Monday, May 15, 2006

Killing and Dying So Americans Can Live in Blissful Unawareness

These passages from yesterday's WaPo article about U.S. soldiers home from Iraq, in tandem with some of the commentary at Mudville Gazette, crystallizes, for me, what is so different -- and so wrong -- about this war.

First, from the WaPo piece:

Bad stuff happened in Iraq, stuff Adam Reuter doesn't want to talk about. Not with his friends, not with the line cooks in the burger joint where he worked when he first came home or the tenants in the apartment complex he manages now.

He doesn't even want to talk about it with his wife, who worried because he was jumping out of bed in the middle of the night.

But when he agrees to talk about the war -- really talk about it -- he goes right to how the insurgent crumpled after he pulled the trigger. How later, during the firefight, he ended up just a few feet from the corpse. Bullets buzzed by, and he was supposed to keep an eye on the alley, but he couldn't help but glance over.

"He just lay there," Reuter remembers. His eyes and mouth open. His whiskers a few days old. The bullet had gone in his neck cleanly, just to the right of his Adam's apple, but had come out ugly from the back of his head. He was maybe 25, a little older than Reuter. And his blood was pooling, thick and almost black in the darkness.

How can you describe what that was like? Who would understand it?

Nobody. So Reuter keeps his mouth shut. His army uniform is packed in a box in the garage. He hasn't looked at it in months. Instead, he kisses his baby boy every night. He gets on with his life, because that's what everyone else is doing.

At home in Newnan, Ga., there is no war.

"It doesn't cross their minds," Reuter said. "To them, everything is fine."
You can't understand unless you were there.

It's a timeless refrain sounded by generation after generation of soldiers returning from combat. But what sets Iraq war veterans apart is not just the kind of war they are fighting but the mood of the country they are coming home to. It is not a United States unified behind the war effort, such as in World War II. There's no rationing, no sacrifice, no Rosie the Riveter urging, "We Can Do it!" Nor is it the country that protested Vietnam and derided many vets as baby killers.

The United States that Iraq veterans are returning to is relatively indifferent, many said. One that without fear of a draft seems more interested in the progression of "American Idol" than the bombings in Baghdad. Sure, there are the homecoming parades, the yellow-ribbon bumper stickers, the pats on the back -- they continue as troops arrive back home.

But for many vets, those moments of gratitude were short-lived or limited to close friends and family. Soon they were joined by bitter impressions of a society that seems to forget that it is living through the country's largest combat operation in more than 30 years.

When Army Reserve Warrant Officer Mark Rollings got home to Wylie, Tex., he didn't expect anyone to treat him any differently because he was a vet. But he couldn't help but notice that the only one to say anything about the newly installed Purple Heart license plate on his Chevy Blazer was the kid who changed his oil at the Wal-Mart.

"For having a global war on terrorism," he said, "everything looks like business as usual to me."
The questions people ask about the war usually don't probe too far, the sort that can be satisfied with rote responses that keep the truth at a safe distance.

But sometimes, people push. What was it like?

"You just try to give a softball answer," said Garett Reppenhagen, who has been out of the Army for a year. "Yeah, it was horrible -- whatever. Or you don't answer the question. You say it was hot. You don't tell them what it's like to kill a man or to have one of your buddies blown up. You just don't go there."

But if they were not sated by the polite demurral and continued to press, he would go there, sparing no detail. Then he'd look up and see an expression that made him think they didn't really want to know after all.

"The look on their face: This is not the light conversation I want to hear at a party," he said.

Sometimes people would say maddening things, antagonistic things, even if they had never set foot in Iraq or been in combat. They didn't have to leave their spouses, miss the births of their children or see their best friend blown to pieces.

Civilians. After the war, they seemed so different, no matter how many war movies or how much CNN they had watched.

Sometimes, they'd ask something so crazy there just wasn't any way to respond, such as when a friend asked Monika Dyrcakz, "Did you go clubbing in Iraq?"

"Some people have no idea," she said.

Sometimes they said: I support the troops but not the war. Or: Do you think we should be over there?

Which is such a dumb question, Tanner, the Army captain, would think. Soldiers don't make those decisions. They do what they're told. They bitch and moan, sure. But when the call comes, they pack their bags and go, knowing they may not come back.

But Tanner doesn't say all that. Instead, he responds this way: "Oh, so you were over there? Because you said, ' We .' Because, I mean, I know I was over there."

* * *

But perhaps the worst is when they don't say anything at all and just go on living their lives, oblivious to the war.

Which is exactly what Army Capt. Tyler McIntyre was trying to explain to some family members while eating at an Italian restaurant when he was home on leave a couple of years ago.

He looked across the restaurant and saw everyone stuffing their faces with pasta and drinking wine. "And everyone's kind of just sitting there doing it," he said.

Which is really sort of extraordinary, he said. The country is at war. People are fighting at this very moment. Don't these people know what's going on? Don't they care?

No, he decided. They have no appreciation for their easy, gluttonous lives and don't deserve the freedom, prosperity and contentment he was fighting to protect.

He wanted to yell, "You don't know what you have! You don't appreciate it! You don't care!"

But he didn't. He kept his mouth shut. He was only home on leave. Soon, he would be going back to the war.

And then, at Mudville Gazette, Greyhawk's response to the article's description of Americans' indifference toward, or unawareness of, what's going on in Iraq:

I've only been in the US once since 2002 -- so I'll have to accept that as accurate. Other than the reporter's unsupported claim of bitterness on the part of the vets, I hope it is. Americans able to go about their daily lives in peace is exactly what we are fighting for. Sounds like we've achieved victory on that front.

Here I thought that we are in Iraq to fight for democracy, freedom, and peace -- for Iraqis. Now I find out that we are in Iraq to fight for Americans' right to go about their daily lives in peace. And that we are achieving that goal by following a policy that assumes Iraqis do not have the right to go about their daily lives in peace.

One of Greyhawk's readers, Major John, writes:

As you say, I WANT everyone at home to be able to live their lives peacefully and undisrupted. I don't want my family living in London circa 1940.

He could just as easily have written, "I don't want my family living in Iraq circa 2006" -- because conditions in Iraq in 2006 are just as bad -- in fact, much worse -- than they were in London during the Blitz. But he didn't. He reached back over 60 years to find a metaphor for the kind of war-torn society he wants to spare his own family.

And you can see why. To admit out loud that Iraq is not a fit place for anyone Major John loves to have to live in would be the same as admitting that the United States did not liberate Iraq; that Iraqis are not living in freedom the way Americans are (relative to Iraqis at any rate). Who in their right mind would choose to live in a hellhole like Iraq? No one who is invested in the argument that the Iraq war is right and good and necessary can afford to admit that they would not want their own family to be in Iraq.

Getting back to London, that city, of course, was bombed by the German Luftwaffe, not the United States. That makes it a much more politically correct example of war suffering than Baghdad in the first decade of the 21st century.

In saying that they want Americans back home to go about their daily lives in peace, Greyhawk and Major John are not accurately conveying the source of frustration for the soldiers interviewed by the WaPo. Those soldiers were not bitter, or dismayed, or disappointed to find Americans back home "going about their daily lives in peace." They were upset because of the many Americans they met who go about their daily lives in near-total ignorance about the war, and in seeming unawareness that there even is a war going on. I don't think that any soldiers fighting in a war want their families and friends back home to be suffering; but when they come home and find that there is nothing in most Americans' daily lives to even clue them in to the fact that their country is in a war; that there is no sense of shared sacrifice; that they, the soldiers, are giving up everything while Americans back home are giving up nothing -- it probably does hurt and bother these men and women who are sacrificing so much.

Does it even need to be said that this is not what Americans' lives were like at home during World War II? Apparently so.

During World War II, Americans were asked to sacrifice and actively participate in the war effort in lots of ways:

  • The Roosevelt administration actively encouraged and urged Americans to conserve and recycle materials that could be used in the war effort. Everyday household items such as the metal in objects like shovels and empty lipstick tubes had value for war production. Families did not just throw everything they were finished using in the garbage; it was considered incumbent upon Americans to consider how these items could be re-used.
  • Basic, everyday staples like coffee, sugar, meat -- and gasoline -- were rationed. Instead of being urged to indulge in orgies of spending to prove their patriotism, Americans were asked to cut down on consumer spending.
  • Americans, including the wealthy, were asked to give more of their income in taxes.
  • World War II ended the Depression, and created full-time employment in the U.S. Women and African-Americans were given unprecedented opportunities to make a good living and help the war effort. Labor unions flourished and wages stayed high as a result. Compare that to the U.S. domestic economy and job market now, during the current war. Are you done laughing yet?

There is a legitimate argument to be made that the sacrifices Americans made during World War II were a mixed blessing. There was a black market for rationed goods, which obviously created divisions in society. Also, many Americans, especially toward the end of the war, resented the rationing and shortages of consumer goods. That resentment led to a backlash after the war, and it could be fairly said that Americans have been overcompensating ever since -- to the point where now, the United States preemptively invades other countries precisely to protect the "American lifestyle" of conspicuous consumption and to safeguard the luxurious and unique choice Americans have to live isolated from the rest of the world, and not to know about the misery and suffering in other parts of the globe that directly subsidize the "American way of life."

That said, if I were coming home from Iraq, it would mean a whole lot more to me to know that Americans were being encouraged and given incentives to eschew SUVs; to walk, bike, or car-pool; and to cut down on car use in general, than it would to be patted on the back and told "Thank you for serving."

Cross-posted at Blanton's and Ashton's.

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