How can we know when a war has soured? When the death toll is reported as a statistical aggregate on page Two B of the local newspaper. I remember those days during the Vietnam ‘Conflict.’ I turned eighteen during the Tet Offensive – three hundred American soldiers were dying every week. I personally knew three boys who died in Vietnam – all from rural northwest Missouri. None of them reached their twentieth birthday. Other than these three, all local reporting on the War was done in sterile statistical analysis. Over time we become immune to the numbers – the troop deaths no longer warrant front page headlines.
The war sours and no one wants to eat from that table. The soldiers are like the children at the large family thanksgiving feast – relegated to a card table in the adjoining room. We know they are there – but we don’t want to hear them or see them. We are too busy with our adult conversations. In the case of Afghanistan, we are too busy ‘refudiating’ Sara Palin, Glen Beck, Keith Olberman, Ed Shultz, and other wacky pundits of politics. We can talk for two days about how a prominent politician misused a word – while we ignore the War Statistics on the second page.
I remember a funeral I attended in early 1968. The church sanctuary was full, the basement social room was filled with folding chairs, and many people had to stand in the street. There was no Westboro Baptist Church offering the distraction of protest. No motorcycle groups formed in their own manner of granting dignity to the deceased. The young man who died in Vietnam had been a prominent singer in the church choir. He sang in the high school spring play the year before. I remember the silent madness of overwhelming grief permeating the stale air of an overtaxed church ventilation system. I remember where I sat and who sat beside me. I remember the checkerboard pattern of the tile basement floor. I remember the anger at our government for striking this boy down in an unjust conflict with no definable end.
The next day the second page stats ticked up twenty-eight notches. There would be twenty-eight more funerals. Twenty-eight more preachers trying to find a way to comfort their grieving congregation. But there was no comfort.
When I was twenty-eight my twenty-three year old brother was killed in a motorcycle accident. I watched my family bounce around like balls in a pinball machine – careening with unknown emotions – out of control with the previously unknown phenomenon of the most heavy doses of grief. It was an accident. It made no sense – other than a simple understanding of the physics of mass in motion. I remember thinking of the boy who sang in the church choir, killed in defense of questionable government policy. I thought of his family. Their loss seemed somehow different than ours.
Grief does not grant favors to one family over another. The loss is the same. The process of grief is irrational. We seek understanding – but the understanding does not comfort – it merely distracts the mind for a few moments. Does it make a difference if two Highway Patrol Officers knock on your door – compared with two Army Officers? “Sorry,” the Highway Patrol says, “but a drunk driver killed your son.” The Army Officers might say, “Sorry, but some politicians, drunk with power, killed your son.” Is there a difference? What if the Army Officer said, “Sorry, but your son died defending your freedom as an American.” Is the son less dead? Is the grief less traumatic? Does the statement of cause change the dynamic of grief?
Does the justification of the war change the dynamic? I don’t know. But I am certain of this: We should never risk our most precious resources without a complete understanding of return on investment. Did the Iraq War give us a justifiable return on our investment of over four thousand young Americans? Did Vietnam? How about Afghanistan? These wars do not have the certainty of World War One or World War Two. Has this paragraph reduced the discussion to mere statistics?
President Lyndon Johnson might say that the return on investment for Vietnam was the prevention of World War Three. If that is the case then the boy from the church choir might have died as a result of a just cause. Did the toppling of Saddam Hussein create a safer world for the next generation of Americans? President George W. Bush and his Vice Dick Cheney would say so. Perhaps, but we cannot know this with any certainty.
When the Afghanistan War began everyone in the world was certain of the necessity. The terrorists who attacked America on September 11, 2001, were clearly operating with the sanction of the Afghan Government. The goal seemed clear. The loss of American soldiers was deemed a necessary evil. Everyone understood and everyone agreed. Well – all sane people agreed.
But something has gone awry with the Afghan War. The Taliban has been dethroned from government leadership. Al Quaeda has been chased across the border into Pakistan. The Afghan War goes on. Blame George Bush or Dick Cheney or Barack Obama – your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault – we are where we are. The goals are less clear. The justification of the death of even one American soldier is questionable. President Obama is like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike – shouting a warning of a potential flood. Many people seem to be ignoring the danger.
Is there danger? I don’t know with any more certainty than any other American. But I know what it feels like to sit at a soldiers funeral.
We Americans should never forget the cost of War. And the death of a soldier warrants more than an incremental ticker on Page Two B.
July 24, 2010: OK – I remember three rural NW Missouri deaths – but there were many more. My brother sent me this list of those from St. Joseph, Missouri, who died in Vietnam. And this reinforces the point of the post. We have reduced the trauma to mere statistics. This list provides the names of the fallen soldiers – acknowledging that the deaths are more that stats.
|Died in Viet Nam from St. Joseph, Missouri|
|Atkison, Charles L.||19||9/21/1969|
|Bell, Ronald E.||19||6/9/1968||9/26/1948|
|Berry, Elmer E.||32||2/26/1966||6/3/1933|
|Bohon, Ronald E.||20||3/23/1967||9/6/1946|
|Boyer, Dennis Michael||26||4/21/1970||9/17/1943|
|Burnett, Charles C. Jr.||27||5/14/1967||12/21/1939|
|Campbell, Larry G.||20||8/19/1967||12/21/1946|
|Casebolt, Henry Clayton||24||2/28/1966||1/31/1942|
|Cason, George Gilbert Jr.||21||5/31/1968||11/27/1946|
|Cawley, Richard E.||20||4/13/1968||5/18/1947|
|Crawford, James J.||30||2/3/1972||12/6/1941|
|Cunningham, Wells Eldon||26||8/17/1966||11/19/1939|
|Draut, Charles B. Jr.||22||12/19/1969||1/3/1947|
|Dykes, Frank F.||21||3/6/1968||8/13/1946|
|Fish, Gordon A.||20||1/7/1971||8/2/1950|
|Grenier, Joseph Kent||23||9/4/1970||10/30/1946|
|Helsel, Rodney Glenn||21||3/11/1970||2/20/1949|
|Hirtler, Ernest Lloyd||19||3/21/1971||1/29/1952|
|Hubbard, Robert Steven||19||5/8/1968||8/30/1948|
|Humphrey, Golen F.||38||2/1/1966||8/28/2027|
|Logan, Ronald Charles||23||3/29/1966||2/14/1943|
|Manley, Richard Joseph||39||4/11/1966||6/12/2026|
|McClellan, Edward E.||21||2/29/1968||6/9/1946|
|Riley, Charles F.||25||11/11/1967||9/26/1942|
|Stockbauer, Charles Thomas||23||7/10/1969||2/10/1946|
|Unzicker, Gregory Dean||20||7/17/1970||9/8/1949|
|Number of deaths per year from St. Joseph|
In order to further personalize the tragedy of war we are including the specific information on one soldier – this was the soldier who’s funeral I attended as a young man:
Richard Ernest Cawley
PERSONAL DATA Home of Record: St Joseph, MO Date of birth: 05/18/1947 MILITARY DATA Service: United States Navy Grade at loss: E3 Rank: Hospitalman ID No: B614617 MOS: 0000: Not Recorded Length Service: 01 Unit: H&S CO, 1ST BN, III MAF CASUALTY DATA Start Tour: 02/15/1968 Incident Date: 04/13/1968 Casualty Date: 04/13/1968 Age at Loss: 20 Location: Thua Thien Province, South Vietnam Remains: Body recovered Casualty Type: Hostile, died outright Casualty Reason: Ground casualty Casualty Detail: Gun or small arms fire URL: www.VirtualWall.org/dc/CawleyRE01a.htm ON THE WALL Panel 49E Line 039
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