The Human Right to a Peaceful Death
Thoughts during the Iraq War
In this compilation, written and e mailed out during the Iraq war, I drew together some materials and wrote about death and dying in different conditions - conditions that had only the physical fact of death, and the word, in common. That the experience of death can be so different was the issue to which I was trying to draw attention. Above all I was trying to bring out the contrast between violent death and peaceful death and to pose it as a human right that, as far as possible, we all have a peaceful death.
We have all got to die, but there are best possible deaths, when our full time has come, and there are deaths, as in the Iraq war and in Israel, when lives are brutally cut short in conditions of great fear, anger and hatred - often leaving behind a legacy of anger, bitterness and sorrow. I want to dwell on the differences here. I also want to look at the killing process itself, and its psychology, drawing on some of the material that has appeared in recent weeks to see how people are brought to become killers.
My chaplain friend wrote at that time:
" Today was a beautiful spring example of life near the mountains here in Colorado. Warm, dry, birds chirping. I read part of your piece and then went to make a salad for dinner. As I shredded the green life that will give me life, as I chopped the red radishes, as Gnosis my black cat crunched her chow, I thought of the kids and the elderly in Iraq who will never know this joy of simple living.
Death is the rubber on the road for life. Without death life means little."
The Human Rights of Dying People
Because we all have to die is it possible to describe death in the best possible conditions? Is it possible to describe what ought to be our human rights in relation to our deaths? In this section I argue that this is possible. I then go on to compare this with what has happened in Iraq to draw out the contrast hopefully in a clear way.
If we think about our deaths, or those of your loved ones there are things which I think that we all ideally want to make our passing easier. These are things like: having made a will, an orderly transition of our affairs, reconciliations and making our peace with people, making sure that vulnerable survivors like children will be looked after. In the chaos, and rapid moving situation of war none of these things can be guaranteed. Soldiers may tidy their affairs up before they go into battle. For civilians that may occur - but there again, in the sheer random way in which civilians get killed, there is not the predictability or time for many of those things.
Another dimension is the psychological preparation for dying, as the last stage in life journey, as another opportunity for growth and experience. There is now a considerable literature about the psychological preparation for death, which suggests that one's last days, with one's loved ones around one, may be the most beautiful and poignant of one's life, as one becomes aware of how precious and fleeting life is.
Death with ones family cowering against incoming cluster bombs is not like that.
There are other things one can say of death that are relevant here.
In Jean Liedloff's book, the Continuum Project, she describes the process of life as stages we all pass through, which if lived properly lead to dying without regrets. As a child one has toys and one plays. There is no problem leaving one's toy's behind one, if one has lived that part of one's life properly. Equally the stage of life for adolescent romance and sexuality and so on. One gets fixated at a stage if one has not lived it properly. The greatest tragedy, for many people in the world, is to be alive but unable to participate in these ordinary satisfactions of living. Finally at death one let's go because one has lived a full life and there are no regrets.
In that sense the idea of a death cut short in war has particular tragedy, and particularly of children or of the parents of children which denies the children the loving and supportive continuity they need, ideally to mature.
Life and Death in scientific terms
Let us go deeper. Let us explore the idea that death may even be a liberation - but not when brought by a man with military training.
Before we can describe the best conditions for death we must look deeper at the question of what "death" is.
That's the other side of the question of what life is. I am sure that to many people in the peace movement, even to pose these questions about the meaning of life and death seems absurd. Yet many people are involved in the peace movement with a spiritual perspective. On the demonstration a few weekends ago I noticed a banner which said "Buddhists for Peace". Their attitude to dying is not at all the same as say, the socialist one. Indeed for them it would be a central question. Nowadays I have more sympathy for their view.
This is especially as there are more ideas now coming out of the medical sciences, that open up our understanding of life and death very greatly.
Every age has a different way of understanding "life". I think we are just leaving an age that focused rater a lot on the chemistry and mechanics of the material body, as it it were an animated or powered machine, and moving into an understanding of living beings best described as the interactions of energy fields. As our vision of what life is moves on, so too does our understanding of the end of life, of dying.
Thus my view of death many years ago was, metaphorically, rather like the permanent switching off of the power, or the smashing, of a radio or TV receiver. No picture and sound. No life. The receiver would no longer work and the instrument would be thrown away, be dismantled, decay. That was that.
The mistake with this metaphor, however, is to focus too much on the box and instrumentation and not on the signal passing through it, as well as the signal's pattern of interaction with the power input. Instead of focusing on the material object, the box of tricks, we can focus on the energy and its field interactions.
In fact, a hard box like a TV receiver, is also not a good metaphor for a soft object made up of 75% water, which is what the human body is. Indeed, the human body is almost all soft tissue - an ideal plasmic playground for electrical and energetic conductivities occuring in many dimensions, along the nerves, in the cell tissues, along the muscles, in the heart....
While we are still alive our heart keeps on pumping. So let's take the heart as an example of life energy in operation - it has an electromagnetic pulse, which can be seen clearly on an electrocardiogram, an audio pulse, a pressure pulse and a heat pulse. The electric pulse, incidentally, can be detected quite a way out from the body and it can interact quite literally with the heart beat of other people which can come into a shared rhythm, in a process called entrainment. This pulse is the first thing we are ever aware of. When crying babies on a hospital ward are played the sound of a calm heart pulse it will comfort them.
Of course the heart feeds energy in the chemical constituents of the blood to the brain - which sends out electrical signals through the nervous system on a digital basis, but also through the perineural system into the cellular sytem on a direct current basis.
The heart is a good organ to illustrate another idea key to understanding what "life" is: that life as energy in motion in and through our bodies, is, at the other side of the coin, our e - motion. Our e-motions are what move us. If we chemically react with someone in love it profoundly adjusts our uses of our energies. So does anger and hate and we register it in the patterns of our bodies (e.g. clenching fists and that arousal that precedes possible striking out).
"Among the most significant of recent discoveries involving energetics is that concerning the physiological rhythms associated with certain feeling states, such as love, peace and appreciation.....Particular emotional states have been correlated with measurable changes in the electrical energy spectrum of the heart...In frustration, the heart rate varies somewhat randomly, a condition...referred to as incoherence....Various practices that intentionally focus one's attention on the area of the heart, which involve sincere feelings of love and appreciation, lead to a more regular variation of heart rate, a condition...referred to as coherence" (James L. Oschmann. Energy Medicine. The Scientific Basis. Churchill Livingstone. 2000 ISBN 0 443 06261 7 p 237-238)
Another relationship between emotion and energy exists through sound - as we know, for example, though the effect of music or the stessing of sudden or particularly intensly pitched sounds. And there is yet another example of the energy/emotion relation -through colour, which has a well recognised effect on our moods. And colour is light energy at a particular wave length.
I could go on: yet another emotion/energy relationship exists in our relationship to gravity - as expressed, for example, in the idea that we are "bent through carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders" or "have a spring in our step" because we are energized by love. All in all
"On the basis of what is now known about the roles of electrical, magnetic, elastic, acoustic, thermal, gravitational, and photonic energies in living systems, it appears that there is no single 'life force' or 'healing energy' in living systems. Instead, there are many energetic systems in the living body, and many ways of influencing these system. What we refer to as the 'living state' and as 'health' are all of those systems, known and unknown, functioning collectively, co-operatively, synergistically. The debate about whether there is such a thing as a healing energy or life force is being replaced with study of the interactions between biological energy fields, structures and functions." (Oschmann op cit. p219)
Now the point about this is that this is all very consistent then with a Tibetan Buddhist description of the transitions, through the death experience, which are at once cosmological and personal. What follow is a wonderful passage taken from the very handy Natural Death Handbook. It is a description of dying under peaceful circumstances, under the best to be hoped for conditions.
Thus it is a human right to be aimed for that people die like this:
Death as Spiritual Transition
Imagine that your body no longer has the strength, the energy, to maintain its connection with the life force, with the awareness within. And imagine now that you are beginning to experience the process of dissolving out of that body. Sensations from the body no longer so distinct, melting away, leaving just a spaciousness. Dissolving out of the body. Leaving that heavier form behind. Dissolving into consciousness itself.
My friend, listen now, for that which is called death has arrived. So let go gently, gently, of all that holds you back. Of all that pulls you away from this most precious moment. Know that now you have arrived at the transition called death. Open to it. Let go into it.
Recognise the changing experience of the mind as it separates from the body, dissolving.
Dissolving now into the realms of pure light. Your true nature shining everywhere before you.
My friend, maintain open heartedness, a spaciousness of being that does not grasp. Let things be as they are without the least attempt to interfere. Grasping at nothing.
Enter the essential nature of your own being shining there before you, a great luminosity. Your true self.
Let go, gently, gently, without the least force. Before you shines your true being. It is without birth, without death.
Let go of all that distracts or confuses the mind, all that created density of life.
Go gently into it. Do not be frightened or bewildered. Do not pull back in fear from the immensity of your being. Now is the moment for liberation.
Know that you are well guided by compassion and love. You are the essence of all things. You are the light.
From "Who Dies?" by Stephen Levine - quoted in "The Natural Death Handbook" edited by the late Nicholas Albury and Stephanie Wienrich ISBN 0 7126-0576-2 from the chapter on preparing for dying page 31.
How different is this from dying in battlefield conditions? Think about dying, not in peace with one's loved ones, but in chaos, aware that one's loved ones are dying or seriously wounded too, in the wreck of one's home. Can you imagine that mind state?
Many people have passed through it.
Iraq Civilian Deaths 13th April
Minimum According to Press Reports 1387 Maximum 1620
Does not include chronic war related illnesses. (e.g caused by DU weapons)
As Iraq's population is approximately 50% children one can unfortunately assume between 700-800 children have lost their lives and a large number of others will have been made orphans. As this war was illegal and civilians are supposed to be protected by the laws of war one can say that all these are murders.
Military Training and Death
Translated from Stern 13.03.2003
"At the beginning (of the combat course) everyone gets a white young white rabbit" explains Bruce Barket from Mascoutah in Illinois. " We carry it around all the time in our breast pocket. We get close to it, we talk to it. And at the end of the week the order we get the order to kill the rabbit and to eat it." (p 58)
" 'They must learn to kill' For that purpose they are trained in the seminars of Professor David Grossman. The war veteran has published a book about 'the psychological price of learning to kill in war and society'. According to Grossman, during the second world war, even among soldiers under fire, it was only every 5th that actually pulled the trigger. By the time of the Vietnam war, with new methods of military training, it had proved possible to virtually switch off the natural inhibition against killing. (p. 60)
'We shoot them down like the morons they are': US general
By Lindsay Murdoch Herald Correspondent south of Baghdad
April 9 2003, 11:05 AM
Hundreds of Muslim fighters, many of them non-Iraqis, were putting up a stronger fight for Baghdad than Iraq's Republican Guard or the regular army, a top United States military officer said yesterday.
"They stand, they fight, sometimes they run when we engage them," Brigadier-General John Kelly said.
"But often they run into our machine guns and we shoot them down like the morons they are."
General Kelly, assistant commander of the about 20,000-strong 1st Marine Division, said US intelligence indicated that there might be anywhere between 500 and 5000 of the fighters, whom he described as terrorists.
"They appear willing to die. We are trying our best to help them out in that endeavour," he said.
Trapped in a Zone of Imminent Death - PTSD
In this article, excerpts of which I have translated, from the Munich based newspaper, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, imminent death and killing haunts veterans for the rest of their lives...Something triggers a memory and they are back in the terror zone....The essay is by Ulrich Raulff
" A hideous yet comical scene in a novel by Philip Roth.is played out in a Chinese restaurant called "Harmony Place". A group of Vietnam veterans has entered the restaurant to introduce someone to one of the most dangerous situations that the jungle can offer to civilisation: a meeting with asian people walking around freely. "Breath, says Louie. Breath, Les. If you
can't go on after the soup, we'll go. But you must try to manage the soup. It's completely OK if you can't manage the roasted pork. But you've got to manage the soup."
Louie manages the soup - and he overcomes the horror that happens to him every time when smiling faces with slit eyes are above him, as the waiter offers water to his glass. Up to the main course, when Leslie begins to tremble. The rice falls from his fork, up to the point when the waiter once again 'attacks', in other words he approaches the group without them
noticing. And already Les has him by the throat and wants to kill him. His nerves hold up no longer. Once in the Jungle, always in the jungle.
Clearly, the veterans are suffering from what has become known, since 1980, as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and what was once simply called war neurosis. For the post traumatic victims, the Proust like Madeleine, the trigger for a chain of unavoidable memories, can be a noise, a movement, or a colour. Immediately they are back in the same situation - attacking, protecting their retreat. Everyday life sees a continuation of the war.....
You will seek in vain for veterans of the Gulf War in Roth..but, wait: was not Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma Bomber, a veteran of the Gulf?.....
.........It will only be a long time after the war until it becomes clear what number of soldiers have been broken and left in a living nightmare of total war. Because the coalitions soldiers are mostly professionals, their number will be relatively small compared to the huge numbers of conscripted troops in the first and second world wars. Out of the ranks of world war one were the "war tremblers", those ghosts of a brutal and helpless military psychiatry, a psychiatry which used a used a rich arsenal of punishment therapies - electric shocks, coldwater baths, injections (i.e. insulin shock therapy) - even if they held back from execution for cowardice. With less ado the armies of the second world war treated their half mad, their catanonic and
their shocked drop outs: the RAF threatened their bomber crews with degradation, the German Wehrmach selected and treated people along a scale - with the bottom scale of the ladder being death clinics like Hamamar for the "therapy resistant"....
End of article exceprts
In April 1961 Adolf Eichmann was charged in Jerusalem with planning the murder of 6 million people. During his trial he was kept in the dock in a glass cage. He was found guilty and executed for this crime.
In the same year Herman Kahn, Princeton University mathematician, physicist and military strategist wrote and published a book calledThermonuclear War which contained the following passage:
"(What price) should the Russians be made to pay as punishment for their aggression? I have discussed this question with many Americans and after talking for about a quarter of an hour they usually arrive at an acceptable price of between ten and sixty million (lives). Usually one agrees on a figure somewhat closer to the higher of the two figures.....The ways and means how the upper limit is reached is rather interesting. Namely, one mentions a third of the total population of a country, in other words something less than half."
Quoted in Hans Magnus Enzenburger, "Raids and Reconstructions" Pluto Press 1976. From an essay titled "Reflections Before A Glass Cage".
And finally - Always look on the Bright Side of Life
From Monty Python's Life of Brian
"Cheer up Brian! You come from nothing, you go back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!"