This is an excerpt from the Sol Feinstone Lecture on The Meaning of Freedom delivered by Bill Moyers at the United States Military Academy on November 15, 2006.
Many of you will be heading for Iraq. I have never been a soldier myself, never been tested under fire, never faced hard choices between duty and feeling, or duty and conscience, under deadly circumstances. I will never know if I have the courage to be shot at, or to shoot back, or the discipline to do my duty knowing the people who dispatched me to kill—or be killed—had no idea of the moral abyss into which they were plunging me.
I have tried to learn about war from those who know it best: veterans, the real experts. But they have been such reluctant reporters of the experience. My father-in-law, Joe Davidson, was 37 years old with two young daughters when war came in 1941; he enlisted and served in the Pacific but I never succeeded in getting him to describe what it was like to be in harm’s way. My uncle came home from the Pacific after his ship had been sunk, taking many friends down with it, and he would look away and change the subject when I asked him about it. One of my dearest friends, who died this year at 90, returned from combat in Europe as if he had taken a vow of silence about the dark and terrifying things that came home with him, uninvited.
Curious about this, some years ago I produced for PBS a documentary called "D-Day to the Rhine." With a camera crew I accompanied several veterans of World War II who for the first time were returning together to the path of combat that carried them from the landing at Normandy in 1944 into the heart of Germany. Members of their families were along this time—wives, grown sons and daughters—and they told me that until now, on this trip—45 years after D-Day—their husbands and fathers rarely talked about their combat experiences. They had come home, locked their memories in their mind’s attic, and hung a "no trespassing" sign on it. Even as they retraced their steps almost half a century later, I would find these aging GIs, standing alone and silent on the very spot where a buddy had been killed, or they themselves had killed, or where they had been taken prisoner, a German soldier standing over them with a Mauser pointed right between their eyes, saying: "For you, the war is over." As they tried to tell the story, the words choked in their throats. The stench, the vomit, the blood, the fear: What outsider—journalist or kin—could imagine the demons still at war in their heads?
What I remember most vividly from that trip is the opening scene of the film: Jose Lopez— the father of two, who had lied about his age to get into the Army (he was too old), went ashore at Normandy, fought his way across France and Belgium with a water-cooled machine gun, rose to the rank of sergeant, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor after single-handedly killing 100 German troops in the Battle of the Bulge—Jose Lopez, back on Omaha Beach at age 79, quietly saying to me: "I was really very, very afraid. That I want to scream. I want to cry and we see other people was laying wounded and screaming and everything and it’s nothing you could do. We could see them groaning in the water and we keep walking"—and then, moving away from the camera, dropping to his knees, his hands clasped, his eyes wet, as it all came back, memories so excruciating there were no words for them.
The Poetry Of War
Over the year I turned to the poets for help in understanding the realities of war; it is from the poets we outsiders most often learn what you soldiers experience. I admired your former superintendent, General William Lennox, who held a doctorate in literature and taught poetry classes here because, he said, "poetry is a great vehicle to teach cadets as much as anyone can what combat is like." So it is. From the opening lines of the Iliad:
Rage, Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ Son Achilles…hurling down to the House of Death so many souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion for the dogs and birds….
to Wilfred Owen’s pained cry from the trenches of France:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend…
to W. D. Ehrhart’s staccato recitation of the
Barely tolerable conglomeration of mud, heat, sweat, dirt, rain, pain, fear…we march grinding under the weight of heavy packs, feet dialed to the ground…we wonder…
Poets with their empathy and evocation open to bystanders what lies buried in the soldier’s soul. Those of you soon to be leading others in combat may wish to take a metaphorical detour to the Hindenburg Line of World War I, where the officer and poet Wilfred Owen, a man of extraordinary courage who was killed a week before the Armistice, wrote: "I came out in order to help these boys—directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can."
People in power should be required to take classes in the poetry of war. As a presidential assistant during the early escalation of the war in Vietnam, I remember how the President blanched when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said it would take one million fighting men and 10 years really to win in Vietnam, but even then the talk of war was about policy, strategy, numbers and budgets, not severed limbs and eviscerated bodies.
That experience, and the experience 40 years later of watching another White House go to war, also relying on inadequate intelligence, exaggerated claims and premature judgments, keeping Congress in the dark while wooing a gullible press, cheered on by partisans, pundits, and editorial writers safely divorced from realities on the ground, ended any tolerance I might have had for those who advocate war from the loftiness of the pulpit, the safety of a laptop, the comfort of a think tank, or the glamour of a television studio. Watching one day on C-Span as one member of Congress after another took to the floor to praise our troops in Iraq, I was reminded that I could only name three members of Congress who have a son or daughter in the military. How often we hear the most vigorous argument for war from those who count on others of valor to fight it. As General William Tecumseh Sherman said after the Civil War: "It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation."
Remembering Emily Perez
Rupert Murdoch comes to mind—only because he was in the news last week talking about Iraq. In the months leading up to the invasion Murdoch turned the dogs of war loose in the corridors of his media empire, and they howled for blood, although not their own. Murdoch himself said, just weeks before the invasion, that: "The greatest thing to come of this to the world economy, if you could put it that way [as you can, if you are a media mogul], would be $20 a barrel for oil." Once the war is behind us, Rupert Murdoch said: "The whole world will benefit from cheaper oil which will be a bigger stimulus than anything else."
Today Murdoch says he has no regrets, that he still believes it was right "to go in there," and that "from a historical perspective" the U.S. death toll in Iraq was "minute."
The word richoted in my head when I heard it. I had just been reading about Emily Perez. Your Emily Perez: Second Lieutenant Perez, the first woman of color to become a command sergeant major in the history of the Academy, and the first woman graduate to die in Iraq. I had been in Washington when word of her death made the news, and because she had lived there before coming to West Point, the Washington press told us a lot about her. People remembered her as "a little superwoman"—straight A’s, choir member, charismatic, optimistic, a friend to so many; she had joined the medical service because she wanted to help people. The obituary in the Washington Post said she had been a ball of fire at the Peace Baptist Church, where she helped start an HIV-AIDS ministry after some of her own family members contracted the virus. Now accounts of her funeral here at West Point were reporting that some of you wept as you contemplated the loss of so vibrant an officer.
"Minute?" I don’t think so. Historical perspective or no. So when I arrived today I asked the Academy’s historian, Steve Grove, to take me where Emily Perez is buried, in Section 36 of your cemetery, below Storm King Mountain, overlooking the Hudson River. Standing there, on sacred American soil hallowed all the more by the likes of Lieutenant Perez so recently returned, I thought that to desc beats by dre green Monday deals north face green Monday deals beats by dre super Saturday kate spade green monday uggs green Monday north face green Monday kate spade green monday uggs super saturday deals michael kors green Monday 2014 uggs green Monday uggs super Saturday 2014 Hollister green Monday 2014 uggs green monday beats by dre green Monday sales burberry green monday sale coach green monday lululemon green monday burberry green Monday sales Hollister green monday 2014 uggs green monday green Monday michael kors north face green Monday deals north face green Monday sales north face super Saturday north face green Monday 2014 north face green monday sales uggs super Saturday uggs green Monday deals coach green Monday uggs super Saturday 2014 north face green Monday north face super saturday sale moncler green Monday 2014 lululemon green Monday coach green Monday sales Hollister green Monday sale michael kors green Monday north face super saturday sale lululemon green Monday canada goose green monday