I have been following, with sometimes horrified fascination, the initial trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning. At the same time, I have been reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration, which is, among other things, a meditation on the conflict between conscience and patriotic duty among officers serving in World War I.
Barker highlights the situation of the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who served bravely in France before coming to the conviction that the war was being prolonged for unconscionable reasons and thus causing brutal and unnecessary damage. His powerful open letter, which cost him dearly when published in the London Times, can be read here. http://allpoetry.com/poem/8499053-Sassoons_Public_Statement_Of_Defiance-by-Siegfried_Sassoon
This may seem like an odd topic for a post on a work/parenting blog, but I feel it is pertinent for three reasons:
1. I have a military aged son. He has not enlisted and I don’t believe he will (in part because he knows I would shoot his foot off before I allowed him to take part in a conflict we both agree is insane), but some of his friends have, and they have parents, too. I have two nephews who have served overseas, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq. This is not something that is happening to Them, Over There. It affects us all.
2. Like many people, I have been in the position of witnessing wrongdoing at the workplace, and being frustrated by futile attempts to address this through the “proper” channels. In my case, I believed a child was endangered, and eventually I made a desperate decision that ended in my quitting my job after strong hints that I was going to be let go.
In retrospect there were other, more sensible ways I could have handled the situation—but although I was older than Private Manning, I was still quite young and naive. I was shocked by what I saw, and by the apparent callousness of my superiors, and I responded with all the force I could muster. The price I paid was minor compared to those paid by Sassoon and, it seems likely, Manning—I was out of work for a while, and my career may have suffered because I did not feel able to ask my supervisors for a reference, but that was as far as it went. Still, I don’t know whether I would have taken the same risk after becoming a parent. I was willing to condemn myself to financial uncertainty (at least in the short term) but once Ben entered the picture my priorities shifted. Is this right? I don’t know.
3. As a fledgling psychotherapist, I helped to lead groups of Vietnam veterans who suffered from PTSD. Decades after returning home, these men were haunted by nightmares, flashbacks and pervasive recollections that kept them from sleeping or, often, engaging in meaningful activity. For the vast majority, the content of their preoccupations related, not to their own suffering, but to the suffering they had, under orders, inflicted on innocent civilians, especially children. The documented actions Private Manning released bear a strong similarity to the stories I heard at the VA. If his actions can save another generation of soldiers from this torment, perhaps they should be considered patriotic, rather than treasonous.
As a shamefully lapsed, but still convinced, Quaker, I believe in the obligation to speak truth to power, and that humanitarian concerns trump allegiance to party or country, or workplace. I understand that the legalities are more complicated—but the visceral response to brutality tends to be direct and immediate.