Embracing Ourselves (2)

This is the second in a series of posts under the same general title.

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In general, the question I want to ask is: How do we embrace ourselves in our entirety? Specifically, I want to ask this question: How can we embrace not just those parts of ourselves we are proud of, and would like to be known by, but also—and especially—those parts of ourselves we are not proud of, and would not like to be known by?

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Specifying the Question

Most specifically, what I want to focus on is this question: How can we embrace those of us who individually, yet in our collective name and under our collective authority, do deeds that bring shame and dishonor to us all collectively? That is, how can we as a community embrace among ourselves even those of us who, in our very name and under our very authority, commit crimes and perpetrate atrocities?

How, for instance, can the United States of America, one of the communities to which I belong, embrace not just its war heroes but also its war murderers, as it were. It is easy enough, and morally inexpensive, for us as a nation to embrace “Alvin York, Eddie Rickenbacker, and all the other veterans who served the United States honorably during World War I and during all other U.S. wars before and since then,” to quote myself from a post I put up on my own personal Facebook page just this last November 11 (Veterans Day, which was originally established as Armistice Day to memorialize the end of the active hostilities of World War I). We have no trouble embracing all such exemplary soldiers, named and anonymous. But how can we manage to embrace not just such heroic individuals but also “such baby killers and murderers of women, old men, and other innocents as Vietnam war veterans William Calley and Bob Kerrey”? Or, to use a more recent example (one I also used in the same recent Facebook post) to ask the same question: How can all of us who constitute the United States collectively embrace not just all the veterans whom we have sent into our wars in the Middle East during this current century, and who performed their military service in a way that honored us as a nation, or at least brought no dishonor on us, but also those veterans we sent into the same wars, but who acted in ways that did bring dishonor on us as a nation, such as the veterans “who tortured Iraqi prisoners during the U.S. war in Iraq”?

My asking of that question here is not for the sake of such dishonorably serving veterans themselves. It is not for William Calley’s or Bob Kerrey’s sake that I ask it. Nor is it for the sake of those veterans who tortured Iraqi prisoners.

As I have written already in my preceding series of posts on this blog, I have compassion for any such veterans who suffer from the memories of their own misdeeds, and I honestly hope they can find a way to live with those memories and to accept their irremediable guilt. However, that is not my focus in this series of posts.

Rather, in specifying the general question I formulated in my first post of this series, my focus here is on us as a community, and not on them as veterans bearing the burden of “moral injury” for their own past deeds. My focus is on how we as a nation can embrace those very veterans whose service gave us reasons for national shame, embrace them alongside all those other veterans whose service gave us reasons for national pride.

We sent troops into Vietnam, into Afghanistan, and into Iraq. We fed those troops full of an ideology in accordance with which much if not most of the world is ranged against us, despite the fact—or perhaps just because of it: out of envy—that we as a nation (at least, so we tell ourselves) are the “shining city on a hill,” “the last, best hope for mankind.” We painted the enemy as consisting of no more than “Communists,” “Gooks,” “Slopes,” “Rag-heads,” “Islamic terrorists,” or some other species of evil creature, less than fully human—or at least less gloriously so than we ourselves so obviously are. We appealed to the patriotism we have so long instilled into our youth. We appealed as well to their desire to serve, and to make a difference in the world. Most of all we took advantage of the destitution and lack of economic prospects that faced the least privileged segments of our younger population, segments disproportionally composed of blacks and Hispanics, by offering them regular pay and benefits, and a way, supposedly, out of the ghetto. By those and whatever other means suggested themselves to us—including appeals based on images of heroism, glory, and superstardom taken from Star Wars and Marvel Comics—we enticed young men and women to enlist in our military forces. Then we sent them off to fight the good fight against what we had always depicted to them as our demonically evil, fanatical, stop-at-nothing, Godless (or at least idolatrous), terrorist enemies. We equipped them with an abundance of all the latest weaponry, and sent them off to kill for us—but only to kill, of course, “if need be.”

Yet then, when some of them “crossed over the line,” a line we’d never spent any real time or effort trying to show them and help them internalize as a line of moral proscription, and when they committed atrocities under conditions of war, what did we do? Simple! We abandoned those who did cross that line, even if they did so under orders from their military superiors. Far from continuing to embrace them and celebrate their service to us, their country—celebrate it at least in cheap words and easy-to-commercialize ceremonies—we berated them. We made an example of them. At least we made an example of those who make the mistake of being found out in their trespasses.

In short, we turned them into scapegoats—a common, easy way for most of us to wash our hands of the rest of us.

My specific question is how we can finally stop doing that, and find a way to embrace ourselves entirely.

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To be continued.

Freya Seeburger