Hold It All


Category: Testimony

What Can You Tell the School Kids?

Svetlana Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War, introduction by Larry Heinemann


Afgantsi (singular Afganets): Soviet veterans of the war

Even as Ken Burns’ new documentary on the Vietnam War airs, U.S. military forces have been in Afghanistan for almost sixteen years.  While Burns will likely have some focus on the antiwar movement in the U.S during the 1960s, it’s sobering that there has been nothing like an antiwar movement for this war.

Svetlana Alexievich wanted to hear the bitter truths, so she went around asking listening, recording, and creating Zinky Boys, first published in the Soviet Union in 1990. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, Alexievich produced this work on the USSR’s Afghanistan War that even today can serve as  a mirror to U.S. citizens or, in Kafka’s apt phrase,” an axe for the sea frozen inside us.”

What follows is a very small sample of the testimonies she evoked.


The author: I ask myself, and  others too, this single question: how has the courage in each of us been extinguished? How have ‘they’ managed to turn our ordinary boys into killers, and do whatever they  want with the rest of us? But I’m not here to judge what I’ve seen and heard. My aim is simply to reflect the world as it really is. Getting to grips with this war today means facing much wider issues, issues of life and death of humanity. Man has finally achieved the ambition of being able to kill us all at a stroke.  10

A Private: One time, our column was going through a kishlak when the leading vehicle broke down. The driver got out and lifted the bonnet—and a boy, about ten years old, rushed out and stabbed him in the back, just where the heart is. The soldier fell over the motor. We turned that boy into a sieve. If we’d been ordered to, we’d have turned the whole village to dust. 16-17

A Soldier: They killed my friend. Later I saw some of them laughing and having a good time. Whenever I see a lot of them together, now, I start shooting. I shot up an Afghan wedding, I got the happy couple, the bride and groom. I’m not sorry for them—I’ve lost my friend.  6

A Private, Gunlayer:  We didn’t want to know anything about anything. We were soldiers in a war. We were completely cut off from Afghan life—the locals weren’t allowed to set foot in our army compound. All we knew about them was that they wanted to kill or injure us, and we were keen to stay alive. 118 Read the rest of this entry »


The Good News of Resistance, 4.22.2017


A while back, I was sitting outside at RISE with a young Irish-Jewish American friend who asked me, when I showed her a particular chapter in Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, “Who is Abbie Hoffman?”  It was a pleasure to send her such excerpts from his autobiography:

“Later, when I, as well as others, marched on Washington or Chicago, we carried with us the lessons that the local power structures had fought us tooth and nail—that racism was ingrained in the system. We also realized that the lessons came in spite of our formal education. (My critique of democracy begins and ends with this point. Kids must be educated to disrespect authority or else democracy is a farce.)”

“There are lots of secret rules by which power maintains itself. Only when you challenge it, force the crisis, do you discover the true nature of society. And only at the time it chooses to teach you. Occasionally you can use your intellect to guess at the plan, but in general the secrets of power are taught in darkened police cells, back alleys, and on the street. I learned them there.”

“By 1970, my ‘plan’ to stop the war was to disrupt life on the home front. I did not see going to jail as the best use of my time.”


Clara  Bingham has done a riveting oral history of many of Abbie Hoffman’s peers  from the Sixties, focusing in particular on the year 1969-1970 in Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year  America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul.  Here’s her thesis: “Whether rebelling against the draft, the atrocities of the war, police and FBI repression, the conformity of the 1950s, the sexist, racist establishment, or all of the above, the movement in the final years of the sixties threatened the entire power structure of American society and transformed the country.”  Bingham’s book will remind baby boomers and instruct their grandchildren as to how people’s experiences then may still speak to the wars being waged in our name today. Read the rest of this entry »

What One Veteran Said

Vietnam veteran Wayne Smith: We were broken. I had so much anger and pain. I was crushed. I left like I had blood on my hands. I resisted calling the Vietnamese gooks and dinks, but near the end of it I found those vulgar words would come out of my mouth several times; I had contempt for myself. How could I have been so stupid and foolish to believe this country? How could I have been so foolish to think that I could really save lives as a medic? How could I really make a difference in the face of so many catastrophic injuries? Read the rest of this entry »

What More Is There To Be Said?

“My eight-year-old daughter was killed.
My three-year-old son.
Nixon, murderer of civilians.
What have I done to Nixon that he should come here to bomb my country?
My daughter died right here.
She was feeding the pigs.
She was so sweet.
She is dead.
The pigs are alive.
My mother and my children took shelter here.
Here they died.
Planes came from over there, no targets here.
Only rice fields and houses.
I’ll give you my daughter’s beautiful shirt.
Take it back to the United States.
Tell them what happened here.
My daughter is dead.
She’ll never wear the shirt again.
Throw the shirt in Nixon’s face.
Tell them—

She was only a little school girl.”

—Vu Duc Vinh, A North Vietnamese father


Source: Peter Davis, Hearts and Minds (1974)

A Proposal from Marilyn

Marilyn Vazquez
Dr. Chmiel
Western Culture
16 September 2016
Empathy Practicum

After considering what suffering concerns me most, I decided to center my Empathy Practicum on the struggles of the undocumented Hispanic and Latino population in the surrounding areas. I attended meetings for many clubs and organizations but the Latino Student Alliance (LSA) spoke to me personally because I am also undocumented. My practicum will focus on two key issues the undocumented population face: education and healthcare.
Read the rest of this entry »

On Susan Sontag, Trip to Hanoi

Journal, July 2005

Susan Sontag spent two weeks in North Vietnam in 1968, and wrote 90 pages about her experiences. (Perhaps I will cull from those notebooks I kept in Gaza and the West Bank to feed my imagination as to what the truth is about Palestine.   Would it be a long essay? Would it be something that I work into a novel, with all my students mixed up together? Will it be a series of short articles that I post at CTSA?)  I wonder if Sontag didn’t just brainstorm a list of questions and then primed her pump thereby, so that her notes responded to  her questions.  Ah, to have her Surplus Attention Disorder, her “moral appetitiveness and lust for variety,” her “intense, uncomplicatedly attentive concentration.” I don’t think this is the same thing as Mindfulness, though.

Sontag is “a stubbornly unspecialized writer who has so far been largely unable to incorporate into either novels or essays my evolving radical political convictions and sense of moral dilemma at being a citizen of the American empire.”   And  she admits she is “one more volunteer in the armchair army of bourgeois intellectuals with radical sympathies in the head.”  Still, she went where she was not supposed to go, even though it appears that she could not get out of her head for very long. Read the rest of this entry »

For Carlos, Every Day Is Mother’s Day

Katherine Kelliher read aloud the following letter  at tonight’s Share the Wealth on the Restorative Justice Movement.  From their week in Los Angeles, Katherine and Anne gave  a lot to fill our hearts.  Please pass on to others, if so moved.

April/May 2015

CARLOS — KVSP — H89998

I was born a Mama´s boy, from as far as I can remember. I´ve been very close to her and consider her my best friend along with my wife. I always tell my mother the truth, although I don’t tell her everything because I don’t want to hurt her.

She´s been by my side when we crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S.A., when I started kindergarden and learned to speak English, when I graduated elementary and junior high school, the many times I got kicked out of different schools for fighting and gang activities, when I got shot on my mouth with a .22 caliber handgun in a drive-by shooting, the many times I got arrested and she picked me up in the juvenile halls Eastlake, Los Padrinos, Sylmar and Juvenile Camps Lancaster (Challenger), Camp Miller, Camp Holton, plus several police stations around Los Angeles County. She was there at my court dates and visiting me everywhere. My mom doesn´t speak English, but she was there supporting her son always.

Read the rest of this entry »

Respecting the Vietnamese

On John Balaban’s Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam

For Chris, Carol, and Cristina

John Balaban declared himself a Conscientious Objector during the VietnamWar; he ended up going to Vietnam, but as a member of the International Voluntary Services (IVS).  Wounded during the Tet Offensive, he returned home before going back to South Vietnam to work for the  U.S.-based Committee of Responsibility To Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children (do you know of any comparable organizations for the children of Iraq and Afghanistan?).  The group brought  children damaged by the war to receive operations and care that was unavailable in their homeland.  Balaban accompanied them back and forth.  He experienced the pangs of his exile from Vietnam as he found work as a professor (in Berkeley, “I was stunned by a realization: not everyone was preoccupied with the war.”)   He did find a way to return, through support by the National Endowment of Humanities, as an agent of peace.  Balaban was intent on interviewing Vietnamese about ca dao, their folk poetry, which is typically sung.  He later became settled in the U.S.,  and taught and worked as a poet.  When he traveled to Hanoi, it was to teach American literature.

Within this story as sketched above, there are many passages worth meditating on.  When speaking of his time with IVS, Balaban spoke highly of Dave Gitelson, who “had really entered their world, maybe the only one of us who had.”  How does one enter another’s world during a time of chaos and violence?  Evidently, Gitelson learned Vietnamese and respected their culture, something unimaginable to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops there.   Gitelson was also capable of self-criticism, too, when he said about the IVS workers, “We’re nothing more than sugar-coating for the genocide that’s going on here.” Read the rest of this entry »

Simple Words

Give back my father, give back my mother;
Give grandpa back, grandma back;
Give my sons and daughters back.

Give me back myself.
Give back the human race.

As long as this life lasts, this life,
Give back peace
That will never end.

–Sankichi Toge, citizen and poet of Hiroshima, died 1953

To Be Radical Is Habitually To Do Things Which Society at Large Despises


I have seen the victims.
And this sight of the mutilated dead has exerted such inward change upon me
That the words of corrupt diplomacy appear to me more and more in their true light.
That is to say—as words spoken in enmity against reality.


Instructions upon return.
Develop for the students the meaning of Ho’s “useless years.”
The necessity of escaping once and for all the slavery of “being useful.”

On the other hand; prison, contemplation, life in solitude.
Do the things that even “movement people” tend to despise and misunderstand.
To be radical is habitually to do things which society at large despises.


An adequate peace movement could not satisfy itself
With assuaging the sufferings of the victims
By medical help at the point of impact.
The radical work consisted rather in staying with conditions at home
Trying as best we might to work changes upon a society
In which military victims were the logical outcome
Of a ruinous, power-ridden national ethos in the world at large.


–In 1968 Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and historian Howard Zinn traveled to North Vietnam to accompany back to the U.S. three U.S. pilots who had been captured by the Vietnamese. Berrigan gives an account of their journey in his Night Flight to Hanoi, which contains the above passages.


Dan Berrigan