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Mothers and Soldiers: Healing the Bonds Destroyed by War

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The bonds established between mothers and children are sacred. Mothers provide unconditional love, caring and support, and they teach their children to live in the world with a sense of purpose. But life circumstances oftentimes get in the way of relationships and affect the outcomes for better or for worse. In times of war, the bonds between mothers and children can change in the blink of an eye. Strong relationships that took years to develop can be wiped out when a loved one is killed by enemy fire and other circumstances beyond their control. Many families in America have experienced this. So have many others in the Mideast.

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Susan Galleymore is the author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak About War & Terror. Galleymore, co-founder of Courage to Resist, made international headlines as she traveled to Iraq to visit her son stationed in the Sunni Triangle. The more Galleymore learned about the military, the more she learned about how war affects mothers at home and mothers in Iraq. Her journey continued as she met with mothers in other war zones such as Israel and the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and the U.S.. I spoke with Galleymore about her new book and how war affects mothers and children, communities and cultures, veterans, and current service members.


They say time and time again that "information is power"' and books can be used as an effective tool for social change. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring are two good examples. What role do you believe books play in effecting social change? Do you see Long Time Passing: Mothers speak out About War & Terror as a book to be used in the same means as Sinclair's or Carson's?

Galleymore: The goal of the book is to create a larger story around the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's not just something that's happening here in the U.S. but that the ripple effects are occurring all over the world and we are really interdependent. I think Rachel Carson was trying to get at that as well. There are interdependencies that we're not really recognizing. If anything, my book is trying to do something like that by using a story format. In this case, every single story is exactly the way it was told to me. I didn't impose my own cultural values or understandings on it. So I'm trying show these human beings have stories that are really enrichening to not only people in the United States, but to the larger picture of what war does.

What life-changing experiences did you have in your travels to the Mideast? What myths were shattered?

Well, I come from another country where we've seen the effects of war. My grandparents were immigrants after the Second World War to South Africa and we experienced a war against the indigenous people, if you could call it that. I came to the United States as a young woman and had my son born here the first year I arrived. I never understood how the American military works but I also think it has changed, certainly in the last 30 years. I never understood there was such a push to recruit young people. That's particularly true now that we have a volunteer military. There's a lot about how things function in American culture that I, as an outsider, didn't know. But I've come to realize that people who actually live in this country for generations don't understand either how the American military works. That was a huge learning experience.

Once I realized that my son had been sucked up into the military, believing all the cultural values from the movies, such as what a hero is, what a man is, etc., I had this urge that I had to talk with him about it. Once I got to Iraq, I recognized that this was a much larger story. The first Iraqi woman I talked to said her whole family was essentially wiped out by American troops on a couple of Humvees. They just shot up the whole car, killing her husband and three kids. She survived, she was pregnant, and her eight year-old daughter survived. So there was a story to be told. We can't imagine being in America and having that happen.

I also lived in Israel during the mid-1970s and I came from apartheid South Africa. So I was very comfortable in Israel at the time because it reflected a lot of the values that I came from. Of course it is an apartheid system (in Israel). Anyone who knows anything about how systems function realize that Israel is an apartheid system.

One of the things I learned about Israeli and Palestinian boys is Israelis are socialized to join the military to defend the homeland. Palestinian boys are pigeonholed to be suicide bombers because they'll be seen as martyrs. Did you encounter this in your travels? How difficult is it for Israeli and Palestinian boys not to go down this path? Are there any efforts being done to raise boys not to pick up a gun or strap on explosives? What roles do mothers play in shaping their sons?

One of the mothers I interviewed lost her son in a suicide bombing while two other of her sons were in the Israeli Defense Forces. Now this is a family that came from a 'left perspective' and her sons have become Refusniks and they are very active in a group called Combatants for Peace. Combatants for Peace works with former Israeli soldiers working with former Palestinian prisoners. They always work together, they make joint statements, and there were many other groups in Israel doing joint work. It was fascinating because sometimes I would talk to people who say 'I'm a Zionist and I work in this particular group' (not necessarily for Combatants for Peace). But there's a lot of complexities in these issues. It's fascinating because it's kicking up the level of thinking. Americans need to do about how complex the situation is.

It's also hard to be a man, especially in American culture. There's no ritual for it. I think that's partly what brings a young man into the U.S. military, but in Israel there is (a ritual). In Palestine, it's much more of a male dominated society and the ritual there has been so disturbed by the Israeli invasion of the culture. Everything is on shaky ground there and people are really struggling to hold on to their culture.

In the book, you try to understand the tension between individualist American culture and the complex communities of family and residence that typify much of the Middle East. What were some of the things you learned when two different cultures came face to face like this?

It's interesting. In America, we're taught that the best thing you can do is become independent and self-sufficient as soon as possible. In the Middle East, that's not the case. It's a collectivist-based culture. What I find is, unless you understand that the basic assumptions are very different, you're going to have conversations that are meaningless. A person from an individualist culture who is talking to a person from a collectivist culture are going to have a conversation that's not grounded in a similar reality. It's very difficult for Americans to understand that people in the Middle East (if I can generalize) don't want to be Americans. They're proud of their culture, history and heritage. Americans tend to think everyone wants to be like us, because we've been told "we're the greatest, the best, the most powerful", etc. It's very difficult for people to conceptualize that it may not be the case. I think we're seeing that in Afghanistan right now. The Afghan people are saying "leave us alone! We don't want you or your democracy!" The Afghans have their own traditions of democracy and we're not allowing them to surface very much.

I know current service members have told me time and time again "we don't get to choose which wars we get to fight in. We go where our president and Congress wants us to go to." But they do have voices. They should speak and think for themselves.

Another discussion that needs to happen is, what is a volunteer? We often say, "These soliders volunteered to do this." Well, they didn't volunteer to go off and kill Iraqi and Afghani civilians. They went out to promote what they heard was the message of their country, which is, "we are about freedom and democracy." When they get over there, they discover it's about opening corporate markets. There's a tremendous element (of) trauma they begin to feel. What are the troops going over there to do? What does a volunteer actually mean and what rights do they have? If you're a volunteer, it should also mean you should be able to not be a volunteer when you've had enough or when you've decided to get out. That's not the case.

Today is Veterans' Day. What do your book and your experiences add to this national holiday? What did you learn about our soldiers and the wars they fight in, that would be appropriate for people to know on this holiday?

The stories of the troops are extremely important to hear and to make connections with other war or combat events the U.S. has perpetrated. There are books on Vietnam where atrocities were par for the course. We need to recognize that atrocities are par for the course in war, no matter which one. If you put a young person who's 18- or 19-years old in situations that are completely terrifying they're not at all like the movies. I hear a lot of that from the troops. Then you bring them back home and you do not allow them to tell their stories. As long as we shut our troops and veterans up, as long as we do not want to hear what they have to say, we're going to continue to have the devastation of our young people that we're seeing. There is battle fatigue, shell shock, and general trauma. That is the result of war and that is what our veterans are going to deal with. We, as their families, need to understand what we're asking them to do and we need to respect what they tell us.

Every Memorial and Veteran's Day, it's very difficult for groups like Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and others to have their voices heard. What kinds of obstacles are they up against in order to be heard?

That's a good question. The average American is very resistant to know what is being done in their name. There is a lot of resistance to know what our veterans bring back to our country when they return from war. Veterans trying to speak out about atrocities, the immoral wars, etc. are shut up by other veterans. It's this thing that if we talk about the kinds of things we are generally silent about, then what does it mean about who I am? What does it mean about what I did over there? What does it mean about who we are as a country? It's not just accepting some new information. It's really reconfiguring your whole reality and that's a very difficult thing to do. That's what needs to happen and I think that's why there's so much resistance. You'll see the Veterans for Peace or the IVAW with antiwar banners, and you really see other veterans coming down really heavily on them! It's about that, "don't share the secret, don't tell!" We saw what happened to John Kerry when he ran for president. He was swift-boated. What was that about? That was about not wanting to hear the reality of war and I think some of that has to do with the enormous profits made in war.

You mentioned the stigma and attacks soldiers face from other soldiers for speaking up against war and occupations. Could you elaborate on that?

I think the most commonly known example of this is the Swift Boat Veterans' effort to discredit John Kerry during his presidential bid. As you know, Kerry came out against the Vietnam conflict, supposedly throwing his medal over the White House fence after participating in the very first Winter Soldier Hearings. It turned out it was really only his ribbons, not the actual medals. As you probably recall the Swift Boat Vets piled on Kerry, denigrating his service, his courage, etc. These days, when groups such as Veterans for Peace or IVAW parade (or even apply to participate) they are often roundly scorned from the sidelines or refused permission to participate officially. I see this as stemming from a complex set of issues: an inability to distinguish between "the war" and "the warrior"; a refusal to admit how terrifying and confusing combat is, for "we" are "men" and so don't admit fear etc. If "we" talk about what happens in war, we'll let the cat out of the bag and have to re-examine some basic cultural concepts and if one decent person (say a service person) admits to war atrocities, it raises the spectre of other decent people being capable of the same- the "we're all painted with the same brush" syndrome when something shameful comes to light. These are the sorts of complexities inherent in how war is sold and consumed.

Despite all the trauma mothers experience and share in the book, you said that despite it all "the basic humanity of people shine through." What examples stand out for you the most?

What has become much clearer to me is that the human heart is a vibrant living entity and that underneath all the collective and individualist categories we have, that the human heart wants to reach out and make contact. I found tiny villages in south Lebanon where people would say 'Oh, you're an American. Weren't those people hostile to you?' That was never the case. It was more, "Come in! Who are you? Yes, we can share our story with you. Yes, please tell people about us." I would say my faith in human beings has become much deeper and become more determined to surface; that reality that we want to make contact with one another.