I was only eight in 1968, but I knew there was a war going on somewhere from the casualty count they put in the upper corner of our black and white television screen during the evening news. I first saw the numbers beside the words 'killed' and 'wounded' on my neighbor's television set as I passed by their living room one day on the way out the door. My parent's favorite talk show, 'Agronsky and Co.', was on. For some reason, my mother used to like to mock one of the panelists. The show didn't even have to be on for Mom to crack on his handle. Out of the blue she'd go, "This is Caarrl Rowan," all low and serious like. I never asked her what all that was about, but I recognized the name that day underneath the fuzzy image of the Negro panelist who was talking politics with the others. The casualty numbers in the upper left-hand corner of the screen distracted me from my first opportunity to see Rowan and hear him do his best impression of himself.
I wondered if the numbers were really correct. The figures were in the thousands, and they switched back and forth between the numbers killed daily and the total number killed since the war began. When I asked my parents about the numbers later (they weren't the best explainers) they told me they were for real. I still didn't believe. At eight, my life was in a bubble. I was in a constant daydream, a deep daydream. Still, I can't remember anything which obsessed me more than finding out the truth behind those casualty figures.
I knew about war, in my own offhand way. One of my favorite things to do was pile-up a bunch of coats together and stage battles with my plastic soldiers. Dad picked up an army truck and a G.I. Joe from the PX that Christmas to go along with my set of pearl-handled, holstered pistols; along with one of those machine guns that have the little lever you pull back for real-action rat-tat-tats. We had a houseful of military gear, most of it from the PX. Dad had been promoted to Major in the Army Reserves. He trained soldiers in civil affairs a couple weekends a month and probably never came close to being sent to Vietnam. I used to go up to the attic to slide up under his heavy flannel Army overcoat which weighed a ton, and pretend to be a soldier like him. He had one of those wide brim, dress hats with the scrambled eggs on the brim and silky smooth inside.
There was a public revolt brewing against the Vietnam war in communities, churches, in Congress, to be sure. But I was alone at the height of my eight years on the planet with the knowledge of thousands dead; dozens dying as I stood, and no visible sign that anyone noticed at all outside of my parents and Agronsky and Co.. It hurt me to know of it, and it challenged my conscience to care. Cold War risks and nuclear threats didn't register at all beyond my first kiss, stolen under my elementary school desk during the duck-and-cover drill. That stolen moment of discovery outside my neighbor's living room made me a participant in the Vietnam War. I could either turn away, or press forward to discover the truth; but I couldn't deny the existence anymore of something in my world, involving my country, which was spinning horribly out of control.
I know it's more than a little naive for me to suppose that our country could wake up and happen upon the horror of the continuing numbers of our nation's soldiers who are being killed daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, develop a nagging guilt over their own secret care, and haunt them to a lifetime of advocacy against war. It's harder still to take any solace at all in the amount of deaths that it would likely take to galvanize opposition against even the present mindless sacrifice of our soldiers by a zealous Bush as he squanders our nation's defenses waging his 'ideological struggle' against Iraqis.
Bush seems content with the numbers of our soldiers who continue to be killed in defense of the unpopular Maliki regime. He's announced his intent to keep our troops bogged down in Iraq "as long as he's president," and dismisses the increase in deaths as the acceptable consequence of his 'stay-the-course' strategy. More troops are losing their lives, Bush says, because "we're on the move" in his three-year, slam-dunk, cakewalk. He's still swaggering around in relative safety, challenging the "terrorists" he wants to "fight there, instead of here," to bring it on and attack our soldiers in Iraq. Bush refuses to say how long he'll keep them there. They can't stay in Iraq forever, and that may be the only way that the new, propped-up government will ever survive.
I'm willing to accept that the present, dominant generation of Americans is, perhaps, young in war. There has been a lack of rational explanation from our leaders for why our soldiers are being made to endure the violence raging throughout Iraq. As in the Vietnam era, this generation of American civilians has been deliberately shielded from the bloody reality of the mire that is unnecessarily drowning our soldiers who have been abandoned by their leaders to suffer the repercussions and reprisals of the Iraqi's civil war. I'm willing to accept that there is a great need to inform and educate Americans in the face of the deliberate diversions, distractions, and deceptions that are spun from the elevated offices of the White House, and from the perches of their republican enablers' atop Capitol Hill. We've got to end the reflexive cycle where the uninformed and misinformed repeatedly vote these warmongering fools into positions of power and influence over them.
However, in knowing the truth, we become responsible for it; especially when lives are at stake. Support for continuing the occupation of Iraq is an acceptance of these soldier's deaths. Their contrived, trumped-up mission there is not in defense of liberty, freedom; or even for Bush's claim of spreading democracy, as plans are solidifying among Iraq's leadership for a partitioning and division of power instead of the manipulative central control that high-minded U.S. handlers had in mind.
Why are our soldiers in Iraq fighting and dying on one side of a multi-fronted civil war? Why are they being made to patrol the streets of Iraq's cities on foot? Why are they being made to drive up and down Iraq's highways and roads in a IED roulette? Why are our soldiers being made to hunt for IEDs at all? Where are the Iraqi police and military who overwhelmingly outnumber our own forces? Why aren't our soldiers being allowed to stand down as the Iraqis stand up?
How will the knowledge of all of these senseless deaths affect those among us who are just waking up to the horror of the occupation? Will it cause them to laugh a little less readily, celebrate with less gusto, will they find as much satisfaction in their petty personal conquests? Will that knowledge cause them to give more of themselves, forgive a little more, care a bit more, involve themselves more?
When the numbers killed and maimed in Iraq finally strike us, we become active participants in their mission; either to ignore the dying troops and condemn the rest to continue under the insistence of Bush; or to defend our soldiers, and work to remove them from harm's way. We're challenged to grow up. Our nation's youthful ignorance can't last forever.