Recently Claude AnShin Thomas was interviewed by an Italian journalist about his experiences as a soldier and his views on war and peace. Here are excerpts from that interview.
You say that your father’s generation, a generation of men who’d fought in the Second World War, were not able to tell the truth about their experience. Why?
This is how they were taught and conditioned to deal with adversity, with difficulty: If you don’t talk about it, it does not exist.
Do you still believe that before we reach a peaceful place in our life, we have to experience our suffering and accept it?
Yes. We also have to give up all our ideas of what a “peaceful place” is, of what it’s supposed to feel like or look like.
How did you react when you found out as a soldier that the war in Vietnam was not really about freedom and democracy? And what did you think at the time of the anti-Vietnam war rallies that were being held in the US and in Europe? In other words, what did you think of pacifism while you were still fighting and right after you got back home?
About the first part of your question, when I got to Vietnam and realized the senselessness of the war, my purpose simply became keeping myself and those around me alive. My experience of the anti-war movement was, by and large, that it was just another type of war. Those advocating for peace treated the other side, those who did not share their worldview, as the enemy. They displayed a lot of aggression in the name of “peace.”
Do you believe war is inevitable?
Conflict is inevitable, war is not. Through a disciplined spiritual practice grounded in self-reflection, we can come to see that the roots of war exist within each and every one of us. When we commit to acknowledging that and to healing the wars that exist within us, then conflict does not have to degenerate into war and violence.
Italy was a fascist society. You’ve commented that a lot of Italians still refuse to come to terms with that difficult past. How did you come to that conclusion? Frankly, I think you are correct, but I am interested to know how you discovered it.
I noticed the unwillingness of many Italians to openly acknowledge their shared role in the rise of fascism and in the suffering that was the Second World War. Italians like to talk about the partisans who resisted, but few, if any, speak about the San Sabba Risiera in Trieste, for example.
In October 1943, as part of the military operation Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland (OZAK), buildings in Trieste that had been used for rice husking became a detention camp where prisoners were tortured, particularly Jews, who were then deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. In addition, many members of the political opposition and partisans of different nationalities were killed in the Risiera. During a 1976 trial it was hypothesized that there had been at least 2,000 victims, though some historians put the figure between 4,000 and 5,000. We can’t heal the wounds of the Second World War and truly move forward until we face this history.
What suggestions do you have for young people today, based on your experience?
I am not in the suggesting business. What I emphasize and live out in my own life is the understanding that the causes of my suffering are not external to me and the solutions are also not external. If I want the world to be different, then I have to become the difference I want to see in the world.