Friday, October 29, 2010

Remembering "A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah

In 2007, the news program, CBS Sunday Morning, featured Ishmael Beah who had written a memoir about his life in Sierra Leone during a long period of tribal warfare. The feature inspired me to read Beah’s memoir entitled A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a book I enjoyed and one that has stirred controversy. Some charge that Beah’s book is not a true, factual account of his actual experiences in Sierra Leone, and I will let the controversy simmer. My purpose in celebrating Beah’s story is to pull from it models of courage.

Beah himself has said on programs such as The Hour that his purpose in writing the book is to counter the romantic illusions that some people, especially young people, have about war. Many men and women, veterans or scholars of war, echo Beah’s purpose in their own works: Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Lexy Lovell and Max Uys’ documentary The Good Soldier, Caputo’s A Rumor of War, and Hardy’s "The Man He Killed." These books, film, and poem suggest why many veterans have trouble re-adjusting, why suicide and friendly fire statistics are worse than ever before, and why VA post-war services must include re-entry support and therapies of all kinds.

Beah’s achievement, like the outcomes in the works listed above, is being witness to extraordinary courage. For all the horror and tragedy of war, many men return home, stepping into the jobs they left behind, becoming a whole, functioning family member once more. Many men choose not to speak of their war experiences at all. Such stoicism surely proves courage for they choose not to vent or live in their pasts. Instead, they live with their pasts, persevering and placing their loved ones’ needs above their own.

Veterans who cannot return to their lives and leave war behind them reveal another kind of courage found in simple, day-to-day striving. However imperfectly they may strive, regardless of the number of times in each day that they stumble, they prove the desire to persist and discover a different tomorrow. Like a recovering addict, some veterans must take it one minute, one hour, and one day at a time; doing so is certainly a testament to hope and courage.

Beah’s story also proves that with courage comes triumph. In spite of witnessing brutality and atrocity at the age of 12, despite living a life wherein human life had little or no value, Beah stands tall against violence. He wishes to tell bluntly the truths of war in order to advocate for all children in countries ravaged by despots, despair, deprivation, and death. He has the attention of the United Nations, U. S. media, and all those who believe we can change our destinies if we have the will and courage to imagine a different tomorrow.

Beah believes all things are possible, especially that "...children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance." Children are perhaps the most courageous among us. They welcome the world even when the world does not welcome them. They dream that all things are possible. May their dreams inspire adults to act courageously and selflessly as they create a path on which children can walk safely to fulfill their dreams.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Contemporary Courage: Nelson Mandela

"An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law."

With these words, Martin Luther King, Jr. suggests that the man who breaks a law and accepts the consequences for that rebellion proves that he honors the law. These words apply to the actions of the South African President from 1994-1999 and 1993 Nobel Peace prize winner, Nelson Mandela. He, like King, is a man whose conscience urged him to stand upon principle and oppose injustice. For his choice, he was tried and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence that took twenty-seven years from Mandela’s freedom. In accepting his sentence stoically, at least to the outside world, Mandela “aroused the conscience of his community,” indeed the conscience of the entire world. Then, upon his release, Mandela resumed his work through the African National Congress (ANC).Twenty-seven years in prison may have delayed Mandela’s dream for South Africa, but those years did not destroy it.

Mandela immediately began to work toward those goals he had set for himself, goals that included striving to “. . . prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war” (Nelson Mandela, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1993). Mandela sought to bring South Africa out of its midnight by uniting the citizens of South Africa. He lead in this endeavor by forgiving his oppressors and building a bridge across the racial divide. One section of that bridge was shown in the 2009 film Invictus, during which Mandela modeled forgiveness and color-blindness by urging all South Africans to cheer for the rugby team, an old icon for white opportunity and privilege.

In Mandela’s willingness and ability to support a symbol of the old South Africa, afflicted by apartheid, he proved his service to all of South Africa, not just the ANC agenda. Mandela chose not to waste another day or year by imitating his oppressors or by seeking revenge. He elected to embrace the future of which he had dreamed and to act so that the dream could become reality. Because of his personal character and courage, Mandela fostered a new, stronger South Africa that, Mandela acknowledges, he did not achieve alone. He humbly grants that his dream could not become reality without the help of “countless human beings, both inside and outside our country [South Africa], [with] . . . the nobility of spirit to stand in the path of tyranny and injustice, without seeking selfish gain. They recognised that an injury to one is an injury to all and therefore acted together in defence of justice and a common human decency” (Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1993).

Atticus recognized that an injury to one is an injury to all. He acted to spare his children and Tom Robinson’s children from further injury resulting from racism. He did not succeed, but his example fostered higher aspirations for Jem and Scout.

King fought to protect others from sustaining an injury as a result of racism, and he lost his life to the fight. Others closed ranks and continued the fight. Our nation continues to evolve toward equality.

Mandela walked in King’s shoes in order to create a nation wherein apartheid and activism would not condemn a man to a real or figurative prison. He has changed the future and continues to inspire others by living

. . . in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Living so selflessly requires courage.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Good Soldiers

In college, during the 1960s, one guy stood a head above other guys, and he outweighed most of them. Fully grown in the middle, fully rounded in his gifts: he was and perhaps still is agile, imaginative, smart, thoughtful, analytical, and witty. He fell in love with one of the first and most devoted feminists I have ever met, and they married while still in college when most of us questioned traditional commitments and expectations. He also decided not to answer the draft when his lottery number came up; he stood as a conscientious objector, opposed to serving his nation as a soldier, but willing to serve his nation in any other capacity. And he did, sweeping floors in a VA hospital.

Tim O’Brien’s protagonist in The Things They Carried wants to run to Canada when his draft letter arrives. He walks away from work one day and drives north to the Canadian-U. S. border. There, on the Rainy River, with the Canadian shore within reach—just a short, easy swim—Tim, the character, cries for all that he must forsake in order to flee. He cries for the shame his family will bear, he cries for the honor he will sacrifice, and he cries for the life he will put in jeopardy. Tim decides not swim away. He reports for duty, believing himself a coward because he lacks courage to leave his place in the U. S., to turn his back on parents and patriotism.

Tim, the character, called himself a coward for serving, believing that conscientious objectors were the courageous ones. My college friend, so far as I recall, never defined himself as cowardly or courageous, but many attributed both descriptors to him. Those who believed in U. S. causes and military service judged my friend as spineless; young untried, untested college kids put him on a pedestal. He just did what his conscience directed him to do.

Which of the two--my real friend from long ago or Tim, the quasi-fictional soldier--exemplifies courage? Is it brave to serve or just as brave not to serve?

Five soldiers, representing World War II, Vietnam, and conflicts in the Middle East, offer their own answer to the questions I ask. They are the subjects of a documentary film entitled The Good Soldier (, a film I first saw on PBS’ Bill Moyers’ Journal.

Each of the five soldiers picked up weapons and aimed them at an enemy. One was wounded early in his war, World War II, and for that, he, like the character Tim, placed himself on trial and found against himself. Somehow he believed that he did not measure up because he could not march and fight for the duration of the war. Today, he admits that self-loathing stained much of the rest of his life.

Another man, never carried out on stretcher, never required to cry for a medic to save his own life, still bears wounds that may never heal. And that is the point of the film. Each of the five men bleeds as a result of having put on the uniform of a U. S. soldier for causes that the nation deemed necessary and important. Their consciences were troubled, their sleep stolen, their relationships endangered or destroyed, their self-worth rocked, and their understanding of courage challenged; these men were forever, inexorably altered when they put on a uniform. At least one of them will help his own son run away from service or stand firm as a conscientious objector. He does not want his son to face what soldiers must face.

So who is brave? Braver? Bravest? My college friend who did not take up arms? Tim, the boy who lived through Vietnam and writes stories? One or more of those five servants to killing who now need to speak against killing? The answer is not easy, but we must find it.

At a time when friendly fire is at an all-time high (52% according to a recent report and only 21% in WWII), we must ask if every man who volunteers can be trusted with a weapon. We must wonder if separating parent from spouse and children is in the best interest of families. We should examine the alarming number of servicemen, active and veteran, who choose suicide as a means to an end. But above all, we must not be quick to label the path toward courage as a single track that includes military service and any other direction as cowardice.

Applaud and thank those who put on a uniform and pick up a weapon—those who, like Atticus, willingly perform the “unpleasant” tasks that a society needs done.

Withhold your judgment upon those who refuse service for theirs is a different sort of courage, the type that requires them to stand apart, alone. Their unwillingness to uphold tradition, precedent, and custom condemns them, often to a lonely place.

Most important, celebrate those whose consciences insist that they use their talents, whether in or out of uniform, to make their communities better. Such men are what Martin Luther King, Jr. surely had in mind when he said, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Legacy of Courage: The Lorraine Motel

The Lorraine Motel in central Memphis is chrome and 1950s aqua. It stands just two stories high with a simple wreath on the rail outside room 306 where Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed and died in April, 1968.

In Memphis for the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, King spoke of history, of resolve, of justice, perseverance, and his certainty that right causes will lead to right ends--even if he were not among those alive at the end. His words seem prophetic, and they were. King died outside room 306, but the cause for which he spoke, marched, and suffered continues to bend toward right ends. The National Civil Rights Museum, attached to the Lorraine, tells the story. You simply must read that story by walking the aisles and interacting with the excellent, thought-provoking displays.

The Lorraine experience begins with a short film entitled “The Witness,” an Oscar-nominated HBO project featuring Reverend Kyles who was present on April 4, 1968 at the Lorraine. He offers a personal account of the strike that brought King to Memphis in support of sanitation workers whose cause was simple human rights, captured in the strike slogan: I am a Man. Kyles’ recollection and the history woven into the film will not fail to move those who stand for right, justice, and humanity. The film is as eloquent and spiritual as Atticus’ closing argument in behalf of Tom Robinson.

The National Civil Rights Museum continues with an exhibit entitled “Unremitting Struggle,” representing the years 1619-1865. Next are the strategies and organizations formed to implement those strategies during the years 1865 through 1940. Beyond those are exhibits representing the years of protest and change, marked by the decision to de-segregate the armed forces, Emmett Till’s horrible, tragic death, the Brown versus Board of Education decision, a bus boycott in Montgomery, the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, school de-segregation, sit-ins, marches, speeches, and more.

During these years of change, as our nation slowly evolved toward equal access to the American dream, violent and non-violent means became the subject of national debates. Change agents formed organizations around the principles of violent action and passive resistance. Our nation would never be the same, yet we are better for it.

Certainly, equal access to the American dream remains a goal toward which many continue to strive. Our nation still falls short of measuring a man “by the content of his character” rather than “the color of his skin,” but we are closer than we were in 1865 and 1965. May we arrive by 2065--if not long before.

To achieve our goal, we must, as Atticus begged, do our duty in the courtroom of society. We must be fair, impartial, and true to the high ideals expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution with its prudent amendments.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Homegrown Terrorists Beaten by Homemade Heroes

On a hot, humid day, I drove my tightly constructed Mercury van with the tinted windows sealed against the heat, the air conditioner set to 65°, and the seat cooling coils activated. Technology trumps Nature is my motto.

Now and then, I saw a marker denoting the stretch of highway as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. Little money has been spent on the signs; they are small and could be easily missed against the dry grass and heat radiating from dust and pavement. Shouldn’t we do more to honor such a significant roadway and the events which took place there?

In March 1965, from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to the Capitol grounds in Montgomery, hundreds of people, changed our world for the better. Here, 45 years ago, Voting Rights were fought for, marched for, and won.

In early March, 1965, marchers set out to draw attention to themselves and thereby, their plight. They intended to march on Montgomery to secure equal access to the Constitutional right to vote, but they were stopped by civil authorities who used tear gas, clubs and whips against unarmed citizens. National television replayed the events of “Bloody Sunday” on the nightly news. In doing so, TV convinced the unconvinced that injustice was alive and thriving in some parts of the nation, pricking their consciences to act in behalf of the disenfranchised.

Perhaps TV affected Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.; perhaps it had no effect whatsoever for he was a judge who was unaffected by the color of a man’s skin. In one of his first cases as a prosecutor, he won against two white men who had paid the fines for two black men convicted for minor infractions. The white men then “owned” the black men, holding them as indentured workers until the fines were repaid, but one of them died after being horsewhipped. The white men went to jail; the surviving black man went free.

When Judge Johnson was appointed to the federal court, he heard the facts of the Montgomery bus boycott and ruled against the bus company. He was on the bench when Alabama schools were desegregated. He removed barriers for black men and women to serve on juries, and in March 1965, he declared that “The law is clear that the right to petition one’s government for the redress of grievances may be exercised in large groups . . . , and these rights may be exercised by marching, even along public highways.” With that ruling, he parted the angry sea holding the marchers in Selma, allowing them to cross into Montgomery.

For his conviction and his careful judgments, Judge Johnson awoke to crosses burning in his yard. His mother’s home was bombed. Yet he was undeterred just as the fictional Atticus was undeterred by terrorism and fear and ignorance. Judge Johnson led the way to a better nation, still imperfect, still plagued with fear and ignorance, but evolving toward the good day by day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the marchers must have wondered when and if another blow or shot might be taken, but they marched on in the belief that right and good can co-exist. They endured whatever Nature offered and slept in fields. They marched 54 miles from March 21 through March 25. For their conviction and courage, about five months later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the historic Voting Rights Act, insuring equal access to the polls.

Governor George Wallace, who has since recanted, said that Judge Johnson was a man in need of a “barbed wire enema.” Wallace called him an “integrating, scalawagging, carpetbagging liar.” Wallace was equally venomous about LBJ, school desegration, and state sovereignty, issues that still rankle today. Instead of tear gas, clubs, and whips, the weapons of choice are gerrymandering and voter ID cards. The fight is still about power and who is going to wield it.

When Judge Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Clinton said, “In the face of unremitting social and political pressure to uphold the traditions of oppression and neglect in his native South, never once did he yield.” This is high praise, reserved for the heroes in every community and in every walk of life. May they never fail to come forward when there is a need, and may there be no need one day.

Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr: A biography

Equal justice under law: the jurisprudential legacy of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr.: An article from: Yale Law Journal