A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Fifty years ago, I found myself in the war-ravaged former nation of Okinawa, where some of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War had taken place, and where I began to learn of the true atrocities of the atomic bombing of Japan. I also heard there from fellow Marines first-hand accounts of the race wars in my own country, about lynchings, about Bull Conner’s dogs set on nonviolent civil rights marchers, stories I had known only from brief news accounts. I learned about how the impoverished people of Vietnam had driven out the imperialist French and now faced a growing American presence as they struggled toward their own democratic self-rule. President Eisenhower had spoken of our need “to protect our investments in tin and tungsten.”
I read Gandhi. I read Zen. I read “War is a Racket” by the Marine Corps general, Smedley Butler, who led the overthrowing of several governments himself. I read Albert Camus’s remarkable essay, “Neither Victims nor Executioners,” and I became a devout anti-war campaigner, much to the chagrin of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Fifty years have passed, each with its wars, its body counts, its “collateral damage” that strips people of names and faces and bloody bodies, leaving only numbers, numbers deemed “necessary” by the political class that overthrew democratic governments from Iran to South and Central America, always for the benefit of corporate giants-Standard Oil, the United Fruit Company.
In the past twenty years, following Bush Senior’s bombing of Iraq, Clinton bombed Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan; George W. Bush, bombed Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia; Barack Obama has bombed Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. And now the drum-beating to wage war in Syria grows ever louder. The President says we have no definable objective and yet bombs are necessary once again. And once again, as I have every year for half a century, I call out the corporate rulers for their murders and lies because without justifying mass murder and justifying torture and lies, war would be impossible to wage. I ask today, as I did ten years ago, “Who will speak for the conscience of our country?” Who will stand with the innocents we have damned?
Half broken on that smoky night,
hunched over sake in a serviceman’s dive
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa,
nearly fifty years ago,
I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks
who stopped the traffic on a downtown
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas
and kerosene, and he struck a match
and burst into flame.
That was June, nineteen-sixty-three,
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine.
The master did not move, did not squirm,
he did not scream
in pain as his body was consumed.
Neither child nor yet a man,
I wondered to my Okinawan friend,
what can it possibly mean
to make such a sacrifice, to give one’s life
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.
How can any man endure such pain
and never cry and never blink.
And my friend said simply, “Thich Quang Dúc
had achieved true peace.”
And I knew that night true peace
for me would never come.
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.
Half a century later, I think
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc,
revered as a bodhisattva now–his lifetime
building temples, teaching peace,
and of his death and the statement that it made.
Like Shelley’s, his heart refused to burn,
even when they burned his ashes once again
in the crematorium–his generous heart
turned magically to stone.
What is true peace, I cannot know.
A hundred wars have come and gone
as I’ve grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.
Mine’s the heart that burns
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.
Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I’ve learned?
Poem from Border Songs (Word Palace Press, 2012). Reprinted by permission of the author. Prose from Writing for Peace. Copyright 2013 Sam Hamill. Reprinted by permission of the author..
About Sam Hamill
Sam Hamill (1943-2018) was the author of more than forty books, including fifteen volumes of original poetry (most recently Habitation: Collected Poems, 2014, Lost Horse Press); four collections of literary essays, including A Poet’s Work and Avocations: On Poetry & Poets; and some of the most distinguished translations of ancient Chinese and Japanese classics of the last half-century. He co-founded, and for thirty-two years was editor at, Copper Canyon Press. He taught in prisons for fourteen years and worked extensively with battered women and children. An outspoken political pacifist, in 2003, declining an invitation to the White House, he founded Poets Against War, compiling the largest single-theme poetry anthology in history, 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets.