Drones, Betrayal, Truth & Complicity: A Conversation

A rich and very personal conversation took place surrounding a concern that arose in the publishing of Matthew IV: Compassion – A Radical Critique. Of the two speakers in the beginning, Kim is the artist who began this Justice Conversation site and has been publishing the articles. Bill is the author of an extended essay, “What is Justice?” which has been running on this site as “Matthew,” a reference to Bill’s stepson who was murdered on the street in San Francisco in 2008. Kim and Bill have a 15-year relationship and used to work together in her studio, and it is due to this, that the conversation was able to take place with such detail and honesty. The final speaker at the end is an unnamed person, A_____ who was asked to respond to the piece, in order to help evaluate the concern.


KIM, Feb 21 11:55 am: Bill, I was working on putting the “What is Justice IV” onto the website. One of your paragraphs aligns so well with my Opening the Door work, that I started to write an additional article that would go up shortly after yours and complement it. I wanted to share it with you and get any thoughts on it. I think, too, since I’ll see L_____ tomorrow, that I’ll share it with her too. Please let me know what you think. I was going to put the Opening the Door artwork below the text.

BILL, FEB 21 12:29 pm: I, obviously, agree with your assessment and am fine with you posting it on the website.

My way of talking about being human–Jungian, I think–with a Christian twist based upon Jesus’s admonition that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. For me, then, I have to learn to love myself, first, before I can learn to love another–that is the source of compassion or empathy. I have to learn to love my whole self –the darkness and the light –unconditionally, as if I were God. For me, loving my darkness means that I hold it close in my consciousness, always, never rejecting it nor failing to recognize it as an essential part of my humanity, as an essential part of myself–that is the source of humility and, also, a constant check on projection–passing judgments upon another–”he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” so to speak.

KIM, Feb 22 6:04 pm: As I comb through your Part IV carefully, getting it ready to post, I have a concern about something in the essay. I’m considering running it by someone I know who may be able to give me more insight, but I want to let you know what I’m looking at and get your thoughts. You did, after all, once complain that only E_____ gave you serious feedback, so now I have a bit that I’m turning over. And also you asked how we reach people who are not like-minded. I’m holding these in mind…

The question has to do with the “It fell to me” poem where, in it, are the lines about little boys with joysticks who push a button and kill people with drones. I wonder if the argument about drones gets pushed aside by the seeming contempt expressed in calling the, albeit sometimes young, soldiers, “little boys.” And, I’m not also certain the age of the people responsible for directing the drones -whether they are the younger soldiers or the older ones or both. Do you know?  I wonder if someone who thinks more favorably about military service might have a negative reaction to the “little boys” comment and then resist the rest of the important points you’re making. I also wonder how someone who has served in the military reacts to this piece, if to them it could look like the writer is uninformed and therefor unfair in the criticism. Maybe this person would have a hard time taking in the criticism anyway. But this is what I’m turning over.

The person I was thinking of checking in with is A_____ who is interested in the site and sympathetic to it, and also has a son in the service. I think she would be able to read the whole section, including the poem, and give me her thoughtful response. She is not quite the person who is not like-minded that you’re trying to reach, but she does have some different life experience, and I think will be able to use it to respond constructively.

BILL, Feb 22, 7:26 pm: I appreciate your feedback. I hear you. I voiced a version of your concern in the poem:

“A silly comparison,” you say,
“Auschwitz and drones.
What have you learned
in all your dismantling
if this is where you end—
with drones and joy sticks?”

Which sets up the final question about complicity.

I’m fine with you sharing the poem with A_____. I would be very interested in what she says. We can talk about it further.

BILL, Feb 23, 6:52 am: I’m thinking that I included the poem “It fell to me,” in a particular context and I am asking the reader to go on a trip with me. So, if you send it to A_____, I would suggest that you send it as a part of the whole document and not separated from its context. Just further thoughts . . .

KIM, Feb 23, 8:17 pm: Yes, I would definitely put it in the context of the whole Part IV of the article. I just finished writing the email to her to ask if she would look at it. I’ll let you know what comes of it. And just to be clear on my part, my concern is not in opposing the drone strikes, but that particularly the phrase “little boys” seems chosen to insult, to paint those who push the button on the joystick as “the other” who is “not anything like you” who can therefore be vilified, which seems to undermine other parts of your (and my) argument about being aware that we are not ourselves innocent either.

BILL Feb 24 11:16 AM: Your questioning my use of the term “little boys” has prompted me to think about why I chose that language and why I chose to insert that poem into the text of my essay.

I think to understand that, one would have to see the poem in the context of the entire essay, not just Part IV. What am I asking of the readers by putting that poem at the end of Part IV, followed by the poem, A way forward?

I am curious about your reading of these words–like why you interpret them as “othering”?

To me, “little boys” connotes an air of innocence and of ignorance about the world, and “joy sticks” invokes their childhood “obsession” (maybe too strong a word) with video games, the skills of which, it is my understanding, are exactly those used in the execution of drone warfare.

“Border Madonna” by Kim Vanderheiden

Let’s not forget that this is a poem, and poems, are like art, like your painting of the Border Madonna, where you paint the soldiers without any distinguishing facial features, implying, to my mind, that they are less than human for not recognizing how inhumane it is to separate children from their parents. So they are acting on orders, regardless of how they personally feel about what they are doing, regardless of how painful an experience it might be for them –and others. The system in which they have chosen to embed themselves, is acting in a very inhumane way. I do not assume from that painting that you, as an individual, would not attempt to recognize the soldiers’ humanity, were you given to opportunity to converse with them. In fact, the exact opposite is true, for the painting communicates to me a level of empathy that would preclude demonizing the other. I do not think you would demonize them any more than I would demonize the practitioners of drone warfare, even though I used a phrase that, in your mind, called up demonization.

So, I’m curious why these words triggered the response in you that they did?

Kim Feb 24, 3:00 pm: I guess I see “little boys,” especially as applied to soldiers, as emasculating , and in particular, emasculating a subset of people who tend to feel their masculinity is very important. (Though what if the soldiers are women, as there often are? then “little boys” will cause a different kind of negative reaction for a different reason.)  One thing that makes me uncomfortable is picturing B_______ and their family and how they might feel about what I’m publishing. B______ is a former Marine and his family is very proud of his service.

This, for me, is part of the tension to negotiate with this whole website, and is something I am often struggling with. It relates to the question you asked the other day – how do we reach those who don’t think the same way? How do we reach those who seem to come from a very different frame of mind and to reach very different conclusions?

I didn’t and still don’t read the use of the term in the poem “little boys” as an expression of innocence, but rather it is in a line that sounds angry –not that I’m saying the anger is without reason, but the anger promotes the reading of the phrase as diminutive. The soldiers are not ‘man’ enough to show up to the fight, and are too childish to take responsibility for their actions. If you do feel that way, which I assumed from the poem that you did, even given that I’ve read the earlier parts of the essay as well as the poem that follows it, I’m not really saying you shouldn’t feel that way. There is certainly truth to the criticism. But I am saying that there are people that I know that I would hesitate to present it to, because of what I perceive their reaction would be. Because people who have military ties often do believe that they are doing good, that their service is honorable. Also, it’s part of a service person’s identity even more than a person’s political affiliations tend to be, even in California where politics seem to be much more about identity than in Wisconsin where I grew up. So my concern, then, is that someone’s identity is attacked, and then we’d like to somehow persuade that person.

I think you have a very good point about the faces on the border guards in my piece this summer. And I realize the poem, just as it is, is your art, just like the Border Madonna, just as it is, is mine. This is more of the tension of the website for me. I honestly don’t know how to resolve it. I don’t know if I’m being cowardly when I worry about how people like B_____ will read it. I think this episode, of working on the question with you, is part of me learning more about what on earth to do, because I wish I knew and I don’t.

But then there’s A______. How does she read it? Maybe I can’t figure out right now how to reach B______. Maybe for the moment I can only learn about how to reach out to A_____, and about how to have this conversation with you, whom I know well, and know that you probably won’t refuse to talk to me ever again because I raised the question.

One thing I’m realizing, as I write to you, is that there are several flash points that come up with gathering material for this site where I feel like no matter what I do, I’ve betrayed someone. Here, I can betray you, or betray B. Ok, this seems to be blowing a couple little words up way too big. This is the large tension of the site. This is one of the reasons why I move so slowly with it, I think. I am constantly trying to feel through this tension for the little chinks, the ways to maybe get a message through. Then I wind up doing so little that I question the effectiveness of any of it at all.

And who knows, maybe the phrase doesn’t catch A______ at all. I didn’t call it out to her. I told her I had a concern but gave the whole part IV, with links to parts 1-3, and told her I’d share my concern with her after she had a chance to take it in.

BILL, Feb 24th 5:23: I hear you and I appreciate your struggles.

I think, first of all, it is terribly important for each of us to figure out what is true for us and to be able to articulate that, which is what you seem to be working on.

Secondly, we need to be able to hold true to our truths and at the same time not condemn others who do not see the world the same way.

To me, the poem is an example of “ruthless” self examination –looking for the evils in our world in which I am complicit –not innocent, –in which I identify with the perpetrators of Auschwitz– “a new beginning for me,/my own very private mirror” – and I identify with the “little boys” who are conducting drone warfare –my heart is quite capable of morphing the unspeakable acts of Auschwitz “into others of their kind” –drones over Pakistan, for example, –which “go unnoticed, unseen,/unrecognized as such/until their carnage has been done.” “And then we say, once more/Never again! Never again!/to ourselves and go on.” All of this proceeds the final questions posed by the poem–“where would you suggest I look, dear listener,/that I might understand more clearly/what I am complicit in –East Oakland, perhaps?”

So what you see as accusatory, as angry and emasculating is actually my effort to be courageous, to look reality in the face and stand up and take responsibility for being complicit in the evils of the world, such as Auschwitz, or the drone warfare in Pakistan, or the racism and poverty of East Oakland ­–which from my point of view is a much more difficult and compelling way to express masculinity, or femininity, for that matter. To me it is about how do we best embody our greatest potential as human beings?

Worrying about how B_____ will read the site, does not strike me as cowardly. What would be cowardly, in my opinion, would be for you to not print something about which you feel passionately and believe in your heart of hearts, in order to “protect” their feelings. For me, honesty and transparency are values. Also, humility is a value, a recognition that I do not have the whole truth about anything ­–see “A way forward,” poem, which is the second part of what I am asking of the reader –after the ruthless self-interrogation comes the listening part.

Kim, if you are true to yourself, you will not be betraying anyone. If being true to yourself means that you are growing and changing in your understanding of the world and of what is important, your only job, as far as I’m concerned, is for you to devote yourself to articulating that understanding, whether through your words or your art, and to share that as widely as possible, whether that is just to your children and your husband, to your broader family, to your close friends and colleagues or to a more culture-wide audience.


KIM, Feb 23, 7:55pm: I was wondering if I could get your take on something.

I’m working on getting an article ready to post on the Justice Conversation website, and this one is coming from someone who has long been close to my studio who has written a multi-part essay on how he understands justice, as he reflects on the murder of his step-son Matthew, and, ten years later, the indictment of two men accused of the murder. He weaves his reflections in with quotes from other writers, and his own poetry. I’ve been running the essay, and I’m on to part 4. There’s something in it that concerns me that I think could cause an angry reaction, particularly among people who feel strong support for the military, and that those who have the reaction might then automatically disregard the rest of what he’s saying. I thought you might be a good person to ask about it — that you’d be able to look at the article thoughtfully and openly, and let me know, based on all of your experience including that of having a son in the military, what you think, and if you felt shut out by the article.

The writer is aware of my concern and that I wanted to get another take on it. He lamented to me once in one of the earlier pieces he wrote that only one person, someone very close to him, was willing to challenge him on his writing, and he did rework it afterwards. Later when people wrote supportive comments on the web site, he responded that he wanted to find people who disagreed, too. He’s also a very gentle man. I’m sharing this to say that your opinion is being asked with everyone involved open and aware, and that whether you support or disagree with what he’s saying, your response will be valued.

Would you be willing to look at it?

A_____, Feb 23, 8:19 pm: Would be happy to read.  Sounds like a very thoughtful and moving piece from your description.

KIM, Feb 23, 10:04 pm: Here it is. Let me know what you think.

Matthew Part IV: “What is Justice?” http://justiceconversation.org/2019/02/27/matthew-part-iv-compassion-a-radical-critique/

I’ll share the part that concerned me after you’ve had a chance to read. You should have three initial quotes, followed by the title “Compassion – A Radical Critique,” followed by the essay and ending in two poems. I’ve pasted Part IV here. [Online readers can find Part IV at this link.] I think this will be enough for you to read for a reasonable amount of context, but if you’d like to look at the earlier parts that have been published already, they are here:

Matthew Part I: “What is Justice?” http://justiceconversation.org/2018/10/18/matthew-part-i-what-is-justice/

Matthew Part II: “The Nature of Being Human” http://justiceconversation.org/2019/01/07/matthew-part-ii-the-nature-of-being-human/

Matthew Part III: “We Are Not Innocent” http://justiceconversation.org/2019/02/03/matthew-part-iii-we-are-not-innocent/

In the previous parts he talks more about his response to his stepson Matthew’s murder, and the upcoming trial of the accused. In this part, however, he goes back into his own past and that of his father. Let me know what you think.

A_____, Feb 24, 7:22 pm: Thank you for the opportunity to read about Matthew. I was glad I ended up reading all 4 parts.

I personally was Not offended by the essays or the military references. I totally agree there is a very real fear of forces being mobilized for a so-called “just war”.  I believe this can happen internally in our country.  Recently here in Portland there was a scary escalation of concerned citizens protesting ICE activities that nearly came to blows.

Some thoughts on military support and what that might mean:

I was 14 when the US began bombing North Vietnam; by the time I was 17 there was not a family we knew that was not affected by the draft. I was an active peace protester by this time. However, I was appalled how some protesters could not separate governmental war action from those that were soldiers drafted to fight the war.  Justice of any kind for these soldiers has never happened.

I like the concept of “restorative justice” vs “retributive justice “ and felt the essay most strong on these points.

If I have any criticism, it is small—it is the Americanization of this self righteous and self delusional consciousness. It is every nation every race and everywhere.  However it did make me look into Carl Jung on the American psyche and found this lovely quote:

“In the end a nation can only be as conscious, integrated, and moral as its individual citizens.”

KIM, Feb 25, 11:13 am: The part I was especially concerned about was in the second to last poem of part IV, in the section about the drones, where those who launch the drone attacks are referred to as “little boys” with joysticks. Bill and I have been writing back and forth about it this week. It’s a good thing we know each other well enough to do this! It has been a positive conversation. It’s good for me to know that this didn’t jump out to you. I still wonder if it will to others. Maybe I will publish it, but then reach out to more people specifically, as I did to you, and see what responses others may have.

A_____, Feb 25, 5:41 pm: I saw about the drones and found it appropriate and personally feel ever since bombs dropped from the sky, killing has become distanced, indiscriminate and impersonal.

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