A Collective Journal is an ongoing community project to create space for sharing of writing and expressions.
Excerpts from "An Affirmation, A Call Upon (Me)"
I must choose to pour
the crystalline water
into my own roots and soil,
bathe in sunlight
of my own making
of my gentleness
of my wholeness
of my birthright.
and my might.
by Jenah Maravilla
Excerpts from "死亡的幽谷" (2020)
by Echo He
Life, Death and the Laws of War
I didn't see how much death was in my job until my dad died. Since 2006, I've worked as a lawyer for the US Department of Defense. I worked on a lot of interesting things, mostly at the Pentagon, but occasionally going to some interesting places. Guantanamo Bay, Geneva, the Hague, Kampala. Perhaps the biggest thing I worked on, was the first Department War Manual on the law of war. There were lots of other people involved, but I was the chief author, really, the Scrivener. Some people get in my line of work because they've heard about atrocities in faraway places, the Holocaust genocides in Africa; maybe they studied international criminal courts and law school, or interned for a human rights group. They're on the humanitarian side of the house. There's another side—the national security side, filled with people who signed up to prevent atrocities at home.
A couple of months after 911, I visited Ground Zero. Somebody from my college arranged a large group of students to visit. I remember thinking that it looked like... it looked just on TV. I remember thinking that it looked like it looked... on TV. Like scenes from a disaster movie. But what I really remember is the memorial that the families that are already set up a crayon drawing– drawing with the title, a crayon drawing with the title, "World's best dad," a missing person flyer with a picture of a young Japanese tourist captioned, "Have you seen our son?"
I couldn't stop crying on the dark bus ride back home to campus. I kept thinking about the kids of the firefighters and police officers who drew those pictures. I remembered how my dad was so pleased when I got him a kitschy mug that said, "World's best dad." I kept thinking about how far from home that tourists were and how confused his parents must have been. I kept praying for a chance to do something so that memorials like that wouldn't go up. I promise God, I give whatever I could if He gave me the chance to make a difference.
After my dad died, I felt like the top layer of my skin was burned off, leaving my flesh raw nerve endings exposed. My sister has always complained that I'm a robot and incapable of emotion. That's not true. But I confess that I've tried to appear that way most of the time. I felt death everywhere. It showed up in my job. They were planning a strike against an important target that was expected to cause a lot of civilian casualties. It was an ISIS-controlled bulk cash storage site with millions of dollars, military jargon for a bank taken over by terrorists. The legal formula is that: it is not prohibited to conduct attacks unless the expected civilian casualties are excessive, compared to the concrete and direct military advantage expected to be gained. The textbook way to analyze this problem: hitting the target would save lives. It would take enemy fighters off the battlefield, the war will be shorter. If you take it too far, this logic is easy to ridicule, it was necessary to destroy the village to save it. But it's hard logic to refute when you were a member that lives on both sides of the equation. When you remember that we're fighting genocidal assholes. The reason for the strike is to save refugees from being slaughtered on mountaintops, to protect marketplaces, nightclubs, and concerts.
After my dad died, I still believed all the same things, still believed that war and for in far corners of the world was necessary to keep skyscrapers in lower Manhattan from falling down. But I felt different thinking it... it's different when death visits you intimately. It was a strange feeling different, but even stranger not talking about it with anyone. I remember a meeting with people from “Doctors Without Borders” after we hit their hospital in Kundis. The official explanation was that their people died in a tragic incident caused by a combination of human errors compounded by process and equipment failures. The meeting was about the department's efforts to express condolences to show them that we were really really sorry. It was a small meeting. I had a bit part, but I just wanted to tell them that we knew death— that I knew death. How many people in the room on our side had lost someone? It would have been weird to just blurt out, you know, "My dad died." "My friend died in Iraq." "We feel your pain." I wasn't sure that everyone on our side did. I did. But I didn't blurt anything out. I just played my part explained the legal points, tried to sound like a robot. I saw later that the strike was successful in destroying the target. CNN reported that US commanders would have considered up to 50 civilian casualties for the strike, but that perhaps only five to seven people died. I wondered who they were. I wondered if anyone was crying for mom or dad.
I was supposed to give a talk in New York on the department's “Law of War Manual” on the margins of some UN meetings. It was a big deal for me— my first public talk after years of spending most of my spare hours on that manual, and have a debutante ball. I came up to Manhattan the night before, my talk was supposed to be the next morning. My mom called me in the middle of the night to tell me that my dad died. Then to tell me that the doctors were trying to save him and that she had to go because the doctors needed to talk to her. I remember it being dark checking out the hotel walking to the train station in the middle of the night. Riding a train back to DC learning he died, catching a flight back to Houston. On the way home I kept breaking down crying when I couldn't hold the sadness inside me.
A couple of years earlier I went to my uncle's funeral and I just couldn't understand how my cousin gave the eulogy about his dad so calmly. I thought there was no way I could ever do that. But I did. I still remember what the sky felt like that day. It was perfect weather, Houston in November. And one of the first interagency meetings after I came back to work, a senior lawyer at the State Department, whom I respect a lot came up to me and asked if I was okay. I didn't know what to say any preempted, any awkward silence blurting out that of course, I wasn't okay, that it'd be like seven years before I was okay, that I'd never really been okay again. He told me a story about how after his dad died, a senior lawyer awkwardly told him, it'd be good to go back to work. It was comforting knowing that other people have been through what you're going through. And what he said was comforting too. You really don't want to be okay, because you're afraid that if you're okay, it means your dad is really gone.
I came to my job to justify the war. And I did a lot of that. But mostly, I worked to restrain the war. War means the authority to use military force. But it also means constraints. Fighting war means fighting by the law of war. I worked on DoD's regulations and treating detainees humanely on the executive order and mitigating civilian casualties. I remember a year or so after I started my job, my sister suggested moving out to LA and trying to be a screenwriter with her. I remember reflexively, heartily, saying, "No, I want to do something meaningful, important." I want to do something meaningful and important. But nowadays, I get tired of wars. Sometimes, I wonder if I made the right choice. I wonder if I kept my promise to God to give whatever I could. So many people have given so much... have given so much more to me. So much more than me.
I don't want you to think that I'm saying that I learned a big life lesson from my dad's death that it was good for me in some way. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, even though most everyone will suffer through the darkness like this. I want you to know that behind the government's bland bureaucratic pros, there are real people. People with feelings, not robots. I want you to know the truth that I believe after my years of a lawyer in war.
War is necessary; war is chaos, rife with honest mistakes; or most of all is death. And Laws of War. When they restrain the armed forces, and even when they justify killing, this law tries to protect life. Mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. That's why they call it—Humanitarian Law.
by Karl Chung