Monday, May 31, 2004

War is All Hell

General William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is all hell." Not only is war hell, but so is the attempt to remember it. I had this feeling as I channel surfed between a History Channel segment of "Save Our History," which focused on the new World War II memorial, and the PBS Memorial Day concert.

The memorial is "vaguely totalitarian" at best. It looks like every Hitler and Mussolini public art project I ever saw. I don't know who had the brilliant idea to make it evoke the fascist ideology that more than 400,000 Americans died to defeat. Of course, it is difficult to criticize the memorial that so many veterans waited years to see. I understand their love for it, but I think they deserved better.

I am also more than a little miffed that the memorial was erected at all. I never felt that WWII vets were insufficiently honored. That war was known as the good war. It is the last conflict that was almost universally supported. The drive to build the memorial got a boost from the film Saving Private Ryan and its star Tom Hanks, who suddenly became an expert on veterans issues. As I switched from channel to channel I kept seeing Hanks face. When all else fails in America, bring in a celebrity.

Unfortunately, we have not learned how to remember the war dead without exalting war itself. The PBS concert featured amputee vets just back from Iraq sitting in the front row. Emcee Ossie Davis, known for his progressive views, narrated a short video showing among other things the bodies of the mercenary contractors killed at Fallujah. It also spoke of insurgents "killing innocent civilians" and asseting that "no one is safe" from them. I am very tired of Iraqis fighting against an occupation of their country being called "insurgents" and "terrorists." I could only say, et tu Ossie.

Today's New York Times had the coup de grace, a story about the difficulty some Iraq war vets have in readjusting to civilian life. This news story is not news at all. It is the same situation that arises from every war ever fought. Soldiers are sent to kill or be killed, and watch as others are killed. They are then expected to come home to changed families and get over it all.

Timothy McVeigh didn't get over it. John Muhammad didn't get over it. The 4 Fort Bragg soldiers who returned from Afghanistan and killed their wives didn't get over it. These are the most extreme examples of post traumatic stress, but we would do well to remember them too.

During the Memorial Day concert actor Charles Durning shared his harrowing story of nearly drowning at Normandy when he and his compatriots went ashore not on the beach but in 50 feet of water. We need to hear his story of seeing his sergeant's body torn apart or of seeing another soldier who lay dying and wondered aloud how his intestines would be placed back into his body.

Perhaps we can celebrate soldiers by advocating against war. Maybe we should think a little longer before we "finish the job" or "take out Saddam." It is the height of hypocrisy to say yes to war and then respond to its aftermath with monumental ugliness on the Washington Mall. It isn't just the memorial that was ugly, but the use of elderly veterans and their suffering to exalt the horror inflicted in every military conflict. We should have said no thank you to Tom Hanks and Bob Dole. Today we should think about the families who are left to suffer the loss of their loved ones. Let's have a memorial to those who grieve, which probably wouldn't bring any politicians to the podium. The more I think of that idea, the better it sounds.