Category Archives: War & Peace

“Passing The Torch” Authors Speak #3: “I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. . . .”

Helena Cobban

I was born into a very traditional (Church of England, Conservative-voting) family of the British upper middle class.

Helena Cobban

I was 14 when the Israeli-Arab war of 1967 broke out. As I recall it, just about all the news coverage on our grainy black-and-white television and in the two newspapers my father took, the Times and The Daily Telegraph, was solidly pro-Israel. The British conservative elite was still smarting from the rise of that upstart, President Nasser, in Egypt, and was delighted to see him “taken down a notch.” Besides, the Israelis were “modern”. They were “like us”. They had “made the desert bloom”, etc. . . .

In fall 1970, I enrolled at Oxford. In the hurly-burly of the matriculation week, I connected with some intriguing student social-justice networks. One was a feminist group. A couple were leftist/Marxist. One was the Oxford University Arab Society. I established lasting connections with people in all three types of group. One ardent Trotskyist at Oxford with whom I worked closely was Alan Adler, who had earlier attended the most elite Jewish boarding school in Britain, Carmel College — a place from which he was notoriously expelled because he had tried to establish there a cell of the Palestinian liberation movement, Fateh. (Tragically, a few years later, Alan died by suicide.)

Many of the Oxford leftists at the time were Jewish, and most of the ones I knew shared the concern I was developing for the long-usurped rights of the Palestinians, including their right to return to the homes and farms from which they had been expelled in 1948. . . .

I graduated from Oxford in 1973, not brilliantly, and after a few months’ consideration I decided, yes, I really did want to become a foreign correspondent. I followed in the footsteps of many male British adventurers before me, picked up my notebook, and decamped to a foreign clime.

What better place to launch my career than Beirut? My friends from the Oxford University Arab Society had contacts and relatives there; and I was on my way.

My journalistic experience? At the elite girls’ boarding-school I attended I had hand-produced (and “published” in five blurry carbon copies) three issues of a small satirical magazine; and at Oxford I was on the editorial collective of a short-lived counter-culture magazine called the Oxford Strumpet. Ah well, chutzpah and ignorance stepped in to persuade me I had a career plan.

Beirut, pre-civil war – Wikimedia Commons

Beirut was then a bustling hub of commerce, with numerous banks and businesses working hard to provide services to the massively growing Middle Eastern oil industry.

I launched my career by working as a copywriter in a local high-end advertising agency, racing twice-daily from my desk there to attend immersion classes in modern standard Arabic that were held at the Jesuit university in another part of town. Eight months later, Lebanon’s civil war broke out, and I was ideally placed to turbo-charge my career in actual journalism.

By the time I was 23, I was regularly getting front-page stories about developments both in Lebanon and further afield published on the front page of the London Sunday Times and the Christian Science Monitor. The work was exhilarating, exacting, and sometimes fairly dangerous.

The work of a good reporter is also, I think, more than a little bit Quakerly. As a reporter, you need to look around you and listen very closely, and scrupulously record the truth as you see it. You need to be able to interact respectfully with people with whom you may (personally) disagree very strongly, both in order to record their sayings and their actions accurately and in order to be fair to them.

In doing this, you need to set your own emotions and judgments aside while you are “getting the story,” and try to stay pleasant and open. (I worked for a short while for the Reuters bureau there. They had a rule of thumb that, since their product gets used by newspapers in many other countries that have different needs, any story you write should be structured so that an editor using the story in any place could cut the story to the length he/she needed at the end of any paragraph, and be left with a journalistically “balanced” story. There’s discipline!)

Beirut, during the civil war.

So my journalism career was advancing very well until one day in 1981, when my then-husband was covering the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran from the Iranian side, I was covering it in Baghdad from the Iraqi side, and our two small children were home with their nanny in Beirut… and she contacted me in a panic to tell me one of the local Lebanese militias had put a sniper onto our roof, which of course made the whole building into a valid military target.

I utterly and humiliatingly lost my nerve. I took the first car I could back across the desert to Amman (a 17-hour drive), flew back to Beirut, scooped up the nanny and the children, and took them all out to the safety of London.

So that was the end of my burgeoning career as a Middle East correspondent. I was stranded in London with two small children, no career, and as it happened a broken marriage.

I turned to writing books, with the first two being on the PLO and on the history of modern Lebanon. To support myself and my kids while I wrote them, I had to come here to the United States where I got fellowships at well-heeled universities that allowed me to do the writing. . . .

When I went to Lebanon in 1974, I did not intend to become a war correspondent, but that is what I soon became, both there and in the early months of the massive war waged between Iran and Iraq from 1980 through 1988. My position as a Western correspondent in Lebanon was distinctive. The war erupted eight months after I arrived; and shortly after that I married a nice Lebanese man whom I had met there and had two children, born in the late 1970s. He also worked in the media, as a cameraman for international news agencies. . . .

All the other Western correspondents were males. They lived either in swanky hotels or in nice apartments where they and any family they had were cared for either by staff or by their wives. As for me, I was trying to run the household and look after the kids while also doing a job that involved crazy, irregular hours and often, a degree of danger.

Later, I came to see that many of the experiences I had had in Beirut gave me powerful insights into the nature of war. They underlined for me, above all, that wars inflict the greatest damage on women, children, and the vulnerable, and that most of this harm comes not from actual physical impacts of weapons but from the shattering of basic services.

I learned early on during the Lebanese civil war to manage when the electricity was cut off. We could gin up paraffin lanterns and cook over little paraffin stoves. But when the water was cut off, life was really, really hard. I would trudge down to the well in the basement of our building and haul jerrycans of water back up to our seventh-floor apartment. Every drop was so precious it would be used multiple times. Finally, after being used, say, to boil pasta and then wash the floor, the last remnants would get re-used to flush the toilet. . . .

And how does this experience of war, its human toll, personal turmoil and human rights work lead Helena Cobban to Quakers?

The answers are in these pages.

And don’t forget our Book Launch Party on Saturday Nov. 23, at Providence Friends Meeting, 105 N. Providence Rd. in Media PA, noon to 3PM. Free, with food, readings, authors to mingle with, and music from and about our generation.

You’re invited; more details here.

Previous Authors Speak posts:

1. Barbara Berntsen

2. Carter Nash

 

 

Quaker House: Domestic Military Murders and the War at Home

When I arrived at Quaker House at the beginning of 2002, work on domestic violence was not in my job description. There was already plenty else to keep a one-person staff busy: troops from Fort Bragg were already fighting in Afghanistan, and plans for invading Iraq were clearly taking shape. Besides, I had no experience in that area.

But events didn’t care about that. Two weeks after moving in, I opened the Fayetteville Observer on the morning of Monday, January 14, 2002, to this headline:

   Victim Stabbed Outside Eatery

   A Fayetteville woman died Sunday afternoon after being stabbed by her estranged husband in front of the Mi Casita restaurant on Raeford Road, police said.

Shalamar Franceschi died at the scene, Fayetteville police said. She was 24.

Officials said her throat was cut and she was stabbed multiple times.

   A warrant has been issued charging her estranged husband, Damian Colon Franceschi, 26, with first-degree murder. Authorities were looking for Damian Franceschi on Sunday night. He is considered armed and dangerous . . . .

Continue reading Quaker House: Domestic Military Murders and the War at Home

Quaker House 50: Helping End “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

In 2010, after eight years at Quaker House, I couldn’t recall ever seeing an article in our local paper, the Fayetteville Observer, that was affirmative of GLBT issues, or in particular, supported the repeal of the military’s repressive “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, which since 1994 had pushed gay troops into the closet or out of the services..

This doesn’t mean the paper was a font of homophobic verbiage; but when anti-gay articles did appear, they usually went unanswered.

That silence was consistent with the general atmosphere of the community. Racial integration has been the policy of the military for sixty years, and federal law for almost fifty; racism still exists here, but it skulks in corners and speaks publicly in code. Mixed families in mixed neighborhoods are everyday.

Homophobia was another matter. I was acquainted with a number of gays and lesbians there, some who were quite active in the community. But there was no visible gay presence in the city. No “Gay Pride Day,” no vocal organizations, and the gay bars kept a very low profile. It was the most closeted city I had lived in.

Hence when a homophobic Op-Ed appeared in the Observer in the Spring of 2010, praising “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,”  the chances were that it too would go unanswered. That commentary, by retired Chaplain Ronald Crews, is excerpted below, for context.

This communal closeting had long been a burden to me, and after reading Crews, I decided to speak up for my own convictions, and perhaps those of some others who did not feel safe to speak.

Retired evangelical chaplain, Ronald Crews

My Op-Ed response was published in the Observer on June 3.
As advocacy goes, it was pretty mild. That reflected an effort to take the immediate audience into account.

So, here first is part of the original piece, by retired chaplain Ronald Crews: Continue reading Quaker House 50: Helping End “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

Yale, the Indian, the Puritan, & the Politics of Display & Discussion

Yale University plans to move a controversial stone carving from a pillar by the entrance to a renovated library to a museum setting for study. The carving shows an Indian with a bow facing a musket-carrying Puritan.

(Below, two views of the carving:  on top is the original, with musket; below, today’s version, musket covered. In its future home, the covering will come off.)

Penn, under review also.

Such campus “cleansing” is also occurring on other campuses, and in different settings, particularly religious. And it is controversial.

For instance, recent efforts to marginalize  or “cancel” William Penn by some Pennsylvania Quakers seem to me short-sighted. Yes, Penn once owned some slaves. That was a blot, but on an otherwise remarkable record, which I consider well worth remembering, grappling with, and yes, in many respects celebrating.

But back to Yale. A law professor there decried the move in today’s Washington Post. The move, and its motivation, in his view, have serious drawbacks. As he put it:

Anthony Kronman, Washington Post: 

This kind of ethical cleansing is bad for many reasons. One is that it discounts the importance of discomfort in the process of learning. Discovering what your conscience demands is the reward for confronting ideas that shock it, and maturity is the prize of learning to live with ambiguity.

Another is that it confirms the wish to have one’s field of vision seamlessly fit one’s system of values. It invites the smug belief that a real problem has been met simply by removing an irritant from view.

A third is that it reinforces the belief that those who lived before us were blinded by prejudices we have thankfully overcome. But that itself is a prejudice — one that powerfully shapes campus life in an age otherwise devoted to the eradication of prejudice in all its forms.

Anthony Kronman

This trend places moral self-confidence ahead of the life of the mind, which is always more than a little dangerous, because that adventure should put even our firmest convictions at risk. . . .”

All these points, made about college-level education, in my view apply to religious/spiritual life too. As Kronman also argues, 

“Our students must of course be free from physical harm. But they must also be free from the spirit of moral conformity that today represents a danger of a more insidious kind.. . .” 

Besides “students,” this hazard also faces many religious seekers and their faith  communities.

But let’s also hear the other side. The university released the following statement on August 22 about moving a historical piece:

Yale University is moving a decorative piece of stonework from the main entrance of its Center for Teaching and Learning. The decorative piece will be made available for study and viewing, and written material will accompany it and place it in historical context.

A carving, created during the construction of the building in 1929, depicts a Puritan settler holding a musket pointed toward the head of a Native American. During renovation of the building to accommodate the Center for Teaching and Learning, the project team in consultation with Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces determined that leaving the depiction in place would have the unintended effect of giving it a place of honor that it does not deserve. The university consulted faculty and other scholarly experts, who concluded that the image depicts a scene of warfare and colonial violence toward local Native American inhabitants.

The decision to move this carving, contextualize it, and make it available for study is consistent with principles articulated by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming (CEPR) and adopted by the Yale Corporation in December 2016.  The university has an obligation not to hide from or destroy reminders of unpleasant history; at the same time, the university chooses the symbols and depictions that stand in places of honor. The prominence of this carving changed when its location became a main entrance to the Center for Teaching and Learning.
When the carving was originally discussed in the spring of 2016, the CEPR had not yet been formed and articulated principles. A team in charge of planning for the construction project decided to cover the depiction of the musket with removable stonework. Covering over the problematic aspect of this carving is not consistent with the principles subsequently adopted by the university in the CEPR report; and therefore, when the carving is relocated, the covering stonework will be removed.

In explaining the decision to move the decorative corbel and restore the covered part of it, President Peter Salovey said, “We cannot make alterations to works of art on our campus. Such alteration represents an erasure of history, which is entirely inappropriate at a university. We are obligated to allow students and others to view such images, even when they are offensive, and to study and learn from them. In carrying out this obligation, we also have a responsibility to provide information that helps all viewers understand the meaning of the image.  We do so in a setting that clearly communicates that the content of the image is not being honored or even taken lightly but, rather, is deserving of thoughtful consideration and reflection.”

What do you think? And as the Puritan goes, so goes Penn? And which other worthies?

The library entrance. The carving is at the bottom of the pillar to the viewer’s right.

Hiroshima, El Paso, Dayton & Us

Ross Douthat, a very conservative Catholic, is persistently the most interesting of The NY Times’s stable of right wing columnists.
For me that’s because he frequently articulates perspectives that resonate to my experience, even if most of his desired remedies sound predictably retrograde.

Ross Douthat

Take, for instance, this reflection from August 6, 2019 on the recent carnage in El Paso & Dayton:

“I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that.

But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.”

Thus far, I’m with him (& by extension, New Ager Williamson):
Continue reading Hiroshima, El Paso, Dayton & Us

Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

This Memorial Day, I’m setting aside my Quaker pacifism (briefly), to remember one of the most unique and valiant war veterans I know of.

Yeah, I’m talking about U.S. Army veteran Harriet Tubman.

Besides all her amazing exploits in the antebellum Underground Railroad (working very frequently with purportedly nonviolent Quakers), Tubman was no pacifist. And when the war broke out, she was eager to help the Union forces win it. After working with wounded soldiers, she also served as a scout and a spy behind enemy lines.

But she got her big chance after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863.

Continue reading Harriet Tubman: Beyond the Underground Railroad

Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political,  between this struggle and the Civil War.

Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil  strife.

(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)

INTRODUCTION: My Abortion Pilgrimage

Continue reading Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today

305

The difference between Despair
And Fear – Is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see-

Biographers note that Emily Dickinson, who died on this date in 1886, was most productive in the first half of the 1860s. Secluded within the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts (except when tending the flower garden), she turned out hundreds of poems, mostly short, striking, often astonishing — but unnoticed by the outside world; her fame came after her death, which was likely okay with her. Continue reading Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today

Mowing Down Free Speech in the Heart of Carolina

On Monday March 4, I visited the Johnston County NC County Commission.

I’ve been there many times, since 2006. Whenever I spoke, I raised the issue of the Johnston County Airport being home to “torture taxis” through a CIA front company based there, Aero Contractors. (More details here.) I regularly urged them to investigate the company, because involvement in torture is already against U.S. federal law, and international law as well. (They listened, but haven’t acted yet.)

There have been anti-torture protests at this airport since 2005. They continue, even though the “War On Terror” is supposedly over (replaced, of course, by the Endless-String-of-Bloody-“Little”-Mostly-Secret-Wars). One effect of this shift is that the CIA front company is not only still there, it’s grown, and upgraded its security by several levels of paranoia. In the era of endless war, business for Aero Contractors is still good.

Over thirteen years, I’ve been part of many, maybe most of the protests there. So the County Commissioners were doubtless not surprised to see me in their chamber Monday evening. That’s because the Commission has a “free speech” period before they begin work on their formal agenda, when anyone can address them, for several minutes, on whatever is on their minds.

[Above: Chuck Fager speaking to the Johnston County Commission, January 2019.]

This time I shifted a bit from my usual call for an investigation of Aero, because I was targeting the board of the entire Airport. Continue reading Mowing Down Free Speech in the Heart of Carolina

Quaker Theology at 20: People, Witness, and Ideas

Much of what we’ve published in the journal Quaker Theology has been about people, mostly Quakers, past and present. This may be unusual in theological journals, but Quakerism is very much a lived religion, embodied in people, their witness, and their thought.

[The first 32 issues of Quaker Theology are all online here [www.quakertheology.org], available to all in searchable form. The 20th Anniversary issue, #33, is now ready at Amazon (https://tinyurl.com/y26gmlbj ), and will be on the web soon. ]

Theology is about more than persons, though; it also deals with ideas. And while theological notions are often arcane and tedious, some can be startling, even shocking. At least several times in this effort they have shocked this editor. Many of these shocks came from reading and reviewing books. (It does help if a theologian is something of a book nerd.) 

For instance, the most acute critique of the reigning ideology of permanent war that has possessed America’s rulers since at least 2001came to my desk not from a liberal or left-winger, but from their polar opposite, a strict evangelical-fundamentalist and libertarian named Laurence M. Vance.

His book, Christianity and War, and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, was miles ahead of most other antiwar screeds I have read (or written); it was reviewed and excerpted in QT #20.  Continue reading Quaker Theology at 20: People, Witness, and Ideas