Monday, May 31, 2010

Singing the Warriors Back

Last week I got the usual slew of chain emails with all the pithy reminders to honor our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. I also saw many Facebook status updates with the admonitions that our liberties have all been gained with blood. On Saturday morning, I had the honor of attending a three-hour benefit for Insight LA, an organization that promotes and teaches mindfulness classes. I sat with one very good friend and six hundred other people inside of a beautiful church and listened to Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist who trained as a Buddhist monk and is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He regaled us with hysterically funny stories, led us through some profound sitting meditations and kept us all rapt for the entire three hours. But it was his story of an ancient Irish warrior that struck me, especially as it pertained to Memorial Day. The warrior returned from successful battle still filled with warrior rage, with the wild and burning success of rampage, so heightened that his fellow villagers knew that he couldn't stop, couldn't begin to be normal, again, without help. First, all the women of the village lined up in one great long line and bared their breasts. That slowed him down. Second, they caught the warrior and dunked him into several vats of freezing cold water. Third, they tied him up and sang him back to the present.

Jack then closed this story (which got some rippling laughs) by asking Who will sing to the warriors of Iraq and Afghanistan? Who will sing the hundreds of thousands of them back?

And now, either I'm lazy or I'm on a roll with re-posting. This is from the same day, last year, and remains true on this day, this year, for me.

MONDAY, MAY 25, 2009

Memorial Day

I always feel conflicted on these holidays -- the national ones where we're supposed to feel patriotic, full of honor, all those things. I have made no sacrifice for my country and have, actually, often despaired of my country. I struggle to feel the "right" way about soldiers and those who have died "for our country."

I do remember this poem, though, by Wilfred Owen. I remember reading it in high school from my white Norton Anthology. I remember feeling horrified. I remember wondering what sort of man Wilfred Owen might have been had he not died in a World War I battle when he was only 25.

Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.


  1. i love this...
    "sang him back to the present".
    i love the honor of that.

  2. I'm so with you on the patriotic thing. I believe patriotism and belief in the glory of war is a remnant in our brains of the times when people banded together in small groups and had, as such, to protect themselves and their young against other small groups.
    I wish we could face the truth that war is not glorious in any way, that it is never an answer to any thing and that sending our young off to war is a sin against our humanity.
    I will carry the story of the women and the warrior with me and I thank you for telling it.

  3. Sometimes war is necessary, as it was after Hitler invaded Poland. I have no problem honoring the fighters, even of unnecessary wars, so long as we don't glorify war itself. But that seems to be something we can't seem to do. Maybe the Irish villagers had it right.

    Thanks again for an enlightening post.

  4. For some reason this makes me think of "where have all the flowers gone...?" Where indeed.

  5. I read something recently of how war has become sanitized. The thing I read talked about WWI and how it was wrote of in a raw & guttural fashion at the time. Now we hear nothing of the horror, we can't even see the flag-draped coffins.

    I don't think the people of any land are inclined toward war, but the politicians are and they use falsehoods to bring the mass of people along. War has always been an effective political tool. Jingoism works, so it's used.

    I am sorry for the casualties of all war and I am particularly sorry for those dying due to our invasions of Iraq & Afghanistan. The horrors witnessed by all of the people involved will need much singing indeed to bring the back.

  6. Owen's poem is raw and full of the reality of war. I love the beautiful notion of singing them back to the present.

  7. I've read some of Jack Kornfield's books and I'm jealous you got to attend a mindfulness class led by him.

    As for the soldiers, war changes people and not for the better I don't think. I saw first hand what it did to my dad, it killed the part of him that could be kind and tender. That's what war does. As for the singing them back, if only we could.

  8. I agree with what's been said.
    I don't thing we should glorify war.

    The poem is heart wrenching.

  9. Such raw emotion, both in the poem and in the singing-back concept. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. Singing them back - I love that. You are so fortunate to have sat with Jack Kornfield. I have read his books for years. He seems very wise.

  11. so jealous you saw jack kornfield! thats amazing. I wish we had more opportunities around here to hear great speakers. Apparently where i live in NJ is in the middle of an evangelical pocket... very homogenous. not that theres anything wrong with that, just not me. gotta keep my feelings/thoughts/opinions to myself and all. hard to be myself around friends that strictly adhear to The Word of God and only that... so im always so envious of those who can be free to discuss and participate in all types of lectures and conversations about all types of "spirituality."

  12. I love that peom-it's one of my faves ever. Thanks for posting.

  13. You are so blessed to have heard Jack Kornfeld in PERSON! How wonderful.

    That poem is hair-raising in its clarity. It resonates with horror, and I'm sure, with truth.



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