Yesterday, something unusual happened at my school as the kids were lining up in the yard after lunch. Several of the students were staring in awe at the sky. I followed their eyes upward to see an immense B2 bomber (I had my kids Google it afterwards) flying silently, very low over our heads, looking like a giant bat. Without provocation, several of the kids began chanting "U.S.A! U.S.A.! U.S.A!" We went in to the classroom and as the kids researched the plane they had just seen, they realized that it was a bomber and began asking me why a bomber would be flying over the school. "We're not at war," they reasoned. I told them that we were, in fact at war, but there seemed to be the feeling that the war in Iraq was a distant reality and incongruous with seeing a weapon of mass destruction flying overhead. It made me sad to think that just a few years from now, these will be the children who will be sent to war.
It brought to mind my own experience with the reality of war, a subject I briefly touched upon in one of my old blogs, when I wrote about spending time abroad and how it helped open my eyes to the way our government manipulates public opinion. At the time, it was shocking for me to learn that the U.S. government was in the business of smuggling drugs in order to fund and illegally conduct not only war, but the worst kind of human rights abuses. This was all done in the name of protecting democracy from the threat of a tiny, economically impoverished nation that dared to embrace communism. Much has changed since that time, for better or worse, and I can only hope that most people nowadays are more or less aware that public opinion is under constant manipulation by those with access to mass media.
Anti U.S. imperialism mural in Leon, Nicaragua. The figure is a silhouette of Augusto Sandino , who is often villified in U.S. history books but was a national hero to the Nicaraguan working class, stomping Uncle Sam with his boot.
I've said that my time in Central America opened my eyes to the way our government operates, but it also opened my eyes in other, more profound ways. Twenty years ago, I traveled to Nicaragua on a work-study program for school, ostensibly to observe educational methods with a group of U.S. teachers. This was at the height of the Reagan administration, when the U.S. was waging a covert war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.
I went down to work at a school in Esteli, which is a village in the northern part of Nicaragua. There was still sporadic fighting going on, since we were near to the border of Honduras. Sometimes, we would be walking down a street and hear machine gun fire from a block or two away and we would immediately duck down and find a place to hide. Part of working at the school was the agreement that we were there to learn, but in exchange we would assist with the development of the community. For weeks before I left the U.S., I collected school supplies by asking for donations and raising money to purchase them. I brought these along with me and donated them to the school in Esteli and they were very much appreciated.
However, I quickly found that nothing in my relatively comfortable upbringing in the United States prepared me for the real and difficult task of daily living in a third world country, trapped in a state of war.
En Nicaragua, Jesus carga un fusil.
"In Nicaragua, Jesus carries a rifle."
Soon after I arrived in the village of Esteli, it became apparent that my education was of little use, when what was most needed were strong legs, arms and backs to do the heavy lifting and building for a neighborhood that, for the most part, lacked running water, plumbing and electricity. Since I had no construction skills, I was given the task of transporting bricks from the brickpile to a construction site on top of a hill. After my arms gave out and I dumped a wheelbarrow of bricks down the side of the hill, the foreman shuffled me from assignment to assignment, eventually realizing that I was pretty much unfit for manual labor. I remember them asking me, "what CAN you do?" I thought for a minute and responded that I could paint. They then gave me the task of painting seeds with the likeness of Augusto Sandino, which they made into necklaces and pins to sell.
Some of my handiwork.
The fact that I was bilingual in English and Spanish was also valuable, since they needed to translate documents. Happy to have found a skill I could use, I eagerly said I could do this, not realizing that the documents they most needed translated were repair manuals for truck engines and power generators. Of course, I didn't know the Spanish words for such technical terms as "flywheel" or "spark plug," so I was kind of a washout in that as well.
Children of Esteli.
The family I lived with, in front of
the house I stayed in, Esteli, Nicaragua.
As poor as these people were and despite the difficulty of their circumstances, I found in their spirit a warmth and generosity that I'd rarely experienced before. I learned by watching their daily example that what was important in life was not wealth or material possessions, but purpose and resourcefulness. Being in Nicaragua at that time also allowed me to witness firsthand some of the effects of war in a way that was not sanitized for my consumption. I'm certain that the people of Esteli gave more to me than I gave to them.
All of this came to my mind yesterday afternoon as I watched my students go from the initial excitement of seeing the bomber, to pride in the might of U.S. military power, and then to confusion over what it means to be at war.