“Say Nothing” and “What You Have Heard is True”

New Orleans     Maybe we have gotten lucky and dodged widening the war in the Middle East after what seems like an impulse killing of one of Iran’s top generals and a key spymaster.  The full story is still unknown.  What were the threats that were so heinous that they moved the United States to embark on such a risky tactical strike?  Who was smart and stable enough in both the US and Iran to use the Swiss to send encrypted messages on back channels back and forth insisting that we both sides needed to deescalate?  What kind of weird global political communications system allows Trump to claim to his base, seemingly without any evidence, that he stood up, delivered a blow, and still wants to take America out of wars around the globe, and allowing Iran to throw twenty missiles at us with sufficient warning that no one was killed, even while claiming at home that they took out eighty Americans with these strikes?  This is a dangerous world!

I read two books over around the calendar turn that were extremely powerful expositions and indictments of the violence that we are capable of as people, when it is a matter of boundaries broken and hate and ideology unleashed.  Both of these books concerned civil wars.

One was Say Nothing:  A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Raddan Keefe.  He focused on the period of the “Troubles,” as the conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, supporters of England versus those who wanted independence.  The other, What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by poet and professor Carolyn Forche’ looks at her time in El Salvador as a young woman during the civil war that wracked that country for so many years as well.

One of the horrors that emerges in reading these well written and researched books is the recognition that there seem to be no accepted rules in civil wars.  Civilians are not only fair game, but often the primary targets.  Torture and mutilation are as common as unmarked graves.  These were civil wars decades before the dominance of the internet, so often the hate and killing were provoked by generational prejudices, class and land divides and inequities, and simple and unconfirmed rumor, all of which deepens the fear I felt over the dry kindling that continues so easily to be set fire by social media extremists.

Say Nothing is the better history, because the book is based on the coincidence of forthright oral histories held at Boston College that became public on the death of various participants in both the project and the Troubles.  It is hard not to conclude that Gerry Adams, former political leader of the Sinn Fein, is a liar and in any other context a war criminal.  What You Have Heard is True can be annoying in some parts as Forche’ oversells her naivete, but, not surprisingly, beautifully written, as you would expect from a poet.  It is hard not be see the behind the scenes lawyer, mediator, and revolutionary, Leonel Gomez, as an unheralded hero in both the war and the peace in contrast to Adams.

These conflicts turn out to be evergreen even as they fade as a twentieth century memories, but civil wars are bloody reminders that we have to fight for peace to prevent the worst parts of our humanity from constantly resurfacing.

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