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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 26, 2007

Haunted by faces never seen

By Gerry Madison

On Memorial Day we honor the men and women who have died in military service to our country. Everyone, religious or not, is grateful for and humbled by those who have given their precious lives for their fellow citizens for you and me.

For each of those we so honor, hundreds and thousands more of us have returned from our war to find that a part of us has also died and been left on that far away field of battle.

Somewhere that innocent and idealistic 19- or 20- or 25-year-old is wandering in a sort of limbo, waiting to be reclaimed by his surviving self.

It is sweet and fitting that we honor our military dead. But those who have killed in our name are equally deserving of our compassion.

To take a life even by just and legal means carries a terrible burden. A fundamental law of God and man has been violated and no matter how one may reason or philosophize, the knowledge is always there that I have killed my fellow man. He may have been my enemy, real or perceived, or he may have been an innocent victim. But at some level, the guilt, whether or not I am aware of it, embeds itself. Must I carry it with me through all my days?

I recently returned to Vietnam with a delegation of monks, nuns and laypersons led by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on a remembrance and reconciliation pilgrimage.

The core events were ceremonies in Saigon, Hue and Hanoi at which names of the dead were presented and then chanted in a three-day service at each city.

For the first time, the dead from both North and South, and from America, too, were honored together.

Hundreds of Vietnamese monks and nuns and thousands of lay people from each city attended.

At dusk on the last day's service, we proceeded to the river carrying lighted candles to be placed on origami lotus floats and sent into the current. The candles would then symbolically drift off to seek the soul of a "hungry ghost," a soul that had died unjustly in the American War as it is called there.

The path to the Saigon River was lined with thousands of Vietnamese, and as we passed I saw in them the faces of those I had killed decades before. As a Christian, I had repented and prayed for forgiveness years ago, but was still haunted by those faces I had never seen, faces that were victims of my bombing and strafing and napalm runs.

By the time I reached the river I decided that my candle would be sent to reclaim my hungry ghost, that 25-year-old Marine who so proudly served, but who did so at the cost of his soul. I did find him.

Today I can chant with my Buddhist friends, "I am home, I am free, in the here and in the now. In the infinite I dwell."

Gerry Madison, an elder at Christ Church Uniting in Kailua, also serves on the steering committee of Faith Action for Community Equity. Expressions of Faith welcomes submissions from leaders in faith and spirituality. E-mail faith@honoluluadvertiser.com or call 525-8035. Articles submitted to The Advertiser may be published or distributed in print, electronic or other forms.