The Truth Force of Sorrow

By Susan Van Haitsma


My neighbor, who is almost five, is one of my greatest teachers. For most of his life, we’ve shared weekly play dates, and I cherish this window he gives me into the fascinating, focused mind of a child living in the very present moment.

Lately, my little neighbor has been exploring the realm of weapons and combat. Following the lead of his parents, whose wisdom I trust and admire without reservation, I tend to go with the flow when he sets the stage for our imaginary battle scenarios.

Our war play provides interesting opportunities to experiment with various responses to violence. Generally, when my young friend asks me or the ‘bad guy’ Lego or Playmobile characters I represent to take up weapons against his ‘good guy’ characters, I suggest alternative means of engagement.

Are his guys hungry? Would they join my guys for lunch? Gradually, we find that the weapons and armor we or the characters are toting around impede doing things like eating imaginary lunches, and often by the time we are done playing, the weapons have been discarded due to impracticality.

Sometimes, however, his characters simply kill my characters. During our most recent play session, my surviving character said that he wanted to be alone for a minute because he was sad that his friends were dead. My young neighbor, who of course is wise to my motives, replied, “Susan, there’s no sad in this game.”

Soldiers themselves, those who have “skin in the game,” often use the same metaphor for war, according to my veteran friends. “Just play the game,” they tell each other – a game in which sadness and stress are supposed to be denied.

When my preschool friend disengaged from the imaginary world for a moment to clarify the rules, he indicated his ability to distinguish between real and pretend. Real soldiers must live in the real world, however, and when they make a game of it out of emotional necessity or peer pressure, they suffer. When politicians make a game of war, the soldier suffers further.

Because real war is not a game, the revelation of war’s costs and consequences cannot be declared against the rules. Yet US government leaders disregard or deny even the most basic human consequence as sadness, as though they have the power to will it into non-existence. In the meantime, the excruciating painfulness of war has found powerful expression through soldiers’ family members, military veterans and many allied international witnesses to war such as Women in Black and CodePink.

Recently, several members of Military Families Speak Out visited Austin following an Easter vigil at Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas. Cindy Sheehan mentioned the loneliness and pain she continues to feel even while surrounded by friends and supporters. I could see the evidence in her eyes when we spoke briefly following her presentation.

I also met Carlos Arredondo, a native of Costa Rica whose harrowing story concerning the death of his eldest son was not shared entirely from the stage, but in a few words he shared with people afterward as they were leaving.

“Look here, at my scars, where I was burned,” he said, lifting his shirt to show where, in a panic of distress, he had set himself on fire after climbing into the Marine van that had just arrived carrying the news about his 20 year-old son, Alex. It had been Carlos’ birthday, and his initial thought when the van pulled up was that Alex was making a surprise visit home from Iraq to help him celebrate.

Later, in an article by Eugene Richards in The Nation, I learned more of Arredondo’s story. As parents of dead soldiers often report, the pain and sorrow usually is felt long before the moment they are informed of their child’s death. “I see all the sadness, see how they kill, see how the Marines move through dark alleyways, kick doors, blindfold people, while afraid most of the time for snipers and bombs,” Arredondo said, referring to his distress when Alex was deployed to the Middle East over a year before his death. “It was too much, too much, too much for parents.”

For parents like Cindy Sheehan, Carlos Arredondo, and other members of Gold Star Families for Peace, sorrow has propelled them to action. When Arredondo spoke in Austin, he carried a poster-sized photograph of his uniformed son lying in his casket. As one of only a few Gold Star parents who have been able to arrange for open caskets, he felt it was important to share the image, which he held aloft when he and other members of MFSO spoke to the press and the public.

A warm, intense man who, like Sheehan, was quick to thank and embrace those who attended their presentation, Arredondo has channeled his sorrow into an outward expression of care for others, so that they will not have to endure what he has. As Sheehan often has noted, grief also can increase fearlessness. “I know how to say ‘Impeach’ in two languages,” said Arredondo, firmly.

Sorrow is the natural response to death, and, as my young neighbor seems to know instinctively, the full expression of sadness may be war’s most natural and effective deterrent. As Gandhi demonstrated by fasting and taking on suffering as a response to killing, sorrow is a truth force that says, “This is what war feels like.” To a populace whose national directive stresses the pursuit of happiness, sorrow is an important obstacle to business as usual.

On Mother’s Day weekend, many events are planned to express the acute sadness caused by invasion, war and occupation, with a special emphasis on the huge human cost to families of the dead. In the large scheme of things, we are all family, and the cost has been too much, too much, too much.

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