“The horror. The horror.”
- dying words of Georges-Antoine Kurtz from the Joseph Conrad short novel Heart of Darkness
There’s so much bad news these days surrounding the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that reading the news is like cherry picking from the a diseased tree – the fruit’s all rotten.
As an example, this morning’s news inbox included an educator’s packet (I’m a teacher) with lesson plans designed to inform high school students – whose names and personal information are required by law to be supplied to U.S. military recruiters – about the long-term health effects of exposure to depleted uranium dust.
These include various cancers, birth defects, and all of the illnesses attributable to radiation poisoning. Nearly half of the roughly 700 thousand soldiers from the first Gulf War in 1991, a short war if anyone even remembers, have reported serious medical problems and a significant increase in the number of birth defects among their children.
Today’s news also included a report published on Salon.com from a highly regarded British journalist discussing the growing likelihood of an American attack on Iran led by “neo-conservative ideologues who still run the Bush Administration and have nothing to lose politically”. Joe Lieberman, John McCain, Rudy Guiliani.
The Palestinian government has been dissolved. Five more U.S. troops were killed in Iraq amid ongoing sectarian violence and attacks on Islamic holy sites. Yada, yada, yada.
In America, life goes on. Nobody you run into talks about any of this. Too divisive. Too difficult. The war dead arrive home in the dark of night. The nearly 20 thousand maimed and disfigured American combatants are kept largely out of sight. Bloodied images of dead and dying Iraqi civilians are mostly spared from the front pages of newspapers and the nightly news shows by well-meaning editors and producers. Contractor casualties are rarely, if ever, reported. Contractor atrocities aren’t even tallied. Congress approves $78 million for the expansion of national cemeteries.
We like our wars that way. We like them clean and remote. We like to think of our aggression as necessary and noble and our enemies, irrational and evil. It makes us feel better. But, more to the point, it constructs a camouflaging facade that makes the wars we start more palatable.
We like our soldiers the same way. Clean. Decent. Nay, perfect. Free of the flaws that make us human. It’s not enough to know that they dutifully carry out the dubious exercises of misguided politicians in circumstances that are morally ambiguous at best. Their actions and even their deaths must be stripped of the mundane and elevated to the heroic as were the actions of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. We need them to be heroes or it all falls apart.
What is never effectively captured or conveyed to the public is the chaos and emotional aberration of a war zone where rules are ambiguous and behaviors unpredictable. Breaking news segments and television tickers are inadequate conveyances for the inexplicable horror and uncertainty that require context, nuance, and conditional understanding unavailable to most viewers.
Americans don’t want to hear talk of 18 and 19 year old combat veterans, just months out of high school and missing their hometown sweet hearts, wearing the shriveled ears of their enemy like necklaces. They feel uneasy looking at war zone pictures taken of young men posing with a foot atop a bloated corpse or a young woman smiling and pointing at a heap of bound and naked men. In Vietnam, they were Kodak Instamatic photos. Today they make CD’s.
For years during the war in Vietnam we lived in denial of the possibility of exploited, disrespected, brutalized, and murdered civilians. Americans don’t do that. We’re the good guys. But then came My Lai and the deaths of 347 Vietnamese civilians – the most publicized mass murder in Vietnam. The officer in charge, Lt. William Calley, spent just three days in prison before being pardoned. By all accounts, he was just a ”regular guy”, a soldier doing his job; and it’s true. He was a regular guy in a highly irregular environment. An armed boy being shot at by people whose country he was in. Untrustworthy people. Evil people. Unappreciative of his efforts. Hating the brand of freedom we were offering.
A study released last April by an army mental health advisory team reported that one in ten U.S. troops in Iraq have mistreated an Iraqi and that 45 percent of those surveyed stated that they would not report civilian maltreatment. The report also stated that 12 percent of U.S. Marines had damaged or destroyed Iraqi property unnecessarily.
According to a report released in March, 2007 by the Center for American Progress more than 1.4 million U.S. troops had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would translate into roughly 140 thousand incidents of Iraqi mistreatment and countless thousands more of unnecessarily destroyed Iraqi property.
Yet, to state the obvious – that heavily armed young people placed in situations where fear, isolation, and cultural alienation abound may engage in unethical conduct – is to invite the wrath of the political “swift-boaters” who like to deny that such possibilities even exist; perhaps, I suggest, because they have never been there themselves – like the President and Vice-President, and the overwhelming majority of those who are eager to commit the young to combat and wear blinders that screen out the realities that result.