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Don't Deny Horrors of War

To honor soldiers' sacrifices, we must look at what we are asking them to do.

November 11, 2003|Michael Takiff | Michael Takiff is the author of "Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam," newly released by William Morrow.

Facing the draft in 1967, Mickey Hutchins, a 20-year-old North Carolinian whose father fought at Omaha Beach on D-day, did not burn to take up arms against Ho Chi Minh. Still, he decided against seeking a deferment. "As a citizen of this country," he recalled three decades later, "I had already received a fair number of benefits. The way I looked at it, if you're going to hang in there for the benefits you've got to hang in there for the responsibilities as well, and military service is a responsibility of citizenship."

Today, brave young Americans are abroad once more, undertaking the responsibility, as Hutchins did in Vietnam, to risk life and limb in service to their countrymen. But the rest of us -- we who benefit by the courage of our warriors -- have failed in our own responsibilities of citizenship. Though we take pride in our democracy, we have shunned authentic knowledge of this war being waged in our names. Conspiring with our media and our government, we have been content to turn our eyes from the carnage that is at the heart of this war, as it is at the heart of any war. And so we have not kept faith with this new generation of combat veterans being created on foreign shores.

I have spent the last three years talking to and writing about U.S. war veterans -- men who fought in World War II and their sons who fought in Vietnam. I am not a veteran, but before I embarked on this project I thought I knew something about the subject: "War is hell."

I was wrong. That bromide, these men have taught me, does not begin to hint at the horrors of war -- horrors one who has seen cannot forget, horrors one who has been spared cannot imagine. Among the veterans I have gotten to know are a Vietnam infantryman who witnessed "400 or 500 human bodies in a heap, decomposing in 120-degree sun"; a World War II seaman who observed fish feeding on human corpses floating offshore of Tarawa and Iwo Jima and never again ate seafood; a pilot of a light observation plane in Vietnam who, to conduct bomb damage assessments, would "count feet or legs. Count and divide by two."

From the beginning of the Iraq war, our news media have not shown us the feet or legs; indeed, they have reacted with outrage when foreign news organizations have dared to disturb their audiences with war's unpalatable reality. During the "major combat" phase of the war, we were spoon-fed pounding music, gaudy graphics and cheerleading commentary.

The deception has only intensified since what many still call, less plausibly every day, the end of the war. In Baghdad, journalists are kept away from the morgue and from hospitals, while at Ramstein in Germany and at every military base in the U.S. they are forbidden from covering the arrival of soldiers' bodies. The government and the media tell us next to nothing about the wounded, and in reporting the numbers of the dead they often include only those killed "by hostile action," as though lethal accidents are not an inevitable result of war, and as though the victims of these accidents are not just as young and just as dead and the tears of their mothers not just as hot. And if our government keeps tabs on the number of Iraqis killed, it doesn't let on.

We need to be apprised, in blunt words and frank pictures, of this war's toll of human life. Identifying characteristics of the dead and maimed should be obscured in deference to the victims and their families, and we must shield the eyes and ears of our children. But we adults make children of ourselves if we surrender to our leaders the knowledge essential to make wise decisions. Delicate sensibilities offer a poor excuse for our negligence when our charge is the lives of the men and women who defend us.

After the murder of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's Brutus instructs his fellow conspirators: "Stoop, Romans, stoop, and let us bathe our hands in Caesar's blood." Thus marked, all the killers both announce their responsibility for the act they have committed and acknowledge its abhorrent nature. Like Caesar's assassins, our nation today sanctions a deplorable means, the taking of human life, in pursuit of a worthy end, the overthrow of a tyranny. Indeed, the ultimate consequence toward which our violence is aimed is not different from that proclaimed by Brutus: "Peace, freedom and liberty!"

A generation ago, the United States brought violence to another faraway land in an effort to increase the world's supply of peace, freedom and liberty. But as Americans watched the war in Vietnam go wrong, we came to disown it, to deem that it belonged to the soldiers, not the populace -- to "them," not "us." As the troops came home, they served as convenient scapegoats, absolving the rest of us of responsibility for the tragedy. We wanted nothing to do with these walking reminders of our collective failure, and so we abandoned them to deal on their own with their memories of war's horrors.

We dare not inflict such injustice on the fighters of today's war, however it may turn out. We dare not forget that although we delegate to our soldiers the task of battle, this war belongs to every one of us. And so all of us must stoop to bathe our hands in this war's blood -- the blood of our combatants, of Iraqi civilians, of humanitarian workers and yes, of Iraqi combatants as well.

If we citizens of this democracy choose to wage war in sober knowledge of our decision's effects, so be it. But if a war depends for its support on the citizenry's ignorance -- as the Pentagon and White House evidently believe this one does -- that war does not merit support.

Daily in Iraq, our most courageous citizens do their duty. We at home owe them the courage to do ours.

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