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.
Megat S. Merican says
Anguish felt by people who have lost loved ones in wars bring to mind one of my father’s favourite songs.
It is Pete Seegar’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and it is without doubt one of the most profound anti war songs ever:
May we and the generations after us resolve to make armed conflict truly a thing of the past.
Great is the anguish caused by ones lost in the army caught in a triple quagmire of invading, conquering and the occupying. Now imagine if instead of 5,000 dead american soldiers and upward of 50,000 wounded, there were 500,000 dead. That’s what the Iraqis lost -though some count at least twice as much. Add to that the wounded, the dispossesed and the millions refugees who have not much of a home to go back to, their country having been torn up every which way, their homes no longer, their lives dependent on the kindness of what’s left of a community that once thrived (more or less). Who puts together a heart warming documentary about them? did they ever have names? did their lives count for anything at all? many left kids behind and wives and parents too. Some of those kids liked to fly kites too, before kites became scarce, and space to run around in got hemmed in by sectarianism, darkness and poverty. But no one in the enlightened west sheds as much as half a tear for those who were attacked, bombed, jailed, tortured, exiled and killed for no reason at all. We need to remember perhaps that those “evil insurgents” who set the IUD’s that killed our soldiers were mostly local people fighting back against an invading army that had all the tools of war needed to kill, and all the power to arrest, to torture and to execute.
I am not saying it is the fault of the american soldiers who went to make war on defenseless people – because to them it looks and feels like a real war. And soldiers, by definition, don’t get to ask what the war they are fighting is good for. They assume their commanders know and the politicians made a decision for a good reason. That’s how the russians feel about the chechens too. It’s always a real war to those on the ground, who take it on the chin from every side. Only later, perhaps much later, do the ones who lived to tell the tale, start asking why was all this necessary. Why did children have to lose parents and why do nightmares keep recurring.
But on this thanksgiving day, we should give thanks also for the fact that we don’t live in a country that is so weak that an outside force – for reasons unclear – hegemony, resources, dysfunctional alliances (israel), hubris or whatever – feels entitled to come in, put to the sword and pull asunder.
It’s certainly not Richard’s fault the US military machine went to Iraq, is still there, and is about to wrec more havoc in afganistan. I know he despised and agitated against this calamity as much as anyone could. Neither it is the fault of the many other excellent people who fought long and hard against this exercise in pure evil, including myself. But though we may have tried to stop it, the sad fact is we failed. all of us – the good and the not so good. And we are still failing – witness the soon-to-be-announced new “surge”. Unfortunately, like Iraq and afganistan, we too were and are weak in the face of a concerted onslaught to grab more of something – no matter the cost – in the way empires always did, using the same excuses they issue. There’s always a terrorist lurking somewhere. There’s always a battalion or two to send after him, and damned the consequences.
But I do think that the least we can do, on Thanksgiving weekend, maybe on the day after Black friday, is to master a thought if not a tear for the souls of the many vanquished – unknown to us as they are – as well as for the ones thrown into doing the vanquishing.
Richard Silverstein says
Amen to that.
Very beautifully said.
However. The American soldiers have at every step along the way had something that was not granted to a single Iraqi. Those American soldiers have all, each and every one, had choices. No one ever gave any Iraqi any choice in the matter.
Apologies for the long entry. Thoughts got away after the documentary….kept seeing ghosts for some reason. It’s them not me that wrote the lamentation above.
David R. Evans says
Beautifully, succinctly and eloquently stated, Dana. No apologis, please. Thank you for expressing what many of us are unable to. I will, though disagree with you that it is not the fault of the soldiers, as they share blame with all of us who remain willfully ignorant about the causes of war and the actions of empires. This is best expressed, I think, by this remarkable musician:
Dave, Former Sergeant of The Marines, Vietnam 1967-1968
Funny that before I even clicked on your link my mind turned to that song. Now that the U.S. has an all volunteer military, the soldier himself bears the overwhelming bulk of the responsibility for what happens in war because (s)he really does have a choice. Since the draft ended the question “what if they gave a war and no one showed up” has taken on a new meaning. Sadly, not enough understand yet.