Note from the author: Coming Home is a chapter from RADICAL PEACE: Refusing War, published by TrineDay (March 2010, ISBN 0979988691, 240 pages), which presents the first-person experiences of war resisters, deserters, and peace activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It's a journey along diverse paths of nonviolence, the true stories of people working for peace in unconventional ways. Another chapter, "The Surge," was published on Swans on June 14, 2010. Other chapters are described on a page of the publisher's Web site.
RADICAL PEACE is a collection of reports from antiwar activists, the true stories of their efforts to change our warrior culture. In this chapter a mother tells of her son's return from combat. She wishes to remain anonymous.
(Swans - July 18, 2011) My son spent a year fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq in Delta Force. It was the worst year of his life ... and of mine. As he told me later, there were times he thought he'd never come home. That was also my constant fear. For 365 days, every time the phone rang I thought it would be a voice from the Pentagon telling me with well-practiced condolence that my son had died a hero.
Jim had joined the army after college. I think he was trying to finally win his father's approval. The old man was a West Pointer who had served a long military career, including two tours in Vietnam, and retired a colonel. He probably would've made general if it hadn't been for his drinking. He never showed much interest in Jim and me, preferring the camaraderie of his soldier buddies.
We divorced when Jim was in high school. The colonel didn't ask for visitation rights, and Jim was crushed when it became obvious that his dad didn't care about seeing him.
Jim and the colonel had little in common. Jim wasn't the military type -- he didn't go in for rough sports or violent movies. He was a sensitive boy who liked to read. He and I had similar interests and could communicate well together, much better than most mothers and teenaged sons.
In college Jim majored in English, which dad dismissed as wimpy. Disapproval was the colonel's default setting, and this ate away at Jim for years, undermining his self-confidence.
Although I was dismayed to see Jim following in his father's footsteps by enlisting in the military, dad finally took notice of him. When Jim graduated from Officer Candidate School, dad actually showed some pride and introduced the young lieutenant to his buddies. He spent more time with his son; Jim had finally done something the colonel could identify with.
At last Jim was getting the patriarchal attention he had craved so much when he was younger, and he ate it up. He became more and more like his dad, and I felt left out. My son was now a gung-ho soldier. He was polite with me but distant, awkward, a bit condescending. We couldn't talk together anymore like we used to. He was slipping away, becoming another person, one I didn't feel as comfortable with.
When Jim volunteered for Delta Force, dad was really impressed but I was distraught. By then the "war on terror" (what a false propaganda slogan that is, since war itself is the greatest terror) was underway, and I knew he'd be in the middle of the fighting.
First Jim was in Afghanistan, chasing Osama bin Laden, then in Iraq, chasing Saddam Hussein. These were men the USA had originally helped into power and armed so they could kill Russians and Iranians. When they ungratefully turned against their masters, they became monsters who now needed to be destroyed. In trying to get them, we've killed three hundred thousand people -- a hundred times more than were killed in 9-11 -- and sown the seeds for far worse terrorism.
The US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq made it clear that Bush, Hussein, and bin Laden are the same type: violent men who kill to impose their will. Men like this are too primitive to be leaders -- they'll kill us all.
My main fear of course was the risk to Jim's own life, but I also hated the thought of him killing other people, and I resented our government for sending him into such violence just for the sake of cheap oil and corporate profits.
I'd never been particularly political before, but what Jim was going through radicalized me. I began to see the roots of aggression are not just economic but also patriarchal -- generations of ruling fathers lusting for war and passing this addiction on to their sons. The sons imitate the fathers because they yearn for their approval. Given this syndrome, as long as men hold the power, they will continue to slaughter each other.
There have of course been a few women warriors and war-mongering women politicians, but they seem to me to be products of patriarchy, women wanting to be men. Most women, as the givers of life, are repelled by killing.
Jim had been repelled by it too when he was younger. Whenever we had mice, he couldn't stand the idea of killing them and insisted on using a live trap so we could let them go outdoors. We cried together for days when we had to have our sick, elderly dog put to sleep. Jim had been kind and gentle, but that was when we were close, before he decided to join the patriarchs.
His military training seemed to have hardened his heart, made him less emotional. What had a year of war done to him? I was afraid of what he might be like when he came home ... if he came home.
I was overjoyed when he finally returned to the States with only a minor wound. He had a month's leave before his next assignment and flew out to visit me.
I hardly recognized him as he came through the flight gate. He was in uniform with a green beret and black hightop boots. He looked older, bigger, harder. But when he scooped me up into his arms for big hug and kiss, I nearly fainted with relief.
I had planned a special celebration with dinner at a fancy restaurant, but he said he'd rather stay home and have a quiet evening here. As I looked at him more closely, he seemed sad and tired.
I pulled all my culinary skills together and cooked him the best meal I could manage. I also laid in a supply of Jack Daniels. It was his father's favorite bourbon and now Jim's ... following in the footsteps.
I was happy he was home safe with me, but I was worried about him being sent back there. This war was not going to end anytime soon.
We had drinks before, during, and after the meal, needing to let go of a year's worth of anxiety. I could tell he was glad to see me, but he was also full of sorrow. Trying to wash away bad memories with alcohol doesn't work very well, and he got gloomier as the evening went on.
I thought a movie might distract him, cheer him up, so I put in a comedy DVD and we sat together on the couch to watch it. Somehow none of the jokes seemed funny, though, and I switched it off.
I decided to try the direct approach. "Jim, tell me about it. Just tell me all about it. Maybe you need to get the war off your chest."
He looked grief-stricken, and I took his hand.
He was silent awhile, then began to speak hesitantly. "I'll try to tell you. Something terrible happened there ... Iraq. Well, lots of terrible things ... but one particular. I shouldn't say 'it happened' ... that's a cop out. I did something ... was part of something. I don't want to talk about it ... but I guess I should. Maybe it'll help." He paused, then said in a strained whisper, "And I know you'll still love me ... no matter what I did," but with a hint of a question in his voice.
I nodded and squeezed his hand but stayed silent so he'd keep talking.
His face collapsed into tears, but he took a deep breath and continued. "There was a car ... coming down the road ... outside of Baghdad. And we ... we had a checkpoint, supposed to stop all the cars ... search them. This car ... didn't stop ... drove off the road to get around us ... just kept going. Our captain yelled, 'Suicide bombers! Get 'em!'"
Jim paused and looked at me, damp eyes full of torment. "The day before ... a car had driven into some Americans, blown them up. We thought they were headed for our main outfit. We shot them up."
He looked away from me, and I could hardly hear him speak. "But there wasn't any bomb ... just two women and four kids ... afraid of us ... just trying to get away from us ... and we killed them ... we killed them all."
A cry broke from him and he doubled over, gasping with remorse. Sobs shuddered through his body, and he kept shaking his head as if he couldn't believe, couldn't bear to believe, he'd killed those people. I could tell he'd been carrying this misery around since then, caught in a guilt he couldn't release.
I had to save him from this, but I had no idea how. Acting on instinct, I hugged him to me and saw a helpless need beneath the tears on his face. His head was on my shoulder, and I pulled it down onto my bosom, the place where he'd been totally content and happy. He clutched me and mouthed yearningly at me through my blouse while I stroked his head.
My nipples tightened from stimulation but my chest tightened from fear. Uh-oh, wait, I thought, what's happening here? This is going too far. Stop!
But I couldn't. His need seemed to put me into a trance. I somehow knew this was the only thing that would help him. Unable to refuse him, I let him open my blouse and bra and touch my breasts. He was weeping and whimpering as he kissed them. His tears were streaming on them and his nose was running on them. Finally he stopped crying and his gasps became gurgles. He sucked and licked and gulped at them as if trying to swallow them.
I was in shock. I kept telling myself, You're his mother ... You're his mother. At first these words were to get me to stop, then they became the reason to continue. I knew I was the only one who could rescue him now, who had an antidote to the violence. If this would help, that was more important than some old rules about good and bad. I could feel healing love for my son welling up inside me and flowing out my breasts into him. I ran my fingers through his hair to let him know it was all right.
When he had nursed enough, he sought my mouth, his eyes closed but no longer crying. We kissed in a fusion of giving and need. I was giving everything I had to comfort him, and he was taking it, and it was helping. I've never been kissed with such desperation, but it was calming him -- I could feel his trauma lessening.
As he embraced me, the medals on his uniformed chest poked my breast. "Ow!" I protested, drawing back. "Those things ... hard and cold."
"Sorry," he said with a wince and stroked the breast to make the pain go away. Our eyes met in chaos: What were we doing? Were we really going to do this? Incest! No!
Jim looked down at the medals that had hurt me. "Get rid of these things." he said, tearing off his shirt.
I saw a spray of pink welts across his chest, scars from grenade shrapnel where he'd been wounded. "Does it still hurt?" I asked.
He shook his head, no.
I touched the scars delicately, tentatively, wishing I could make them disappear. Jim was my little boy and he was a grown wounded man. I got rid of the rest of my blouse and bra, and our bare chests joined. I pressed my breasts against his scars, trying to bring back some softness to his life. Eyes closed to shut off our minds, we went back to kissing and rubbing against each other.
Before, it had been more comforting, a maternal soothing of pain, but now it became more sexual, a man and woman wanting each other. I let him do whatever he wanted ... and he wanted it all, right there on the couch, then on the rug. He broke the zipper of my skirt getting it off. He had a terrible time taking off his hightop paratrooper boots. Once nude, we took one look at each other and closed our eyes again, afraid eye contact would make us stop.
It was all too urgent for foreplay. As my son entered me, I tried to envelop him with total love and acceptance, to drive away the memories that were torturing him. I embraced him with my arms, my legs, every part of my body, and he needed everything I could give. I've never felt so needed.
As he cried out this time, it was a cry of joy.
He fell asleep right afterwards, and I lay beside him, watching him. As his face relaxed, the strain that had tightened it before faded away, leaving it clear and young again.
I was happy and mortified at the same time. Why had I done this? My heart said it was right, but my head said it was wrong. I tried to sort out a storm of conflict.
Intuitively I knew I was giving him a way out of the violence. Unless I broke him out of his torment, only two paths would be left for him: He'd either repress what he'd done in Iraq and become an unfeeling brute, or be overwhelmed by it and destroy himself.
I was offering him the opposite of the military mentality. I was taking my son back from those savage men who run the world, winning him away from the warriors.
I woke him up enough to get him into my bed, then fell asleep beside him knowing what we'd done was right.
In the gray hangover morning, though, things looked different. We were both groggy, headachy, aghast at last night. Had we actually done that -- crossed the great divide that separates mothers and sons? What would happen to us now?
Barely looking at me, Jim scooted out of bed wrapped in a sheet, and we showered in separate bathrooms. Over coffee he said with a contrite, self-blaming shake of his head, "I'm really sorry ... about what happened. I don't know what got into me."
Looking at his bleak expression, I knew if he added this to his load of guilt, it would crush him. He was balanced between condemnation and love, and I had to tip him in the life-affirming direction. I took his hand and tried to break through his regrets with my eyes. "Jim, please believe me, it was wonderful. I'm so glad you made love to me."
I began to cry; he moved his chair next to mine and held me in his arms. "Don't think it was wrong. It was right ... it was the best thing!" I insisted and kissed him passionately on the lips. He kissed me back. I stroked his face and head, he stroked me. I rubbed my breasts against him; he breathed deeply and took both of them in his hands. Now desire had replaced guilt on his face. We stood up without a word, and I led him back to bed.
Making love with your son first thing in the morning turns out to be a great hangover cure!
For him really to leave the past behind, we needed a change of place, a new setting for our new development, so we drove to the coast and stayed at a lodge by the sea. It turned into a honeymoon. We made love on the beach among driftwood logs. We made love driving back from dinner, pulling off the road and diving into the rear seat because we couldn't wait until we got to our room. We made love on the deck of a small sailboat and nearly capsized. We made love!
At first we didn't talk of the war -- just blotted it out with positive experiences, replaced it with affection. Our talk was about each other and the beautiful nature around us.
After a week we returned home, and Jim shared my bedroom. We enjoyed the most wonderful rapport. During the day, he worked on the house -- fixing things, cleaning out the attic, getting the storm shutters ready for winter. At night, we snuggled together.
Gradually we talked more about the war. We worked a lot on forgiveness, getting him to stop blaming himself, to lift the guilt from his broad shoulders.
I left a book by Noam Chomsky prominently on the coffee table, and Jim picked it up and began reading. He was shocked to learn that in every nation where we now have terrorism, the USA had first done terrible things. We've overthrown their governments, installed dictators, undermined their economies -- all to strengthen our business interests. The terror attacks are retaliation for what we've done to their countries.
Chomsky shows how our corporate media have created an image of fiendish terrorists who "hate us for our freedom." But they really hate us for dominating them. Since we started the aggression, that means the attacks, detestable as they are, won't end until we change our policies.
The most pathetic thing is that we Americans still believe it's "our" country, when it and both political parties are firmly in the hands of the corporations.
Jim and I talked and talked, sometimes argued, about these issues. This view went against everything he -- and all of us -- had been raised to believe. We've all been subjected as children to patriotic rituals that caused us to connect the nation we live in with our family and then with God -- the founding fathers, our own father, and the Heavenly Father all joined in patriarchy. Because of this emotional identification, we react to criticism of the country as an attack on our family. This hurts our feelings on a deep personal level, so we reject it, convinced it can't be true. It's too threatening to us. We tune it out and often resent the people making it.
But Jim's war experience showed that the criticism he was reading was true. As he and I connected what he'd read with the things he'd seen, he began to question his military obedience. Gradually he came to oppose this "war on terror," then all war and killing. This was a painful transition for him: it meant turning against his father.
At the end of his leave time, he went to the Pentagon and resigned his army commission. When he told his father this, the old man yelled he was disowning him and hung up the phone. Jim has tried to communicate a couple of times since then, but dad won't talk to him.
That was months ago. Jim and I are still close, but we're not living together. He's in graduate school, working on a PhD in peace studies, an interdisciplinary program involving anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, theology, and philosophy. He's determined to use his experiences to convince others to reject the military and resist war.
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About the Author
William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His other books include the novels A World of Hurt (Rinehart Foundation Award), CD-Ring, and Summer Snow, which was reviewed on Swans in March 2006. A selection of Hathaway's writing is available at http://www.peacewriter.org. (back)