Memoirs of the way we war: honest war books show that war is not the answer in the search for a path to the Garden of Eden.
Biblical fundamentalists talk about Eden as history and geography. According to these literalists, Adam and Eve ruined it all for us by biting into an apple. They were then kicked out of this idyllic piece of real estate by an unpleased God. The story ends, "He banished the man, and in front of the Garden of Eden he posted the cherubs and the flame of a flashing sword to guard the way to the tree of life" (Gen. 3: 23-24). Quite dramatic stuff, even in an age where laser swords are commonplace screen fare.
Other interpreters of this biblical narrative see neither history nor geography in the Garden of Eden story. Rather, Eden represents paradise as a vision of the future, not the distant past, achievable through partnership with the divine.
Jews and Christians share the Garden of Eden motif with Muslims. The Qur'an depicts not just a single garden but several Gardens of Eden as a reward for a faithful life. "We have provided them, secretly and in public, and who avert evil with good--theirs shall be the Ultimate Abode, Gardens of Eden which they shall enter; and those who were righteous of their fathers, and their wives, and their seed, shall enter them" (Sura 13). By comparison, the Judeo-Christian single garden looks almost paltry.
Given the events of the past few years, it seems unlikely that these Gardens of Eden are emerging here on earth. The Taliban warlords promised a Garden of Eden for Afghanistan, as did Saddam Hussein for Iraq. Neither delivered. And the American incursions into these two countries have yet to create anything even remotely close to Eden.
The question then needs to be asked: Is war the path that leads to a Garden of Eden? Don't look for an honest answer from political leaders who promote warfare. They unquestionably answer yes. Nor is this question adequately explored by many in the media. Too often they stick to superficial and uncritical war reportage.
Rather, other voices who seriously consider whether or not war is the way to a Garden of Eden need to be heard. During the Vietnam era, for example, Norman Mailer was such a voice in his 1968 book, The Armies of the Night (Plume). He argued against the war in Vietnam at a time when many Americans, including the Catholic hierarchy, still supported that bloodshed. Almost a decade later, Philip Caputo raised his ice through A Rumor of War (Owlet), today considered a classic war memoir.
Today other new voices can be heard. Front-line soldiers reflect on their experiences of war. People who encounter members of other religious faiths and spiritual traditions in lands of conflict also have their stories to tell. Still others pen long, hard looks at America as a superpower.
Two books take readers to the front lines of the 1991 Gulf War, named "Operation Desert Storm" by the spin doctors of the first Bush administration. Jarhead (Scribner) by Anthony Swofford and Baghdad Express (Borealis) by Joel Turnipseed relate up-front and personal recollections of war. Like all good memoirs, they not only write about memorable experiences but also reflect on the deeper meaning of these ventures.
Jarhead made its appearance last spring just as this country was irrevocably marching toward the second Gulf War. This memoir serves as a graphic reminder that the official party line of government and military officials is not always buoyed up by the experiences of women and men who serve in the Armed Forces. Swofford offers a more in-depth look at the complexities of war than the superficial sound bytes generated from various government officials.
The author of Jarhead says he joined the U.S. Marines because "I wanted to attach myself to a narrative that was greater than me." Yet the recruiter in charge of luring men into the marines focuses his pitch on the promise of unlimited sex with cheap prostitutes overseas. Reflecting on this irony 10 years later, Swofford writes "I forgive him his brutality and lust for war and the blood lust."
Although Swofford is not shy relating his various exploits in graphic words and scenes, there is more to this memoir than bravado. While stationed in Okinawa, he goes to a library after working out in the gym. Among the books he had stacked in his room were The Myth of Sisyphus, The Anabasis, The Portable Nietzsche, and Hamlet. Later, in the Middle East, Swofford reads The Iliad sitting in his makeshift library, the rear of a Humvee.
Near the end of this memoir he pens the shortest of chapters with the deepest of feeling and insight: "Some wars are unavoidable and need well be fought, but this doesn't erase warfare's waste. Sorry, we must say to the mothers whose sons will die horribly. This will never end. Sorry."
The author of the other first Gulf War memoir, Baghdad Express, describes himself as "a dream recruit: messed up enough that I had nowhere else to go; smart and aggressive enough to want to prove something." Nonetheless, he is a much less willing soldier.
At the outbreak of the first Gulf War, Turnipseed is hanging out in coffee houses reading and discussing great ideas while being AWOL from his marine reserve unit. His reserve unit is activated, and in the blink of an eye he finds himself on the supply road in Saudi Arabia. He brings his beloved philosophy and poetry books to the front, much to the amusement of other marines: "That's great, Marine. They'll probably come in real handy, like when you build a bunker out of them."
He describes the desert as "God's drafting table for religions and lunatics." He reflects on the irony of the same loudspeakers broadcasting the Muslim call to prayer five times daily as well as sounding frequent SCUD alarms. And he is concerned about the medicine the military orders the troops to ingest. "Indeed, the nature and number of past violations make the dark, paranoid humor of Dr. Strangelove seem less like a parody than documentary."
Both these memoirists bring to their front-line experiences an education only reading the great works of literature can give. Steeped in the tradition of a liberal arts education, both have the internal resources to see through the superficial jingoism of war words and search for a deeper vision that leaves emperors without clothes.
Books made these men and, hopefully, their books will contribute to the making of other people who are willing to explore reality and think thoughts unthinkable in a culture of superficiality. Books were their paths toward a Garden of Eden in the midst of Gehenna.
These memoirs, quite unlike the instant books that appeared on the heels of the first Gulf War, are thoughtful, reflective, and artistic endeavors from ordinary people. They stand in sharp contrast with two other memoirs of this war written by top brass shortly after the first Gulf War, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopfs It Doesn't Take a Hem (Bantam) and Gen. Colin Powell's My American Journey (Ballantine).
Down the road, hopefully closer to the Garden of Eden than further away, I look forward to the memoirs that will spring from soldiers' experiences of the second Gulf War and aftermath. They might be years away, however. Like most worthwhile memoirs, a lengthy gestation period will increase the quality of insight these yet-unwritten memoirs have to offer.
Another book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden (Perennial) by Yossi Klein Halevi takes readers into an interfaith world in the midst of armed conflict. In this memoir, subtitled "A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land," the author relates a boundary-breaking personal odyssey. He experiences the day-to-day lives of people who reflect the three spiritual stakeholder traditions in the Middle East--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
"I wanted to test whether faith could be a means of healing rather than intensifying the conflicts in this land." He conducts his investigation through grassroots involvement with practitioners of each tradition. He meets people from each of these three traditions who see religious pluralism as "the great spiritual venture of our generation."
He encounters a Catholic sister whose order is "committed to bringing love for Judaism into the church." He converses with a sheikh who believes that Jews have the right to pray at his mosque. "This is the place where our two faiths meet." He meets up with Catholic sisters who chant the "Jesus Prayer" from the Orthodox tradition of Christianity. He celebrates Shabbat with a Catholic community "devoted to reconciliation with the Jews and to restoring something of Christianity's Judaic roots, which the community believed would spiritually renew the church." At the end of this memoir Halevi writes, "I had stood at the entrance and glimpsed the Garden, but that was all."
The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria (St. Martin's Press) bespeaks of a Garden of Eden among a group of Trappist monks and the Muslims who lived alongside their monastery. In the mid-1990s life in Algeria had become rife with hostility. Religious leaders both from Christianity and Islam became victims of terrorist groups. Of the nine monks who resided at the Notre Dame de l'Atlas monastery, seven were kidnaped and eventually found dead. At their funerals, the many Muslim neighbors--among them sufis, imams, and mayors of nearby towns--participated. The author, John W. Kiser, tells the stories of how these monks were not just accepted but revered by the local Muslim community.
This book well demonstrates that small groups of terrorists, even though they can wreak havoc on both local communities and the world at large, do not represent nor speak for nor act in the name of the faith of Islamic people. And it also challenges mistaken stereotypical notions of both Islam and Christianity as two totally separated religious traditions at odds with one another. This book's subtitle, "Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria" reflects the complex realities and often high price involved in getting to the Garden of Eden.
The publishers of a series of essays providing Spiritual Perspectives on America's Role as a Superpower (Skylight Paths) assembled an impressive array of authors spanning many religious and spiritual traditions: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Vedantist, and interfaith traditions. The editors write that "the din of opinion often becomes simply noise, and we turn away, no longer listening." The essays address "larger issues--including historical, moral, and theological ones," and the book is aimed at "the more than one hundred million Americans who believe that spirituality is essential to life."
Eboo Patel's essay, "Waging a Greater Jihad for America" is particularly intriguing. He weighs the question whether America is a predator or a promise. Patel, a young, American-born Muslim of Indian ancestry, relies on an extraordinarily diverse range of thinkers to advance his argument--from Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King Jr., and Woody Guthrie to the Islamic poet Rumi and the Qur'an itself.
Another essay, written by Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale, offers an essentially optimistic "dream of America as an interspiritual superpower; a great society in which the acceptance of diversity and pluralism is innate to the psyche of this land, where it reaches a depth of integration that can be of benefit to the whole of humanity in this very dangerous period of history into which we have been thrust by tragic circumstances and by serious challenges requiring perspective and wisdom."
Teasdale's path toward a Garden of Eden is bustling with all peoples and their diverse spiritual traditions who communicate wisdom.
An added feature of this book is its discussion guide, making this book ideal for groups who wish to delve more deeply into America's role as a superpower at this particular moment in history.
These hooks bear witness to the many people of integrity who struggle to partner with the divine in order to create Gardens of Eden. Though many difficult stories are told and unpopular theories expounded, all these writers have faith in the future. They see possibilities for better worlds--Gardens of Eden--and are willing to ask hard questions and explore the deeper issues that will help create paths leading to these divine places. USC
PETER GILMOUR teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of The Wisdom of Memoir (St. Mary's Press, 1997).
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|Title Annotation:||Fall Book Section|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2003|
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