Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day 2010 – The War We Were

Today is Memorial Day in my native United States. The day when we honor those who died fighting in our nation’s wars.
When I was a kid, it was hard to think of it as anything but a holiday – the day after the last day of school, the day we hoped and prayed it would be warm enough for the public swimming pool to open, a day for picnics with the family or when Mom would drive out to the greenhouse to buy some flowers to set out. It was a day of parades with brass bands playing stirring patriotic marches and with middle-aged and old men dressing up like soldiers once more to join uniformed National Guardsmen and other troops in carrying the colors to the Veterans Monument at the Courthouse and then out to the cemetery in tearful remembrance of their fallen brothers.
But for us, as kids, it was just the first exciting small-town event to kick off the wonderful, lazy days of small-town summer.
The problem is that this childhood Memorial Day illusion is only that. And since it appears impossible for the United States to get through a single generation without a war, each generation has its own. And as the realities of those wars end up touching us as a generation and, indeed as individuals, no matter how hard we may try to ignore them, Memorial Day eventually takes on a new and sober meaning.
CAPTION: Gravestones of the American Fallen in Arlington National Cemetery. (Courtesy Wikipedia)
My grandparents’ generation had World War I, my parents’ generation, World War II. My parents’ younger siblings had to face the Korean War. My generation’s war was Vietnam. The current generation is embroiled in combat on two fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sixty million combatants are estimated to have taken part in the First World War. In the four years that the fighting lasted, 16 million people died and nearly 35 million suffered some form of permanent physical disability. Those figures don’t include the millions who suffered permanent mental or emotional trauma. Despite the Great War’s having supposedly been the “war to end all wars”, a quarter-century later we found the world at war again, and this time as many people died (62 million from 55 nations) as combatants that took part in the First War. And there are no accurate figures to calculate the millions upon millions of people injured, disabled or mentally traumatized in this second modern instance of wholesale worldwide butchery.
In just the two major conflicts that the parents and grandparents of our current generations lived through (…or not…), then, approximately 100 million people died. Think about it: That’s more than three times the size of the total population of Argentina or Canada. Imagine every man, woman and child in those countries slaughtered, and pile another twenty-five or thirty million mutilated cadavers on top of those. Imagine one out of every three men, women and children in the United States dead, every two mourning the tragic death of a third. That’s how many people were ground up in the gnashing cogs of just those two world conflicts, not to mention the thousands upon thousands and millions upon millions who died in other “minor” conflicts that many of us have no idea ever took place.
One such “minor conflict” was the Korean War. For many years this war was referred to, especially by the United States, as “a police action.” In the three years that this “police action” lasted, somewhere between, 1.2  and 1.5 million people were killed. (Imagine the city of Cleveland, say, or La Plata, wiped out entirely). The United States alone lost 33,686 combat troops, as well as non-combatant personnel numbering 2,830.       
Then there was my generation’s war. Official figures in the Vietnam War place direct American casualties at 58,148 dead and 300,000 wounded. But this doesn’t take into account the thousands upon thousands of conscript soldiers who returned with broken hearts, broken spirits and broken minds to a life of chemical dependencies, chronic depression, severe mental illness, neurological trauma from chemical agents and other conditions that kept them from ever recovering control over their own destinies or caused them to die young from any number of unnatural causes. Just among my immediate circle of acquaintances, I can think of several who died in combat before their 21st birthdays, one who came home and hanged himself in his garage and another who came home in 1970 and to this day remains incapable of facing life without the dulling effects of severe alcohol and drug abuse (to such an extent that the last I knew of him, he no longer was getting out of bed to drink and “get high”…if you can call it that). People can say that he and all the others should have gotten over it, gotten on with their lives. But that’s like saying a person should “get over” child abuse, rape or other forms of severe victimization.
Yet, nothing compares to the ravages of war. Because, let’s not kid ourselves, in dirty wars such as these – wars like Vietnam, like Afghanistan, like Iraq, wars of attrition against a scarcely identifiable enemy, where the lines between friend and foe are patchy and guerrilla fighters work the no man’s land between uniformed combatants and civilian populations – nothing, no amount of gung-ho training, no amount of psychological readiness, no amount of discipline, can prepare these men and women for what they will see, what they will be ordered to do and what they may well do on their own as a result of the in-combat stress and trauma they suffer. Already, in these latest wars in the Middle East, well over a million American soldiers have had to face this.
Nor do the cold figures that measure the effects on our own troops take into account the tidal wave of suffering left in their wake. Our South Vietnamese allies in that other conflict lost five times as many troops as the United States did and their number of wounded was never determined. But more tragic still is the fact that, the number of South Vietnamese dead, including the nearly quarter of a million troops killed, came to an estimated two million (men, women, children) in a country with a total population of just over 5 million.  A conservative estimate of deaths among the Chinese-backed North Vietnamese in that war comes to something like 2.8 million, with two million of those also being civilians. Less conservative estimates claim deaths on both sides were more like 7 million, with another two million people being injured or mutilated. 
Beyond tragic and into the realm of horrifying are the 7 million tons of explosives that the United States made use of during that war, or the chemical, biological and bacterial agents that the United States liberally rained down on the Vietnamese people in clear violation of the Geneva Convention that Washington has so often cited in criticizing the inhuman behavior of other nations. This was over 3 times the quantity of explosives used in aerial attacks on all sides during World War II. 
In Iraq, despite the US military’s frequent boasting about the effectiveness of its technology and the possibility of “surgical bombing” with its joystick-operated, camera-carrying weaponry, in the last estimates I saw, somewhere between 90,000 and 105,000 civilians had died. No matter how much we want to debate the “human shield” theory, there comes a moment when somebody has to punch the button or pull the trigger that murders non-combatant men, women and children. And no matter how professional a soldier may be, only a heartless, mindless mercenary (e.g., a sociopath) could go home and sleep well after doing that. So the vast numbers of returning veterans who now require and will continue to require treatment for not only their physical but also their mental trauma should come as no surprise to anyone.
And with all of the experience that the United States has in the scars that wars leave, it should really be prepared to deal with this phenomenon. But indications are that we have learned little from the tragic experience of Vietnam. Conservative estimates indicate that beyond the tremendously high numbers of mutilated soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the US can expect at least (and this is a conservative estimate) half a million veterans of these two latest wars to return suffering from post traumatic stress disorder before the combat ends. And there are also telling indications that not nearly enough of them are getting the help they need.  In wars such as these, in which the causes are hazy and the methods questionable, no matter what one’s view of the war itself may be, the post-combat support system is clearly lacking.
The US custom of honoring its fallen on Memorial Day is a noble one. But perhaps we Americans and people everywhere should start looking at war from a different angle.
We need to honor these dead by rejecting, rather than embracing and glorifying war. If we re-read the statistics above, it becomes clear that what we should be looking into is not more effective ways of waging war, but rather, the most effective ways possible of avoiding and preventing it. Perhaps this will mean a revolution in diplomacy or witheringly preemptive multinational action. Anything to keep two sides from dignifying their conflict with false patriotic fervor.
War is not noble, no matter how noble the intentions of those who actually fight the wars may be. Wars are not, as most leaders would have us believe, honorable or winnable in any real sense other than in that of achieving the political and economic ends of those in power. War is hell. War is merely the wholesale slaughter of one people by another for reasons that have little or nothing to do with why we are told we must fight them. And as war becomes more “effective” the number of civilian casualties grows relatively greater all the time, threatening to become exponential.
The best way, then, to honor our war dead, is by seeking to ensure that war becomes the most unthinkable of all means to an end. No society that rejects homicide as a heinous crime should find war logical…and much less, glorious.