Never Again

Never Again, Rev. Krista Taves, May 28, 2011 Emerson UU Chapel, Ellisville MO

Reading – “Remember me” by Rev. David Pyle, adapted from the original “What happened to Decoration Day?” at http://celestiallands.org/wayside/?p=278

Sermon

Our family never really knew what to do with the way that the society around us remembered and honored war and those who served in it.  We were Mennonite, which meant that we were pacifist.  Our people and our churches did not commemorate war except as a tragedy, never as anything to be honored, and struggled with how to maintain a peace stance and recognize the sacrifice of those who died in war.   We were taught to see any death in war as a needless loss and as proof of its evil.

It was also difficult to navigate these memorial times become some of the elders in our family had been in the wrong army in World War II.  As young men living in the Soviet Union, they had been drafted into the German Army when it rolled through the Ukraine in 1941.  The German Army was already running short of soldiers, and significant populations of German speaking young men, desperate to be free of communist oppression, were ripe for the picking.  To these young men, a high-minded pacifism seemed insignificant before the possibility of bringing down Stalin.  Every single one of these young men had lost family as a direct result of Stalin’s chilling five year plans with their harsh methods of forced starvation, mass executions and labor camps, so the resentment was very real, very raw, and very easily manipulated.  Germany was understandably eager for these young men as they were unlikely to desert.  Where would they go?  Back to the Iron Curtain and death as a traitor?  Most of the young men, like my grandfather, and two great uncles, were sent by the army to the most volatile parts of the eastern front.  These young pacifist Mennonite men, hardened by suffering and resentment, a fierce desire for freedom, and sometimes revenge, became warriors.

And then the Germans lost, and Stalin’s army was one of the victors.   Refugee camps sprung up across war-torn Germany for the millions of Soviet citizens who had fled before the retreating German army in the hopes of escaping communism.  My grandfather, imprisoned in a POW camp, escaped, and walked on foot in search of family – a wife, mother, step-father, two brothers, and his in-laws – who he had last seen in a refugee camp in Poland, where he had married his fiancée before heading off to war.  It took him one year to find his people and when his wife’s family connected with a Canadian relative who offered to sponsor their immigration, he went with them.

They arrived in Canada in 1947, and like so many who have experienced war, all they wanted to do was start their new life.  All they wanted was to leave behind their trauma and be normal.  But there were some big obstacles that kept getting in the way.  One was facing the shame of their Mennonite community for betraying their pacifist faith by joining the war.   But the most significant obstacle was that they all suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  My grandfather and grandmother both had the classic symptoms of PTSD – nightmares, flashbacks, emotional numbness, hyper-arousal, and explosive rages.  In addition, my grandfather, like many men who have been in active warfare, was prone to heavy drinking.

With the return of thousands of men and women who had served in the armed forces, and the arrival of thousands of immigrants who had survived the war, North America was flooded with people who now fought a new battle, the one in their minds.  No one knew what PTSD was back in the 1940s and 50s.  Women with PTSD were dismissed as hysterical.  Men with PTSD were shamed for their inability to have a stiff upper lip, and it was that shaming that drove many to alcoholism.   Alcohol was a way to douse the trauma in a culture where there was no room for any engagement with what happens to the human psyche in war.  Perhaps, when they stood by a memorial, as David Pyle’s father and grandfather did, and saw the names of their people, a tear might find its way out, but the war was over, and America had moved on.  Those memories had to be left in the past.

But as they tried to live their new normal, the trauma kept seeping out.  They started families.   In North America it was called the baby boom.  One of the most stressful things you can do is raise a family.  Can you imagine the effects of sleep deprivation, so common with newborns, for a person with PTSD, or the sound of a baby crying at night, or a sick child, or a toddler with endless streams of questions?   Any kind of stress can trigger the flashbacks, the nightmares, the emotional numbness, the hyper-arousal, and the explosive rages.   The major way that those with PTSD cope is by creating as predictable a home life as possible, to try and create the quietness around them that they seek within them.  No wonder the 1950s was a time of such stultifying normalcy.

Is it also any wonder that many baby boomers grew up chomping at the bit?  Their parents needed absolute predictability and control to avoid triggering, and that often included controlling their children.    The initial response of children to parents with PTSD is not unlike that of children with alcoholic parents – they become codependents, people pleasing and hyper vigilant, because at any moment their world can turn upside down.  Their parent can switch from loving and kind to raging and impatient.  Children will not realize that these dramatic emotional swings come from PTSD.  How could they?  They will blame themselves and try and prevent the rages that could happen at any time, which of course they can’t.  Then, when they become adults, when they are no longer in their parents’ home, the anger and fear that they have buried will come out, in all kinds of ways.  I wonder how much of the peace movement and the women’s movement and the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll revolution that erupted in the 1960s and 1970s was a direct consequence of a whole generation of young people trying to break free of the rigid worlds created by unpredictable parents struggling with the after effects of war?

These are some of the truths that David Pyle is asking us to remember. David Pyle is a Unitarian Universalist minister, he’s a military chaplain, and a veteran who has experienced active combat, and he’s asking us to hold close to our hearts, until it hurts, the very real price of war.  He’s asking us to forego the hotdogs and the ice cream and the stars and stripes napkins and to listen to our prophets, because it’s become very clear that in many cases, we have stopped listening.

In the early 1970s, at the height of the Vietnam War, 44% of Americans believed that war was sometimes necessary.  At that time 8% of the American public had served in the military.  Today less than ½ of 1% have that same experience.  Today, 77% of Americans believe that war is sometimes necessary despite the fact that more than 99.5% have never experienced war.  What this suggests is that those with a closer experience of the hell of war are the most likely to question its usefulness.  The more distanced your experience of war, the more likely you are to believe that it works.   This is the disconnection that David Pyle is alerting us to.  We aren’t listening to our prophets. He is asking us to risk coming closer to the reality of the hell that is war so that we will become more than ever committed to doing everything we can to avoid its use.  War is an absolute last resort and is always the consequence of human failure.  War is not the answer.  It is a band-aid.

One of the ways we can draw closer to our prophets is to become aware that we are much closer to war than many of us realize. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has dedicated his life to studying the generational effects of war.  He says “the long term effects of … war last four generations as post-traumatic stress in various forms.”  That’s right. Four generations.  That PTSD – co-dependency cycle takes four generations to work out.  So I’d ask you here, if you feel comfortable doing so, to raise your hand if you are aware of at least one ancestor within four generations that directly experienced the violence of war, either as a civilian or as military personnel.  See how many of us there are?  Almost every single one of us.  The trauma of our ancestors is still working itself out through us.  The PTSD – co-dependency cycle is operating in our lives and in our nation, and it will continue working itself out through our children and the nation they will inherit. Richard Rohr believes that we are still suffering from the Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the wars every ten years since, and that we will be suffering for the next four generations to work through the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.

Let me give you an example of how I see this working.  The Vietnam War was a divisive issue and the returning vets were mocked, slandered, even attacked.  It was barely one generation since World War II.  The trauma was still pretty fresh and informed the emotional volatility of that time.   The Iraq War has been no less divisive, but there has been no mocking of those who serve.  Perhaps that’s because we’re another generation away from World War II, so the PTSD cycle of that war has weakened, still there, but much less emotionally volatile.

Two significant events of this past month have given us such a clear view into these long- term effects.  Just a few weeks ago, American forces brought down Osama Bin Laden.  For some Americans, it was a time to celebrate.  But for many families who lost loved ones on 9/11, and for many service women and men and their families, it triggered the PTSD that is now their burden to bear.  It has also re-inflamed the PTSD of those who believed in Bin Laden’s cause. Raw emotions are pouring back in, and so few understand or empathize what that is like because we are blind to how close we still are to that reality.  When will we remember and say never again?

After 15 years in hiding, General Ratko Mladic, the man responsible for the massacre of 8000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys, was arrested.  His arrest has triggered layers of trauma, for the Bosnian Muslims who have still not been able to bury their dead, for the Serbians who face the world’s condemnation, and the UN peacekeepers who failed to hold the peace.  This trauma is generations old, kept alive by cultures that foster continued hatred.  Each side weeps for its own loss, but there are those on each side who pray for the day when each side will weep for the other’s loss, and remember, and say never again.  That is the only way the hatred will begin to unwind.

We have to weep not only for the losses on our side, but also for the losses on the other side.  That is how we take the power out of the cycle; you allow the grief and the trauma to surface.  It shouldn’t have to wait for isolated moments before names on a memorial.  So when American troops killed Osama bin Laden, it is time to weep for his family.   That is how we create peace.  When Mladic is arrested, it is time to weep not only for the Bosnians he killed, but also for what was violently killed in his own heart and in the hearts of the men he led that compelled them to create this tragedy.  We should weep, and remember, and say never again.  That is how we create peace.

As Unitarian Universalists, we hold a theology that affirms this kind of peace making.  In the face of dehumanizing theologies of human depravity and sinfulness, Unitarians said that we were made in the image of God.  In the face of dehumanizing theologies of a punishing judgmental God, Universalists said no one is left out, no one is left behind.  We are called to see the inherent worth and dignity, in every person, even when, especially when, it is hard, perhaps even feels impossible.  This is not just a pie in the sky pretty thought.  This is a matter of life and death.  It is a matter of living peace, not war.  Our theology emerged in times that desperately needed them, and we desperately need it today.  We are called to respond to anger with calmness, to selfishness with generosity, to lies with truth, to wickedness with goodness, that is how we learn to love ourselves and to love those who cannot love themselves or us.    That is how we remember. That is how we say never again.  That is how we create peace.

Amen and blessed be.

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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One Response to Never Again

  1. Erin D. says:

    Thank you for this; your thoughtfulness and insight brought tears to my eyes.

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