June 2004

A perfect war

By David Feela

Wisdom supposedly comes with age, when the urge to impress our ideas upon others takes on less elaborate proportions. A few weeks ago I got cornered by a Ute grandmother who simply shook her finger at me while flourishing in the other hand her granddaughter's senior class schedule. “If she comes home and complains about mix-ups one more time,” the grandmother lectured, “I’ll hold you responsible.” Her index finger pointed at my face like the barrel of a gun, but then she abruptly turned from the table and headed out the door. I’m pretty sure the finger wasn't loaded.

I glanced down at the offending sheets of paper. The contract, in triplicate, could have been responsible for our failed communication. I don’t know if a quadruplicate form would have honored the Native traditions any better or fostered cultural awareness and promoted peace in the endless battle of processing 850 high school registrations every year. I’m for any change that helps people get along better.

I could have explained how computer scheduling works (or often doesn't work), how dissatisfaction is a human condition, or even how people must come to accept that all their individual desires get reduced to a row of statistics. Unfortunately, no one was left to listen. No amount of good intention, sympathy, or explanation stood a chance at resolving our misunderstanding. The weapons of mass frustration had been buried for too long. And if I can survive the bureaucracy of public schools until retirement, maybe what I think I know won't matter. It's just as likely that real wars follow a similar course. First, the tiny irritation that raises the eyebrows, worked over time into a full-blown itch. Then a rash that leads to paralysis. We've been taught not to scratch but as the inflamation engulfs us we tear at it with our fingernails, bloodying ourselves in the process. The evening news made a similar point clear when a correspondent interviewed a group of three Iraqi elders. The men stared at the camera until a translator asked how they felt about America's presence, hopes for peace and the economic future of their country. One of them just shrugged and laughed.

“War is nothing new for this country,” he explained. He must have been the spokesman, for the other two remained transfixed, scrutinizing the camera, as if they expected to see the Statue of Liberty at the other end of the lens.

“What will you do once the Americans have gone home?" the translator asked.

“What would you have us do? Become farmers? Grow chickens? Export sand?”

The Iraqi’s hand gestured toward the desert around him. He laughed again and moved off with his companions toward a shaded stall and cups of strong, sweet coffee. Everything about them appeared foreign to me, but before they left they had their universal communication tools out of their pockets: they knew how to point the finger.

I think there's comfort in knowing that as humans get older they become less physically aggressive. A federal prison psychiatrist once told me that even the most dangerous inmates serving life sentences for murder cease to pose a threat to others as they age. He assured me they could theoretically be released back into society with little worry for the safety of others. We all know, of course, that they won't be released, because a policy of retribution and humiliation is far more popular than any hope for rehabilitation. Maybe that's why a perfect war, if such a thing could exist, ought to be left in the capable hands of our elders: an army made up of recruits drafted at, say, the age of 72. They may not be as quick into battle, but at least they'd be carrying the awareness that pointing one's finger always leaves three others pointing back at you.

Dave Feela is a teacher at Montezuma- Cortez High School.