Charles is a Lance Corporal in the United States Marine Corps. He has been in Afghanistan since August of this year and is scheduled to serve there until April 2012. Just last week, his unit, while on a routine patrol, was shredded by the explosion of an IED. One of Charles’ buddies lost both legs in the blast. Several civilians, including a young girl, nine years old, were injured as well. The little girl lost a leg and bled out as Charles held her in his arms and yelled for a medic. Charles is twenty years old.
I don’t know Charles. I only met his dad, Rick, a few minutes ago, in the Starbucks in Fernandina Beach, Florida. I overheard Rick say to the barista, “I’m here to pick up some coffee to send to my son in Afghanistan, hopefully, it will get there before Christmas.”
Rick and I struck up a conversation while he was standing at the counter, waiting on Charles’ coffee to be ground. He told me the story about last week’s IED attack on his son’s unit. As he talked about his son, Rick carried the simultaneous expressions of “proud” and “worried” parent. He told me, “Yes, things are winding down there, but it’s still very, very dangerous. Most folks know that truth intellectually, but I live with it every day and my son faces it every moment he’s there.”
Rick also shared with me his daily prayer for his son and the other service personnel stationed in combat zones, “I pray for their safety, and I also pray their hearts won’t become hardened by the evil that is war.” He then allowed that both prayers are tall orders. We both agreed it would be a good while before we know how the latter prayer will be answered in the lives of those who return from spending time in places most of us couldn’t locate on a map or even pronounce properly.
Yet again, I was aware of the invisibility of this now decade-long war for most of us. Service personnel continue to serve, continue to bleed, and continue to die. Civilians are caught in the crossfire of the violence — even little children. Parents, spouses, siblings and children of our service personnel pray for the safety of their loved ones, mourn their deaths and live with the wounds (physical, mental and emotional) that come home with their loved ones after a tour of duty. I’m not really interested in the “rightness” or the “wrongness” of this particular war at this point. The prospect of winning a theoretical argument (whatever my particular political viewpoint) has little impact on the reality of what men and women are suffering — in service of this country — in real time, a half a world away.
Seventy years ago today, in an action that continues to “live in infamy”, war came to the United States. The attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized this nation’s response. Eventually, millions of people served in the U.S. Armed Forces in places throughout Europe, Africa, and all over the South Pacific. As I have talked to veterans of World War II through the years, I have learned that the horrors of war are a given. Some of them have told me stories of losing buddies, walking through the carnage of a battlefield and seeing things that have haunted them in their dreams for their entire adulthood — over sixty five years. I have also talked to people who lived through the World War II years “Stateside”. Their lives during those years were times of rationing (gas, sugar, meat, rubber and other commodities). For those who lived on the coasts of the U.S., there are memories of blackouts and the constant fear of submarine attacks or an invasion of some sort. Back then, no one was able to ignore the fact this nation was at war. Everything here was impacted by what was happening “overseas”.
There is an impact on this country as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That impact in terms of lives lost and lives irreparably wounded cannot be calculated. The economic repercussion of these actions is currently tabulated with so many zeros as to be essentially incomprehensible. The other cost that we’ve not talked about though, is the cost of conducting a war in which the general populace remains largely unaffected. Does waging a war become an easier option to exercise when it doesn’t affect our trips to the mall? How can we wrangle over the next American Idol, fantasize about Dancing with the Stars and expend so much time Keeping up with the Kardashians while our fellow citizens are slogging through mud, dodging snipers and living under threat of sudden death from an explosive device at any moment? How does plastering a “We Support our Troops” bumper sticker on our automobile only fuel our disengagement? Wouldn’t figuring out a way to get these men and women out of harm’s way as quickly as possible be a better way to support them?
Standing in Starbucks with Rick, the war came home to me as a parent. My son was a pre-schooler when this war began. He’s now a freshman in high school. My guess is, even though my son knows there’s a war going on, he wouldn’t necessarily say that our country is “at war”. This distancing of the general population from the horrors of war is disconcerting. I wonder, “How have we all colluded in keeping this war hidden from ourselves?”
And so, when the barista called to Rick that the coffee was ground and ready to go, I couldn’t resist. I bought the twenty dollars’ worth of coffee for Charles and his buddies in Afghanistan. It seemed to be not even close to “the least I could do”, but it was something I could do. I also hope the coffee gets there before December 25. It was Christmas Blend.
A big blog post to chew on, Padre.
I wasn’t alive during Vietnam, so what I know of the draft, of our country’s reaction to that war, and its treatment of those who served at the time and in the immediate years that followed, comes from history books and the stories told to me by my parents, friends and colleagues for whom it’s not just a footnote on a page. The treatment of those men and women when they came home was pretty miserable, and I think the wave of “Support the Troops” sentiments and “stuff” that emerged first during Desert Storm and continues present day is likely directly attributable to a pervading sense of shame about what transpired when those individuals, most of whom had little choice in whether to serve or not, had to go through when they returned. If we acknowledge our gratitude, albeit tacitly, then we are somehow absolved from thinking more directly about what impact war has on them, abroad or at home.
Say what you want about the draft, but an all-volunteer armed forces that draws predominantly on economic classes that are already in many regards without representation in the media or in Washington means that those who serve, and are lost, are relegated to lists of the dead, a few paragraphs in a newspaper explaining why the flags are lowered on a particular day. When the body count started to rise during Desert Storm, during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, and he decided to issue a moratorium on media coverage of military funerals, when bodies were no longer escorted on civilian, domestic flights but on charters and private operations, the window with which the public could actually bear witness to these deaths, to appreciate the magnitude of the numbers and the depth of the loss to families and extended communities, was effectively closed. That moratorium lasted 18 years. Eighteen.
When you combine that with the incredibly insular focus that has dominated our national psyche since September 11, 2001, it’s no surprise that for most of America has largely forgotten the cost of what is going on, far away, in those places none of us can pronounce. It’s hugely disappointing to me, but it doesn’t surprise me. When so few of us are directly affected by the war itself, when we don’t have a direct connection to those fighting, when the Department of Defense budget is so complex and the situation in Washington so frustrating that any form of engagement, much less following the costs of war, is damn near impossible, I can’t really fault the general populace for losing the human element in all of this, as disappointed as I am. When the loss of thousands of American lives, not to mention the significantly greater portion of civilian casualties in the areas affected that serve as an effective recruiting tool for those who we call our enemies, fail to muster any real sense of outrage, I can’t come up with anything else but a deep and abiding sorrow.
I’ve been to the Dover Port Mortuary. I’ve watched as really fine men and women, military and civilian alike, work side by side tirelessly to give some sense of comfort to those families who have paid for our continued ignorance. No one knows about Dover, and they should. I’ve taken my 5-year old, to the consternation of friends and colleagues, to stand at the national cemetery and pay our respects as funeral processions of Wisconsin sons lost move slowly past, because I want him to understand that war has a cost, and it’s more than dollars and cents. I don’t have any answers for you as to why fewer and fewer people are paying attention. All I know is that the government made it very convenient for us to avert our eyes, and the media enabled them through its complacency, and we, the people, bought it. Hook, line and sinker. It’s just a symptom of a larger problem, isn’t it? It’s easier to say “Support our Troops – Bring Them Home” than to actually do something to try and change policy. After all, we’re coming out of a recession. We’re worried about keeping our jobs, our homes, finishing our Christmas shopping. Kourtney Kardashian is pregnant again, dontchaknow.