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Literature Brings Pain
of War to Light

I first read Frank O'Connor's short story "Guests of the Nation" when I was in my first semester of college. The story takes place during one of the periods of Anglo-Irish conflict early in the 20th century. Two Irishmen hold two Englishmen prisoners until word comes that the Irish must shoot the English in retaliation for actions taken against Ireland. I have been haunted by that story for decades. When I first began to teach introduction-to-literature courses at Washington State University and then at Whitworth, I ordered only anthologies that contained O'Connor's story. I thought that if I taught the story often enough, I would figure it out. When Hawkins, one of the Englishmen, offers to change sides not out of cowardice, but out of awareness that friendship is more important to him than nationalism, I have never understood why that offer is not good enough to change the course of the story. When the Irishman Donovan says, "You understand that we're only doing our duty," I hurt every time to realize what duty to country may require.

In Dawn, Elie Wiesel has his character face a similar dilemma. If one country shoots its prisoner, then an eye-for-an-eye kind of justice demands an execution from the other side. These ethical dilemmas are terrible situations. And I understand that war cannot be reduced to such one-on-one matters.
My discipline, the study of literature, has not molded my position on war, but literature has given me solace at times, as well as more questions about war and what a person of faith can say or write about war.

I have always been a pacifist. I am not certain when I realized that as a Christian I could not support war. When I was a teenager I understood scripture from that perspective. I also found sustenance in the writings of Dorothy Day and Gandhi. I attended American Friends Service Committee events in high school. Later, in college, it was Martin Luther King, Jr., who, along with my reading of scripture, fed my belief that as a Christian I could not condone the war in Vietnam. My beliefs had moved from a general pacifism to a specific war. Where I was well-schooled before, I was now grounded in action. I actively demonstrated for my faith.

While those actions took place a long time ago, I find I have not wavered in my beliefs. On a daily basis I also pray that those who serve this country and other countries will be safe and will know the presence of God as a companion. I pray that the leaders of this country will find other ways to resolve conflict than by shedding blood. I also believe that teaching literature may be a way to wage peace, but not by forcing my conscience on others. A few weeks ago I taught Tim O'Brien's short story "On the Rainy River." This piece is part of O'Brien's book The Things They Carried, about his experiences in Vietnam. In the story, O'Brien has a choice to flee to Canada or to accept his draft notice. The story, of course, is more complicated than that. Near the end of our class discussion, one of my students said, "I cannot respect him at all. He did not act on his conscience." What pleased me as a teacher of literature was not this student's conclusion, or even O'Brien's conclusion, but the force and strength in the student's voice. She cared about this matter enough to voice her opinion and to stand alone in her conviction.

Bloxham,'69, is a professor at English at Whitworth.

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