Now that I have those children and have watched the towers fall, my pacifism has been tested. Like a mother bear guarding her young, I would defend them with force if necessary. But is this war necessary?
I wrapped myself in a quilt and sat up until dawn listening to Bernard Shaw give the play-by-play on CNN while huddled under a hotel desk as missiles fell on Iraq like neon rain. It felt wrong going to war for the reasons we were given, and it was even worse witnessing it from the comfort of my own bed. The Ole Miss radio station ran non-stop play of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It," while MTV looped John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."
Almost 12 years later, here we are again. Same errant country, same bad guy, same president, give or take a few chromosomes and a couple of IQ points. You were either for the Gulf War or against it, and I was a know-it-all graduate student looking for a cause. Everything seemed so black and white then. Now, age, apathy and the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks have left me a little gray around the edges.
We were an odd trio in 1991: Grant, the loud British Marxist; Anthony, the African American activist; and me, the pony-tailed white, Deep-Southern sorority girl. We formed a group called the Mississippi Committee against Western Aggression. It attracted professors, Palestinians, Jews, Egyptians, aging hippies, Marxists, pacifists and politically enlightened Deadheads. The Marxist, a former soldier in the British Army, hinted at covert operations carried out in Northern Ireland that never reached our news. An older Palestinian recounted his experiences during the Intifada where he lived for weeks in a tiny cell with walls of nails that prevented him from leaning or sitting. Charged by the group's personal stories and my anthropology studies, I felt my worldview exploding beyond the kudzu-covered environs of Ole Miss. I went from being a Campus Favorite to donning a hooded jacket to post protest fliers and worrying about my phone being tapped.
The country was awash in a sea of yellow ribbons, and blind patriotism was expected. Anyone not in compliance was considered a traitor not only to Gulf War soldiers but to Vietnam veterans as well. I had called to tell my uncle, a decorated Vietnam veteran, that his niece was going to be on the 6 p.m. local news leading an anti-Gulf War rally on the Ole Miss campus. "But you can't change the world, Mimi. There's always been war. There will always be war." I could barely hear my uncle's words for my own sniffling. I had already worked up the nerve to warn my conservative attorney father and could only thank God that my Rush Limbaugh-worshiping mother was in Florida with her tennis buddies. The conversation with my uncle was much more difficult. I tried to explain myself so fervently to him that he said he wondered who I was really trying to convince.
On the steps of the Student Union, I introduced Arun Ghandi, Mahatma Ghandi's grandson who founded the Ghandi Institute of Peace in Memphis, Tenn. In a soft, engaging voice, he delivered a moving speech about winning peace without violence. Everyone cheered. Next, our Marxist stepped up and screamed about imperialism and self-determination. (Ghandi was so offended he later wrote a letter to the campus newspaper disassociating himself from our group.) Then I was alone, standing at the microphone with some carefully rehearsed comments to end the rally. I heard an angry voice yelling at me from the crowd, "If you don't love this country, why don't you leave it!" Others egged him on. I shouted back as nicely and as sternly as any little Chi Omega "Commie" can: "We do love this country, and we're not going to leave it. We're going to stay here and change it for the better!" I felt like Hanoi Jane meets Scarlett O'Hara.
During the Gulf War, I would think to myself: "I'm so glad I will be able to tell my future children that I stood up for what I believed." Now that I have those children and have watched the towers fall, my pacifism has been tested. Like a mother bear guarding her young, I would defend them with force if necessary. But is this war necessary? Will I condone others killing and being killed for my family's safety? Fear has clouded my resolve. Arun Ghandi addressed this very emotion after Sept. 11: "First, we must understand that nonviolence is not a strategy that we can use in times of peace and discard in a moment of crisis. Nonviolence is about personal attitudes, about becoming the change we wish to see in the world. Because a nation's collective attitude is based on the attitude of the individual."
There was a peace rally in Jackson today. I piled the kids in the minivan and headed Downtown. It was raining by the time we reached the small group in front of the Eastland Federal Courthouse, so I just kept driving. But I stuck a big thumbs-up out the window, and shouted "All right! Way to go!" as a cameraman taped us driving down Capitol Street. My 6-year-old son yelled from the back seat, "Whuddya do that for?" "That's the great thing about America," I told him. "You can say whatever you think, even if nobody else agrees with you. It's part of being patriotic," I told him. Later, I realized the protesters probably just thought I was flipping them off.
Mimi Holland-Lilly is a writer, an anthropologist and a stay-at-home mother of two.
It's very nice to see someone pointing out that a citizen can be patriotic without falling into the fervor of blind nationalism. Thanks for this one.
- John Nielsen