Friday, August 30, 2013

An Intricate Tapestry- Korea

War! War! What are we fighting for?
My family on the way to Korea in 1955
As the United States and other Western powers debate whether or not to send military intervention to Syria I am reminded of Jimmy Carter's statement that (and I paraphrase here) even when war is a necessary evil, it is always an evil.

 I have never actually been in a war, but my perspective is still colored by personal experiences, and maybe by echos of my Quaker ancestors.

I was only 4 years old when I first crossed the Pacific ocean with my parents and my older brother.  It was 1955 and the  cease fire on the Korean peninsula had been in effect for only 2 years.  South Korea, where we lived was still devastated by the war.  Some of my earliest memories are of playing in the amputee center where men missing limbs worked on usable wooden prostheses or made crafts to support themselves.

Women building a road
Families lived in shacks made from scraps of military canvas and pounded out tin cans.  Sanitation was non-existant. The children I played with all had runny noses and red chapped cheeks in the winter.  Many had open sores on their skin. It was impossible to get warm in the winter or cool in the summer.

Work conditions were primitive, with women carrying rocks on their heads to build roads and other infastructure.  Equipment for even the simplist task was not available.

Everything was destroyed.  The mountains were bare of all but the sparsest vegetation.  Food was scarce.  Many of the larger buildings that were left standing were missing windows or had been bombed to ruins.  We children  were warned not to pick up any strange objects as there were always stories circulating about children who found live land mines and died or lost limbs.  We saw the legless beggars in the street and knew that the danger was real.  Still, the bright broken tiles of bombed out buildings made attractive toys for children who had nothing else to play with.

My two "moms" caring for orphans
My own life was separated by one degree.  I did not live in a shack, but was raised by a Korean "second mother" who lost her family, was imprisoned, and suffered torture as a result of war. My own mother worked closely with widows and orphans whose lives were destroyed by war.
Growing up in that world gave me perspective on the effects of war and causes me to always consider the long term effects.  Recovery from war is a painful process that impacts generations.
The people of Syria have already endured two-and-a-half years of war.  Many are displaced.  Others have lost loved ones, homes, and livlihood.  The use of chemical weapons is deplorable and cannot be excused, but what is the correct response?
Whenever I am faced with a difficult question, expecially one with moral implications, my missionary upbringing sends  scripture references and Sunday school lesson into my head.  In this instance there are several difficult questions:
  1. What is our moral obligation?  I teach in a Catholic institution where we often talk about the mandate of the Sisters of St. Joseph to care for the dear neighbor.  The people of Syria would certainly qualify as "dear neighbor", but how do we best care for them?  What are the possible consequences of our actions, even if they are well meaning?  Will the "intervention" of the U.S. and/or other Western countries spark a fire that will lead to more pain and destruction?  My mother always taught me that two" wrongs" do not make a "right".  Won't any additional military intervention lead to more destruction and loss?  Is there another or better way to care for our neighbor?
  2. Why is it our responsibility to police other countries?  Who made us the judge? The Bible verse that comes to mind is "Judge not least you be judged".  Didn't we use agent orange and napalm in Southeast Asia?  I'm sure one could argue that it was a different situation and that the agent orange was meant to thin the folage that protected our enemies, but I doubt that the people on the ground who suffered physical loss or loss of their livlihood or farm would appreciate that distenction.  The follow-up question is: Why do we feel it is our responsibility to intervene in some situations while we allow other equally serious autrocities to go unpunished, even unnoticed?  What about the Congo, Bosnia, etc.  The other verse that comes to mind on this issue is the one about removing the log from your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your neighbor's. We continue to justify water boarding and other forms of torture that we would most likely condemn if performed by others.
  3. What is the real motive?  Is our motive truely humanitarian?  I have heard arguments from a retired general that a strike on Syria would make it more difficult for regime (that we want overthrown) to regain power.  He went on to say that we have already determined that it is in our best interest for the regime to fall.  Are we being fed humanitarian propeganda to mask the real motive?

 I am not arguing that what has happened in Syria is excusable, or that we have no responsibility.  I am simply arguing that we (by "we" I mean our leaders.  I certainly have no say other than my one small vote in the next election) need to look long and hard at ourselves, our motives, and the possible consequences of our actions.  If we review history carefully we are likely to discover that most wars are not fought for noble or humanitarian causes.  They are fought for power - either political or economic.  They benefit few and harm many.

Nor am I in any way disrespecting the men and women who serve in the military in any country.  In the United States most who join the military join either because they truely want to make the world a better place, or they join for the military benefits that promise a better future for them and their families.  They put their own lives in danger for the supposed good of others.  My heart goes out to them as I ponder the many questions surrounding war.  What is our moral obligation to them?

I look at war from a personal perspective that cannot see the justification outweighing the harm.  Beyone my childhood in post-war Korea I have seen the devastation of war in Vietnam where I visited in the early 1970s, during the conflict there.  I have seen it in the lives of the refugees and their children who have been my patients here in the United States.  I have tried to help them through their physical pain, mental anguish, and adjustment to a new country.  Refugees are the survivors, but still the victims of war.  They are displaced and relocated into a new and often unwelcoming environment.  Many are separated from family and other loved ones, often without knowledge of the fate of those they lost.  From my perspective I see too many victims who did nothing to deserve their fate.  I see the many faces of war that I have known over my life-time.  All of this makes it very difficult for me to condone any type of military action, no matter how compelling the retoric.
Written by Donna Sidwell DeGracia 
My Photo
I never knew how different the world of my childhood was until I left Korea, where I had lived with my missionary parents since the age of four, and returned to the country that was supposed to be my home, the United States. I was sixteen years old at the time, grieving over the loss of friends I might never see again and ill prepared for my new life. Like many other missionary kids I floundered and roamed. In retrospect it is obvious how much those early years in Korea shaped my perspective and my choices. During my years as a physician assistant and an educator, facilitating the acculturation of patients and students has provided insight into the many transitions in my own life and has helped me see my experiences less as a shattered vessel and more as an intricate and beautiful tapestry.
Email from Kyung Hwa Lee

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