Voices on War & Peace

Commentary of everyday women engaged with our topic of the month: Kavenaugh hearings, Bosnian genocide, WWII memories, the silence of trauma, military spending, internment camps.

“Very Scary Time in America for Young Men…” (Detail), menstrual blood, India ink, and graphite, Carly Swenson, 2019

Carly Swenson

The Kavenaugh hearing [in October 2018] was triggering for every woman I know. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was so brave and vulnerable. With the rise of the MeToo movement, she forced our nation to consider the unsettling prevalence of sexual assault. My social media was flooded with women sharing their experiences and gratitude for Ford’s selfless willingness to speak up in a society that will do anything to discredit her. Her authenticity made Kavenaugh’s entitlement, fragile masculinity, and privilege appallingly clear. His approval broke me.

Government leaders saw the truth but decided: Women don’t matter. Protecting patriarchy matters more than women’s lives, futures, and mental health.

I’m angry, and art is my only weapon. The original idea was to paint President Rape-Culture using menstrual blood surrounded by his own sexist quotes. My depiction of the misogynistic narcissist — with the one distinctly feminine medium that he’d find insulting — was the catalyst for an entire Bloodwork series that is intentionally uncomfortable. This uneasiness emphasizes the underlying discomfort women face daily because they are women. With 40+ delicately hand-lettered feminist statements, I’m shamelessly reclaiming my body in a country that continues to insist it doesn’t belong to me.

I don’t know how to make peace with a culture that perceives me as lesser-than, dismissing my artwork as ‘feminine’ — and thus, ‘inferior’ to my male counterparts. I refuse to make peace with this corrupt government. Art provides a semblance of peace, and that has to be enough.

Velma Šaric

Many people look back on the age of 16 and remember getting their driver’s license, falling in love for the first time, and going to high school parties.

However, when I look back on my life at 16, I am consumed with memories of war in my home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. These years became instrumental in shaping the journey I decided to take — to help those who suffered in this war alongside me.

Thanks to a collaboration with the University of Minnesota and my school, the University of Sarajevo, I met Dr. Eric Markusen. He was the first person to recognize and support my efforts in the area of genocide prevention and youth education, and was my mentor for five years before his death. Without him, his wife Randi, and the support from the [Minnesota-based] World Without Genocide organization, I would not be doing the work I do today as founder of the Post-Conflict Research Center.

In the beginning, we had minimal funding, no office, and only a few part- time volunteers. Now, we are a leading peacebuilding organization in the Western Balkans, dedicated to restoring a culture of peace and preventing violent conflict. We have impacted over 300 million people with our interventions, and have received global recognition for our approaches. We continue to constantly face new challenges, roadblocks, and opportunities — but believe that anything is possible if you follow your passion.

Kelli Billstein

My business partner Tara and I were perched on either side of Lee Kraklau, Minnesota’s oldest living World War II veteran, as he recalled how one night in November 1944, he was violently thrown across the mess hall when a torpedo slammed into the side of the U.S. Navy ship he was in. “I was just having a cup of coffee before it was my turn to go on watch,” he explained. In a matter of minutes, Lee and his fellow soldiers found themselves floating in the Pacific Ocean.

It was an honor to listen to this story, culled from the memory of a man who was there — treading water in the middle of a war he didn’t know if his country would win.

Tara and I had been hired to capture Lee’s stories in writing through the business we co-founded called StorySprings, which creates short- form memoir for families that want to collect the unique and epic tales of their loved ones.

We were surprised to hear him speak about the war with good humor and spirit. Knowing how devastating WWII was, we expected Lee’s account to be serious and perhaps grim. But his stories were equal parts adventure and anxiety, delight and disaster. He told us about seeing the bomb drop on Hiroshima. In the next breath, he recalled dining on succulent steaks with his buddies in Australia while the ship was the harbor.

We realized that, after all, he’d been a young 20-something living his life. It just happened to be playing out in a historical context that the world would never forget.

Details: storysprings.com/stories

Thet-Htar Thet

* A Po = grandfather, A Pe = father, thamee = daughter

There was never a time that A Po* wasn’t fighting a war. He joined the Burma Independence Army at the start of the war in Dawei. He fought against the British, and later against the Japanese. According to my father, he fought against the Karen rebels, the Communist insurgents, and the Chinese KMT Army. Every time he would leave, my father — the eldest, born at the height of conflict — would shadow his siblings and mother in every beat of their lives until his father came back. When my father dared to ask Grandfather how he felt about the wars, A Po would merely stare at his son and proceed to shrug his shoulders. A Po was always silent, but he spoke so loud.

At ten, my father remembers a truck hastily driving toward his childhood home. Grandfather was stoic. A soldier hopped out of the truck and proceeded to bow in front of his battalion commander. It was a rotten truck, whose smell of death made my father and his brothers tear up. The soldier dropped to his knees and cried for mercy from Grandfather. My father and my uncle Baba approached the side of the truck as the soldier stuttered about what had happen. The soldiers had made a mistake in the thick of the jungle. They heard rustling and their minds went wild. They took rifles and began to shoot wildly until the rustling stopped. Then they realized what they had done, and brought what they shot to A Po in the back of their truck.

In that truck were 25 dead pigs. Bullets pierced through their necks and torsos. Their tongues hung out. A Po said nothing. He began to grab each pig and drop them into a crate. He locked the pigs away and moved on. Perhaps the wars my grandfather fought stayed locked within him until the end of his days.

My father’s reaction? He refused to eat pig from that moment on.

When I was ten — 25 years after my grandfather’s death — I remember passing a farm, holding my father’s hand. I pointed to the piglets scattered across the field. They were digging through the ground. Squawking towards each other. Huddling for protection in the box that was their terrain. My father tightened his hand around mine until both our hands looked like fists. “Pigs, A Pe.” I said. “You were born in the year of the pig, thamee.” His voice trailed off, and we walked away from the pig farm. My father is silent, but he speaks so loud.

Sophia Morrissette

I recently returned from a spring semester program at American University in D.C., and a study abroad experience in Prague, where I studied foreign policy, genocide, authoritarianism, and peace building.

Many guest speakers talked about the military budget — either in defense of current numbers or calling for cuts. In my attempt to understand other perspectives, I wrote an essay in defense of neoconservatism. Is it our moral obligation as a nation to promote democracy around the world? Does that sometimes require force? Does that require the $800 billion figure I’ve learned is spent on creating an active U.S. military presence? How would we have righted the wrongs of the Holocaust without force?

Diplomacy, with men like Hitler, doesn’t tend to work. There are ruthless regimes that need to be held accountable.

I was surprised to learn that federal spending isn’t as heavily skewed to military as I thought, compared to other spending. While I believe military force is used too much often for non-humanitarian reasons — it is helpful to see what the data shows.

My studies in psychology, peace building, and conflict resolution are helping me imagine a different pathway.

Prejudice starts and spreads at the local level. Conflicts about race, ethnicity, and religion require mediation.

Post-conflict reconstruction rebuilds the physical, but true reconciliation is psychological — and too often neglected as an important part of maintaining a sincere and sustainable peace. The steps include: ending violence, overcoming polarization, bridging opposites, and celebrating difference.

Reconciliation lies on a spectrum between judicial — which does not rebuild relationships — and amnesia, which is unrealistically about “forgiving and forgetting.”

What I’ve learned is that all players need to be at the table. The process doesn’t work if groups get shut out or left behind.

My hope is that, globally and locally, we provide more resources toward true reconciliation, using informed, mediated conversation.

Selena Moon

In my sophomore year at Smith College, I took a course called “Narratives of Internment.” We read literature by Japanese-Americans incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps during World War II, including Jeanne Wakatsuki-Houston’s autobiography “Farewell to Manzanar.” 

Half of my class attended Manzanar’s annual pilgrimage dedicated to Sue Kunitomi Embrey, whose efforts made Manzanar a national historic site.

During the war, about 120,000 Japanese-Americans and their families were incarcerated, including anyone with one Japanese great-grandparent. It included several orphans who had no knowledge of their Japanese heritage.

Had I been born half a century earlier on the west coast, I would have been among them.

This year’s 50th pilgrimage discussed similarities to current events: migrant children separated from parents and anti-Muslim sentiments. Nihad Awad, co-founder of Council on American–Islamic Relations, recounted giving his 10-year-old daughter a book on Japanese-American incarceration. She packed a suitcase, in case her family was also incarcerated.