Swans Commentary » swans.com September 21, 2009  



What To Do?
Terzani's last letter from the Himalayas


by Martin Murie





(Swans - September 21, 2009)   Tiziano Terzani's last missive of his Letters Against the War (1) was written in the Indian Himalayas on January 17, 2002. It opens: "I like being a body that's growing old. I can look at the mountains without feeling I have to climb them. When I was young I'd have wanted to conquer them. Now I can let them conquer me." Terzani renounces the "conqueror" attitude.

As a climber, I thoroughly agree. If there is an easy way to the summit, I take it. Tiziano's subtitle, "What shall we do?" signals a thorough examination of violence and war. That is what "Letter From The Himalayas" is all about. He refers to men from centuries ago who gave up the idea of conquest. They sought spiritual struggle in the inner world. His exemplars don't include Sappho who wrote, "Some say a host of cavalry, some of infantry, some of ships are the most beautiful thing on the black earth. But I say it is whatsoever a person loves." (David A. Campbell, Greek Lyric: Sappho and Alcaeus, I Harvard University Press, 1982.)

Ashoka, an emperor three centuries before Christ, who held claim to territories from India to Central Asia, came to realize that violence was absurd. He renounced war, and had his new ethic carved in stone in each of the numerous languages spoken in his empire. One of Ashoka's memorial stones inscribed in Greek and Aramaic was discovered in 1958 at Kandahar, the spiritual home of Mullah Omar where US marines are now stationed.

I add here that my friend Sydney Spiegel in Casper, Wyoming, wrote a book, Empires Always Die, available on Amazon.com.

This morning I spoke with the son of a woman who is a Holocaust survivor. Her son was trying to fix her car's carburetor. I told him I was a peacenik and had been anti-war for more than 50 years. He responded, "I respect that." I mentioned the drones that are now creating havoc in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He didn't know that the drones were directed from an airbase in Nevada. I find that ignorance time and again; many Americans do not know that we kill from above by way of unmanned planes piloted from Nevada.

Here is good sense from the Himalaya mountains, where Terzani finds peace and a chance to think without the clamor and confusion of violence, war, injustice, fear.

It's time to move out into the open, time to make a stand for the values we believe in. A society gains much more strength by its moral resolution than it does by acquiring new weapons.

Above all, let's stop, take time to think, hold our tongues. Often we feel tormented by the life we lead, like the man who flees in terror from his own shadow and the echoes of his own footsteps. The more he runs, the more his shadow seems to stalk him, the more he hears his own footsteps clatter, the more he is frightened. Until he stops and sits in the shade of a tree. Let's do the same.

If we read slowly the above citation, we find words and phrases that exert more power now than when they were written. They are relevant today.

"It's time to move out into the open." If there was ever a time to be open with our fellow citizens, it is now.

". . . hold our tongues." Ah, what could we accomplish if we learned thoroughly the art of listening.

"A society gains much more strength by its moral resolution than it does by acquiring new weapons."

Again, those drones! Why are we kept in ignorance? Simple answer: we have been trained to bow to power and power's rants. We fear not only our own footsteps, but certain words that cannot be spoken aloud. We have been trained by Manifest Destiny, going way back to covered wagon days. We have been trained by acts against Native Americans, from the early days of being an outpost of the British Empire. We have been trained to treat citizens of other nations as inferiors. We Americans are the Empire. Never since the arrogance of Nero and the arrogance of British kings and queens and prime ministers have we been so badly treated by those in power. I am talking of many generations. Yes, it's been going on for a very long time. I am talking about a campaign extolling competition, violence against slaves, violence against indentured servants, violence and outright murder against any and all humans who were, and are, not members of the power elite.

Are we beginning to wake up from this long nightmare? Maybe. Will our awakening be in time to stop at the cliff's edge? Maybe. Maybe not. With great reluctance, I put these uncertainties here to take note of the long honeymoon Obama has had. The antiwar movement has dwindled since Obama's election; it's held together by us ancients, and veterans. Many citizens of our nation -- U.S.A -- made the election of Obama a project and now they don't want to act against him, thus inadvertently siding with right-wing idiots. In real life, however, Obama is devoted to "bipartisanship" and that hobbles him. He is also a timid president, sending more troops to Afghanistan; putting drone research in the Pentagon budget; waffling on Single Payer health plan, et cetera. The list is long. Let's end the honeymoon.

Alison and I will hold out for an end to endless war and a government-operated Single Payer health plan. It's extremely poor tactics, as well as dishonest, to announce that we want peace and Single Payer, but are willing to settle for something less.

Let's have the courage to up the ante. Consider again these passionate words from the Himalayas. "It's time for us to move out into the open, time to make a stand for the values we believe in."




1.  Tiziano Terzani, Letters Against The War. See Swans complete posting of "Letters Against The War," Swans.com, September 8, 2008 (republished June 1, 2009).  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 21, 2009