Lest We Forget

by Wendell Berry

June 26, 2000



Note from the Editor:  You know the old saying, "If you want peace, prepare war." On paper it's an attractive concept. You keep strong armed forces so that no one in his sane mind will dare attack you. Problem is that the reality always turns out to be stranger than the theory and its fiction. When you have an army you tend to use it. When you have a gun you tend to use it, the NRA notwithstanding. You preach in the name of values. Values you want to defend. And in its defense, in the name of those values, you end up on the attack. You are no more preparing war because you want peace, you are launching war on all five continents in the illusion of peace. No one is attacking you but you feel besieged. Maybe one would want to attack you, whatever its tiny size or its obsolete technology. Just maybe...

You've become a fortress. You've become paranoid. You talk about rogue states -- redefined of late by the State Department as "States of Concern" -- and terrorists and you end up terrorizing and being rogue (or of "concern", according to the latest mumbo jumbo). And to add insult to injury, your leaders who declare undeclared wars year after year are nowhere to be found on the battlefields. Nor are their sons and daughters who'll grow up to perpetuate the system. Is this system worth your maimed and dead ones? Is there a time when we will all say in unison "enough is enough?" The only way not to play a game is to NOT play the game! Then again, if the game is appealing to you, please read on. Our Timeline friends passed on this excerpt from "Making It Home," a story by Wendell Berry.


He came from killing. He had felt the ground shaken by men and what they did. Where he was coming from, they thought about killing day after day, and feared it, and did it. And out of the unending, unrelenting great noise and tumult of the killing went little deaths that belonged to people one by one. Some had feared it and had died. Some had died without fearing it, lacking the time. They had fallen around him until he was amazed that he stood--men who in a little while had become his buddies, most of them younger than he, just boys.

The fighting had been like work, only a lot of people got killed and a lot of things got destroyed. It was not work that made much of anything. You and your people intended to go your way, if you could. And you wanted to stop the other people from going their way, if you could. And whatever interfered you destroyed. You had a thing on your mind that you wanted, or wanted to get to, and anything at all that stood in your way, you had the right to destroy. If what was in the way were women and little children, you would not even know it, and it was all the same. When your power is in a big gun, you don't have any small intentions. Whatever you want to hit, you want to make dust out of it. Farms, houses, whole towns--things that people had made well and cared for a long time--you made nothing of.

He had seen tatters of human flesh hanging in the limbs of trees along with pieces of machines. He had seen bodies without heads, arms and legs without bodies, strewn around indifferently as chips. He had seen the bodies of men hanging upside down from a tank turret, lifeless as dolls.

He had seen attackers coming on, climbing over the bodies of those who had fallen ahead of them. A man who, in one moment, had been a helper, a friend, in the next moment was only a low mound of something in the way, and you stepped over him or stepped on him and came ahead.

Once while they were manning their gun and under fire themselves, old Eckstrom got mad, and he said, "I wish I had those sons of bitches lined up where I could shoot every damned one of them." And Art said, "Them fellers over there are doing about the same work we are, 'pears like to me."

The fighting went on, the great tearing apart. People and everything else were torn into pieces. Everything was only pieces put together that were ready to fly apart, and nothing was whole. You got to where you could not look at a man without knowing how little it would take to kill him. For a man was nothing but just a little morsel of soft flesh and brittle bone inside of some clothes. And you could not look at a house or a schoolhouse or a church without knowing how, rightly hit, it would just shake down inside itself into a pile of stones and ashes. There was nothing you could look at that was whole--man or beast or house or tree--that had the right to stay whole very long. There was nothing above the ground that was whole but you had the measure of it and could separate its pieces and bring it down. You moved always in a landscape of death, wreckage, cinders, and snow.

It pleased him to think that the government owed him nothing, that he needed nothing from it, and he was on his own. But the government seemed to think that it owed him praise. It wanted to speak of what he and the others had done as heroic and glorious. Now that the war was coming to an end, the government wanted to speak of their glorious victories. The government was made up of people who thought about fighting, not of those who did it. The men sitting behind desks--they spent other men to buy ground, and then they ruined the ground they had and more men to get the ground beyond. If they were on the right side, they did it the same as them that were on the wrong side.

They talk about victory as if they know all them dead boys was glad to die. The dead boys ain't never been asked how glad they was. If they had it to do again, might be they wouldn't do it, or might be they would. But they ain't been asked.


"Making It Home," is from the book Fidelity: Five Stories by Wendell Berry, Pantheon Books, New York and San Francisco, 1992. Reprinted with permission.


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Published June 26, 2000
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