My True Names

by Caroline LeBlanc

It is happening again. Daily we hear not only the news of atrocious violence among people disconnected and removed from us but also of violence done by and to Americans in distant lands: lands where our “help” is met with a mixture of gratitude and resentment, welcome and violent rejection. Once again our – some would say naive, some would say self-serving – national self-image as the great savior of the oppressed has landed us in a situation where the oppressed say, “No, thank you,” and our emissaries, US soldiers, are caught in the contradiction of it all.

The impulse to dehumanize is all too human. Americans dehumanizing enemy Iraqis and/or terrorists; men dehumanizing women; lighter skinned dehumanizing darker skinned; civilians dehumanizing soldiers; disciples of nonviolence dehumanizing those who would employ violence. And vice versa. The need to believe in the correctness of our subjective perception is so strong that we take impassioned stands, often degrading the other in the process of countering their different view. Yes, the impulse to dehumanize and project rather than embrace our inner shadow is all too human.

This is no abstraction for me. For six years I was an Army nurse. For the past four years my son has served on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. For ten years, between 1968 to 1986, my husband was an Active Duty Army officer. Since 1993 he has been an Army Reserve officer. Since January 2004 he has been on volunteer active duty in the Iraq War theater. Since my adolescence in my working class family I have been involved with many levels of healing as well as peace and social justice work. Daily I’ve had to come to terms with the opposites within myself and my world – our world.

I read an Amnesty International report on the sexual harassment and rape of female US soldiers by their male counterparts in combat areas, assaults that are reportedly overlooked and unpunished by the soldiers’ chain of command. Then I go to the local army base where I see polite, wholesome looking men and women interacting with great respect. Most are young adults. Many have young families. As poorly paid as they are, many are the first in their families to have a chance to build a life beyond the limited opportunities afforded their ancestors. If they are killed in our war on terrorism their families will get a pittance in death benefits.

I talk to devoted, overworked human service workers in the Army community. They are often family members themselves, helping other “ stateside” family members cope with the daily meal of fear and loneliness that sinks like a stone into the pit of the stomach during the soldier’s mobilization on dangerous assignments. The husband of one woman with six-year old twins will be home from Afghanistan for three months before being sent to Iraq for a year. I encounter sincere military leadership working to prevent the very real risk of reunion violence only to be attacked in the press as apathetic or negligent when a sensational tragedy occurs. Although I have never aspired to be an Army “insider,” I nonetheless inquire about helping in my own way. I encounter a defensive Army hierarchy, suspicious of and closed to the “outsider” who is not loyal to traditional Army ways.

I hear reports of soldiers disciplined for abuse of Iraqi prisoners and debates over governmental treatment of suspected terrorists. Then I see a news picture of a soldier comforting a crying comrade who has just watched some explosive blow up an Iraqi child. And I hear of hospitals and schools being rebuilt. The latter do not usually make the headlines. As one Army officer wrote in a private communication, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

I am angry as I finish a novel about the oppression of Muslim women. Then I catch a cab driven by a handsome young Muslim immigrant, new on the job. He gets lost and stops the meter four times to consult his map before we reach my destination. His charming apologies cover his vulnerability – and his shame? – and allay my fearful projections a bit. In broken English, he voices his relief when we reach our destination – “Thanks God. He will provide.” I tip him generously.

Medical personnel in a field hospital in Iraq write me describing how US soldiers on duty in the middle of the night donated blood on the spot for an Iraqi enemy combatant. The man was “bleeding out” and needed a type of blood no longer in the blood bank’s stocks. He had been shot by Iraqi police while trying to launch a grenade at US soldiers.

My own pacifist and nonviolent preferences (which, by the way, I can become pretty “violent” about promoting), and opposition to this war in particular, bump into my husband’s and son’s belief that this is a “good” war and soldiering is an honorable warrior calling. My personal desire for a safe, comfortable life with loved ones nearby is jeopardized by the determination of those loved ones to be warriors and healers in the most distant and dangerous places, serving their country without questioning the wisdom of its leadership and its policies. And still our love is deeper than the divide it bridges.

My quiet resentment stirs when I see luxury, oversized SUVs and trucks; polluting snowmobiles and four wheelers burning the oil that Mr. Bush insists was NOT the reason we invaded Iraq. Still, I ride with friends in their SUVs, drive miles on errands and complain about gas prices like everyone else.

I reach a slow boil when I think about how little this war affects the lifestyle and decisions of most Americans – and how people complain when our lifestyle is simply inconvenienced but not dangerously threatened. And I resent how the war has impacted my life. Because the military is calling up reservists, pockets of our civilian population are now experiencing what professional soldiers and their families in our all-volunteer armed forces cope with day in and day out. For most people though, the face of war becomes more human for only as long as we are forced to take in a news image, much as the face of cancer becomes human for only as long as we or our loved ones are affected.

Given the popularity of sporting events and the outrageous salaries of professional athletes, I can only conclude that this testosterone driven aggression is valued and admired by a wide cross section of our population. Is our ambivalence toward the soldier combatant contradiction or paradox? Some find Pat Tillman’s sacrifice of his football career and his life in service of his country an act of integrity and courage. Others shake their heads in confused disbelief at his foolishness. The line between toxic and non-toxic aggression is not clear-cut.

My heart sinks when my mention of compassion for US soldiers and their families is met with a quick change of subject or a determined, and often escalating, attack on our country’s actions and the implied attack on anyone who would support those actions. It sinks even deeper when such a reaction comes from people who profess to value love, peace and compassion above all else. My body feels their unconscious distaste and fiery aggression alternately cooling or heating their response — despite their intellectual loyalty to the noble principles they hold dear. I become silent, immobilized by the pain of the rejection and the effort to contain my own aggressive emotional reaction to their response.

I wish I could find a “feel good” spin on this; that there was some enlightening or inspiring resolution I could wrap up with. But I can only find hard questions; hard personal challenges; and a very hard, hard call to feel love and compassion for victim and terrorist alike; civilian and soldier alike; American and Iraqi alike; man and woman alike; conservative and liberal alike – all those shadows of mine manifested in the outer world.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh has devoted his life to peace work with orphans of the Viet Nam War and with Viet Nam veterans. He teaches a simple little chant that grows out of his longer poem, “Please Call Me By My True Names.” It goes:

Please call me by my true names
Please call me by my true names
So I can wake up, wake up
And the door of my heart will be open
The door of compassion
The door of compassion

I ask you. Please. Please call me and the warriors beloved to me by our true names – names that describe all the opposites we try to hold within the arms of both/and – so that we may wake each day with hearts open to compassion.

And I, in turn, pledge to call YOU by your true names so that we can wake each other with hearts of compassion.

And meanwhile, let us all rejoice in the great compassionate dance of sun and earth that will bring us spring. Thankfully, this dance is given to all of us despite our folly, regardless of whether we remember our true names or not and regardless of just what my or your particular true names happen to be.

Caroline, a poet/writer, artist and psychotherapist, lives in Adams, NY.