Theme of Class #2: From Up in the Air

In our Thursday evening class, Walking Together without Fear: Reading and Writing with Alice Walker, we pondered the following reflections from Alice Walker, Denise Levertov, and Fred Branfman.


Alice Walker, Thousands of Feet Below You

Thousands of feet
Below you
There is a small
Running from
Your bombs.

If he were
To show up
At your mother’s
On a green
Sea island
Off the coast
Of Georgia

He’d be invited in
For dinner.

Now, driven,
You have shattered
His bones.

He lies steaming
In the desert
In fifty or sixty
Or maybe one hundred
Oily, slimy

If you survive
& return
To your island
& your mother’s
Where the cup
Of lovingkindness
The brim
From which
No one
In memory
Was ever

Gather yourself.

Set a place
For him.


Denise Levertov, The Pilots

Because they were prisoners,
because they were polite and friendly and lonesome and homesick,
because they said Yes, they knew
the names of the bombs they dropped
but didn’t say whether they understood what these bombs
are designed to do
to human flesh, and because
I didn’t ask them, being unable to decide
whether to ask would serve
any purpose other than cruelty, and
because since then I met Mrs. Brown, the mother of one of their fellow prisoners,
and loved her, for she has the same lovingkindness in her
that I saw in Vietnamese women (and men too)
and because my hostility left the room and wasn’t there
when I thought I needed it
while I was drinking tea with the POW’s,

because of all these reasons I hope
they were truly as ignorant,
as unawakened,
as they seemed,
I hope their chances in life up to this point
have been poor,
I hope they can truly be considered
victims of the middle America they come from,
their American Legionnaire fathers, their macho high schools,
their dull skimped Freshman English courses,

for if they did understand precisely
what they were doing, and did it anyway, and would do it again,

then I must learn to distrust
my own preference for trusting people,

then I must learn to question
my own preference for liking people,

then I must learn to keep
my hostility chained to me
so it won’t leave me when I need it.

And if it is proved to me
that these men understood their acts,

how shall I ever again
be able to meet the eyes of Mrs. Brown?


Fred Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War

Over 25,000 attack sorties were flown against the Plain of Jars (Laos) from May, 1964, through September, 1969; over 75,000 tons of bombs were dropped on it; over 50,000 airmen at distant bases were involved; below, on the ground, thousands were killed and wounded, tens of thousands driven underground, and the entire above-ground society leveled. And yet, for five and a half years, this massive war was unknown to the world beyond. …

The disappearance of the Plain of Jars was indeed “the other war”: automated war, in which participants are never face to face; war from the air, in which ground troops play but a supplementary role; total war, inevitably waged against everyone below; secret war, in which whole societies are eradicated without a trace. …

Every day for five and a half years, the reconnaissance and electronic aircraft would film and track the people below; the jet and prop bombers would bomb them with white phosphorus, fragmentation, ball-bearing and flechette anti-personnel bombs, immediate and delayed-action high explosives; the gunships and spotter planes would strafe them with machine gun fire. …

Although few people realize it as yet, the disappearance of the Plain of Jars is one of the signal events of our time, as significant in its own way as the Battle of the Marne, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the massacre of My Lai. Not because it is as celebrated as any of these events, of course. Precisely because it is not. Because if My Lai signaled the end of heavily publicized ground warfare by superpowers, the Plain of Jars marks the advent of superpower intervention through secret, automated war. What is important about this new form of warfare is not simply that it involves bombing. It is that superstates are now using mechanized warfare as their major means of intervention: not committing their own ground troops, and using local troops to support the machines.

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