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It was something I had successfully avoided dealing with for nigh onto thirty years, and now, here it was, glaring at me in black and white. I winced.
"I have killed another human being."
It wasn't a question, rather a statement in simple sans serif, there for me to contemplate, burning into my brain for the better part of an hour, from a page that had quickly become too hot to hold. I dropped the flaming form, and wept.
The Confidential Questionnaire was something of a misnomer, a long list of statements with which we could disagree, or not. A central aspect of the Men's Retreat to which I had opted to subject myself, this litany of every aspect of the human shadow offered something for everyone. I was to mark the statements that applied to me, and halfway through the list, the pen remained poised, but unused.
And now this. How to answer, when the facts are as murky as the waters in which that battle was waged? Perhaps I should just leave now, I told myself, go back to my comfortable life, resume my comfortable denial, leave that chapter safely and anonymously buried.
But the box had been opened, and the lid would not reseat itself.
The much maligned and oft misunderstood Men's Movement is supposed to provide a safe container, a place where men can confront, contemplate and conquer our shadows, in the loving embrace of our brothers. Only, I felt anything but safe, as I cast my mind back half a lifetime, to a dark and distant place better left forgotten.
How I came to that place to begin with was a mystery to me. However did I, staunch pacifist, disciple of Dr. King, veteran of freedom rides and voter drives, I who had marched from Selma and stormed Washington, ever find myself in uniform, serving an immoral government in an unjust war? In short, just what the hell was I doing there?
Ah, but that was a part of the very shadow I was now here to confront.
At least I was a noncombatant, I reassured myself.
Noncombatant. I rolled that word over in my mind. Noncombatant: one who does not kill another human being. Maybe I can just skip this question.
I could not. Because there are many ways to kill. Some involve weapons, some intent, still others merely inaction.
"But I was only following orders," I was tempted to blurt out. But I remembered, that defense did not wash in Nurenberg. Neither would it work here.
Besides, I was not following orders, but rather, the one giving them. How would that play out before a war crimes tribunal, I wondered? I didn't pull the trigger, Your Honor, I merely determined that it should be pulled, and someone else did the deed. My Inner Instamatic flashed back to a long forgotten cartoon: an F4 Phantom jet nose down in a rice paddy, its pilot trailing parachute lines behind him, and holding by the scruff of the neck a peasant in black pajamas and a pointy straw hat. As the pilot shakes the farmer violently, the latter protests "please, honorable airman, I did not bring down your great screaming bird. Somebody else must have thrown the rock."
Somebody else must have thrown the rock. I could hear the prison gates clanging shut, feel the trapdoor start to fall away beneath my feet.
I have killed another human being.
Not by my actions, or even by my orders, but certainly by my very presence. If I had not gone, if nobody had gone, how many lives might have been spared? "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" was cliché, but maybe, just maybe, if a few more of us had stayed home, the whole thing would have collapsed under its own inertia.
Or maybe not. There will always be those willing to kill without a second thought. Without a first thought. Until that changes, boycotting the party is a hollow gesture.
Until that changes. Maybe that's what this Questionnaire is all about. How to change our world, so the question becomes moot? And whose responsibility is that, if not mine?
I have killed another human being. My mind rebels from the thought; my hand recoils from the paper. This is not me. I am not a murderer. Surely the men in the field, the ones carrying the M-16s and the rocket launchers; surely the men in the skies, the ones dropping the bombs, the ones spraying the napalm; surely the Generals in the Pentagon, the ones who have, after all, the Big Picture; surely they should be answering this question. Surely not me.
I had contemplated the question for an hour or more, in stunned silence and indecision. Finally, mercifully, the tears, those tears I could not shed for nigh unto thirty years, began at last to fall. They blurred the eye, blotched the paper, smeared the ink until I could no longer read the offending words. They fell as my brothers, strangers just two days prior, embraced and comforted me. They fell as I cast my questionnaire into the flames, which in turn consumed my answer, my guilt, my shame, and my despair. They fell until the embers of the pyre had cooled, and I had smudged my tear-streaked face with the ashes of my own shadow.
I have killed another human being. To this day, I cannot say how I answered that question. Not because the form was confidential, but rather because I truly do not know. I have answered yes, and no, so many times that the distinction has become lost to me. I have answered no, and yes, so long that the words have begun to sound the same. But I have answered. Within the depths of my soul, I have answered. And my answer is this:
I am a human being. Never shall I kill.
Copyright © H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.; Maintained by Microcomm
this page last updated 13 July 2012