear arms. The meeting had no stated purpose other than discussion, but immediately I sensed we were there to help bolster each other’s conviction and courage and try to come up with something, anything, to do in the face of what we feared was a potential catastrophe.
Someone mentioned the Women in Black. I had heard of their vigils. Women dressed all in black, mourning their dead or the “disappeared” in a public square. But that was in another country, a foreign place where government troops or shadowy militias operated with impunity. That was in crumbling cities in chaos, or in dictatorships. Yet why shouldn’t we mourn for losses in war, before troops were deployed? Why shouldn’t we stand up to a government determined to “disappear” our soldiers into an arbitrary war? I think I said something like, “We could do that,” only an observation, only grasping at a straw someone had offered. And suddenly women in the circle nodded, ideas sprouted, and someone asked me (or did I volunteer?) to get black fabric to wear as scarves, a sign of mourning. I think none of us noticed, then, that we had excluded the men in the group from our action.
We determined our practice should include not merely standing, but walking slowly up and down Main Street. Single file, silent, composed, not looking directly into people’s eyes and not speaking, even if provoked. We simply wanted to be a presence, our silence the silence we wanted everyone to enter for a time, our slow walk urging others to slow, slow, and contemplate. Because everything was a rush in those days. Urgent! the administration cried. We must go to war immediately, before it is too late! If only we could slow down the rush to war, perhaps people would think about the rationale given and the consequences that were inevitable.
Our witness evolved over time, as the bombs fell on Baghdad, as our troops crossed the desert, as Americans took over Iraq, as sectarian violence exploded. Of course, the black scarves (some worn loosely) looked too much like Muslim headscarves. At one vigil a man shouted at us, “Go back to Iraq.” So we abandoned the scarves as more of a distraction than a useful symbol, but we continued to wear black clothing, carry signs, and remain silent. A few times husbands or other supporters walked behind us, sometimes passing out leaflets explaining the Women in Black and why we were there. Our male supporters wanted to register their opposition to war, but they also wanted, I’m sure, to be there to protect us if things got nasty.
Since we did not engage in conversation, we could not learn others’ reactions. But occasionally the men supporting us stopped to talk with passersby. The results could be discouraging. One supporter of the war said, “Bomb them all.”
“Even the children?” one of our supporters asked gently.
“All of them,” the man replied. “The children, too. They’ll just grow up to give us trouble.”
Support the troops. If we do not latch a yellow ribbon to the car, if we do not fly the flag, if we pause when someone asks us the question, if we walk on Main Street silently expressing our opposition, others are free to assume we do not care about the troops. I remember a class when we were discussing the meaning of photographs. I brought in a national magazine photo, a view from above a New York City anti-war demonstration. A few signs were visible, but the most striking image was a group of flag-draped coffins being carried by protestors. “What are you seeing here?” I asked.
“Disrespect,” one of my female students said immediately. I was stunned, and looked more closely to see if I’d missed anything.
“Some of the signs are disrespectful of the President?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “the coffins.”
“They’re making fun of the dead soldiers,” a young man said.
I scanned the room. “Is this what you are seeing?” I asked, sure that someone else would see what I did. But no, they were silent, disapproving. Was I wrong to keep my own experience and emotions out of it? I was at that demonstration, had seen the police, as well as news photographers, taking photos of the crowd. When one man supporting a coffin began to shout and rock it, several of us approached him to remind him what it meant and that it deserved respect. Although we knew, of course, he did not mean to mock dead soldiers. He was shouting, “Do you want more of this?”
I studied the photo again. “That’s one way of looking at it,” I said slowly, and waited. No other ideas were forthcoming from the students. “Or they might be carrying the coffins because they are feeling grief.”
I knew they were feeling grief, of course. Maybe that’s why it hurts so much when others assume I do not care what happens to their loved ones. I can barely stand to think of those losses. It is a deep, abiding grief at what the troops will see, what they will do, how they might be injured, in body and soul. And a deep abiding sorrow that when they return, no one will want to listen to their experience. Not really.
Inevitably, the Women in Black spawned a counter-protest. Our town is within commuting distance of New York City and lost a number of people, including firemen and police, on 9/11. A group of veterans, firefighters, and others began walking parallel to us across the street, carrying a large American flag. Though they were mostly men, some women and children also marched. We assumed they were marching not only in support of the war, but also against us. They chanted and mocked us, accusing us of the usual: disloyalty, cowardice, pie-in-the-sky idealism. Their animosity was palpable. Violence simmered under their angry words. They stabbed the air with their signs and flags. Every time they appeared, I felt my stomach knot. I had to go even further into myself, to focus only on what I felt so passionately about, and not on them. But I could not help feeling anger, frustration, and fear. It was hard to hold on to the knowledge that they, too, were afraid.
“People died so you could march here.” We heard it again from the counter-demonstrators. It was difficult to hold despair at bay, for hadn’t we been here before? Had nothing been learned? I felt as if a great amnesia had taken hold of the country since Watergate and the Vietnam War. People had forgotten that a government could lie to its people. They had forgotten that a war with no clear goal and a slim chance of victory could tear up the heart of the nation and turn citizens against each other as if they were mortal enemies. We as a nation had not processed Watergate and Vietnam, but buried them, and now their ghosts were coming back to haunt us.
Our group wanted publicity, so that even those not walking or driving along Main Street on a Saturday would know objections were being raised. So we had someone photograph us with our signs and send the photos to the local papers, which printed them along with our statements on why we were there. Usually it was one of the men who took the photos. Then one day a counter-demonstrator with a camera crossed the street to photograph us, up close. It felt threatening, as if he were documenting who we were, as if he wanted to intimidate us. The man with us approached the counter-demonstrator and began taking pictures of him. They circled each other, edging closer and closer. Voices rose, one shove led to another, and then the counter-demonstrator grabbed our supporter’s camera and knocked it to street, breaking it.
The police missed this scuffle, which was perhaps best. Some of the women broke from our line of march and convinced the men to back off, but the incident upset us. We did not want to exclude our husbands and lovers, our friends, brothers, or sons, but the Women in Black had committed to nonviolence and felt our vigil would be compromised. We decided to ask the men, if they wanted to participate, simply to follow behind us silently, passing out leaflets if they wished. We wrote the leaflets, keeping the tone low-key.
As we walked, I never wanted to take the lead. First of all, I did not feel like a leader. And I also knew that when I went into my dark place, the dissociation I knew would come, I might forget our route, which took into account the crosswalks allowing us to safely cross the streets. I know it sounds ridiculous. It seemed ridiculous to me, as well, but still, I avoided leading the walk. One day I was asked to lead, and I thought, “This is my turn. This tests my courage, because I feel much safer and more supported in the middle of the line.” So after we formed a circle, joined hands, and silently focused, I began the procession. The counter-demonstrators soon appeared, as did a police car, which was there just to make sure no trouble occurred, but somehow escalated the tension by its very presence.
Many of the counter-demonstrators were carrying small American flags, and suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a little girl cross the street, fall into step beside me, and offer me a flag. Without any hesitation, I took it. She moved down the line handing flags to several others, who also took the flags, and we continued, holding our signs and the flags.
Why did they do it? Were they hoping that we would refuse to take the flags, which they would read as a sign of our disrespect, even disloyalty? Was it a gesture of reconciliation, acknowledgment that we all share the same love of country? Considering the taunting and jeering we had received, I doubted it was the latter.
Only later did I have the presence of mind to consider their motives because at the time I was stunned at my own visceral reaction. I felt infused with a sense of power, a feeling for my country I hesitate to call patriotism, because that word had been stolen from me. I was flushed with warmth, a certainty than I too had a right to this flag, that it belonged to me by virtue of my loyalty to the ideals of my country. Tears pressed behind my eyelids. Whatever the counter-demonstrators meant by this gesture, to me that flag in my hand was the other half of the sign I carried.
Yes, people had suffered and died for my right to be there. I thought of the laborers who had risked or given their lives for the right to organize. The people who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. though the South for their civil rights. Anti-war demonstrators who did not want our young men dying, and killing, in a small Asian country. Veterans who hurled their medals back at the White House that had lied to the people. Congressmen and Senators and Presidents and the ordinary people who had taken a stand, even a very unpopular stand, on principles and deep conviction. The truth-tellers and witnesses, the whistle blowers and mothers organizing committees to protect their children from toxic wastes. Gratitude welled up in me. To think of the hours they devoted, the indignities they endured, the blows they took, to be part of this great river of people who knew the power of rights we like to celebrate, but shrink from using.
As the years passed, our Women in Black group dwindled. I think we were weary, discouraged, especially after President Obama took office and did not end the war quickly. Or perhaps some of us could not bear to be reminded, and to remind others, any longer. It hurt too much. For the few who remained standing silently on the corner, more and more people expressed support. They waved and honked, opened their windows to call encouragement, said thank you as they walked by. Public opinion on the war was shifting. But the yellow ribbons, Support the Troops, were still glued to our consciousness. Finally, we discontinued the vigils.
Then a few years into Obama’s administration, the local paper ran a letter to the editor attacking our motives, claiming we just “hated Bush” and didn’t care about the war once our candidate had been elected. One of us sent out an email, asking how the others felt. We decided to hold another vigil, with the same signs. It was the same war, the same grief. The same reliance on violence and refusal to see its futility. I wondered if we (myself, the Women in Black, and people in general) would have the stamina to continue the struggle to end this war, help Iraq rebuild, and avoid another military conflict.
It wasn’t long before we heard the President say the U.S. would turn its attention to the Pacific…
Is there still a place for our Women in Black to bear witness? To assert, in silence, that peace is not only possible, but necessary? I’m not sure. What about the gulf that continues to separate the Women in Black from those who demonstrated against us? All of us still live in the same town, shop in the same stores, take our children and grandchildren to see the 4th of July fireworks. How can we learn to speak across that great divide and be comfortable under the same flag, when we define love of country so differently?
Now that most combat troops have returned from Iraq, the public discourse has gone silent. How carefully President Obama had to word his speech on the official end of the war, a war I refuse to call Operation Iraqi Freedom. How careful he was to praise the troops for their courage and their accomplishments without specifying what those accomplishments were. It does not seem to matter who occupies the White House. The endless wars continue. Will President Trump catapult us into another war with a dubious goal?
Our troops continue to serve, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but around the world. And they continue to protect the ones who stayed at home from the truth. I wince when I hear a civilian say, “Our troops are heroes.” Because the troops hear this, too. How does that statement square with their own experience? Does it respect them? Does connect them to the rest of society, or divide them?
Do we have the courage to support the troops by listening to their stories? Who are we to label their experience, to box it neatly and wrap it with a yellow ribbon? Glorification of their service can lodge like shrapnel in the flesh of what they know and feel. I fear that shrapnel is too near the heart to ever remove.