May 19, 2007
Seniors, I am honored to be part of this baccalaureate ceremony celebrating your departure from the “Whitman Womb” into the so-called “real world.” Your body, mind and spirit have been nurtured to prepare you for this day. However, you might miss us from time to time especially when working in the real world; for example, don’t be surprised if your future employers don’t know what an “extension” is. They probably won’t “friend” you on face-book like George Bridges, nor will they “cookie-fairy” you as Tom Cronin did. As unreal as you may think Whitman is, you have to admit that we have been good to you. And, you get one week off at Thanksgiving, two weeks’ spring break, and a whole month of winter. (FYI – in your first year on the job, it’s not advisable to request 30 days off for the holidays.)
During student and staff retreats we in student services have a favorite ice-breaker called “Two Truths and a Lie.” The idea is to share with a group of people two unknown true things about yourself and one made-up thing. The object is to guess which one is the lie. The more you play the game, the more proficient you become at detecting lies, which by the way is a very important skill to take into the real world. Today I offer two truths and a lie, not about me but about events that happened during your time here at Whitman, a time that will be defined in history books by the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Truth number one –there is truth in fiction.
It was only a few months after our nation went to war in Iraq that we asked those of you who entered in 2003 to read and discuss Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried. This beautifully written novel set in Viet Nam exposed us to an “unreal” world of war in which it is unclear who or where the enemy is, and upon what altar youth, lives, and mental suffering are being sacrificed. The tangible things the soldiers carried into battle were the thin threads that connected them to the real world.
When he visited our campus, Tim O’Brien told us that his readers sometimes find it hard to believe the book is fiction. It’s no wonder, for he messes with our conception of truth. The one story that seems the most incredible is the one that is true. There is an unreality to the tale of a young woman who finds her own way to Viet Nam in search of a boyfriend. O’Brien lends a superhero quality to her character as she ends up fighting alongside a group of Green Berets. I thought at first this was a way to personify the corrosive affect of war on the soldier – the metamorphosis from innocence to total loss of identity. But O’Brien was giving us the truth of war. It is worth revisiting this book now at the end of your college experience, to connect it to the events you have witnessed while here. If there is one truth we have learned in the last four years, it is that the more unreal our headlines become the more in danger we are of numbness and moral apathy.
Which brings me to truth number two – the truth hurts.
In a famous scene from Aaron Sorkin’s, “A Few Good Men” Colonel Jessep - played by Jack Nicholson - is interrogated during a military tribunal by Lieutenant Kaffee - played by Tom Cruise - who demands the truth. Colonel Jessep fires back in his classic venomous style, “you can't handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns.” The walls Colonel Jessep refers to in “A Few Good Men” are the walls surrounding the real world in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where we now detain alleged enemy combatants. We continue to build walls to separate “us” from “them.” Walls obscure truths too painful to acknowledge. The truth does hurt. And now it is apparently okay to hurt someone to get “the truth.” The Military Commissions Act of 2006, perhaps the most transformative event to occur during your time here at Whitman, opened the door to the use of torture, and suspended habeas corpus, the pillar of our justice system and the most basic right of humankind dating back to the Magna Carta. With legal torture we have lowered our standards of decency to make legitimate a horrific practice that steals our country’s greatest asset, the promise of democracy and justice. Before the signing of the Military Commissions Act, our laws and due process were what separated us from our enemies.
Now, here is the lie.
Senator Daniel Moynihan is credited with saying, “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” It is too bad this wisdom goes unheeded. We are painfully aware that it is possible to create your own facts, support them with unsubstantiated intelligence, and go to war. But that’s not the lie I’m talking about today. I am talking about the deliberate attempt by members of the media culture to pass opinion off as fact and to bring unreality to new heights with war stories disguised as news releases. Attempts to manipulate our emotions and rally us to the cause are familiar tactics, but now more than ever it appears harder to separate fact from fiction. Because I love my country and what it stood for, there were times when I too wanted to believe that we were fighting the good fight and not just trying to sustain an avaricious, oil-consuming way of life.
Do we have to believe that the ex-NFL player died in a Hollywood-style shootout with the Taliban, rather than by friendly fire in order to honor him? Would the truth of Pat Tillman’s death take away our respect for his sacrifice or was his death simply not spectacular enough? Another one of the Pentagon’s attempts to write movie scripts instead of news releases was based on what happened to Jessica Lynch during the invasion of Iraq. The details of her capture and the film of her recovery may go down in history as the biggest news hoax ever to be perpetrated on the American public.
As you leave Whitman, feeling the pride of your accomplishments and the sense of relief from having finished a long journey, I urge you to reflect on the way you find meaning in the events of the past four years. As you drive home you will pass countless automobiles with yellow ribbons proclaiming support for the troops. I wish the ribbons demanded the real support our troops need in the way of proper protection while in combat as well as medical and mental health care when they return. Unfortunately, the ribbons can not bring the troops home, but they can remind us to respect their sacrifice and not abandon them as my generation did when they returned from Viet Nam. The ribbons should also remind us that there are other, bigger lessons to be learned from Viet Nam.
I would like to leave you with one final thought about truth and lies from O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried; I quote:
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of the war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”