Tonight, I heard a riveting piece of documentary radio journalism, Boots on the Ground (part 5, Coming Home), the story of those who come home from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some return alive and some dead. The segment I heard portrayed the work of an officer who informs families that their loved one has died in combat.
During the Vietnam war I was a conscientious objector, not because I was a pacifist and opposed all wars, though I certainly knew I opposed the Vietnam war and most other wars. Documentaries like this one are almost enough to turn one into an absolute pacifist. How can you confront these losses and the unending pain they inflict on those left behind? Not to mention that loss of whatever the victim might have contributed to society had they lived. Is this a price worth paying?
The author of Final Salute describes one particular family to whom this officer had to give the bad news:
A widow, Melissa Gibbens continues to celebrate her dead husband’s birthday. He has two little boys–one little boy that never got to see him. And so on his birthday they’ll blow up helium balloons and write messages to him on the balloons and then go outside and release them. I asked what they were doing and the younger son said: “We’re sending the balloons to heaven.”
The stories, they do never end. When Melissa told her son that his dad was dead he said: “Well, where is he?” She said: “Well, he’s in heaven.” He said: “Well, am I gonna be there?” She said: “Yeah, but it’s gonna be a long time from now.” And he asked his mom: “When I get to heaven can I still be 5 years old so I can dad can put me on his shoulders in the park?”
I’m crying as I write this. I can barely see the screen to type these words. What war is worth this? It is a crime to have robbed this boy of his father, to have taken from him this ordinary dream that every child should be able to realize.
The only war I could possibly justify is one fought in the most extreme of circumstances when there is no other choice between liberty and death for our nation. And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are certainly not such wars. And if you ever read anything written in anger here at the injustice of such conflicts, I hope readers opposed to my views will remember this post and this radio documentary before you judge me for intemperateness or whatever other charge you might wish to lay at my doorstep.
It is ironic, but somehow fitting that this show be broadcast on Thanksgiving weekend when we are giving thanks for the things we have. It is also important precisely at this time that we remember those who have given up something precious that they can never get back.
Listen to the podcast of the radio program here.