Susan Raffo

When you're writing about war, there aren't any good headlines

Filed By Susan Raffo | August 16, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, The Movement
Tags: liberation, privilege, racial profiling, Susan Raffo, transgender murder, violence, war

I wrote this piece a week before President Obama announced that we were pulling out of Iraq by the end of August. I am reminding myself that this is not the end of the war.

mission-accomplished.pngToday was a beautiful day. I pulled weeds from the garden and harvested more cucumbers. There is a pile of them in the refrigerator. I am thinking of making pickles this weekend. I've never done that before, make pickles. I bought the white vinegar at the store this afternoon and read the recipe twice. There's a war on right now.

In the afternoon I went with my eight-year-old daughter to our weaving class. We're learning some basic stitches. We started with plain weaving, three colors of stripes repeating one after another. Today we decided to switch it up a bit. We took one of the stripes and made it thicker at the side. Then we practiced curving it up, making it end in the middle of another color's space. It felt brave to try new stitches, our hands sweaty in the afternoon sun while the mosquitos bit us. And there's a war going on even this second.

My family is going out of town this weekend - off to a friend's cabin. They'll swim in the lake, eat good food and run around in the woods. I'm staying home. Truth to tell, I'm excited for the empty house. It doesn't happen very often. I'm planning on making those pickles, finishing up some writing, and probably watching a movie by myself. Mostly, I'm thinking about the quiet and the stillness. About that glass of red wine alone and after the sun has gone down. I love my family and it is nice to be alone sometimes.

And there is a war going on. Right now. Three of them or three separate parts of a really big war. Over there, on the other side of the map. I can't feel them. They are too far away. I can read the numbers and those numbers try and find a place in my head: 4,500 Americans dead. Over 100,000 US military wounded. And so many more Iraqi killed - no one is keeping accurate statistics, they say. Some projections say 105,000 civilian deaths in Iraq alone. That's just regular people, watering their garden, weaving with their daughters. Civilians. Then there's Afghanistan and Pakistan and, well, other lands that lace through the mountains. A lot of people have died. And I've been hanging out at home weaving. And probably next weekend I'm going to make pesto - the basil is piling up.

The war isn't completely far away. There's been death here, too, just right around the corner. Peter Kastner killed himself a week or so ago. He's from St. Paul, just a few miles from where I live in Minneapolis. He was in Iraq for four years and injured pretty badly. When he came back, his family says that things weren't quite right. The technical term is post-traumatic stress disorder. What that means is that the things he had seen or touched or heard while stationed in Iraq wouldn't leave his body. They stayed there, inflaming his nerve ends, tightening him up into a tighter and tighter ball. He disappeared last April and was just found a few weeks ago, dead, in Yellowstone National Park.

I used to work at Yellowstone, back in 1983. One of my jobs was trail crew. I walked the trails looking for things that needed reporting - trees fallen over trails, washed out camping sites, bear scat piled up where people would be walking. I learned a lot that summer: how to play dead if you spotted a bear, how to recognize sparks that might lead to fire and how to put them out, and how to walk 35 miles in a single day. You don't really walk. Instead, you find your pace, that magic pace that makes the land sweep along under your feet while you are just gliding. You walk and walk and don't get tired. I expected bears, moose, and even collapsed backpackers, but not the bodies of US veterans. I don't expect the bodies of US veterans anywhere, except in the places downtown where homeless people hang out. During the training sessions from the US Forest Service, we weren't told what to do with bodies, veterans or otherwise. You would think it was because we weren't at war in 1983, but that isn't true.

Ronald Reagan launched the invasion of Grenada, Operation Fury, in October 1983. 113 killed, 29 were civilians, and then at least some 500 were wounded. Those numbers are a mix of US and Grenadian bodies. I'm not sure why we separate them usually. Once the heart stops beating and the nervous system shuts down, they're all just cells rushing quickly back to earth.

And then there were the troops we sent to Lebanon in the same year, forcing ourselves into someone else's struggle, a struggle whose roots we were accountable for and now could only make worse. So we forced our way in just to make sure that our interests weren't ignored. Oil, of course. The same pipelines and oil supplies that we're fighting over today. Some people call the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon on October 23, 1983, the act that launched the "War on Terror." Meaning, when we got attacked we felt we had the right to escalate, increasing our presence, our mighty fists, and pushing ourselves, one dead child, one dead soldier at a time, into these wars we're fighting now.

I want to call Peter's parents, offer them bodywork, ask questions about their son's favorite foods. I want them to know that I am thinking about their son, even though I don't know him and didn't ask to use him as an example. The wars feel so far away, touching other people's lives, and I can't find my way closer to them. And that's just not right. So I try to feel a connection to Peter, to remember him. It's not too far a distance. Peter was the name of both my father and brother who died as well. I can feel that death. Maybe it kind of links us.

Where I live the gardens are bursting with this wet and sunny summer. I have never seen more vegetables ripen earlier than they have this year. There's a war on, and you can't see it from my front door.

There's a park across the street from my house. It's a big city park with a pond in the middle, although we call it a lake. There are herons, turtles, frogs, fish and the occasional peregrine falcon along with big families, dogwalkers and lone adults stretched out and sleeping on the grass. Since it's summer there are also police cars driving slowly across the grass. It's amazing how menacing a white car with black detailing and a red light on top can feel when it turns off the road and goes climbing across the green. The air literally stills. Waiting. Like schools of fish, people gather at the baseball diamond, at the soccer field, continuing their play but watching, watching where that car will go. Mostly brown and black people. Some white people. All watching but pretending like they don't even notice that car, its slow survey of the activity. Its surveillance. The lines between us and them stand out in stark detail as the car passes, its wheels making a line in the sand that very few people cross.

Sometimes the cars stop, people in uniforms get out and talk. Or yell. Or jump out and grab someone, usually Brown and Black men or boys. Sometimes these men and boys are put in the backseat and driven away from the park and somewhere else. And then things get quiet again, but in an unsettled way. The white people looking in one direction. The Brown and Black in another. This is the only war I see, here at the park in front of our house, when the police car comes onto the grass to do battle and the bodies scatter or hold their ground, and someone ends up sitting in the back seat and then being taken away. Once, as my daughter and her friends were playing in the front yard, five cars came rushing at us, five maybe ten people jumped out of the cars, their guns all pointing towards a single man, while behind him played our five children. The guns pointing at the man, at the children. The police laughed when they saw us mothers grab the children and run into our house, leaving the kids with their faces pressed against the front glass window while we mothers stood on the porch, watching the Black man get thrown in the back seat and then driven away. "Did you see how fast they picked up those kids?" said the four or five who stayed behind to write up tickets and reports and move their cars. Not once saying anything to us, there, an arm's reach from the front step. Not looking, just laughing. "Took those kids so fast, that was funny, flying into the house like that. Damn." And they didn't say anything about the man, nothing interesting about that. He was just gone. Lots of wars never make it to the headlines.

I am sitting in the backyard of someone else's house, weaving. Luca is to the side of me, slightly bored. She's cutting up leaves into heart shapes, into small pieces. She asks if she can have another cookie, a Newman's Own, chocolate with a creamy white center. It's a day like any other day. A regular day and a bomb is falling in Iraq or Afghanistan and a car is driving across Powderhorn Park and our queer family is sitting there in our big purple house, not seeing all of the regular people doing regular things, things that get them in trouble. It's moments like this, here in the hot sun, when it is hardest to remember. There is a war on and bombs are falling and people are being hauled off as terrorists as maybe criminals and the sound I can hear is the soft whisper of wool slipping between my fingers as I add another stripe to this tapestry.

Ashley Santiago Ocasio, a transwoman murdered in Puerto Rico when she was walking back through city streets to open the door to her apartment and go to bed. Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar and Paulina Ibarra and Myra Ical, all transwomen, all Latina, all of color, all murdered, some called sex workers as though that were justification when it isn't. It's murder. And there's Jose and Romsel Sucuzhanay, two brothers beaten and Jose killed because their attacker thought they were gay.

Queer murders are up for 2009 and 2010 and of those queer murders, about 80% are people of color, most of them Latino, most of them trans. 9.5 percent of those serving in Iraq are Latino, Latinos make up 13% of those who die in combat. There are so many more statistics than these but important to remember is that those are brown and black bodies passing by our house in the back of those police cars. And all of this is what I have paid for, is what my family is paying for.

Remember that glass of red wine that I want to drink when my family is out of town this weekend? Taxes on alcohol go towards many things, including the Department of Defense. They pay for the missiles sent to Iraq. They pay for increased police presence in the park, for the complexity of keeping my white family safe through racial profiling. Same with the taxes I just did on April 15th. And the gas we put in our car, the gas tax paying for the stealth missile that slammed into a school a few months back, that provoked more rage turned back and against the bodies of those soldiers gone off to fight, a way to get a job, to pay for school. And it's almost cliché to notice that it's the poorest who get killed on the front lines while the rich folks sign the paperwork. Almost cliché only because it's been said so many times and still is true. The words are getting hollow.

On the front porch of my house, I notice the bats at dusk, stripping the sky of mosquitoes as they veer through the trees and sky. Most of their high-pitched calls can't touch my ears, I don't have the cells that can vibrate at that high a frequency. Their calls must be cacophonous when there are 20 and 30 of them flying in such close quarters, between trees and each other's bodies. Those high-pitched calls I can't hear, I think of this when I look at the houses lined up around the park and remember, one in six women are the victims of sexual assault and most of those happen on a regular night, a regular day, in a regular house alongside a regular park, and my ears strain to hear what is happening on the other side of those closed doors all around me. A vibration too high and far for my ears to hear.

Please notice the words I haven't used very often in this piece - privilege, protection, whiteness, class. Sometimes when a person reads those words, their heart cuts out and their critical head steps in. They stop feeling what they are reading and they begin to measure their experiences against mine. More privileged or less. And that's what takes up their thinking. Not who is dying or hurting and what it feels like to know that. Their regular lives so close to ours.

According to Frigyes Karinthy, each one of us is only six degrees away from everyone else on the earth. No more than six people between me and every one of those civilians killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Powderhorn Park. Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Puerto Rico. Probably way less than six people between me and those Minnesotans killed in combat. Or who killed themselves after they came back home.

Everything written in here is all about me. Each bomb that falls, each moment of surveillance that hauls off someone's father or son or mother or daughter from a moment of sun in the park, each queer body killed because of someone else's fear is a deeply personal act. I want to take it personally. Each moment of battle and there is no neutral side.

There is a war going on and it is vibrating the air around me, ghosts that shift in and out of focus asking that we bear witness. We are all connected. When those bombs fall, those car doors menacingly open, that body is pushed to the side, it kills a part of each one of us. Our work is to find a way to feel it, to let the pain of it shrink us back inside of our skins. And then reach out again, fierce about making it stop.

This is queer liberation.


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Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 16, 2010 5:19 PM

Surprise, Obama is lying. The US is not pulling out. 50,000 'just in case' troops remain.

"The hard truth is we have not seen the end of American sacrifice in Iraq," the president said in a speech to the national convention of the Disabled American Veterans...

A transitional force of 50,000 troops will remain..." http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=11310250

Us troops will help prop up the Quisling government, secure oil hegemony and assist in attacks on unions and insurgents.

Paige Listerud | August 17, 2010 2:05 AM

True, Bill, that's been the plan all along. Before the start of the war, ex-CIA reported in The Nation that we were invading because our government wanted to establish permanent military bases in Iraq. Mission accomplished!

As for the war, you can see it from your house, Susan. The Great Recession that we're dipping into again, the recession that is a Great Depression for people of color? We're going to be in it for a nice long while because the biggest drain on our taxpayer dollars--these three wars--cannot be ended to bring our troops and our tax dollars home to fund badly needed infrastructure projects that could give everyday people jobs and invest in a green energy future and green economy for our nation. Do you hear a huge sucking sound when you pay your taxes? I do, because I know that money is going to a military contractor or to BP, who supplies oil to our troops to prosecute this war at the cost of $150 a barrel.

Making war is very expensive. But you and I won't be paying for it like your daughter will be. Who knows what kind of future she'll grow up into, with an ever-shrinking middle class, an unrestored US Constitution and the shrinking of our nation's supply of fresh drinking water?

Please enjoy this gorgeous summer with her. Enjoy the beauty of nature and the rich pleasure of organic vegetables grown by your own efforts, springing forth almost effortlessly under unanticipated precipitation.

I come from northeastern Montana; prairie land rich in hard red wheat, rye and cattle. Out there all the folks know from experience that nature giveth and nature taketh away. Abundant harvests one year can always be reversed by locusts, drought or prairie fires the next. And then there's always the bank to deal with. They might be the ones who really own your struggling farm.

You don't just seem distant from three wars that are half a world away;maybe it's just your writing style, but you seem rather far away from a lot of things right here at home. It's not like Minneapolis is all that far away from Montana. Why, you could take Amtrak's Empire Builder train from your town directly to my hometown of Wolf Point, MT and be there in 13 hours. It'll cost a pretty penny at $408 for a round trip ticket. From the train station, you could take a cab ride to the banks of the Missouri River, which used to overflow its banks in the rainiest of springs. See it now reduced to almost a trickling stream. I certainly was shocked by that when I last visited in 2003.

Bil and Paige, thank you for your comments. And yes I 'know' the war isn't ending. I think what I was trying to do was to parse out the difference between "knowing' and 'being." I wanted to write a piece about privilege without ever saying the word but to get the feeling of privilege. Your comment, Paige, makes me feel like I might have got close to it. The truth is that some of the time, I don't feel far from anything written here at all. It feels deeply visible to me and affects how I feel about the world and move through it. But at other times, my concerns are with the garden or with a book I am reading or with the fact that we need to get more dog food. I write this without judgment only awareness. I am protected by the circumstances of my life from feeling -deeply personally feeling/being affected - by the violence that I contribute to daily through how I am part of the US economy. This is different from knowing the statistics and the facts. This is about urgency. The urgency that makes or doesn't make me up aside the personal elements of my life to work towards change. And to me, this interconnectedness and attachment is liberation.

Personally, I thought your headline was particularly inspired! :)


Please notice the words I haven't used very often in this piece - privilege, protection, whiteness, class. Sometimes when a person reads those words, their heart cuts out and their critical head steps in. They stop feeling what they are reading and they begin to measure their experiences against mine. More privileged or less. And that's what takes up their thinking. Not who is dying or hurting and what it feels like to know that. Their regular lives so close to ours.

Too true. We've developed too many defense mechanisms that we don't even have to listen to each other any more to know that we don't like what we hear.

We live in an incredibly violent and backwards nation, but so many are indoctrinated by the public education system to think we live in a Disney movie. My students often ask me, with shock and anger in their voices, why hasn't anyone told us about this before? Our willful ignorance will be our undoing. The future looks like a Margaret Atwood novel. Best to tend our own gardens.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 18, 2010 10:57 PM

"U.S. Plans to Double Private Security Force in Iraq After 2011 Military Pullout"

As the United States military prepares to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, the Obama administration is planning a remarkable civilian effort, buttressed by a small army of contractors, to fill the void."

New York Times