STATE OF THE ART
In Defense of Childish Optimism
I founded Writing for Peace on the simple concept that all of the world’s ills – war, pestilence, famine, global warming, social and economic injustice – can be cured, or at least improved, by caring for the earth and each other. Why is an anti-war organization concerned with environmental and human rights issues? First, over-population, limited natural resources, and a stressed ecosystem, make armed conflict more likely. And second, without justice, equality and freedom, there can be no true peace. So, our approach to anti-war activism is a holistic one.
Our mission statement makes our purpose clear:
Through education and creative writing, Writing for Peace seeks to cultivate the empathy that opens minds to new cultural views, to value the differences as well as the hopes and dreams that unite all of humanity, to develop a spirit of leadership and peaceful activism.
We began with a contest asking young writers (ages 13-19) to research a culture other than their own, imagining life within those social, political and economic challenges, and then to write in the voice of an individual within that culture. The ability to empathize with our characters is an essential component of strong writing. Empathy creates greater emotional depth in our text, and brings to light universal themes. In order to achieve authenticity, the young writers utilized online sources, books, videos, and conducted interviews.
In addition to their stories, we asked them to write a short essay about their process; what they found interesting, how they identified with their characters, and whether the experience made them think differently about their own culture. As poet and Civil Rights activist, Audre Lorde, said, “Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.”
Not surprisingly, the writers expressed a greater appreciation for their own culture, but they also were moved by the resourcefulness and resilience of their protagonists in the face of difficult societal pressures. Our first winners wrote about living as a Bulgarian Romani immigrant in France, a new widow learning to support her family in war torn Afghanistan, and a young girl’s struggles to conform in North Korea. Not only had they increased their knowledge of humanity, refined their creative writing, and communication skills, but they had achieved greater depths of understanding, empathy and compassion.
Some have cautioned that building a peace organization upon a foundation of empathy is naïve. To those doubters, I ask, what’s wrong with a little naïveté? I think it can be a mistake to equate worldliness with wisdom. Too often the word implies a state of jaded skepticism, conceding defeat before an attempt is made. It’s a word that carries a tinge of regret, of longing for the days of uncomplicated childish trust. Sure, we’ve faced hardships and suffering, but don’t those experiences underscore the need for greater compassion? I don’t deny this simplistic philosophy is rooted in my own childhood.
We weren’t church-goers, but the summer before fifth grade I spent two weeks at Solid Rock Bible Camp, enough time to acquire my archery and riflery badges, and an intense fear of the fires of hell. I returned home with the fervent conviction that my family was doomed to eternal damnation. My little sister was an easy convert. By dinner she’d joined me in my evangelical zeal, and we began our children’s crusade – complete with hysterical tears. My mom was raised a Bible-Belt Baptist, my dad a California Catholic. They reassured us that they’d accepted Jesus as their savior long ago. That night, as dad and I sat swatting mosquitoes on the back porch beneath a pink sky, he explained that there were many paths to heaven. Each religion has its own beliefs and traditions, he said, but all are unified by the “golden rule.” To illustrate his point, Dad quoted the bible. “Some men call me Jesus, and some men call me Mohammed. Some men call me Krishna, and some men call me Buddha. I answer to all of these, and more.” I didn’t discover that verse was fiction until years later, but to this day it seems like a deep truth.
At the heart of Writing for Peace is a reverence for the individual path. It comes back to the “Golden Rule.” Whether I consider my own life’s journey a path to God, or a higher self, or whether I trip along stubbing my toes and changing directions where I’m forced by nature, it is a sacred path that only my feet can walk. I believe this is true for each of us. Your path is no less sacred than mine. Your life is no less valuable. You are no less worthy of financial and physical security. Your children are no less precious.
These are simple, but high ideals. Most of us would acknowledge their truth, and yet we don’t really live them. How can we? If we truly thought of the innocent children killed and wounded by our drones the same way we thought about our own children, we wouldn’t be able to function. We may have moments when it hits us hard. A line of beautiful dark-haired children comes through our Facebook timeline, ashen-faced, laid out side-by-side in layers of blankets, red and blue and yellow, floral and geometric patterns of love. There is so much tenderness in the wrapping, that for a moment we think they are sleeping. It’s a kick to the stomach that leaves us gasping for air, and we are undone. Those images haunt us, flash into quiet moments, replay themselves in our dreams, but unlike the parents of those lost children, we push them to the back of our mind and go on. What choice do we have? We need to fix dinner, get the kids fed, scrubbed, and off to bed, make lunches for tomorrow, and damn the organic apples were $4 a stinking pound, and it won’t make a difference to the rainforest if they eat bananas just this once. Better to avoid these types of disturbing thoughts. What can we do about it other than sign internet petitions?
Nearly everyone in the developed world is aware of global warming. We buy local and plant gardens, recycle cans, newspapers, glass and plastics. Maybe we ride our bikes to work when the sun’s out, or even in the rain. Of course, these efforts make a difference, but we all know it’s not enough. The forests are burning, the glaciers are melting, the ocean is rising and swallowing island nations. The world’s economy is dependent on slave labor. Food and water security is precarious. And rather than address these critical issues, the corporate oligarchy and military industrial complex use increasingly violent means to secure the world’s natural resources.
The mainstream media makes these realities easier to ignore. Rarely do we see the consequences of U.S. policy in any sustained way that indicates culpability. Popular uprisings and demonstrations opposing corporate interests are downplayed, or not covered at all. If we are political, there is always the other party to blame for the devastation, if not, there are the sports teams, the latest fashions, and the captivating lives of the stars to distract us.
More than half of our U.S. tax dollars go to the military, but we don’t know what we’re funding. War isn’t as personal as it was forty years ago before the draft ended. We’re insulated from the uncomfortable truths of warfare by the Orwellian distortion of the language, as much as lack of proximity. “Collateral Damage” vs. murdered innocents; “Shock and Awe” vs. indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations and cultural heritage sites; “Targeted Strikes” vs. random and sudden devastation, killing anyone in the vicinity, as well as emergency responders; the “War on Terror” vs. an endless state of war. Terms meant to dehumanize the enemy serve the dual purpose of raising support for military action, and making it easier for soldiers to pull the trigger. During Vietnam the enemies were “Gooks”. In World War II we bombed the “Krauts” and “Japs.” Now it’s the “terrorists” and “Ragheads.” The terms degrade and objectify, as if we can bypass the moral consequences of mass murder by imagining the target in our rifle site is not a human being. It’s a slippery slope, as we’ve learned from Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, and “enhanced interrogation techniques” aka torture. The vocabulary of degradation is a shift away from consciousness, a willful anesthetic from the truth. Do we become less human as we become less conscious of our shared humanity?
What if the targets are nothing more than blips on a screen? In the infamous WikiLeaks video, Collateral Murder, U.S. Apache helicopter pilots shoot human beings on a public square in Baghdad. Two of the victims turned out to be Reuters journalist Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver, Saeed Chmagh. When a minivan stopped to pick up a wounded man, the pilots fired on them as well, killing the unarmed civilians, and wounding two children. Throughout the recording, the pilots can be heard carrying on like frat boys playing video games. None of the pilots involved in the slaughter were punished, but Pfc Bradley Manning, who leaked the video, is being held and charged with aiding the enemy, a capital offense. To the ground soldiers who came in after the Apache attack, the dead and wounded were not blips on a screen. Some have since become anti-war activists, raising funds for the wounded children.
There are more than 50,000 wounded soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a number which doesn’t include traumatic brain injuries, or post traumatic stress disorder. As of February, 6,656 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s estimated that for every soldier killed in combat, 25 veterans commit suicide, approximately 22 each day. The numbers are astounding, but are they surprising? Veterans who have witnessed the atrocities of war have become some of the most outspoken activists against this country’s militarism. They speak powerfully not only about war crimes inflicted upon innocent civilians, but about their own physical and mental anguish.
The drive to distance soldiers from dangerous and damaging (as well as unpopular) boots-on-the-ground campaigns is one of the key factors in our bourgeoning drone program. Predator drones are controlled by pilots sitting in ergonomic chairs on the other side of the globe, drinking Starbucks while they monitor families going about their daily business. A push of a button and, boom, the homes and their inhabitants are incinerated. Despite the physical distance between drone pilots and the frontline, they have not been insulated from symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Like other battle-weary soldiers, they describe feeling “disconnected from humanity,” and experience difficulties sleeping and interacting with others.
So what’s the next step in the military industrial complex’s manufactured apathy?
Last week a U.N human rights commission called for a worldwide moratorium on the “testing, production, assembly, transfer, acquisition, deployment and use” of killer robots, until an international conference can develop rules for their use. The U.N. report claims that “the United States, Britain, Israel, South Korea and Japan have developed various types of fully or semi-autonomous weapons.” There will be no human pilot at the controls; the robots will simply monitor the population for what they are programmed to consider suspect behaviors. Will we be exempt then from the moral degradation of killing another human being? Imagine living in a world where killing machines hover above you and your family 24/7, as they do now in other parts of the world. Are you comforted by the thought it could never happen here? Did you know the FAA predicts that by the end of the decade there could be as many as 30,000 drones flying in U.S. airspace?
Increasing the physical and emotional distance between us and the frontline is clearly not the answer. Somehow, we need to reverse the trend, and regain our common humanity. We need to bridge the divide between tax payers in the U.S. and other developed countries, and families in the Middle East who watch the skies for our drones. Empathizing with those who are suffering is painful, especially when we are called to acknowledge our own role in their torment. In order to care deeply, even when it hurts, we must regain enough of our childish optimism to believe that we can affect change. But how?
Beyond cultivating empathy and effective writing skills, the goal at Writing for Peace is to create a platform for young voices. What started as a small contest has grown into a collective of artists and activists reaching out to guide, elevate, and support the dreams of young writers. We’ve just published our first issue of DoveTales, an International Journal of the Arts, which features the winners of our contest among established and emerging writers, artists, and photographers.
Writing for Peace is evolving rapidly to focus on the many facets of peace. During the month of February we commemorated the tenth anniversary of Poets Against the War. We posted every day, including anti-war poetry and essays by founder Sam Hamill, Martin Espada, Richard Krawiec, Stephen Kuusisto, W.S. Merwin, Dr. Dahlia Wasfi, and others. Veronica Golos shared her poetry, as well as her beautiful interview with Sam Hamill. What better inspiration for young writers than these Poets Against the War? This spring, we’re publishing poetry and prose on the subjects of gun violence and women’s issues.
Our second Young Writers Contest expanded to include fiction, nonfiction and poetry divisions. We received 106 entries from teens in 21 different countries, with winners from the United States, Nigeria, India, and Singapore. Their work shows remarkable insight into topics such as indentured servitude, immigration, nationalism, natural disasters, environmental issues, prejudice, and war.
I’ve come to believe that the arts are our greatest hope for survival. The arts embolden us; they appeal directly to the universal quality of our hearts and souls. All of them – performance, visual, and writing arts – communicate powerful emotion, but I’m partial to the specificity of the literary arts. I believe the extended bond between the reader and the author provides a unique opportunity to enter a common dream, and emerge with a new awareness.
We are building a peace organization on a foundation of empathy because we need all people to care about each other, care about our beautiful fragile planet, and all the glorious life it sustains. We need people to care so much that they’ll leave their distractions, organize, and walk out into our streets. Our future depends on a peaceful revolution of compassion. It was a man of science, Canadian neurologist Donald B. Calne, who said, “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.” My childish optimism is based on this: if we know each other, we may be less inclined to kill each other.
Carmel Reid Mawle lives in Colorado and is a member of the Denver Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She has an English Lit Degree from the University of Washington, and a varied career that includes piano instruction, as well as operating a martial arts school, teaching women’s self-defense, child safety awareness, and traditional Hayashi-Ha Shito Ryu Karate. She has served as executive director of a nonprofit youth orchestra, and as Board President of Front Range Chamber Players. Mawle is currently working on a collection of short stories and essays based in part on research for a novel-in-progress about the complicated history between England and the Middle East.
More from Carmel Mawle:
Her short story, Jamila, was featured in Smokelong Quarterly. www.smokelong.com
Writing for Peace