Defacing the Enemy
A Special Service on August 4, 2013, the 68th Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima
Led by Hilary Mullins, teacher, writer, and occasional UU preacher
Excerpts from “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, a short story from his well-known collection, The Things They Carried. As some of you may know, these are war stories from Vietnam, and they do get graphic. But we’re not going to get graphic this morning. It is not necessary to traumatize ourselves here in this space.
I am only going to read the story Tim O’Brien conceives of the life the man he killed might have led—that’s it.
He lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young man. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chest was sunken and poorly muscled—a scholar maybe. His wrists were the wrists of a child. He wore a black shirt, black pajama pants, a gray ammunition belt, a gold ring on the third finger of his right hand. His rubber sandals had been blown off. One lay beside him, the other a few meters up the trail.
"He had been born, maybe, in 1946 in the village of My Khe near the central coastline of Quang Ngai Province, where his parents farmed, and where his family had lived for several centuries, and where, during the time of the French, his father and two uncles and many neighbors had joined in the struggle for independence. He was not a Communist. He was a citizen and a soldier.
"In the village of My Khe, as in all of Quang Ngai, patriotic resistance had the force of tradition, which was partly the force of legend, and from his earliest boyhood the man I killed would have listened to stories about the heroic Trung sisters and Tran Hung Dao’s famous rout of the Mongols and Le Loi’s final victory against the Chinese at Tot Dong. He would have been taught that to defend the land was a man’s highest duty and highest privilege. He had accepted this. It was never open to question.
"Secretly, though, it also frightened him. He was not a fighter. His health was poor, his body small and frail. He liked books. He wanted someday to be a teacher of mathematics. At night, lying on his mat, he could not picture himself doing the brave things his father had done, or his uncles, or the heroes of the stories. He hoped in his heart that he would never be tested. He hoped the Americans would go away. Soon, he hoped. He kept hoping and hoping, always, even when he was asleep.
"…. And for years, despite his family’s poverty, the man I killed would have been determined to continue his education in mathematics. The means for this were arranged, perhaps, through the village liberation cadres, and in 1964 the young man began attending classes at the university in Saigon, where he avoided politics and paid attention to the problems of calculus. He devoted himself to his studies. He spent his nights alone, wrote romantic poems in his journal, took pleasure in the grace and beauty of differential equations. The war, he knew, would finally take him, but for the time being he would not let himself think about it. He had stopped praying; instead, now, he waited.
"And as he waited, in his final year at the university, he fell in love with a classmate, a girl of seventeen, who one day told him that his wrists were like the wrists of a child, so small and delicate, and who admired his narrow waist and the cowlick that rose up like a bird’s tail at the back of his head. She liked his quiet manner; she laughed at his freckles and bony legs. One evening, perhaps, they exchanged gold rings.
"Clean fingernails, clean hair—he had been a soldier for only a single day. After his years at the university, the man I killed returned with his new wife to the village of My Khe, where he enlisted as a common rifleman with the 48th Vietcong Battalion. He knew he would die quickly. He knew he would see a flash of light. He knew he would fall dead and wake up in the stories of his village and people."
The best sermon I ever heard was also one of the shortest. It was August 6, 2004 and I was at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH for their annual poetry conference. This week-long event consisted of the usual sorts of things: workshops, readings and lectures. But there was an added component: the director, Don Sheehan, who started off every morning with comments that kept us all remembering the deepest reasons why we were there and what we could do to make the most of it, not only for ourselves but for others there too. He’d say things like,
“The key that unlocks all truth [is] taking very great and very deliberate care with each other.”
He was a wonderful man!
He was also, incidentally, a man who had converted in his 30s from Catholicism to the Russian Orthodox church, and at The Frost Place and in his teaching too at Dartmouth, he made a regular practice of pointing to concepts and rituals in this tradition that he thought had helpful relevance to others who were not part of it.
That was why on this particular morning I have mentioned, he began his customary daily comments by explaining how that day, August 6th, was one of the high holy days in the Orthodox calendar: the Feast of the Transfiguration. The story of the transfiguration, he told us, starts with Jesus rounding up three of his disciples and taking them to climb a high mountain. They climb and climb and climb, and then suddenly, all this light breaks out, and Jesus is transfigured by that light: his clothes are dazzling white and his face is shining like the sun.
The thing that Don stressed about this was that Jesus’ transfiguration is also a transfiguration of the world: in that moment of great light, the holy is here. Not somewhere else, but here, now. And everything is transfigured—even us.
Then Don turned to that moment’s direct opposite, bringing our attention to another event marked by August 6th: the bombing of Hiroshima: “This,” he said, “we can refer to as a disfiguration of the world.”
And in his own quiet considered way, he next urged us to choose transfiguration in our own lives, yielding not to the ongoing temptations to slight or demean others but instead to make the kinds of gestures that would embody the practice of love—that is, to treat one another with very great and very deliberate care.
War of course, being the practice of large-scale, organized violence, is the antithesis of very great, and very deliberate care. Hence its disfiguring effects, not only on those killed—like the man in Tim O’Brien’s story-- but in those who do the killing.
O’Brien notes this in another story called, “The Ghost Soldiers,”
Something had gone wrong. I’d come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, all the credentials, but after seven months in the bush I realized that those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside. Even a little cruel at times. For all my education, all my fine liberal values, I now felt a deep coldness inside me, something dark and beyond reason. It’s a hard thing to admit, even to myself, but I was capable of evil.
A famous and ancient story that makes this two-way disfigurement of war plain is one some of us read back in school but may not remember very well—The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the War on Troy. I actually didn’t read this book in school, but only caught up to it finally last year, and I’ll just remind you now of some of the relevant particulars.
It’s the last year in the decade-long siege of Troy. On the one side we have the Trojans and on the other we have the Greeks.
The cause of the war is a seemingly idiotic one: Ten years ago, Paris, one of the many sons of Priam, the king of Troy, stole away Helen, the legendarily beautiful Helen—the face that launched a thousand ships. Well, those thousand ships as you may know were Greek ships. Helen was the wife of Menelaus, one of the Greeks. It of course makes sense Menelaus would be outraged by Paris spiriting away his wife—that’s not the idiotic part. What doesn’t make sense to us today tho—and what Homer perhaps questions too in places—is the lengths the Greeks go to right this wrong, dying themselves by the hundreds to wreak their revenge on the Trojans—all of them: men, women, and children.
It’s important to remember however as we think about this that our standards of judgment are not the ancient Greeks’: in their culture, there was a logic in it: a man’s honor was tantamount to his immortal soul, and so an offense of this sort was a highly serious matter.
Serious enough so that when the Iliad opens, the Greeks have been besieging the city of Troy for years and many many on both sides have already died. In fact, even before the Greeks managed to get out of their own harbor, there was a hideous slaying—Agamemnon, led by the gods, ordered the sacrifice of his daughter [If-ah-`ja-ni-ah] Iphigenia, so that the wind would finally rise and carry the Greek warriors in their ships to Troy. That ritual slaughter as you probably also know has its own numerous horrifying ramifications later —which is another way of saying that war has an echo effect, a way of going on and on and on, its disfiguring effects drilling down into people’s lives generation after generation.
But let us return to the scene of the war itself, to Troy and to the two greatest warriors of the story: the Greek Achilles and the Trojan Hector.
Of the two men, Achilles has a distinct advantage: son of a goddess and a man, he is a demigod: mortal but still endowed with capacities beyond other men, a warrior whose feats are already legendary. However, for most of the Iliad, he is a non-warrior, sitting the war out because he’s been gravely insulted by his commander Agamemnon.
Then there’s Hector, the oldest son of Priam, the king of Troy. For many contemporary readers, Hector is actually the most likeable character in the whole Iliad. He’s a formidable warrior, the best of all the Trojans, but his heart is not truly in it: he’d really rather not be fighting at all. But he feels he must to protect his people and his land.
There’s a famous scene, unlike any other in the Iliad really, where we witness an intimate moment back in Troy between Hector and his wife (an-`draw-maw-key) Andromache. Their baby son (ah-`sti-ah-nax) Astyanax is there too, being suckled by a nurse at his mother’s side. Andromache, weeping, reminds her husband of how she has no other family but him left to her in the world—her mother was killed by a goddess and her father and all seven of her brothers were slain by Achilles.
“So pity me,” she begs him, “don’t orphan your child and make me a widow.”
Homer goes on:
Great Hector of the shining helmet answered her:
“Wife, all this concerns me too. But I’d be disgraced,
dreadfully shamed among Trojan men
and Trojan women in their trailing gowns,
if I should, like a coward, slink away from war.
My heart will never prompt me to do that,
For I have learned always to be brave,
To fight alongside Trojans at the front,
Striving to win fame for father and for myself.
My heart and mind know well the day is coming
When sacred [Troy] will be destroyed,
Along with Priam of the fine ash spear
And Priam’s people. But what pains me most
About these future sorrows is not so much
The Trojans, [my mother] Hecuba, or [my father] king Priam,
Or even my many noble brothers,
Who’ll fall down in the dust, slaughtered
By their enemies. My pain focuses on you,
When one of those bronze-clad Achaeans
Leads you off in tears, ends your days of freedom.
If then you come to Argos as a slave,
Working the loom for some other woman,
Fetching water from Hypereia or Messeis,
Against your will, forced by power Fate,
Then someone seeing you as you weep
May well say,
‘That woman is Hector’s wife.
He was the finest warrior in battle
Of all horse-taming Trojans in that war
When they fought for Troy.’
Someone will say that,
And it will bring more grief to you,
To be without a man like that to save you
From days of servitude. May I lie dead,
Hidden deep under a burial mound,
Before I hear about your screaming,
As you are dragged away.”
With these words,
Glorious Hector stretched his hands out for his son.
The boy immediately shrank back against the breast
Of the finely girdled nurse, crying out in terror
To see his own dear father, scared at the sight of bronze,
The horse-hair plume nodding fearfully from the helmet top.
The child’s loving father laughed, his noble mother too.
Glorious Hector pulled the glittering helmet off
And set it on the ground. Then he kissed his dear son
And held him in his arms.
This scene makes what happens later even more horrifying. The Trojan warriors come very near to driving the Greeks into the sea but in the ensuing and successful counterattack that the Greeks mount, Achilles’ best and dearly beloved friend, the Greek warrior Patroclus, goes into battle wearing Achilles’ armor. At first he kills many and is the primary force that turns the near-rout around. But then he disregards advice Achilles has given him and is killed by Hector.
This is where the true crisis of the book begins. When Achilles is finally told about the death of his friend, he goes crazy, descending into a beserk state. Returning to the battle with new armor, he becomes a killing machine, cutting down Trojans like a farmer with a scythe mows long grass in a field, leaving mounds of dead behind him, so many in fact their bodies are choking the nearby river and the river itself tries unsuccessfully to fight back.
But nothing can stop Achilles. He is beyond touching, fighting on till he can kill the man he most wants to kill, the man who killed his friend: Hector. In a wrenching passage, he succeeds.
And still he does not stop. He puts a cord through his dead enemy’s heels and ties him to the back of his chariot, and for days, repeatedly drives Hector’s body round and round and round some more about the city of Troy, where high on the walls, the people who love Hector can do nothing but stand and watch his disfiguration.
All this might seen extreme to the degree of exaggeration. But as it turns out, Homer is not garnishing, not about Achilles’ state of mind anyway—he’s describing a real battle phenomenon—the beserker warrior.
As Jonathan Shay has pointed out in his seminal book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, the beserk state is not something that only came over ancient soldiers—it happened in Vietnam, and it is still happening today, a condition that is like what Tim O’Brien described, but far worse.
To illustrate something of what the beserker looks like, Shay gives us a list of the characteristics of the beserk state, a list that includes not only the coldness and cruelness OBrien talks about but more: the soldier in a beserk state acts in ways that his comrades, hardened tho they may be too, recognize as crazy. That is, the beserker has lost all sense: he is so enraged that he lacks fear, is insensible to pain, inattentive to his own safety and indiscriminate about whom he kills, all his actions now marked by a cruelty that has no restraint. Strangely enough there is a striking paradoxical quality to this state too: on the one hand the soldier behaves and feels beastlike but on the other he feels exalted, invulnerable and godlike.
So as it turns out, Homer didn’t just make all this stuff up: Achilles reacts in just the way many soldiers over the course of human history have. Vietnam vets, Shay tells us, put it this way: Achilles, has ‘lost it’:
“But what did he lose?” Shay asks. “What did Achilles lose?”
Here is his answer: “I believe that the veterans and Homer shared similar views on this subject. In the veterans’ own words, they lost their humanity. Beast-god and god-beast replaced human identity.”
Another way to put this of course is that internally Achilles has been disfigured—and this, it seems, must be the reason why he treats Hector’s corpse the way he does: he is trying to disfigure Hector too, in this way groping towards creating a concrete external manifestation of the inner state overwhelming and destroying him.
But this is one point where Homer does exercise his mythic license, for here the gods intervene. First, they protect Hector’s corpse—keeping his flesh, as Homer puts it, from spoiling, Apollo also covering the dead man with his golden aegis “so that Achilles could not damage the skin as he dragged the corpse along.”
Then Achilles’ goddess mother is sent to tell him to ‘shape up’ as it were and to give Hector’s body back. She says he also must begin eating and sleeping again, and taking comfort in women as well. Achilles agrees to what Thetis asks, but the real turning point for him comes soon after this, before he has done anything more with Hector’s body: Hector’s father Priam, guided by the gods, comes uninvited and unannounced to the Greeks’ camp:
The old king went straight to the hut frequented by Zeus-beloved Achilles. He found him there, with only the warrior Automedon and warlike Alcimus of all his friends. They were busy attending to his meal….Great Priam slipped in unobserved, and reaching Achilles, clasped his knees, and kissed his hands, the fearful, man-killing hands that had slaughtered so many of his sons. Achilles was astounded at the sight of godlike Priam, as were his friends. They stared at each other, astounded, as men do in the hall of a wealthy nobleman, when a stranger, who has murdered a man in a moment of frenzy in his own country, seeking refuge abroad, bursts in on them.
Priam entreats for his son’s body by asking Achilles to think of his own father Peleus:
…at least [Peleus] he can rejoice in the knowledge that you live, and each day brings the hope of seeing you return from Troy. While I, I am a victim of sad fate…my prime recourse, Hector, you have killed, as he fought for his country. I come now to the ships to beg his corpse from you, bringing a princely ransom. Respect the gods, Achilles, and show mercy towards me, remembering your own father, for I am to be more pitied than he, since I have brought myself to do what no other man on earth would do, I have lifted to my lips the hand of the man who has killed my sons.
At long last, Achilles’ heart stirs and awakes in his chest, breaking, for he knows his own father will never see him again. Here’s how Homer describes the scene:
[Priam’s] words had moved Achilles to tears at the thought of his own father, and taking the old man’s hands he set him gently from him, while both were lost in memory. Priam remembered man-killing Hector, and wept aloud, at Achilles’ feet, while Achilles wept for his father Peleus and Patroclus once more, and the sound of their lament filled the hut.
It is a poignant scene. But it does not stop the war. The war goes on. Achilles dies, Priam dies, the people of Troy die, the people of Hiroshima die, the people of Vietnam die, the men, women, and children in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria today, they die too: as do the American soldiers who are there. The war goes on. But in this particular tale, for this one short space of time--before his death in battle--the disfigurement of one warrior is healed.
But what today can we do about all this? Can we stop the wars? Maybe for a space of time in one particular place we can, maybe. And maybe we can do something to heal the soldiers too. But in our day-to-day lives, being incredibly lucky as we are to live here, this business of war for most of us is relatively removed.
Except it still has a lesson: for as my friend Don Sheehan at The Frost Place knew, what war represents for those of us lucky enough not to be in one is that great choice between transfiguration and disfiguration. For war is just the extreme, super-sized end of the continuum of violence. At the other pole of the continuum lies the smaller stuff, the subtle stuff, the stuff we are engaged in every day.
Don for instance, was masterful at pointing to the dangers we poets were likely to fall prey to at The Frost Place: the great need we would feel to be praised, the envy we would feel about the fine work of others. “You will need to recognize and acknowledge all of this,” he would say, repeating himself, “in order to reach the key that unlocks all truth: taking very great and very deliberate care with each other.”
For what Don Sheehan was pointing to in his brief sermon that morning to a group of poets—not soldiers--was that transfiguration is the work we all do for the benefit not only of others but for ourselves. Because when we slight, demean or dismiss others, it is ourselves we are disfiguring. But if instead we commit ourselves fully to the daily, infinitely exacting work of taking great and deliberate care, our hearts can be opened and we can be transfigured, the light shining through us. And then, in this space of time and in this particular place, creation is healed and the world is made whole.
Who knows how far it might go?
Amen and may it be.