Two More Oregon Soldiers Die in the War
As the sad word reaches us about two more deaths half a world away, in a war that should not be, I am feeling conflicted about how to respond to the news. I understand that flags will be flying at half mast tomorrow and the next day, in a symbolic gesture of futility meant to be respectful of the dead. But how much respect can I really offer? Almost none at all.
This probably seems cold to most people, as if I were slandering the dead. But that is not my intention. I, too, am saddened by the news of yet more "collateral damage" in a war that seems like it may never end. I, too, understand that these two human beings surely had other intentions for their lives, than to wind up blowing away with the dusts of Afghanistan. And I, too, wish they had never been asked to go there at all. But I cannot call them heroes. I cannot give them a moment of silence that is not haunted with the dead they took with them. And I cannot give the "brave soldiers" who might survive all this any kind of parade.
Progressives here in Cascadia, like everywhere these days, have adopted what appears at first glance to be both a humanitarian and a politically useful strategy with regard to the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. They claim to be "supporting the troops" by asking that they be brought safely home. There is no overt criticism of "our boys (and girls) in uniform." On the contrary, they are celebrated as heroes, or supported as unwitting victims of the war. No peace march is complete these days, without a mention of how supportive we all are of "our troops," how it's not THEY whom we
are against, it is the war itself.
It's hard to argue the logic in this. This tactic helps to unify people who might otherwise be on opposite sides. People whose sons and daughters are fighting over there are absorbed into a movement that opposes the war, but not the warriors. There is a strength in numbers, and a strength in taking a mass-produced moral high ground that few would dare argue with. And so this strategy seems more politically astute than the naked anger people allegedly showed toward returning vets of the war in Vietnam.
It has emotional appeal, too. Nobody wants to be "against" the "brave americans" who are dying on the battlefields half a world away. Nobody wants to stand in judgement of people who are obviously being victimized by the ruthless policies of US imperialism as much as anyone else. I find myself here too, not wanting to place too much blame on the soldiers themselves. It's hard, after all, to point fingers at people who have been thrust into this war. Many of those soldiers are working class people with few options, who took the military bait. They wanted to "see the world," or they wanted to pay for college, and they were given few other options. Probably, they did not want to die forgotten in the sands of Afghanistan. In a very real sense, these are our brothers and sisters and nobody wants to punish them for a war they did not start and have little voice in ending. Who are we, after all, to judge them. Yes, this is a difficult issue indeed.
This reluctance to blame the soldiers for the folly of the generals has cultural roots going way back for those of us growing up in the wake of the Vietnam war. Every television program, every Hollywood movie, for decades, had the standard tortured war hero, misunderstood by his peers, traumatized by events beyond his control, and without that all-important parade he so clearly "deserved." It's hard not to have been brainwashed by all that, hard not to forget that pointing a gun at other people is a choice after all -- a choice made by soldiers who live and die by the sword.
And then there is the romanticization of "our troops," "our boys," our hometown heroes. The brave soldiers, "protecting our freedom," making the world safe for democracy, and all that. Although this was an old story already, it was reinvented with a vengeance after the shame of Vietnam. This fairy tale was a concerted effort to control the story about what really happens in war, mass marketed to a public who would otherwise never again be willing to send its children off to fight in rich men's wars. But it has been a manufactured hype. A melodramatic band-aid, a mass produced "healing" of the perceived wounds to our national pride suffered in Vietnam. Nevermind that the real wounds were suffered by babies in the Mekong Delta. Nevermind that the pain felt by Americans over Vietnam was the pain of coming to terms with our collective conscience. It was a good and necessary pain, one that might cleanse us of our almost unforgiveable sins of complicity. Nevermind all that, just sit back and revel in the glory of Hollywood war heroes.
I cannot do that, though. I cannot reverently remember "our" fallen troops while the nation ignores the tens of thousands of innocent lives they have taken in this war. It's not that I do not feel for them, I do. It makes me sad to hear of another young man or woman in a US uniform who will never come home because George Bush thinks it's "worth it." I am sobered by the flags flying almost continuously at half mast all over Cascadia, and the knowledge of the cost. In that sense, I suppose I "support the troops." Not as troops, but as human beings who probably deserved better. Still, I think it's time to call a spade a spade.
If our nation learned anything at all from Vietnam, it was that war does not make heroes, that soldiers do not necessarily deserve parades. It's time to recall that message, to remember why this nation came to believe that then, and to reflect on what that means to us now. It was a painful message for those returning from the war -- they wanted parades and adoration and even worship, as they had worshipped the soldiers from their past. Instead, as I understand it, they were called "baby killers," and many did not like it. I cannot tell you how many Vietnam veterans have unburdened sad tales to me about the hell they went through over there, and how they deserved better than the treatment they got when they got back here.
Maybe. But I'm not so sure. Because I've seen the pictures from My Lai, and I will never again be the same supportive audience I once was to crying veterans seeking comfort. Because the stories told in these photographs, and in all the other massacres then and now that never made the news; these stories do not lie. The truth is, "our troops" really are, in fact, killers of babies.
Yes, I've seen the photographs, staring through the years, of the last moments in the lives of human beings who are gone now, but who still cry out for someone to hear them. Whole families clinging to each other in fear. I most clearly remember one in which I could see the delicate hands of a baby, fingers curled around fat little palms, knuckles pressed gently against his mother's breast. Bizarrely, I remember most the little button-up shirt he was wearing, just a little too small for him. He was at that age where babies grow quickly. His little belly was poking out just a little from under the hem, and his mother's arm brushed against the still warm skin beneath his ribs. She held him tightly, like any mother would. Arms curled protectively around him, trying to sheild him from the unimaginable sin in the heart of every good soldier, she is frozen there in time pleading silently for their lives, with eyes long since closed by "our troops" over there.
This picture, burned into my heart, sears all the more because I know it's not the only story like this one crying to be told. I know that "our troops" are over in the Levant now, even as I write this, committing unspeakable sins against human beings, just like they did in Vietnam. And just like in Vietnam, most of us are deaf to their cries, blind to their pain. It's all happening a world away, and we are not confronted with their reality. We can pretend they're not real. We can ignore them. We can plan parades for our hometown heroes, or we can lower flags in respect for the dead on "our side," but we cannot feel compassion for people whose stories we've never heard. The corporate media, ever complicit, has silenced them for the duration out of expediency. Just like Vietnam, we will only hear their cries when it is too late to save them. We will be left with our consciences once the feeding frenzy is over, but we cannot be bothered with them now.
I reject that. I am sad that soldiers died in the war this week. But I do not support "our troops." They are not my troops, and I will never lend support to the sins being committed over there. No, I will not take part in collective gestures of respect for them. Since there are few photos being smuggled from the battlefield by real journalists these days, I must reflect on pictures from Vietnam to remind myself why.
There was another picture, almost too horrible to describe, taken moments after the one I mentioned above. Moments after the warm little hand curled against its mother's breast, moments after frightened villagers blinked goodbye into the lens of the camera and into the eyes of Charlie Company's "hometown heroes." This is an honest picture of the price of selling ones soul to an artificial heroism. Frozen there like an epitaph to all humanity, babies that had gurgled with laughter that morning lay draped over their mothers' bodies. Flies settled among the dead. Not only were they all dead, but one mother and child were so grossly violated that God herself must have wept on that day, so long ago. It's an image that cries out through the intervening years for some kind of answers, some kind of response. And alas, it's an image probably being recreated again and again on Afghan and Iraqi battlefields, as human beings fall down before the darkness lurking in the unseen corners of the human soul. And just as in My Lai, no one will see it in time to make any difference in the outcome.
I did not hear the cries of the mother and baby in that photograph until long after Vietnam. I did not see it in time to save them. But I carry it in my heart, to remind me why I can never be silent about the price of war. I take it out and look at it now and then, in the hopes that it will save someone else some day.
If you still believe that war ever really makes heroes, I urge you to look at the photographs from My Lai. Really look into the faces of the dead, and understand what was lost there. And recognize that no one was allowed to hear their stories until long after that long ago war had ended, just as you are not being allowed to see the real and everyday carniage being visited upon people just as precious, by "our troops," over there, right now.
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