August 13th, 2017
“I feel very strongly that I am under the influence of things or questions which were left incomplete or unanswered by my parents and grandparents and more distant ancestors. It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as if I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things that previous ages had left unfinished.” – Carl Jung from Memories, Dreams, Reflections
“You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished by your anger.” – Buddha
“What goes around, comes around.” – definition of karma. Source is anonymous
“I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” – Exodus 20:5-6
Our son, Hans, calls us frequently from his home in Texas. Mostly, he talks about work, but sometimes he reminisces about his deployment in Iraq. When he is in an introspective mood, he wonders why he felt so much like he belonged there, and why he was/is so good with weapons. He wonders why he felt at peace in the midst of war. He considers the possibility of reincarnation: that perhaps he had been a warrior in a previous life, and that maybe he had fought in that same desert in some other age.
I wonder about these things too. I don’t know what conclusions to draw from Hans’ experiences. I do know that he went to war for a reason, and that reason is not necessarily rational or clearly discernible. The path of Hans’ life has been a decidedly strange one. I have attempted to determine the causes of his life’s trajectory, and I find myself coming up short. There are too many things I don’t know, and there are too many things I know, but do not understand.
Our family has a history of military service. My dad was a petty officer in the Navy during the Korean War time frame. Hans’ maternal grandfather, Max, was a radio man in the Luftwaffe during World War II. I am a West Point graduate (Class of 1980), and I was an Army helicopter pilot during the Cold War in West Germany. The legacy is there, whether we like it or not.
Hans joined the Army despite the best efforts of Karin (my wife) and myself to keep him away from the military. After I resigned my Army commission, I resolved never to let our children join the military or go to war. Karin fervently agreed with that course of action. We never let any of our kids play with toy guns. We sent them all, at certain times in their childhoods, to a Waldorf school, which had this sort of Gandhi-like emphasis on non-violence.
Later, we focused out attention on Hans, seeing as he came of age a few years after 9/11. When Hans turned eighteen in 2005, I went to a meeting with the local Quaker community to find out how to get Hans in the Selective Service system as a conscientious objector. I worked with Hans to establish a paper trail indicating that he didn’t want to go to war. In hindsight it is obvious to me that Hans just wanted to appease me by going through this process. Whatever. In January on 2007, Hans went with me to Washington, D.C. for an anti-war protest. He claims that I conned him into going. I don’t remember it like that, but he was there with me regardless.
Hans moved to Texas shortly after that (we have family there), and he looked for work as a carpenter. He couldn’t find a decent job because the recession of 2008 hit him hard. The next thing we knew was that he had joined the Army in the autumn of 2009. Wow.
Karin and I went to Hans’ graduation from basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky in 2010. Then Hans got stationed at Fort Hood with the Armored Cav. Then he went to Iraq in 2011. Hans wasn’t in Iraq long, but he was a busy man. He got shot twice (once in the chest with a 7.62 round, which was stopped by his body armor). He has told me about killing three people, two of them up-close and personal. Hans saw war and all of its horrors. He participated in the blood-letting. Then he came home.
Hans came back different. He came back to us a changed man. He came back comfortable with violence. He came back haunted by nightmares. He also came back feeling self-confident and more assertive. He was no longer shy or self-effacing. Hans came back mature, much older than his chronological age. Hans came back as his own man. He wasn’t just my son any more.
I tend to agree with Carl Jung’s notion of family karma (see the quotation at the beginning of this essay). There are currents that flow through a family that cannot be dammed up, or thwarted. I don’t understand why that should be. It could be genetic, or cultural, or perhaps something of a spiritual nature. However, there are things in motion that are simply unstoppable. When I think back on our experience with Hans, I have a vision of myself standing on a railroad track, facing an oncoming freight train. I can see the train’s headlight and I can hear its air horn. I see the engine rushing toward me. I get run over.
About fifteen years ago, I met up with a family friend from Texas, Peter. Peter was a massage therapist at the time, along with having a doctorate in microbiology, and being a profoundly religious person. In addition to massage, he would do spiritual healing sessions. I went to him for one of those. The session is a bit difficult to describe, but essentially it was like massage therapy, except that Peter had a vision, like an internal movie, while he worked on me. Peter saw what my spirit was up to, while my body laid on his table. After an hour or so, Peter told me his vision. There is no reason for anybody to take his observations seriously, except for the fact that he knew a number of things about my life that he had no business knowing.
I don’t remember very much of what Peter told me. Visions are like dreams: hard to follow, and harder to remember. However, I remember one part in particular. Peter told me that in his vision he saw me surrounded by my ancestors. We were all chanting together. Then the music stopped, and an angel said, “Frank no longer needs to sing the song of his ancestors. He can now sing his own song.”
That dovetails with what Jung said. Until I was in my forties, I had to sing the song of my forefathers and foremothers. I had to finish their work. For whatever reason, they had to lay down their tools with the job half done. It was up to me, and my generation, to complete their assigned tasks. So, whose work does Hans complete? Whose song does he sing?
Somehow, Hans and his siblings have to finish the work of the past before they can start anew. Somehow, Hans had to go to war. After five years of him being back in the States, it feels like his journey to Iraq was necessary and inevitable. I can’t understand it, but that is how it feels to me.
What about free will? What about individual responsibility? Even if Hans had to deploy, he had choices to make in the war. He created new karma by his actions there. He was thrust into a situation, but he still had options available to him. He had free will, albeit within a limited scope.
Hans makes no excuses for what he did, or for who he is now. I believe that his karma led him to war. What he actually did during that war was the result of his own choices. His soul is seared by his experiences in Iraq. The real question is: “What will he do now?”