Ophelia Dahl, in her 2006 commencement address to Wellesley College, contextualized her work as a humanitarian and activist with a quote from Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains, an account of the British abolitionist movement. “The abolitionists succeeded where others failed because they mastered the one challenge that faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant.” I have struggled to define what exactly it is that I should be doing as an activist to find my part, and my voice, in the global struggle for human rights.
In a conversation with Islamicist Reza Aslan, about the challenge presented by the history of religion, the Christian theologian Jack Miles asked, “Is there a way to tell the stories that we tell on this planet so that they become intertwining stories? So, that they become a common story in which everyone can have an acceptable place?” It is somewhere between these two challenges, of drawing connections between the near and far, and telling an intertwining story in which everyone has an acceptable place, that I have come to see my responsibility as an artist and activist. Throughout my first week at CSW I listened to stories about caregiving from across the globe and sought a common story. For every story I heard from far away I have remembered a story from my own life as the daughter of two caregivers.
This weekend I attended a benefit exhibition for Iraq Veterans Against the War and heard stories from veterans that are part of our common story. The exhibition, titled 2,191 Days and Counting, was co-curated by Maya Joseph-Goteiner and Chere Krakovsky and considers “a broad range of reactions to the two wars: grief, rage, despair, cynicism, and even compassion.” The opening started with cocktails and general carousing, but then the mood changed decidedly when the performance half of the evening began. We were introduced to some of the men and women of IVAW. Immediately, I flushed with embarrassment. In all my conversations at CSW about women’s rights, caregiving, and peace, I had neglected to consider women’s rights violations in the American military and the burden of care placed on the families of veterans.
Jen Hogg shared with the audience this story from Patricia McCann’s testimony at Winter Soldier:
We were told in class that according to the Rules of Engagement we should shoot anyone that we felt threatened by. We were told that we should feel threatened by men and women because they could be hiding explosives under their long black robes and burkas. We should be threatened by pregnant women because it probably wasn’t a baby they had in their belly but explosives. We should be threatened by children because they were used as bait to lure us into situations. I felt that all the things they told us were used as tools to either emasculate the male enemies or condemn femininity as evil and dangerous.
In the book Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations (Patricia McCann’s testimony is also recorded in this book), there is this story from Kevin Lucey whose son Jeffrey hanged himself after being refused mental health treatments from the VA after he returned home from tours in Kuwait and Iraq:
Just before midnight, Jeffrey asked me for the second time in ten days if he could sit on my lap and if I could rock him for a while, and we did. We sat there for about forty-five minutes and I was rocking Jeff, and we were in total silence. As his private therapist said, it was his last harbor and his last place of refuge.
The next day I came home. It was about 7:15. I held Jeff one last time as I lowered his body from the rafters.
We have talked about meeting the mental health needs of caregivers. We have talked about stopping gender based violence. We have talked about challenging gender stereotypes. IVAW are having these conversations too. I encourage everyone to visit their website, to purchase their book, and to remember that their story is our story.