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Horrors of War, Powers of Compassion

(Warning: graphic images. Photo credits Dr Samira Alani/Al Jazeera.)

As Buddhists engaged in the political realm, we try to remain open yet solid.  “Not Turning Away.”  In describing her teacher in the Zen tradition, one of our BPF Board members writes, “What inspires me most is his imperturbability.  He feels deeply, yet is not shocked or rattled off center.”

At 4 a.m. this morning, I was, I confess, leaning toward shock, and feeling somewhat rattled.  (Imperturbability takes practice.)  I was reviewing, more in-depth this time, some news I had seen last week about the skyrocketing rate of congenital malformations — birth defects — in certain cities of Iraq.  By now, the rates have surpassed those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after the atomic bombs.  Scientists suspect that the cause is depleted uranium, white phosphorus, and other controversial pollutants released from US weapons.

(More images here, if you feel prepared for them, along with an informative interview.)

Last week, after I first heard about the epidemic of birth defects and war-related cancers, I noticed a post in my Facebook feed from someone I know from high school: Jo.  Jo is a mother to a beautiful young daughter, and her Facebook personality is very loving, bright, and often hilarious.  She had shared this image with the following caption (adding no commentary of her own):


Leading the fight is U S Marine Gunnery Sgt. Michael Burghardt, known as ‘Iron Mike’ or just ‘Gunny’. He is on his third tour in Iraq. He had become a legend in the bomb disposal world after winning the Bronze Star for disabling 64 IEDs and destroying 1,548 pieces of ordnance during his second tour.

Then, on September 19, he got blown up. He had arrived at a chaotic scene after a bomb had killed four US Marines. He chose not to wear the bulky bomb protection suit. ‘You can’t react to any sniper fire and you get tunnel-vision,’ he explains. So, protected by just a helmet and standard-issue flak jacket, he began what bomb disposal officers term ‘the longest walk’, stepping gingerly into a 5 foot deep and 8 foot wide crater.

The earth shifted slightly and he saw a Senao base station with a wire leading from it. He cut the wire and used his 7 inch knife to probe the ground. ‘I found a piece of red detonating cord between my legs,’ he says. ‘That’s when I knew I was screwed.’ Realizing he had been sucked into a trap, Sgt Burghardt, 35, yelled at everyone to stay back. At that moment, an insurgent, probably watching through binoculars, pressed a button on his mobile phone to detonate the secondary device below the sergeant’s feet ‘A chill went up the back of my neck and then the bomb exploded,’ he recalls. ‘As I was in the air I remember thinking, ‘I don’t believe they got me..’ I was just ticked off they were able to do it. Then I was lying on the road, not able to feel anything from the waist down.’

His fellow Marines cut off his trousers to see how badly he was hurt. None could believe his legs were still there ‘My dad’s a Vietnam vet who’s paralyzed from the waist down,’ says Sgt Burghardt. ‘I was lying there thinking I didn’t want to be in a wheelchair next to my dad and for him to see me like that. They started to cut away my pants and I felt a real sharp pain and blood trickling down. Then I wiggled my toes and I thought, ‘Good, I’m in business.’ As a stretcher was brought over, adrenaline and anger kicked in. ‘I decided to walk to the helicopter. I wasn’t going to let my team-mates see me being carried away on a stretcher.’ He stood and gave the insurgents who had blown him up a one-fingered salute. ‘I flipped them one’. It was like, ‘OK, I lost that round but I’ll be back next week.’

Copies of a photograph depicting his defiance, taken by Jeff Bundy for the Omaha World-Herald, adorn the walls of homes across America and that of Col John Gronski, the brigade commander in Ramadi, who has hailed the image as an exemplar of the warrior spirit.

Sgt Burghardt’s injuries – burns and wounds to his legs and buttocks – kept him off duty for nearly a month and could have earned him a ticket home. But, like his father – who was awarded a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for being wounded in action in Vietnam – he stayed in Ramadi to engage in the battle against insurgents who are forever coming up with more ingenious ways of killing Americans.

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In my pre-dawn ruminations, I shared one of the articles on the birth defects over Facebook, and tagged my friend.

Jo, i thought of you when i read this, and the piece you posted recently about the US soldier blown up in iraq, who survived. i’m not saying his life isn’t valuable, but i can understand why iraqis would want to drive out the US military as quickly as possible… curious what your thoughts are. ♥

At 8am I woke up again, nervous to see what Jo’s response might be.  Here’s what I found.

I’m grateful as hell for our soldiers and the sacrifices they’ve made, I mean REALLY grateful.. My bf is a vet himself.. But those are babies. I cannot believe we knowingly brought that upon those ppl, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of it (sadly I’m kind of ignorant about this sort of thing :-/ ). Literally at a loss for words for the first time in my mouthy life…

And Jo’s big heart of compassion wins out.

This is one approach from engaged Buddhism that guides me in my political interactions, large and small: compassionate confrontation.  Confronting a one-sided perspective with other sides of the story.  Being open yet firm.

Obviously, however much these images may keep me awake at night, my experience does not begin to compare to the suffering of Iraqi people actually enduring the war.  I’m not saying that no one should get angry, or that a calm response is the only appropriate response.  I can understand people becoming enraged over military atrocities.  As His Holiness The Dalai Lama has said:

Connecting to the heartbreak of this imperialist war, then, I ask myself: how can we share these stories far and wide, on the basis of compassion?  And then, how can we help stop the creation or shipment of white phosphorus and depleted uranium?  How can we intervene directly in the military machine of the U.S.?  Clearly, some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in the world have not stopped this harm.  What will?

For now, I’m resting for a moment on the edge of shock, close to being rattled.  And I incorporate into my practice: may many of these children somehow survive. May they and their families find healing. May some go on to be beautiful friends and brilliant contributors in the fight against imperialism and the death-machines of capitalism. Friends in the effort to cultivate structures and societies that truly value and respect life.

I can only hope.  And do my best to make it so.

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