A chorus of stones: The private life of war
Douglas, Carol Anne
A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War by Susan Grin, Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1992, paperback
Hearing Susan Griffin speak at the National Women’s Studies Association annual conference in Minneapolis in June reawakened my interest in her work, and I discovered a book of hers that I had missed, A Chorus of Stones. The book takes on the subject of war. Ironically, I read the book and wrote the review last summer, not realizing how frighteningly relevant it would be. Griffin is very clear about how terrible and dehumanizing killing in war is, no matter who started it.
Her book is a patchwork quilt of brief but meaningful discussions of wars in different times and places.
She tells how her father’s parents separated, and her father was not allowed to speak about his mother or cry over her. Denial is an old habit, Griffin writes. We keep secrets from ourselves. It is this denial that makes war possible, she says.
Griffin begins with a description of the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, in World War II. Wisely, since her point is the brutality of war in general, she begins with the Allies’ worst actions and later moves on to discuss the Nazis.
In air raids, people hid in shelters. But the bombs that were dropped on Dresden were such that the people in the shelters were cooked. This was all-out war against the civilian population, retaliation for the Germans’ bombing of Britain. Although the Nazi government knew that people would be cooked if they hid in shelters, they did not tell their people.
Throughout the book, Griffin writes about the backgrounds and thoughts of military officers and others who committed acts of war, and intersperses these with the. accounts of victims.
Her accounts of the victims are mostly first-hand. When she visits Hiroshima, she interviews people who survived the bombing, who were children at the time and saw their families and their city literally disappear. In France, she meets Jews who survived the Nazis.
She intersperses these accounts of modern warfare with brief comments about earlier weapons.
The ancient Greeks developed one sort of weapon, the Middle Ages developed another sort of weapon. The cumulative effect is very powerful.
She tells about the development of the atom bomb, dangerously veiled in secrecy. She speaks with people who worked in atomic laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and tell about the fearful-secrecy that enveloped their lives. She tells of the terror of Marines who were ordered to remain out in the open near atomic bomb test sites. They suffered from radiation sickness, but the military denied that was the cause of their illness. Experiments at Oak Ridge used terminally ill children as guinea pigs to determine how much radiation treatment would produce nausea.
Griffin met a woman who worked for the Department of Energy and wrote a report about the nuclear accident at Three-Mile Island. Her reports, which revealed that the men working there had little training, were never sent to Congress.
The pilot who bombed Hiroshima named his plane after his mother, “Enola Gay.” Just what was he thinking? How is it that men connect weapons with women? .
Griffin tells how the picture of Rita Hayworth, Hollywood’s then-reigning “sex goddess,” was put on the atomic bomb that was dropped on the island of Bikini. Rita Hayworth wept at this use of her image. Hayworth was raped by her father (who was also her manager) for years, Griffin notes.
She realizes that people can be both victims and perpetrators. She tells of a coal miner suffering from black lung disease who sexually abused his daughter. And of the mother who senses what is happening and tells her daughter not to come home before she does, but does not consciously admit what her husband is doing.
Griffin tries to understand how those who perpetuate acts of war and brutality come to be the way they are. She even reads the diary of SS founder Heinrich Himmler, and tells how he was brought up by a classically tyrannical father who tried to control his every move. His father read his diary and made entries in it. Dr. Schreber, the leading childrearing guru then in Germany, said a child should be permeated by the impossibility of hiding something in his heart. Griffin finds this good training for a future Nazi. She tells how Himmler and other German soldiers in World War I felt lost when they lost the war. Himmler wrote in his diary that he didn’t know what he was working for.
In telling about the trench warfare in World War I, she tells how men fall apart during the course of war. Many who were shell– shocked were sent back to fighting afterwards. German soldiers were given electric shocks and sent back to the front.
She also tells how women learn to not to think about the killing the men in their lives are doing.
When Enrico Fermi and other scientists at Los Alamos produced the first chain reaction, Fermi held a party at his house. His wife and the wives of the other scientists were no told why there was a party.
Griffin hates secrecy and denial. She went to find her missing grandmother, who had been kept away from Griffin’s father when he was a child. She finds the old woman in a nursing home and tries to connect with her.
Griffin tells how her own grandfather was an anti-Semite, though he seemed gentle. She wonders whether she is part Jewish.
Himmler hated to watch killing, she writes, except when it was part of medical “experiments.” He had his own nephew put to death for being gay.
She tells the story of Leo, a Russian boy who was put in. forced labor camps by the Germans. He came to identify with the SA men who ran the camps. They reminded him of his brother, who had been with the Soviet secret police. Later, Leo came to the U.S. and joined the military. In the Korean War, he was assigned to interrogate captured soldiers who spoke Russian. He tells how he put a man’s eye out to get him to talk. Violence teaches violence, Griffin suggests.
Griffin also writes about how Gandhi developed into the great practitioner of nonviolence. She notes that he learned from women. At first, he was reluctant to let women be part of his struggle, but when the courts in South Africa (where he began his activism) refused to recognize Hindu and Muslim marriages, recognizing only Christian ones, he realized that it was women’s struggle too.
We all have the capacity to become domineering and brutal, Griffin suggests. She tells how, when she was a child, she- ganged up with other girls against another little girl.
“1 have come to believe that every life bears in some way on every other,” she writes. This is why she cares about the stories of both the killers and the victims, the violent and the nonviolent.
Griffin fears that war is becoming even worse than ever. She wonders whether “our shared movement toward nuclear war is a movement of mass suicide.
“Perhaps there is something within us as a social body that wishes to die. Or perhaps there’s a dimension of ourselves that must be sacrificed if we are to go on living,” she writes. I believe that she is suggesting that it is our attempts at dominance, our denial of suffering, our dissociation from our own acts, that we must abandon.
Needless to say, this book is just as timely now as when Griffin wrote it. Feminism must mean an end to war.
by carol anne douglas
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Nov 2001
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