(I’ve taken a little poetic license with this story, as did Peter, Paul and Mary with their version of the original Irish song.)
Oh my dear Johnny, my dear son,
Of course your mind was made up by the time you told us this news. You’re signing the National Guard enlistment papers when you and your family go back home after Christmas (oh, how can I possibly stand listening to this?). And then you’ll be off to boot camp, then officer training school, if the recruiter you so foolishly trust is right in his bogus promises and assurances. All those military words that I can scarcely type, much less utter…they are that foreign to me, belonging to a language I never intended to learn, don’t want to learn now…
Of course you wouldn’t have wanted to hear the questions we asked ahead of time, the myths we tried to bust; nor would you want to hear our agonizingly expressed concerns for your very soul, my dear Johnny. Were you even able to let any of our considerations and warnings in? Was your wife, she who sold her flax and sold her wheel for you? She who believed that the Guard stays in the US? Can you really be that unaware of National Guard units having served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many other illusions are you laboring under? Too many, too many, from what you report as gospel according to Corporal Recruiter.
When I asked you plaintively which person targeted by our ‘wars’ you might consider enemy enough to kill…you said nothing, even when I pressed it. When we spoke to you of wars of choice for Profit and Empire, you stayed silent; when we called the recruiter a liar for telling you that with your college degree, and once you were an officer, that you would be able to turn down assignments, did you hear that? Or had our voices taken on the wohn, wonh qualities of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon? When we spoke to you of the alarming increase in suicides among troops and veterans, and of rampant PTSD and moral trauma…did you deflect it somehow as inconsequential…or unlikely?
Oh, Johnny, my dear son. Your wife said that unless we supported your decision, you could not stay safe, a poisonous form of magical thinking. When I told her that my decades, really my lifetime of peace activism would not allow that, could not allow that sort of ‘support’, she was angry and left the room. I try to imagine being her, or being you, and attempt to see what you see in your futures. I cannot; arrows pierce my heart and my stomach roils as I try. No. No. No! And say again that you don’t require our approval, please!
The day you were born, and your dear fingers closed around my index finger, and I gazed into your trusting eyes…I silently swore to you that I would do everything in my power to keep you safe from harm. A vain and useless pledge all parents must make before they recall how cruel the world can be, and that all we can do is teach you well, love you well, help to guide you to make good choices for yourself and the world, and to be responsible for them.
How could I ever have imagined that one day I would be trying to keep you from being harmed by… yourself? Oh, god; the days we’ve spent pinging over so many images of our family history together…trying to make any sense of this choice of yours. Please understand: not the oft-insulting ‘where did we go wrong’ questions, many of which screw-ups we’ve apologized for in the past, but more…given all the issues we believed we’d processed well when you and your sister were teens, how much did we miss that went begging? Had you beaten the snot out of some of your bully-tormentors, for instance, would you still have joined the service? Did our peace activist voices drown out the military DNA of generations of your forebears, perhaps, and cause resentment in you?
We wonder now about the influences to your life for the last ten years since you’ve lived with us; friends, college, your churches… You said that you love your country, and want to defend it. It was our turn to be silent. Yes, later I asked: how can we defend our nation from itself, which is of course the more worthy question. The short answer being: by adhering to your carefully conceived principles, making loving community with all those you can, and calling out your nation for bullshit and evil when you see it. If you haven’t seen it by now, it will be that much harder to see from the inside, given the nature of the military, and those images of you in that milieux are simply tormenting to me, dear Johnny. With your sensitive soul, how can it not be?
The Chinese speak of sorrows so deep that tears won’t come; and yes, for the first few days my anguish was so profound that your news brought another dark night of the soul for me, a night as sere as the most barren desert. My Johnny, gone for a soldier? No, no…it just can’t be so. My eyes tried to peer through smoke and mist and dust and cinders, my body etheric and insubstantial one moment, crushed by its own leaden heart the next, needing to be ordered from some other place in order to perform my daily chores. Now and again my own hands are even unfamiliar to me; I touch my lips and cheeks and they don’t feel like me, but somebody that I used to know. Dislocated. Dissociated, I guess. Most music even sounds…wrong, and not helpful or comforting, but more like the noisome tinkling of tin cans in a dark alley.
But oh; a few days ago, those giant tears that could turn a mill began to fill me, and when I finally noticed that my clogs were splashing tears all over the house as I walked, I knew enough to rejoice they were there; and then they fell…in cascades, in deluges, and even cleared some of the soot from mine eyes. There is no way through hard times except to feel the feelings fully as a first step. Grief, shame, loss, fear, anger, any or all of those feelings must be felt with excruciating clarity.
And yes, goddammit, I’m angry. Angry at your credulousness, at your putting yourself in harm’s way in twelve different directions, at my powerlessness over it, that you’ll never teach history at a small college as you’d wanted, that the military will either harden you or break you, or worse, both.
I’m furious with this war-loving, war-accepting brutal nation of ours, and that in your present world, joining up has been sold as honorable. I’m furious that your father even had to mention his most dreaded scenario, that one day you and he might be on opposite sides in the resistance movement, you ordered to shoot at him and his comrades. You said ‘never’, but…then what? I shudder to imagine.
And of course I’m angry and afraid that this will cause some chasm between us that we will try to call across…but never be able to truly reach each other again, no matter how hard we try.
Again, please know that you will always have our love; that will never change. Time may help blunt the horror, and we may find ways through this in beauty, but truth will be key, I think, in getting there with any grace at all. This mother, your mother, will never, ever be a Blue Star Mom; that I will pledge to you, right or wrong. And I will forever apologize for my many mistakes, but please know that no mother ever tried harder than I to raise good children. For now, I’ll try to keep bathing you in light and love and urge you to be true to your most precious inner guides and self-critiques, as I will myself.
But oh, my dearest Johnny; please understand that I’m terrified that you will become an American Johnny as you begin to trade the fiddle…for the drum.
And so I ask you please
Can I help you find the peace and the star
Oh, my son…
What time is this
To trade the handshake for the fist?