Yesterday, November 7th, my friends and I saw the U.S. release of Louie Palu and co-director Devin Gallagher's documentary at the National Gallery of Art.
At least 200 people, spent over an hour of their rainy Saturday afternoon traveling through Kandahar with Louie as he framed his experience of five years covering the war in Afghanistan.
The audience went on "road sweeps" with Louie looking for landmines, survived contact (attacks), hung out with villagers and had an uncomfortably good view of the medical teams who struggled to encase stumps where legs had once been.
Of course, we could not feel the heat of the Afghan sun or smell the burning flesh that Louie says was seared in his mind. We could not feel the boredom of war or fear for our own lives. We could only look with awe at what he and others experience.
He danced the difficult line of documenting his experience without portraying the U.S., Canadian and Afghan forces as solely saviors or victims. He showed the complexities of their role and stronghold of the Taliban.
Looking at soldiers collapsed on the ground with heat and fear exhaustion, I thought, "We ask so much of our young men."
We not only ask for their time when they serve in the military.
We ask for their whole bodies.
Beyond their bodies we also ask for their souls.
We ask them to suffer enormous emotional traumas, witness horrific acts, and then be the best versions of ourselves.
One soldier put so poignantly that he never knew how to prepare for the day because either he could be engaged in combat or sitting with 12 hours talking to villagers. I cannot imaging preparing for those extremes.
We ask so much.
War asks so much.
Identity of the Taliban
The interviewed soldier also highlighted another aspect of the Taliban that I had never considered. He said that all kinds of people claim they are part of the "Taliban" in order to incite the fear and benefit from compliance that that word often demands.
He said many of these folks may be individual gun runners or be carrying out other tasks not necessarily related to the overall mission of the Taliban. With no jobs, said the soldier, he could almost understand why people go to extreme measures to feed their families.
From an identity standpoint, his commentary on the Taliban is powerful and salient. The U.S. media, politicians, and public contribute to the construction of "The Taliban." We help make them the terrifying enemy they want to be. Then other groups can appropriate the name and simply borrow the attributes.
Group affiliation is not always very solid and group identity isn't always clear or acquired for the same reasons.
We know this from religion. People have varying degrees of commitment to their religious group.
Words have power.
Louie's work is to show us the war. In Conflict Resolution, our job is to say what the images mean. By making meaning, we frame, orient and respond.
Saying one is part of the "Taliban" does social work -- work that an individual does not have to do oneself. The same with gang membership.
A takeaway here is that just because someone says they are a part of something does not mean their commitment to the group or its ethos has the same gravitas as the most extreme member.
Some who affiliate with these extremist groups may affiliate themselves for financial reasons rather than ideological ones. It's not necessary to assume that the identity is fixed. They might shift their story in a day or week were conditions to change.
When I hear that folks ascribe the Taliban identity for various purposes, I am reminded that we can work with the many folks on the edges. There are many, I suspect, not deeply committed to destruction. We can provide people with alternatives but only if we stop storying all of them all as enemies with a fixed identity.
Identity is mutable.
Since it's almost apple season, I thought today's "Language of Conflict" blog could work with the metaphor, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree....
If you're an American who has traveled abroad, ventured beyond the confines of your resort and built enough rapport with locals to talk politics you likely have heard some less than flattering things about the United States.
If you listened non-defensively you probably heard about how America has its fingers all over the planet and involves itself in everything.
If you talked to anyone in Pakistan, you may have heard about the on-going drone strikes that terrify people going to visit their grandmothers.
We don't want to hate Americans...
"We don't know when something is going to fall out of the sky," they explain.
"We don't want to hate America, it's just that we live in fear because of these attacks. It's hard not to be angry."
Yikes, I can only imagine walking outside afraid some robot is going to fall out of the sky and kill me or my grandmother.
I don't know all the details of our foreign policy -- no citizen does. Most of us have no idea what our country does abroad and often have to learn about it from the people at the end of the policies.
It rarely feels very good. I once got an earful from an Iraqi man. I was flying on Gulf Air from Bahrain to the UAE. The plane was practically empty, but somehow they sat be by the window with a very angry man in the aisle seat.
Not a pleasant flight, but an educational one.
Now, I'm not purporting an isolationist stance. I wish the United States had intervened in the Holocaust, in Rwanda, and Indonesia among others. I do believe there are mega thugs and mega bullies that America stops everyday. That said, perhaps we could be handling this a bit better.
If the Secretary of State is unsure....
While in office, both Secretary of State Kissinger and Secretary Albright said they believed that it was America's job to fight these bullies. Once out of office, however, both expressed the opposite or at least far more uncertainty.
Isn't that interesting?
I realized the disconnect with Albright after my father asked her this question at a talk she gave once out of office and then subsequently reading her autobiography. They said the opposite.
I did some research on Kissinger and found the same pattern.
Perhaps when you're in State Department, you see the world through the lens of "it's our job." Once on the outside with some time to reflect, things become blurry.
And as Newton told us, there's just something about that darn momentum, once it starts it likes to stay in motion. Intervention breeds intervention. And that momentum might be having an impact on our children.
Skimming the news, I feel like I've been flipping between articles about foreign policy and then ones about violent police and school bullying.
Eventually my mind just considered that maybe these topics are more connected than our news sources might suggest. Is the bullying in the police force and in our children trickling down from the government?
Examining our country is nationalism
Before I continue with this critique, I want to frame it a touch. In America, and in many other far more repressive countries, critiquing the government can be considered anti-nationalist.
This is ridiculous; you can love something and constantly check if you're doing a good job. Successful companies do this everyday; they don't say, "if you criticize the company, you're not one of us." Well, at least smart CEOs don't...they look deeper into the commentary. One of the most successful CEOs of all time would consistently ask himself, "What I am not seeing?"
Well, I think there's something we may not be seeing.
When I turn this lens on America, I do it with the intention of a great CEO -- to make this country better. That requires looking in the mirror and saying, "Is there something going on here?"
Who decides if war is just?
I am asking that we consider if our kids and police showing up as bullies reflects an aggressiveness and an unspoken violence that pervades our culture. Are we justifying violence at the top and then saying to those below "Do what I say not what I do?"
The problem of distinguishing legitimized violence from illegitimate violence is a very old debate. Even old than Italian Friar Thomas Aquinas born in 1225.
Aquinas wrote about "just war" at a time when people were trying to figure out whether one could have legitimized violence. I like Aquinas but his instructions are just far too open to interpretation. He announces three requirements for just war
1. prompted by a state (not an individual or business)
2. those attacked deserve it
3. those attacking should have a rightful intention.
The theory begs the question...the problem remains; regarding two and three, who decides?
Who decides that victim state deserves it?
Who decides that one has the rightful intention?
These police constantly justify their brutality; I bet school bullies can do the same. Finding a reason to hate takes only a moment.
Aquinas put us back where we started.
Opposing forces often believe they have God on their side or or at least on the side of the good. If the leader's don't they at least convince their people of this. The Indonesians were convinced communists caused all problems; Europe blamed the Jews; Hutu blamed the Tutsi.
If everyone believes he is on the side of the good, who becomes the ultimate arbitrator. America?
Does the United States decide who is a bully and who is Luke Skywalker?
In the end, history often decides, and re-decides, not those engaging in war. In the meantime, we can get a sense of how we are doing by looking around at our own culture.
Apples Still Fall Close to Trees
Technology has transformed much of our daily lives, but some things remain the same. Apples still fall rather closely to trees.
If we have aggressive kids bullying one another in school and police brutally attacking folks, we may want to look up the trunk.