Born in 1914, the first year of World War I, poet William Stafford grew up hearing war horror stories along with the biblical commandment, "Thou shalt not kill." When the U.S. government drafted him into World War II, he felt he could not go and instead became a conscientious objector, one of 12,000 who lived in civilian public-service camps throughout the country.
"I belong to a small, fanatical sect," Stafford wrote in his journal. "We believe that current ways of carrying out world affairs are malignant."
San Anselmo filmmaker Haydn Reiss recently released Every War Has Two Losers, a film about Stafford's objections to combat. Reiss would like viewers to see the film as an invitation to reconsider their ideas about conflict. The 32-minute documentary feels more like a poem or a peace meditation than a movie. It assembles a cast of writers—including Alice Walker, Robert Bly, Maxine Hong Kingston and just-named U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin—who read Stafford's poems and journal entries and talk about how his words moved them. Marin County actor Peter Coyote provides the voice of Stafford, who died in 1993.
Last week, Walker joined Reiss and media critic Norman Solomon on stage at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center after a screening of the film. The three talked about their disgust with what they see as a warmongering, materialistic culture and brainstormed ways to change it.
"Small ways of choosing to live may be the best we can do," Solomon said.
Walker said the film prompted her to consider actions she could take to stop war. "It again reminds me that it's up to us. And leadership will always disappoint us—even though we worked hard to elect it," she said. (During the 2008 presidential election, the author of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Color Purple campaigned for President Barack Obama.)
Solomon talked about being disgusted by what he called "warnography." "We're besieged by it," he said, "and it has become the wallpaper of our society."
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WEARING OPEN-COLLAR SHIRTS with sports jackets, Solomon and Reiss sat on stage in the sold-out auditorium on either side of Walker. Dressed in black, with the dreadlocks she wore in the film shorn and her gray hair in a short Afro, Walker did most of the talking. (She spoke so quietly that she sounded as though she was whispering, making it tough for some of the elderly people in the audience to hear her.)
She tried to rouse the San Rafael audience to organize against the Hollywood motion-picture industry. "Do we have to sit and endure bombings, car crashes?" Walker asked. "We don't have to endure it. We can actually see how to change things. From now on, these people will not insult us. We do not have to endure this. Where is the human indignation in us?"
Over the past five years, Solomon said, Marin County taxpayers sent $1.5 billion to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Audience members gasped when they heard the figure.
Reiss, who is 56 and came of age during the Vietnam War, said he feels frightened because Americans seem numb to the wars our country is waging. "War is not divorced from concerns about the environment, health, the economy," he said.
"The position I take is the reason war is never a good idea is because every war is a war against the earth, and you cannot just bomb your mother," Walker said.
Solomon said we tend to objectify the people we call our enemies and turn the people at the other end of our missiles into non-people. In the film, Stafford says, "When it's an enemy, it's not a person anymore. It's a target."
"When I lived in the South, white people didn't think we had feelings," said Walker, an African-American. "From the way we are behaving as a nation, we don't feel. We have numbed ourselves out. People are just numbed out and seduced by the mall in a big way."
Walker said an affluent white woman recently asked her if she didn't believe that economic disparities between whites and people of color were narrowing. The question incensed Walker.
"The inequity has not disappeared at all," she said. "When you see the soldiers going off to Iraq, the inequity is visible in the faces of the soldiers. They're mostly poor boys and girls. They don't have good teeth, good healthcare."
Walker recoiled at the film's most moving image—a close-up of a crying Iraqi child, her arms raised in surrender, staring into the barrel of a gun as soldiers lead her out of her home. "Generations of her family will be frightened by that moment," Walker predicted.
At the beginning of World War II, Reiss's uncle, a U.S. Navy sailor, was killed at sea. The filmmaker wondered what would have become of his mother's handsome brother had he lived. After the screening and the discussion, Reiss set up a table with black-and-white photographs of his uncle and a group of women, including his grandmother, who lost their sons during World War II. Reiss's grandmother refused to smile.
"She never saw this as a fair exchange," Reiss said.
After the discussion, Walker stopped to have her picture taken with Reiss in front of the black-and-white photos. What about genocide in places like Nazi Germany and Darfur, an 18-year-old from Fairfax asked Walker. Must we say no to war in the face of such civil rights violations?
"I think there are other ways," Walker responded. "I think there are other ways you can raise consciousness."
After the screening, in his home in the Morningside neighborhood of San Anselmo, where he lives with his wife, Zuhra, 10-year-old daughter Sofia and 5-year-old son Oliver, Reiss said he wanted to address the Hitler question in the film. He also wanted to contain it to 30 minutes so it would fit in a PBS time slot, and he ran out of time.
But the filmmaker, who visited German concentration camps and whose father was Jewish, said the question is whether the war path leads to greater safety. World War II, he said, gave birth to nuclear weapons. "So did we win?" he asked.
"I think William Stafford's ideas are as vital today as when he wrote them 20, 30 years ago, and his essential opinion is that war is not inevitable," Reiss said. "He's asking us to think for ourselves, question what we've been told and always see war as a tragedy."
For more information on Every War Has Two Losers and a schedule of screenings, go to www.everywar.com.