Barry’s Blog # 221: The Hero Must Die, Part One of Four


In the 1950s the birth of the national security state coincided precisely with the peak of cinematic and television westerns, which have been America’s primary image to itself and the world. Westerns had been central to the movies from the beginning. In 1910, they comprised more than 20% of American movies, and the trend continued well into the second half of the century. As late as 1959, westerns comprised a quarter of all prime-time network hours.

Who is the western hero? Besides his willingness to engage in extreme violence, what are his primary characteristics? Surprisingly, many films, novels and comic books cast him as widowed or divorced, as John Wayne is in many of his best-known films: Red River, The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers, but also in non-westerns such as Sands of Iwo Jima.

Other heroes in our literature – dozens of them, as we will see – are loners who reject any enduring erotic relationships.

Seen from the perspective of Depth Psychology, these characters lack a balanced connection with the feminine. They symbolize the man who has not had – or failed – an initiatory confrontation with the feminine depths of his soul. Such a man carries a sense of danger that is undeniably attractive – he is the “demon lover.” Through him, we vicariously live out our own longing for symbolic, initiatory death, which he approaches literally. Yet, considering this description, we must ask: how different is he from the suicidal terrorist / martyr? Robin Morgan writes, “In that he seeks (or risks) exalted annihilation, and threatens (or promises) the same, he magnetizes us as an avatar of power.” Except for the presumption that he is on the side of “good”, perhaps there is little difference.

These western images convey the myth of violent redemption. “Most viewers,” write Robert Jewett and John Lawrence, “…are not aware of being ritually instructed, because myths derive from and appeal to the unconscious rather than the conscious mind.” The issue to understand is violence. In myth violence can be meaningful; it moves toward symbolic death and renewal. But stories in our demythologized world are themselves demythologized, conveying only what Joseph Campbell called the sociological level of myth. In American popular culture this implies innocence. The lone hero never initiates the mayhem, although he reluctantly gives it back many-fold. He may be imperfect, wounded, comic, self-parody or complicated anti-hero, but both he and those he saves remain innocent of any complicity in the problems that he solves; thus his violence is rarely symbolic of deeper meaning.

American English has cheapened the word hero and diluted its potency. Consider that for at least four generations, the media have associated fictional heroes with the actors who portray them. In the culture of celebrity there is very little difference between Sylvester Stallone and Rambo, or between Arnold Schwartzenegger’s political persona and the high-tech vigilantes he portrays (yes, he still portrays them).

What does it mean that these men and others such as Harrison Ford and Chuck Norris continue to portray macho heroes well into their seventies? Have they helped lay the groundwork for national acceptance of an adolescent president?

But at least these men are actors, who have made art of a sort. At least they have done something creative. But we are in a different world now.

Ronald Reagan was a celebrity, an expert at portraying derived values rather than anything heroic or creative that he himself had achieved. Of course, he too had been an actor, but we are talking about his second career as a commercial spokesman that led to his third as a political spokesman.

Celebrities are famous simply for being famous; we often have no idea how they entered our awareness. We admire them for being who they are, not for what they have done for us. Joel Kovel argues that Reagan in particular was so persuasive (other actors had entered politics without attaining his status) precisely because he could barely distinguish his life from his role. As President, he “played Ronald Reagan.” Reagan himself, with rare candor, once admitted, “The camera doesn’t lie. Eventually you are what you are.”

The greatest example of the pathological confusion of actor and image, of course, is John Wayne. john-wayne Where did the man end and his stereotyped patriotic role begin, especially with his public persona as right-wing spokesman? Those images were overwhelmingly present in the psyches of three generations of American men, and even today his films are required viewing for recruits at military academies, where his name is so common as to be a figure of speech, an adjective or a verb. Even liberals are entranced. Jimmy Carter eulogized Wayne: “He was bigger than life…He embodies the enduring American values of individualism, relentless bravery and perseverance in pursuit of what is right.” Robert Bly, on the other hand, used to joke at men’s conferences that the only images of masculinity available to young men coming of age in the 1960’s were Wayne and his reverse-image, the “wimpy” Woody Allen.

The heroic image is now not merely American; it follows the media everywhere. Barbara Ehrenreich writes of “Rambo culture”: in the 1980’s and 1990’s soldiers in Chechnya, Serbia and Liberia affected Rambo-style headbands and sleeveless muscle-shirts. She observes that the old warrior ideal has become a commodity in global consumer culture:

With Rambo…Hollywood offers up a denationalized, generic warrior-hero, a man of few words and limited loyalties, suitable for universal emulation.

Politicians further cheapen the image by assigning it to persons who have done nothing courageous but have been arbitrarily victimized in the normal course of their jobs. As a result, we confuse heroes and victims. When we do hear of individuals, such as the firefighters of 9/11, who actually do sacrifice themselves to save others, we are left with only this de-potentiated, over-used term – hero – to describe them.

Contemporary expressions of actual heroism tend to fall into the patriarchal trap – the erasure of feminine values – regardless of what cause the hero serves. Feminists can cite countless examples of how they frequently initiate progressive political movements, only to be pushed aside once men become involved. Then, writes Morgan,

A fatal shift in tone occurs – a slide from…spiritual integrity (now regarded as sentimental, idealistic, womanly) into self-righteousness.

Predictably, the men become obsessed with a higher abstract good, and soon the tone shifts from “living for a cause” to “dying for a cause.” They take something that was conceived in images of integration and turn it into a heroic duality: with us or against us.

The hero myth underlies the fields of surgery and emergency medicine as well. To the degree that doctors focus on the single goal of prolonging life – to the exclusion of quality of life – there are two myths operating. One is the denial of death. The other, closely related, is the hero myth. In extreme cases, the doctor affects a shift, from an event that centers on the patient to one that centers on him, as the individual savior, intent, like the mythical Achilles, on achieving fame and honor. It becomes less about the patient’s desire to heal and more about the doctor’s heroic quest. By contrast, palliative care, with its goal of alleviating pain and facilitating a good death, expresses other mythic images: Hermes, as guide between the worlds; and Artemis, patroness of childbirth, that other most fundamental of transitions.

The hero disdains the feminine because, in his uninitiated state, he has never fully separated from the orbit of his mother. Unlike classic heroes such as Heracles, who serve the mother goddess (“Heracles” means “Glory of Hera”), the modern hero reacts against his fear of (or longing for) engulfment by constructing a thin veneer of machismo. But his shadow hides just below: the needy, dependent and vulnerable child. For every hero, said James Hillman, there is a child in the background.

So the cult of the hero and the myth of innocence merge to create a culture of victimization: perpetually wounded and/or angry “adult children” who prefer the kinds of political and religious approaches that please children, writes Lyn Cowan. These include “simple solutions, literal thinking, and singularity of viewpoint.” A grand circularity: literal thinking produces people who can only think literally (and vote, if they do at all, for similar people). The child in the psyche, as Hillman argued, does not want deepening into mystery; all it wants is a return to innocence. Thus, whether one identifies as pop hero or as victim is to return to innocence.

Or as loser: when individualism and competition are the highest values, we make the hero – the winner – into our greatest mythic personification. But in this mythology, for every winner there must be many losers. It is a zero-sum world; no one can win unless someone else loses. Altruism and compassion become signs of weakness. Some go on to compete in other arenas – work, hobbies or activism – and find some satisfaction. Or they are told that the mere effort of “trying” has made them winners; it’s the effort that counts. Some get promoted, win money in Las Vegas or find love. But these victories are not initiations, nor do we perceive them as such.

The masculine culture of competition always searches for challenges, because competition itself (the toxic mimic of the quest for knowledge) is addictive. Consider the sad spectacles of the newly retired sports star, suddenly lacking challenges; or the former executive, moping around the house, disturbing his wife’s feminine world, until she pushes him off to the golf course.

Thus, with both the feminine and the child existing in the shadows, heroes live with the constant fear of losing.

And what becomes of those of us who can’t succeed or find regular satisfaction? Our puritan heritage reminds us that it is our own fault. In the society of the meritorious, many feel at the deepest level that we don’t merit approval. We have no one else to blame, unless (in therapeutic mode) we blame our parents, because the myth of individualism prevents us from seeing the systemic causes of poverty and dissatisfaction. We internalize shame, which builds in intensity until it demands release in scapegoating, the vicarious violence of heroic action movies – or support for war (from a safe distance).

In the mythology of redemption through violence, the only way out of victimization is the quest for revenge that turns the victim into its mirror-opposite, a perpetrator. It is action that changes from a paranoid imagination into a predatory imagination (two concepts I write about in Chapter Seven of my book). When the only choice is between fear and rage, there is no room for compassion or self-knowledge.

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Barry’s Blog # 220: Redeeming the World

Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions. ― T.S. Eliot

Hell is paved with good intentions. ― Samuel Johnson

We’re on a mission from God. – The Blues Brothers

My wife and I spent some time in Austria and the Czech Republic last summer. It was a delightful vacation, with great food and art and fabulous scenery. Still, as Jews, we both had the odd sensation (in Austria) of seeing those blond, Aryan faces and hearing German spoken all day. Although we knew very well that it was entirely our own projection – everyone we encountered was quite friendly – still, it felt a bit eerie. We also passed the death camp of Mathausen and visited the concentration camp / “model ghetto” of Terezin.

Months later, it was the scenery and the food that lingered in my mind, that is,  until I picked up a short, sparse, partially autobiographical and thoroughly disturbing novel by the Israeli Aharon Appelfeld titled The Iron Tracks.

The plot is quite simple. A Holocaust survivor named Erwin Siegelbaum has been riding the trains around Austria continually for forty years. ”The trains make me free,” he tells us ironically.

He rides them because he has two goals. The first is to make his living by searching the markets of tiny villages, identifying and buying old books, sacred wine goblets and other antique Judaica, then selling them to collectors who send them to Israel for remembrance of the culture that is no more in Eastern Europe. It’s a living, but it’s also a mitzvah, an attempt to heal the world (Tikkun Olam in Hebrew).

The second is to find and execute Nachtigel, the now aged Nazi death camp commander who had murdered Siegelbaum’s parents, both secular Jews and devoted communists.

All well and good, for a plot. Will he find the man? Will he actually kill him? How will the act affect the life of this wandering Jew? Spoiler: the ending proves to be (deliberately) unsatisfying. But it forces us to confront many conflicting values and presumptions. Don’t we all want to repair the world? Didn’t his parents, who had clearly transferred their spiritual longings into a secular crusade, want to do that? How much do we value revenge, forgiveness – and, as Americans – extreme violence?

For me, the story gets more complicated as Siegelbaum, long after the war, experiences the latent anti-Semitism of people he otherwise has respect, even affection, for. And, riding the trains and eating in rural taverns, he meets several old men who brag about their youthful service in the German army – “service” because that’s exactly how they remember those years. Despite the defeat and all the deaths and post-war suffering, , they unanimously express pride in the fact that they had “served” in the east, and happily, personally participated in murdering Jews, lots of them.

They feel no regret whatsoever, because they had all been and remain absolute believers in their own quest to remake the world for the better. Spiegelman confronts the evil perpetrated by those who deeply believe that they are doing good:

“What made him (Nachtigel) a professional?” I asked.

“His faith that the extermination of the Jews would bring relief to the world,” he answered, short and swift.

“You also believed.”

“Certainly. Without belief, you don’t kill.” His blue eyes looked directly at me. There is no regret in his heart. On the contrary, the years and the suffering have only intensified his faith. I overcame my muteness and raised my voice: ”It is forbidden to kill.”

“That’s true, but we had to kill the Jews.”

I have been writing about “othering” for years; it’s one of my primary themes. You can read several of my blogs on the topic here, here, here, here, and here.

But reading The Iron Tracks, I understood othering at a different level. We don’t choose to “other” other people or groups. Othering chooses us. The need to do so seems to enter us quite early on, as parents and society gradually persuade us to identify as part of the larger tribe – to know ourselves, as the ancient Greeks implied – only as we gain the absolute knowledge that we are not one of them, the others. In this modern world we are established in the first knowledge only because of the second.

One of the objectives of indigenous initiation rites, curiously, is to destroy that sense of identity and replace it with another that is more authentic and much more useful to the community.  For boys, this typically happens at puberty, when the new identity brings the knowledge that one is now an adult male, with all the freedoms and responsibilities this entails.

After this, many indigenous societies offered mystery rites that extended all the way through life,  in which each participating adult encountered the ongoing question of who he/she was at deeper and deeper levels. As I write in Chapter Four of my book:

Initiates periodically undergo new transformations. No single event awards permanent status. Each initiation is a temporary qualification to enter the next period of change, when something new will break open. Although the core of the Self doesn’t change, initiates keep being made, unmade and remade…This is possible, however, only if individuals are rooted in communities which in turn are held in broad, mythic containers

And the lack of those containers has been the source of our greatest problems for hundreds of years, since long before modernity. Suffering a legacy of a demythologized world, we can trace our dilemma at least as far back as the ancient Hebrews, who knew who they were because they were not gentiles, and vice versa.

The loss of initiation rites – the symbolic killing of the children – produced our most fundamental mythic narrative, the literal sacrifice of the children, which has manifested in every war throughout history. Both Abraham and Isaac knew their place in the cosmos because they were willing to play their parts in Yahweh’s sacrifice. I wrote about one of many twentieth century manifestations of this myth here.

Eventually, the willingness to die for a cause so as to prove oneself to the fathers and their god (see Chapter Six) became indistinguishable from the willingness to kill for a cause, so as to make the world a better place. In 1209, Papal legate Arnaud Amalric wrote, “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius” prior to the massacre at Béziers, during the Albigensian Crusade in Southern France. A direct translation from the Latin would be “Kill them. For the Lord knows those that are His own.” Less formal English translations include “Kill them all; let God sort them out.”

This was the thinking of the Inquisition, a Western institution that is utterly unknown among tribal people. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “…those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” Much later, after a long history of witch hunts, an American officer in Viet Nam said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

In the late nineteenth century, ideology – belief in a grand, overreaching cause – shifted from its religious basis to a secular one, and nationalism became the new source of both othering and the willingness to murder, to “serve” something greater than one’s self. Others chose a different thinking that specifically countered nationalism with a belief in international solidarity, but it was still an ideology. And as it solidified, it became a faith in universal progress, but a faith nevertheless.

This brings us back to our story. In the twentieth century, countless Eastern European Jews exchanged their religious identity with either Zionism or communism. And a similar loss of religion among German Christians led to faith in a Fuhrer and his crusade to rid the world of those who make it impure.

It was a faith with scientific trimmings: for twenty years, Germans continually heard that Jews were an infection and the ideology of National Socialism was the antibiotic necessary to heal the great illness, to make Germany pure again (MAGPA in contemporary terms). But on the other side, Spiegelman’s father had led idealistic communists in burning down small factories, self-defeating actions if there ever were.

Neither I nor, I think, Appelfeld are making equivalencies here between communist organizers and Nazi death camp sadists. One group wanted to bring out the best in humanity, though it failed, and the other, as with their contemporary American mimics, arrogantly drew out the worst. But it is terribly important to understand the three thousand year old mythological foundations of this desire to remake the world – often against its will – that begins in monotheism and reaches its nadir not among those competing ideologies but in America.

The “impurity,” of course, is within us all, to the extent that we believe. But to James Hillman it was clear that all inheritors of the Western tradition, especially Americans, are subject to this legacy, regardless of our value systems, which are essentially superficial. Deep down, we are all believers:

Because a monotheistic psychology must be dedicated to unity, its psychopathology is intolerance of difference…we are each…like it or not, children of the Biblical God. It is a fact, the essential American fact…We are all psychologically Christian.

And a world that constantly threatens to undo our sense of who we are without offering us living myths and rituals forces us to cling all the more desperately to our outmoded identities and religions, as both the old Nazis and the old communists reveal to Spiegelman (we don’t learn his last name until quite late in the book), or in a mirror-reversal, to replace them with addiction to “spirits.” I try to make sense of this mystery in another essay here.

How do we redeem the world? By proudly slaughtering the Others? By collecting old books to remember those who were slaughtered? By organizing the workers of the world and overthrowing the bosses? How? To redeem means “to buy back.” How do we buy back? What do we buy back? How do we gather the money or goods to do that? What are we willing to let go of in order to make that transaction? Perhaps by paying attention.

Perhaps we redeem the world by re-membering it, by bringing back all of its rejected parts. Perhaps we begin by welcoming back all the parts of ourselves that we have disowned. And perhaps we begin that by acknowledging the value of the Others of the world. As certain Mayan Indians still say, “You are the other me.” As the Hindu sage Ramarna Maharshi said, “There are no others.”

Nacht: Night, or darkness.

Nachtigall: Nightingale. The Ukranian Nachtigall battalion perpetrated war crimes during the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Spiegel: Mirror

Spiegelman: Mirror-man



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Barry’s Blog # 219: Thank You For Your Service

I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents. – General Smedley Butler

I laughed to myself… “Here we go. I’m starting a war under false pretenses.” – Admiral James Stockdale, on the Gulf of Tonkin incident          

I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are. – George H.W. Bush

We are grateful to the Washington Post, the New York Times, Time Magazine…whose directors have attended our meetings and respected their promises of discretion for almost 40 years. – David Rockefeller

If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied. – Rudyard Kipling

the irreducible core of all war is the slaughter of the innocent, organized by national leaders, accompanied by lies. – Howard Zinn


The Greatness of War

Veterans Day became an official national holiday in 1954, after a multi-decade evolution. It coincides with Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, celebrated in other countries that mark the anniversary of the end of World War One.

The Great War slogged on for over four years. main-qimg-a018b628f320bcb777aec91087c6197f Estimates of the casualties range from a low of eleven million dead combatants – which translates to 7,000 dead per day, every day, for those four years – upwards to 41 million total casualties, including perhaps eight million civilian deaths. These numbers do not include the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918, which resulted in the deaths of another 50 to 100 million people (three to five percent of the world’s population).

The date of November 11th commemorates the formal ending of hostilities at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the armistice went into effect.

So much for the numbers. Now for the mythic implications. Indeed, only a deeply- and widely-held mythology can even begin to explain the numbers. Chapter Six of my book discusses the Sacrifice of the Children,isaac-sacrifice  which I consider to be the most fundamental mythic narrative underlying all of Western Culture:

Ultimately, sacrifice – dying for the cause – became as important as physical survival. Martyrdom became an ethical virtue that every believer must be prepared to emulate. “Uniquely among the religions of the world,” writes (Bruce) Chilton, “the three that center on Abraham have made the willingness to offer the lives of children – an action they all symbolize with versions of the Aqedah (the sacrifice of Isaac) – a central virtue for the faithful as a whole.”…This is how Patriarchy perpetuates itself. In each generation, millions of abused children identify with their adult oppressors and become violent perpetrators themselves. In a demythologized world, they have no choice but to act out the myths of the killing of the children on a massive scale…And what of those who direct the carnage? War allows the old to enact the sacrifice of the children. They project their ambivalence toward their own uninitiated, “inner” children onto actual soldiers, while safely and vicariously experiencing Dionysian intensity. War is an end disguised as a means: deferred infanticide, the revenge of the old upon the young.

What led to this state of affairs? In Chapter Eight I write about the decline of religion in the late 19th century and the ideology of nationalism that replaced it in all “developed” countries:

Ouranos and Kronos ruled the unconscious of modern man. Now everyone was judged by how useful they were under capitalism. In 1900 George Simmel wrote that existence in the urban factories had diminished human passions in favor of a reserved, cynical attitude. This had created a compensatory craving for excitement and sensation, which for some was partially satisfied by the emerging consumer culture. But others needed something even more extreme, more Dionysian, to make them feel alive…This damage to the soul occurred along with the most rapid technological changes in history. One Frenchman fated to die in the first weeks of the Great War said that the world had changed more since he had been in school than it had since the Romans. In the thirty years between 1884 and 1914, humanity encountered mass electrification, automobiles, radio, movies, airplanes, submarines, elevators, refrigeration, radioactivity, feminism, Darwin, Marx (who wrote, “All that is solid melts into air”), Picasso and Freud. It is particularly ironic that just as modern people were learning of the unconscious, they were forced to act out the old myths of the sacrifice of the children. The pace of technological change simply exceeded humanity’s capacity to understand it, and the pressure upon the soul of the world exploded into World War.

How did this play out on the battlefield? Any honest military historian will admit that the generals, or in this context, the ritual elders, learned absolutely nothing in those four years. They began in August 1914 by exhorting the troops with Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori (It is a sweet and noble thing to die for your country) and then sending wave after wave of nineteen-year-old infantrymen against massed, fortified machine guns. Hundreds of thousands died in the first four months. Yet in late 1918 the generals were doing exactly the same thing. The great poet Wilfred Owen wrote this poem to describe the soldiers’ experience:


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! 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.

On November fourth, a week before the already-planned armistice, the Generals sent Owen’s unit in yet another daylight – the common descriptor is “suicidal” – frontal assault against impenetrable defenses. Owens and most of his comrades were, predictably, mowed down.

Then came November eleventh, when all across the Western and Eastern Fronts, everyone was to lay down their arms at precisely 11:00 AM. You can read about that morning in Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, by Joseph Persico.

While many soldiers refused to fight at all, others took their last chance to get revenge – and officers everywhere took their last opportunity to achieve post-war promotions. It was one of the most savage days of the entire war, resulting in another eleven thousand casualties.


The Germans kept November eleventh alive as a shameful reminiscence of defeat. Sadly, it seems that in this demythologized world, such memories tend to bring people together – to reinforce their mythic tales of national identity – more than memories of victory (Ask any Serbian nationalist about the battle of Kosovo, which took took place in 1389). A new German mythology arose soon after the armistice that served this purpose for the returning soldiers (and the industrialists): the defeat had been caused not by the failure of the army but by treachery behind the lines. The mythmakers designed this story to uphold German masculinity and nationalism as the ideology that had replaced religion and would soon lead to totalitarianism and genocide.

On November eleventh 1943, the Nazi S.S. memorialized the 25th anniversary of the armistice with a display – uncommon even for them – of gratuitous cruelty. They forced the 40,000 residents of the Terezin ghetto in Czechoslovakia terezin-concentration-camp-01 to stand at attention in a freezing, rainy field all day for a head count that didn’t happen until late afternoon. Anyone who moved was shot. Three hundred collapsed and died before they were allowed to return to their barracks.

Why do I write this? To remind you that many of those S.S. officers went home at the end of their shifts to spend quality time with their wives and children – as did real-life American CIA officer and torture supervisor Dan Mitrione (in the 1972 film State of Siege).

These people were not inherently evil; to make them so in our imagination is merely to reinforce our own fiction of pure innocence. It is to point out the mythic and ritual realities behind our behavior in wartime, and the reasons the elders send the young to war. It is to acknowledge that such circumstances are designed, consciously or not, to take impressionable people and inject them into situations that bring out the worst in them, not the best.

Viet Nam

Progress: At least the generals had finally learned that it was useless to send massed infantry against machine guns, right? Wrong. Throughout the war, the army’s primary tactic—“search and destroy”— was the sacrifice of infantry units in order to push out the concealed enemy. This tactic was also called target acquisition. Helicopters dropped troops intentionally into “hot zones,” where they were often pinned down by enemy fire. They suffered until air strikes hit the enemy positions, and then the American survivors left the terrain to the enemy’s survivors.

Sociologist William Gibson writes, “Story after story…concerns commanders who knew large enemy formations were in a given area, but did not tell their subordinates because they did not want them to be cautious.”

In countless other examples, the Army spent massive expenditure of material and lives to force the North Vietnamese off of steep mountains for no discernable purpose. The 1987 movie Hamburger Hill depicts the nine-day assault on “Hill 937”, designated as such from its being 937 meters high. It ends with the Americans celebrating their victory. What it doesn’t show, however, is that the American abandoned the hill two weeks later.

Abandonment and betrayal became the primary metaphors for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Psychologist Jonathan Shay quotes one veteran: “The U.S. Army…was like a mother who sold out her kids to be raped by (their) father…” The soldier’s common experience, says Shay, was violation of the moral order, or betrayal.

American conservatives would twist the idea of betrayal and use the old excuse of treachery at home to rationalize defeat after the war. Nevertheless, the mythic image of the twentieth century is the sacrifice of the children. And the emotional experience of the common foot soldier is betrayal. My article Memory, Myth, and the National Mall brings the story into the 1960s:

The trauma of the Vietnam veterans was complicated by their sense of betrayal. Most returned to their urban streets and small towns alone, mere days after being in the field. There, as we know, many were treated disrespectfully—but not, as it turns out, by antiwar protestors. After exhaustive research, sociologist and Vietnam veteran Jerry Lembcke concludes that the spitters and hecklers touted by the media were hawkish veterans of World War II, who regarded the young men as losers. It was their fathers—in hundreds of VFW and American Legion posts scattered across small-town America—who were attacking the Vietnam vets. One World War II vet observed an anti-war march and snarled, “…we won our war, they didn’t; and from the looks of them, they couldn’t.” At another rally, a Vietnam vet read the names of Texas men killed in the war, while (reported by Life magazine) pro-war hecklers yelled, “Spit at those people, spit on ‘em”. (Fred) Turner quotes a Korean War vet, as recently as 1992: “I can’t understand these Vietnam guys. They’re always crying. When we came home, we kept it to ourselves and did what we had to do”. Turner also reports that forty years after Korea, this same vet’s children fear his repeated flashbacks.

Lembcke (The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam) concludes that the Nixon White House deliberately disseminated the “myth of the spat-upon veteran” in order to counter the fact that the Vietnam veterans were actually among the leaders of the antiwar movement. By 1970, a major argument for continuing the war was to protect the troops who were already there—and to free those who were allegedly held captive by the North Vietnamese. Similarly, Bruce Franklin argues that, following the cataclysmic year of 1968, Nixon deliberately introduced the issue of the issue of the MIA/POWs to evoke strong emotional support for a war that was becoming universally unpopular.

My article goes on to note how American elites, with the assistance of Hollywood filmmakers, made a determined effort throughout the 1980s and 1990s to rehabilitate the memory of the war as (at worst) an honorable crusade and (at best) a tragic “mistake.”

I invite you to consider, however, whether the war was really a mistake, in either economic or mythic terms. Hint: read some of the many excellent articles that historians and activists have written in response to Ken Burns’ recent PBS series here, here and here.

However, most Americans, then and now, have been quite able to separate the politics and economics of the war from the suffering of those (mostly poor and ethnic minorities) whom the fathers sent to fight it. Hence the phrase we hear so often, especially every November eleventh: Thank you for your service.

All this leads me to suggest that when you consider saying these words to a veteran today, think before you speak. What precisely will be your intention? Will it be, as veteran James Kelly writes, “…an empty platitude, something you just say because it is politically correct”? Will it “…massage away some of the guilt at not participating themselves”? Will it be “…almost the equivalent of ‘I haven’t thought about any of this’”?

Kelly also writes:

After all, despite the various reasons that people join the military, from free college, to a steady paycheck to something much more patriotic or idealistic, there is one thing we all have in common: Our passion for our country and your rights and freedoms that we swore to protect.

The Sacrifice of the Children

Full disclosure: I want to acknowledge that I am not a veteran, and I have no concrete, felt understanding of a veteran’s experience, let alone the experience of combat, wounding or trauma, or even of his or her family’s pain. But I have to tread – lightly but firmly – into this “morass” (to coin a phrase). I sincerely hope that Mr. Kelly will support this statement: We fought to defend your free-speech right to completely disagree with our reasons for fighting.

Howard Zinn, who became a pacifist after serving as a bombardier in World War Two, put Veterans Day in what I consider to be its proper perspective:

Our decent impulse, to recognize the ordeal of our veterans, has been used to obscure the fact that they died, they were crippled, for no good cause other than the power and profit of a few. Veterans Day, instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has become an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches reeking with hypocrisy. Those who name holidays, playing on our genuine feeling for veterans, have turned a day that celebrated the end of a horror into a day to honor militarism. As a combat veteran myself, of a “good war,” against fascism, I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war. At the end of that war, in which 50 million died, the people of the world should have shouted “Enough!” We should have decided that from that moment on, we would renounce war–and there would be no Korean War, Vietnam War, Panama War, Grenada War, Gulf War, Balkan War…The reason for such a decision is that war in our time–whatever “humanitarian” motives are claimed by our political leaders–is always a war against children: the child amputees created by our bombing of Yugoslavia, the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dead as a result of our postwar sanctions. Veterans Day should be an occasion for a national vow: No more war victims on the other side; no more war veterans on our side.

The Viet Nam War was a children’s war. Again, from Memory, Myth, and the National Mall:

…this war was fought not by reservists or the National Guard (as in Iraq) but by teenage (disproportionately African American or Latino) draftees. One of every two Hispanics, for example, served in a combat unit, and one in five were killed. Corresponding percentages for whites were much lower. Their median age was 19: For every 21-year-old, there was a 17-year-old. Lyndon Johnson chose to maximize support by minimizing its impact on older citizens. And there were few domestic sacrifices such as increased taxes; thus the war’s debt fell on future generations. Nearly half of Americans who died had been sent to Vietnam as teenagers; 14,000 died in combat before their 21st birthdays. On the other side, 40 percent of those killed by American incendiary and antipersonnel bombs were children. And because dioxin (the active ingredient in Agent Orange) remains in the body’s DNA, 35,000 Vietnamese babies are born with birth defects annually.

These figures do not take into account the homeless or the suicides or the 900,000 veterans of the War on Terror who are classified as at least 30% disabled.

Nor do they not take into account the “economic draft,”  the real reason why most young, poor and working-class people “volunteer” – or the obvious truth that their only alternatives are gangs, pregnancy, jail or living at home into their mid-thirties while working at MacDonald’s.

How often does the statement “Thank you for your service” serve as a personal apology for the knowledge of how shameful the nation’s actual treatment of vets has been?

No one knows how many of these people have “passion for their country,” or how many believe that it is “a sweet and noble thing to die for your country.” But the mythmakers, the gatekeepers and the warmongers will go to extraordinary lengths to convince you that they do.

Here’s my alternative to Thank you for your service:

I can never know what you went through, but I would like to hear about it, and if possible, I’m willing to share your grief.



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Barry’s Blog # 218: Rituals of Grief, Part Three of Three

But even in this tragic paradox we have seen considerable movement in the past thirty years toward the cracking open of the American heart. One is the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (designed ironically by an Asian-American woman), our first shrine that has not glorified war. It has served two primary purposes. The first is as a focal point for the national sense of sorrow for the lives wasted in that war, despite the efforts of politicians to put Vietnam behind us.

Secondly, in its actual design, sinking implacably into the earth, it subtly reminds us of our collective responsibility to the dead and of the knowledge that can be found in the dark earth that we will all share eventually. “The wall coaxes everyone into the same ritual of descent,” writes Michael Ventura, “a ritual that the psyche can’t help but recognize.” The polished black marble surface reflects the viewer’s face behind the inscribed names, as if the viewer himself were in the land of the dead, 200px-Vietnam-memorial-soldier vietnam veterans memorialsurrounded by those names – each of them an individual who fell at a specific time – looking back into his own eyes. The veil between the worlds is very thin here.

In her novel Beloved Toni Morrison used the phrase “disremembered past” to describe that which is neither remembered nor forgotten, but is haunting the living as a ghost. The path to healing, for the soul and for the soul of the culture, goes through the recovery of memory – inviting the return of that which has been repressed – rather than through forgetting. We have a useful metaphor in the image of proper burial of the war dead. When the living acknowledge the reality of death in a superficial manner, then the “corpses” of a life end up only getting “covered over,” rather than properly buried.

But authentic grief rituals can align the ego’s intention for closure with the deeper intentions of the unconscious. Let’s consider myth again. This is depicted when Priam risks his life to beg Achilles for Hector’s body. For proper burial to occur, the king must confront both the corpse and the person – Achilles – who has killed it. Acceptance of the facts at this level leads to real closure. And grieving together, as Priam and Achilles do, brings people, even enemies, together, if only briefly.


Priam approaches Achilles

The task is to remember and grieve, rather than to constantly re-enact the trauma. Psychologist Jonathan Shay stresses that the best treatment for war veterans is “communalization” of the trauma; telling one’s story in the safe container of a trusted community can “rebuild the ruins of character.” But for such healing to occur, he writes, “…a listener must be ready to experience some of the terror, grief and rage that the victim did. This is one meaning, after all, of the word compassion.” And this is precisely what Priam and Achilles share with each other.

The wound leads to the gift: the need for making meaningful narrative out of trauma leads to the search for – and the risk of – authentic community. From this perspective, writes Shay, both the veteran community and the greater public for whom they have suffered should meet together

…face to face in daylight, and listen, and watch, and weep, just as citizen-soldiers of ancient Athens did in the theater at the foot of the Acropolis. We need a modern equivalent of Athenian tragedy.

A second profoundly important phenomenon has been the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which regularly travels around the country. 1200px-Aids_Quilt

It brings the qualities of beauty and diversity with the thousands of separately designed segments; and it counters the right-wing attack on sexual minorities, by forcing the viewer to contemplate the massive numbers of actual, individual lives that were valued and loved by others.

A third factor is the revival on American soil of indigenous mourning rites. The huge influx of Latinos into the country in the last thirty years has brought with it two aspects of Latin American, especially Mexican, culture that have begun to profoundly influence Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward death and mourning. One is the tradition of erecting small roadside shrines (“descansos”)  29883570100_c4d31bef1e_bof flowers, pictures and personal mementoes at the sights of car accidents.

The new custom has spread to inner cities in all parts of the country, where young people especially seem to be intuiting – or remembering – very old ritual forms of dealing with the constant possibility of violent death. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Black people have also brought back the African tradition of pouring libations at the gravesite; only now the libations are poured in the city itself. An Oakland policeman occasionally saw such shrines in the 1980’s, but now, “every time there’s a murder, you see one.” By 2001, it seemed perfectly appropriate that images should appear across the media of spontaneous shrines hallow4in New York City for the victims of the 9-11 tragedy.

In addition to such stationary shrines, the past decade has seen the appearance of moveable shrines: the “R.I.P.” t-shirt phenomenon. This is another form of daily public mourning in the inner cities, in which family and friends wear t-shirts emblazoned with pictures of murdered young people, 1214070003 often with the letters “R.I.P.” Such displays are both public expressions of grief as well as a protest against the anonymity of urban violence.

This revival of old forms reflects both an innate moral intelligence – the voice of the indigenous soul – in people who have long been denied other options in American Puritan culture, as well as a kind of permissiveness. People are finally getting the message that it is not a shameful act to mourn in public. In Los Angeles Black and Latino activists have taken this insight to the next level with grief processions that cross the boundaries of gang territories and chant for peace wherever a young person has been killed. Such rituals identify the common losses felt throughout the community and lead to the possibility of reconciliation.

Another Latino influence is the revival of the Days of the Dead – Los Dias de los Muertos – which occur at approximately the same time as Halloween. The secular children’s holiday has become a major festival of consumption, with dozens of theme parks and annual spending of 4-6 billion dollars. Halloween has grown so big that it has its own Internet search engines.  Along with horror movies (and their curious theme of the return of the dead), writes David Skal, Halloween gives us a space “where death reigns triumphant but no one ever has to grieve.”

But behind Halloween lie the Catholic holidays of All-Saint’s Day and All-Soul’s Day, and behind them lies the far older Celtic New Year, Samhain, the point at which the light half of the year changes into the dark half on November first. These events reflect the common indigenous belief that at certain times of the year the veil between the worlds briefly becomes very thin and the spirits of the dead return, to be fed by the living. The Romans held their Days of the Dead in February, the Greeks on five Saturdays spread across the year. The Germanic tribes did so at Yule time, the Japanese and Aztecs in August. Like the Celts, the Egyptians celebrated theirs on November first. The Catholic Church, acknowledging that it could never stamp out the pagan tradition, established November 1st as All Saints’ Day in the eighth century and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd) in the tenth.

Spanish conquerors brought their traditions to the New World, where they fused with indigenous customs, moving the Aztec holiday to November. The Mexican tradition involves the construction of home altars (ofrendas), “dinners for the dead” (on the assumption that it is better to feed the dead with food they loved when they were alive than to feed them with more death), and all-night graveyard vigils. In the San Francisco area in particular it has lead to an annual public procession involving thousands of people as well as countless art exhibits and other rituals that combine mourning with humorous, imaginative confrontation with the reality of death.

The African imagination emphasizes the importance of mourning in a natural setting. Nature, as the dwelling place of ancestral spirits who have registered every harmful thing done to the Earth, is seen as “a vast field of grief.” Thus nature is the place where the real work of healing – balancing the dark and light aspects of the world – takes place. Many indigenous grief rituals — and contemporary re-creations — involve vocalizing and symbolically expelling emotions that are considered toxic if held inside. But such toxins, like the end products of digestion, are believed to be nutritious to the spirits of the Earth, which will gladly absorb and eventually transform and recycle them.

In the American climate of denial, however, it is difficult to achieve ceremonies of communal mourning, particularly in the case of the war in Iraq. President Bush has not appeared at a single funeral for a slain soldier, and the corporate media, consistent with the American tradition of denying death, generally refuse to show images of their coffins.

In response, many people have turned to the Internet to share their grief, creating many websites that memorialize the fallen soldiers. These sites include portraits of the dead and allow visitors to add their own memorial statements; thus they serve as a kind of electronic “wall” on the model of the Vietnam Memorial. However, these flag-bedecked websites usually carry the patriotic theme of sacrifice in the name of freedom.

This is unfortunate, and not simply for political reasons. Justifying the harsh reality of death in terms of any ideology is a subtle means of denial, and thus it subverts the possibility of real closure.

But such attempts at mourning can reveal the underlying myths to us. They refer to the original willing sacrifices of Abraham/Isaac and God/Christ for the sins of the world. But they also gather their energy from a shadow version of those stories, which is more fundamental to patriarchal civilization: the killing of the children. As a face of the divine, Christ re-enacts the annual death of the world, like Dionysus and Osiris before him. But the human Jesus, like Isaac before him, asks his father why he has forsaken him and whether there is any meaning whatsoever in this murder. There is no closure, and the crimes of the fathers are passed on to the sons.

But the “real” thing continues to bubble up from the margins of American culture – those areas where the indigenous soul still has a home. The African imagination of ritual closure has long taken root in the Jazz funerals of New Orleans. The traditional funeral parade has two sections: the “first line,” consists of the grand marshals (otherwise known as ritual elders), musicians, prince-tribute-new-orleans-parade-2016-billboard-650 the family of the deceased, and pallbearers; the “second line” is local people who follow the mourners.

After the church service the procession moves to the cemetery, while the band plays slow hymns and dirges. This is the first stage of the universal, three-part ritual format. The second stage is the actual internment of the deceased at the cemetery, where both the dead and the living briefly share liminal space, outside of time. The third stage is the procession home. Now the second line takes over and the overall spirit changes from melancholy to joyful celebration. The band shifts into high-spirited tunes, and the mourners change from their earlier, slow cadence into wild dancing, or “second lining.” The return to the neighborhood becomes a celebration of the life of the deceased; and in making ritual closure with the dead the mourners achieve re-integration into their community.

If we combine two concepts – Greek Tragedy and New Orleans Funerals – the implications for the healing of America are simply enormous. Thanatos  Imagine mass public rituals attended by the citizenry and political leaders, in which warriors and civilians, rich and poor, women and men, white and dark, gay and straight, healthy and disabled and mad and “normal” confront the impossible paradoxes and crimes of our history and suffer together.

Can we imagine an American President standing at the center of this container, begging forgiveness for his country from a descendent of a slave? Can we imagine the community pouring out grief for all those who died as soldiers, victims and activists, and even for the animals and the forests that once covered the entire continent? Can we imagine the sense of relief at having finally shed tears together as a mosaic of uncommon peoples sharing this land – and the gratitude bordering on ecstasy with which an entire community dances the “second line” on its way back home?

Ultimately, the ritual transformation of the American denial of death and grieving will require the work of individuals who feel a calling for this work. We may discover a new meaning of the idea of the scapegoat – that ancient image of sacrifice for the sins of the community. The new scapegoat would commit to a life of intentional awareness and facilitation of mourning of the tragic side of life without resorting to any easy form of resolution.

But rather than dying for the world like a Christ, he or she would live all the more fully for it, like a Bodhisattva. There is much work to be done in facilitating the emergence of public rituals of mourning. And certain individuals will need to hear and heed the call – consciously – to become, like Pentheus (in The Bacchae by Euripides) the boy-king whose name means “man of sorrows…acquainted with grief.”

Further Reading:

Danforth, L.M. The Death Rituals of Rural Greece. Princeton Univ. Press, 1982.

Garland, Robert. The Greek Way Of Death. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985.

Huntington, Richard and Metcalf, Peter. Celebrations of Death – The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985)

Markale, Jean. The Pagan Mysteries of Halloween. Inner Traditions, 2000.

Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth Of Solitude: Life And Thought In Mexico. Grove Press, 1961.

Prechtel, Martin. Long Life, Honey In The Heart. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.

Shay, Jonathan. Achilles In Vietnam. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1995.

Skal, David. Death Makes A Holiday. New York: Bloomsbury, 2002.

Some´, Malidoma. Ritual: Power, Healing and Community. Portland: Swan Raven & Co., 1993.

Some´, Malidoma. The Healing Wisdom Of Africa. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.

Stein, Murray. In Midlife, A Jungian Perspective. Dallas, Spring Pubs. 1983.

Ventura, Michael. Letters at Three A.M.: Reports On Endarkenment. Dallas: Spring Pubs., 1993.

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Barry’s Blog # 217: Rituals of Grief, Part Two of Three

We can think of ritual closure as an ideal of intention. It asks that people do all they can to ensure that the transition to the other world has been unambiguously completed, that no residue of unfinished business – that is to say, unexpressed emotion – remains. More importantly perhaps, the completion of their ritual responsibilities to the dead moves the living into a new phase of life as well. These are rites of passage for the living.

The opposite of ritual closure is a certain kind of denial. When those in mourning do not (or are not allowed to) give sufficient time and emotional expression to the grief process, the wounds of loss close too soon and remain in a sense infected. Thus, across the world we find various examples of the curious yet psychologically sophisticated practice of “secondary treatment,” in which the condition of the corpse becomes a model for the condition of the soul, and the community inspects the decomposing remains for signs that the soul has moved on to the other world.

In some rural Greek villages, archaic pagan customs still underlie a thin veneer of Christian belief.  After a death, the community participates in ceremonies intended to serve the needs of the dead, to feed them, especially those who cannot enter Paradise without having had their sins forgiven. Long after the funeral, the women sing daily laments at the grave. 51wAKM86iRL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Anthropologist Loring Danforth notes the similarity of these chants to wedding songs, a reminder of the mythic “marriage with death.”[ii] After five years, the relatives exhume and inspect the bones of the deceased. If the body has not completely decomposed, everyone assumes that the soul continues to wander as a ghost. So they re-inter the bones for another two years, at which point they again exhume them.

Clean bones are evidence to all that the soul has been forgiven and has entered Paradise. The bones are then deposited in the ossuary, or bone-house. MOUNT ATHOS The empty grave becomes available for another – temporary – resident. The period of liminality for both the soul and his or her relatives ends, and everyone can move on, free of the weight of both grief and responsibility.

Forms of secondary burial occur in many other places, including Borneo, Madagascar, Spain, Celebes and Bali, where the bones of the dead are dug up (after the flesh has decomposed) and cremated in elaborate ceremonies. _40417423_cremation_ap To the Balinese, the recently deceased are dangerous, even demonic; but after the rituals of closure the people venerate the dead as ancestral gods. Having completed the passage to the other side, the souls of the dead have become potential allies for those who exist on this side of the veil.

This is the reciprocal relationship between the worlds. In exchange for being of help to the living, it is said among the Guatemalan Maya that the ancestors ask to be fed through two actions of the living. The first is continued full expression of the emotional life, especially mourning. The second is regular expression in art, ritual and eloquent language of beauty. The living feed the ancestors through an aesthetic response to the world, writes shaman Martin Prechtel:

The Tzutujil (Mayans) believed that the dead rowed themselves to the other world in “a canoe made of our tears, with oars made of delicious old songs.” Our grief energized the soul of the deceased so that it could arrive intact onto the Beach of Stars…(of) the salty Grandmother Ocean…on this beach of star souls our dead were well received by the “last happy ancestor.

The ancestors fed on grief. But when the community buried a person and truly felt grief was absent, or if that person had not been fully initiated, the soul could not complete the journey and was forced to turn back. It would then take up residence in the body of a young person – often a grandchild. The ghost would “eat the life of that person” through violence, accidents and alcoholism until the community finally understood and completed the appropriate rites of mourning.

Western writers such as Freud, Danforth and Ernest Becker have explained that these customs resolve the opposition of life and death by denying the finality of death through belief in the afterlife. But by reducing ritual to psychology they do more than patronize tribal people; they miss a profound insight. These extended periods of emotional expression complete the ritual obligations to the ancestors and create closure to a degree almost inconceivable to the modern mind.

Death is so common (a daily event, writes Some´) in any Third World village that the regular occurrence of authentic funeral rituals ensures that a load of suppressed grief never builds up to toxic levels as it does in modern culture. Properly conducted – that is to say, lengthy and emotionally cathartic – funerals give everyone who attends (in West Africa, the entire village) the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to resolve any unfinished business they may have with their own dead, or with anyone else. 3966b545afe79e21537380a371892cfe--african-dance-african-art

And thus, such people have the extraordinary capacity to live in the present moment. Perhaps this fact is the source of the common observation by Western travelers that Third World peasants, despite grinding poverty and political repression, are happy. Some´ writes that life in his village rotates around mourning and celebration of the fact that the people have paid their dues to the dead: “The other side of real grief is real joy.” And these regular descents into the chaos and emotional extremes of radical ritual allow continual rebirth of the community without recourse to violence.

Mexican poet Octavio Paz contrasted his own culture, which has always had a daily, intimate relationship to the dark side of existence, with ours: “A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.”


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Barry’s Blog # 216: Rituals of Grief, Part One of Three

November 2006. We enter the dark half of the year with memories of the holocaust of New Orleans still fresh in our minds. 1024x1024 It has been a year of tragic images: genocide in the Sudan, cluster bombs in Lebanon, orphans and martyrs in Palestine, suicide bombings in Iraq, Shri Lanka and Afghanistan – and everywhere, grieving survivors. Those terrible images evoke others. New York City firemen on 9/11/2001 and for weeks afterwards frantically searching for the bodies of the dead, especially their own deaddd6e819c7a8047cf377a19a1b5776ca9--firemen-firefighters Relatives of the victims who were grateful for anything – even a bone fragment – that might represent the body of a loved one; something to which they could give proper burial.

Such scenes stir other memories (for those of my generation) from the Vietnam War, of soldiers risking their own lives – and often losing them – attempting to recover the dead bodies of friends. Many questions arise: Why, thirty years since the end of the war, does the search for bodies continue? What else are the survivors searching for? Why does the memorial to the dead of that war remain the most visited shrine in America? Why do victors commonly desecrate (“to destroy the sacredness of”) the dead bodies of the enemy?

What exactly do people mean when they wish that deceased souls should “rest in peace”? How do we define or describe that state of rest – and what if they are not at peace? What is the value in “paying our last respects” (respect = “to look again”)? Why do we have to pay? In recent years we have often heard the term “closure,” but is there any real agreement about its meaning? Why do we appear to agree on the value of closure – and why do we so rarely achieve it?

The inability to acknowledge suffering and achieve emotional closure haunts us. Looking backwards at the charred ruins of the twentieth century, I note several factors that contribute to the characteristically American denial of death.

First: the old mythic pattern of resolution of dispute through violence – and very often it is high-tech violence at a distance – that emotionally insulates Americans from the consequences of our behavior.

Second, the cult of heroic, masculine control that denies men permission to shed tears. As many war veterans have eloquently admitted: “…if one were to let only a little out, the floodgates might be flung open and it might never end.”

Third: the massive (there is no other word for it) karmic weight of the ungrieved histories of genocide and slavery.

And fourth: the myth of American innocence that justifies the crimes of empire with an ideology of God-inspired good intentions: we had to destroy the village in order to save it.

Desensitized by movie violence, separated from the Old World and its wars by two oceans and shielded from the human pain of conflict by a compliant media, we have been able to ignore the corpses. How else would the shameful images of Abu Ghraib fade so quickly from the public memory? Is it any wonder that (white) Americans, relative to almost every society on earth with the possible exception of the British, show so little emotion at actual funerals? Anthropologists Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, in Celebrations of Death, write, “So thoroughly have Americans sealed themselves off from death that many have never seen a corpse. Others have seen one only in the carefully stage-managed context of the funeral parlor, the body elaborately packaged and beautified.”

Visitors from traditional societies such as West African shaman Malidoma Some´ have spoken of the tremendous weight of unexpressed grief carried by the typical American, and how conducive to illness such a pattern is on the individual level. He argues that the inability to fully grieve results in a corresponding inability to experience joy as well: “People who do not know how to weep together are people who cannot laugh together.”

We may find some answers to our questions in the beliefs of indigenous people, many of whom claim that death is not the opposite of life, but the opposite of birth. Or, as the Irish say, “Death is only the middle of a long life.” In the tribal imagination the souls of the dead go neither to heaven nor to a nameless void, but to the Other World, or the underworld.

In mythic terms we may think of those souls as journeying first through a liminal period – betwixt and between the worlds of the living and the dead. Liminal comes from the Greek word for threshold, which also gives us the word Limbo. We imagine those souls in a mysterious transition prior to rebirth into some new state of being. But the completion of the transformation, as in all initiations, requires the intercession of a greater community of beings who can facilitate the burial – both literal and symbolic – of the old before the appearance of the new.

Proper burial is a fundamental theme found throughout Greek myth. The Iliad includes many examples of warriors fighting to the death – just as in Vietnam – simply to reclaim the corpse of one of their own friends. After his death, the ghost of Patroklos comes to his friend Achilles in a dream and begs him to finish cremating and burying his corpse because the residents of Hades will not receive him; they have forced him to wander until the rites are completed. When Zeus admits that he is powerless to cancel the fated death of his mortal son Sarpedon, he whisks the freshly killed body back to Sarpedon’s home of Lycia, where at least it can receive the proper rites.

Perhaps the most remarkable and moving scene of the entire epic begins when the Trojan king Priam, escorted by Hermes – the Guide of Souls – crosses through the enemy lines at night in order to beg Achilles for the body of his son Hector. It concludes with the two implacable enemies grieving together and sharing a meal. The Iliad actually ends not with the popular account of the Trojan Horse and the destruction of Troy, but with a lengthy description of Hector’s funeral. It is Western culture’s most basic image of the death of the Hero (symbolically that part of our own “unripe” masculine identity) and the proper burial that is necessary for a new identity to emerge.

Similarly, The Odyssey has many scenes in which the Greeks mourn the loss of their comrades (the Greek ideal of heroic masculinity allowed the shedding of tears). Before Odysseus visits the shades of the underworld, the goddess Circe instructs him to feed those ghosts sacrificial blood before they will be allowed to tell him about his future.

This scene is a reference to the old idea that there is a reciprocal relationship between the worlds. It implies that the beings on each side of the veil have needs that can only be met by those on the other side. The spirits and ancestors need humans for their work as much as humans need them. What is broken in one world is repaired in the other. Some´writes:

Each needs the other because each feeds the other…Without the other, neither is complete …our relationship with the spirit world is a two-way stream…There is a reciprocity here that really cancels out the whole sense of hierarchy.”

After his visit to the underworld, Odysseus cannot proceed homeward towards his destined reunion with his wife and son without first returning to Circe’s island and performing the proper burial rights for one of his dead crewman. In one of the final scenes, after killing the suitors who had been ruining his palace, Odysseus refuses to allow his maids to celebrate, telling them, “It is not piety to glory so over slain men.”

Tragic drama focuses on this theme as well. Of the thirty-three works of the three major Athenian playwrights that have survived, nine of them deal directly with the theme of the need for proper burial, or of burial refused by an enemy.

The myths reflected the belief that death was a process, rather than a single event in time; the dead required the focused acts of the living in order to complete their transition to the other world. But – of equal importance – the living needed this process to succeed as well, because souls who wandered in the liminal space between the worlds as ghosts would inevitably cause suffering for the living. Thus the unburied dead in particular were condemned to haunt their relatives – those who should have performed the appropriate rites. Such souls were stuck, unable to conclude the last of life’s initiatory processes, the welcoming “home” by their ancestors in the other world. Like some mentally ill people in our world, they were “betwixt and between.”

Looking at funeral customs that have survived in the indigenous world, we observe the same pattern of belief – death is a process that requires deep commitment on the part of the survivors to be completed successfully. The dangerous period of liminality, which only begins with the funeral, can last for months; for example, in Japan and Tibet a series of rites for the deceased culminates on the 49th day after death. Jewish tradition also has extensively timed rites of mourning. It seems that older cultures have always understood the critical importance for health and stability – in both worlds – of complete closure in the fullest sense of the term.


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Barry’s Blog # 215: Privilege, Part Three

Mid-November 2015: two weeks since Day of the Dead, when the veil between the worlds was it its thinnest. But history continually insists that the veil can part at any moment, as it did for the hundreds of people killed and wounded recently in Paris. Apocalypse means “to lift the veil.” We suddenly see reality unadorned. This terrible tragedy has spawned peace vigils and spontaneous shrines in many cities across the U.S. and the world.

Anything we grieve for helps to open us to the great communal hall of loss, where we may discover how much more we need to release. This is both the gift of grief and its challenge. For whom do we weep today – the innocent victims, the Paris we may have once known, a world gone mad? Perhaps some of us grieve for something else: our own innocence, or even our own declining white privilege.

Yesterday I opened Facebook and saw the countless posts of condolence, solidarity and empathy, especially the repeated request to “Change your profile picture to support


France and the people of Paris.”  I remembered all those who posted, “I am Charlie Hebdo” not so long ago.

I was moved by the heartfelt expression – and I was appalled by the blind innocence.

I hadn’t seen any similar posts just one day before, after the suicide bombing in Beirut that had killed over forty people and injured over two hundred. Where was the global empathy for the city formerly known as the “Paris of the Middle East” (or for the victims in the hospital we bombed in Afghanistan last month, or for the 550 children massacred by the Israelis last year in Gaza)?

Oh, the media certainly took notice of the slaughter in Beirut: “Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold in Southern Beirut,” declared the New York Times, which failed to mention that this “stronghold” is a busy civilian area, and that most of the victims were civilians. Who grieves for the inhabitants of a “stronghold?”

David Swanson speaks of the disconnect: “We are all France. Apparently. Though we are never all Lebanon or Syria or Iraq for some reason. Or a long, long list of additional places.”

But our selective empathy quickly justified the next round of violence, as France bombed Raqqa, another “stronghold” (as CNN put it), a city of 200,000 people in Syria. What’s happening here? How does public grief get transformed into support for vengeance? Jim Naureckas introduces a new term: the weaponization of grief:

It feels callous to question the allocation of outrage; empathy is in such short supply in this world that one hesitates to question it when it emerges. But as a long-time citizen of New York City, I’m all too aware of the weaponization of grief. The outpouring of no-context, ahistorical sympathy after 9/11 helped pave the way for a violent reaction that killed in Iraq alone roughly 150 times as many people as died in Lower Manhattan that day—an opportunistic catastrophe that did more to mock than avenge those deaths.

Chris Floyd writes that the American empire and its junior partner France are reaping what they have sown:

Without the American crime of aggressive war against Iraq — which, by the measurements used by Western governments themselves, left more than a million innocent people dead — there would be no ISIS…Without the direct, extensive and deliberate creation by the United States and its Saudi ally of a world-wide movement of armed Sunni extremists…there would have been no “War on Terror” — and no terrorist attacks in Paris tonight…the hellish world we live in today is the result of deliberate policies and actions undertaken by the United States and its allies over the past decades. It was Washington that led and/or supported the quashing of secular political resistance across the Middle East…

With no avenues for secular (read: democratic) resistance, all opposition to the American empire has long been channeled into religious fundamentalism, which encourages its believers to literally die – and kill – for God.

And does anyone wonder why the terrorists chose to attack Paris, rather than Rome or Athens, iconic European capitals that are far closer to their embattled countries? Perhaps it is because Italy and Greece have long abandoned their old colonial pretentions, unlike France and Great Britain How ironic – As soon as France was liberated at the end of World War Two, it savagely attempted to recover its possessions in Viet Nam and Algeria.

But such tragedies – and the legitimate emotions they evoke – have other consequences. Always we have to ask: Cui bono? Who profits? Which militaries will now have increased funding and revenues? Which politicians will gain in the polls by demanding further intervention in these devastated regions? And whose boots will shortly be on the ground?

The generals would channel our grief and empathy toward those ends. But in Paris itself, there are people such as Charlotte Farhan, who refuses to change her FB profile:

…if I did this for only Paris this would be wrong. If I did this for every attack on the world, I would have to change my profile every day several times a day. My heart is with the world, no borders, no hierarchy, I hold every human’s life with value…Don’t be part of the “us and them” mentality which the war mongers want you to do!

But we are talking about privilege. White privilege.

Of course we all suffer from news or information fatigue, from hearing (if we listen) nearly every single day for at least fifteen years, and much longer for some of us, of the terrible news emanating from the Middle East. It’s easy to conclude that it’s always been that way over there.

And perhaps that fatigue leads us to make certain assumptions, one of which is that suicide bombings and massacres always happen there, rather than here. And perhaps some of us, in the old Protestant tradition of blaming the victims, even slide lazily into thinking that the victims deserve their own misfortune.

But for all their other differences, the essential point is that Beirut is an Arab city and Paris is basically white. Let’s not kid ourselves. We empathize with Les Parisiens because they look like us, and the people of Beirut don’t. So I have to speak again of one characteristic of white privilege: selective empathy.

Selective empathy involves the willingness to ignore reality, and it has two aspects in terms of our (white) response to news fatigue. On the one hand, we acclimate to the regular violence we perpetrate against people of color in the Third World and only feel sadness when white people suffer.

On the other hand, we react with wounded innocence when we hear of the latest mass shooting. We may even speak of toxic masculinity; obviously almost all of the shooters are male. But selective empathy allows us to ignore the elephant in the living room of American violence: despite the racial stereotypes, the vast majority of mass shooters over the past thirty years have been white.

Have you ever heard a news announcer describe the shooter as white?

Have you ever not heard him not describe a suicide bomber as Muslim or Arab?

“Condolence” means “to suffer together.” Healing from the dissociation and alienation of our modern American experience means, at the very least, to expand our circles of empathy to include the Other.

And by the way, says Noam Chomsky, “Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.” There’s another image going around Facebook:


Update, September 2017. Here’s another one:














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