Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Universal Soldier

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

A repeat of the 25 year reunion concert of Peter, Paul and Mary. Tears came.

Memories returned of a Remembrance Day morning at the Cenotaph. A group of us had spent the previous chilly night in a silent vigil protesting the Vietnam war. When the veterans arrived, we quietly made way for them. Some were indignant, reminding us that they had fought for our right to protest. We assured them of our respect, and that our only goal was to end the war.

Ten years later, heart glowing, I watched the television in wonder. The last troops were leaving! It was silly, but I couldn't help feeling we had won the war on war.

As years passed, it seemed the only reminders of the war were movies like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Platoon. The interminable Russian war in Afghanistan and the brief war in the Falklands somehow didn't shake my feeling that war was really on the way out. Until January, 1991.

Once again I was glued to the television. Stealth bombers. Scud missiles. Patriot missiles. The Iraqi night sky lit up by deadly fireworks. The dream of the peace movement lay in tatters.

The statistics are appalling. There were over 58,000 (American) military deaths in the Vietnam war (26 deaths per day). Arguably, it was an improvement over the 405,000 deaths in World War II (416 deaths per day), down from 625,000 deaths in the American Civil War (599 deaths per day). These numbers don't include military deaths of other countries or civilian casualties. Recently it was reported that every 80 minutes, a veteran takes his or her own life.

Contemplating these things, I can't help feeling an immense sadness. I wonder if we will ever acquire such awareness of our universal nature that we will no longer experience grief over such suffering and death. I used to think so.

In my early years, in pursuit of all things yogic, I read the Bhagavad Gita, a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna about Arjuna’s anguish over going into battle.

I do not see any good in killing my own kinsmen in battle, nor can I, my dear Krishna, covet victory, nor kingdom, nor pleasure … O Krishna! Though they may kill me, why should I wish to kill them?

Lord Krishna spoke the following words to desolate Arjuna, who was overwhelmed with compassion, eyes brimming with tears.

You are mourning for what is not worthy of grief yet speak as if a man of wisdom. Wise men bewail neither for the living nor for the dead … In the unreal there is no subsistence and in the real there is no end … Know that the abstract entity that pervades the whole body is indestructible as no one is able to cause destruction of that unceasing and eternal soul. The bodies with this unceasing, immeasurable and eternal soul decay. Therefore, fight, O Arjuna.

This doesn’t resonate with me anymore. It feels like mindfully eating meat or hiding in oneness, maintaining that suffering is an illusion.

Coincidentally, I read these words today over at James Ford Roshi's blog Monkey Mind:

I’m sick to heart that every week, week after week I have to read that list of young men and women, who wearing uniforms of our nation have died in or because of combat. I’m sick to heart knowing those names stand for many, many more, combatants and civilians who’ve died unnamed to us in this decade of war.

Will we ever cease to be ‘overwhelmed by compassion, eyes brimming with tears’?

I hope not.

French people bid troops of the French Army goodbye as they leave metropolitan France at Marseille harbour, 1941 


  1. Every time the News Hour on pbs shows pictures of the lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan it is very hard for me to look. When I do, I see the beauty of the soldiers faces, their youth, or their maturity. I think of all the families hurting. It sickens me.

    And I feel even with the recent shootings of innocents, shouldn't we stand by these soldiers battered by the war we've asked them to serve over and over again?

    Thank you for your caring, your compassion.

    Connie Nelson Ahlberg

  2. Wow - Yes... I hope I never stop feeling the grief and sadness. I find the more that I "wake up" to our True Nature/Universal Nature the more I am moved with compassion for a world in pain... Thank you for this touching post... Christine

    1. Thank you, Christine - if sadness doesn't call us, where will we go?

  3. Individually, each young person aggresses because of the belief they are protecting the freedom and wellbeing of the ones they love, for the love and pride of their family. To understand that the roots of war are love is the sadness that overwhelms.
    Thanks for keeping the conversation alive David.

  4. Hi, Susan! I hadn't given the source of war much thought, but probably would have said fear arising out of ignorance. But seeing its roots in love - that's putting a whole new perspective on it. Wonderful!

    1. David, excellent thoughtful blog. Am completely with you; I still demonstrate against war, still protest, still hope - somehow this new millennium it seems an even more hopeless task, but we have to believe in the possibility of change.

      What needs addressing, of course, is our deepseated fear, as you say rooted in ignorance (and misplaced interpretations of love, perhaps, as Susan says - in other words a genuinely caring impulse) which expresses itself through force and opposition in an aggressive way. Power-seeking. Enforcing difference and oppositionality.

      I'm with you on the Arjuna/Krishna conversation - I can't help feeling that vocab like 'war', 'fight', 'striving' just reinforces our poarised ways of thinking, don't you? – I'm not sure how helpful those words are in a spiritual text - translated too as they will have been by scholars who may still only have partial understanding, as we all do, and use the language and ethos current at the time.

      Of course we need to support and mourn soldiers who often are fighting strongly for what they believe to be true; but we also need to find a way to show people there are OTHER ways - and in countries where there is no compulsory signing-up, the people who go to war, while of course no doubt for the most part believing in the cause, are still making a choice...

      Patriotism is a difficult thing.

    2. Roselle, thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments. I'm glad to hear you still protest the war. Just because we can't do everything doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything. Although the Bhagavad Gita is usually interpreted as an allegory for the struggle between good and evil in our own natures, I'm with you in feeling the use of combative metaphors, even "battle against cancer" tend to make our thinking run in narrow channels. Patriotism and all the other 'isms' that separate us from them.

  5. I, too, am easily overwhelmed with sadness over the wars and conflicts the world over. Large powerful nations blasting the hell out countries half way across the world, and despots killing, raping and enslaving their own countrymen.

    I struggle with knowing/not-knowing. How much do I really want to see if it is so ugly? In the end, I am drawn to the news, because each story could be - and might be - my story. Humankind has not solved the 'war problem' yet, and it is unlikely that we ever will. So, what now? Do what we can, when we can. That's all we are able to accomplish. It doesn't matter if our actions are 'enough,' it matters that we feel, react, and act if we can. "If sadness doesn't call us, where will we go?"

    1. So do I. Thankfully, wanting to know usually wins out [hmm - just noticed that was combative language..], even if just to remind myself that suffering is real. I agree that it doesn't matter if our actions are 'enough' (are they ever?) I like the Gandhi quote - "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."

  6. I have lovely neighbors across the street from me - The couple is in their 80's. The woman can hardly get around, yet every month or so she would lovingly refresh the old yellow ribbon around her oak tree with a new one...

    I noticed yesterday that the ribbon was gone... Thinking the worst I was afraid to ask. Turns out her her youngest grandson has just finished his tour and is on the way home. I'm thrilled with her good news! I wish the world would finally and forever welcome all their children back to safety. Wars and killing have no place in where we all ought to be.


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