Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Bringing the truth home

Every Sunday, for the past few months, I have spent the morning while my neighbors are in church compiling the news of the day from Iraq for Today in Iraq, a web project started by a retired Army officer who had served in Turkey and traveled to other Islamic countries on official business. The people he met admired the United States, and they were friendly and welcoming. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, that changed suddenly and profoundly. He was angry and hurt by the offense to the professional friendships he had made abroad. But Today in Iraq was born the day when draft dodger and deserter George W. Bush said "Bring 'em on," inviting people to attack U.S. troops. Compiling Today in Iraq is a numbing exercise, a weekly litany of statistics -- nearly 2,500 U.S. troops killed, each one represented by the nearly identical, formulaic CentCom news release. The more than 18,000 injured are often not represented at all. CentCom doesn't bother to announce incidents in which U.S. troops are only injured, but none die immediately. We try to find local news stories about them.

I have not served in the military. I turned 18 in the final year of the Vietnam draft, when the U.S. was reducing its presence there and reducing the overall size of its armed forces. I had a high lottery number and I was not called, but after taling at length with adults who I respected and, yes, the minister at my family's church, I had determined that I would not participate in the criminal aggression in Vietnam. My intention was to go to jail. That's easy to say, I never had to follow through.

That summer, I had a job conducting a voter census for my home town. I knocked on one door to ask how many people lived there and the woman broke down sobbing. Her son had been killed. How can an 18 year old possibly know how to respond to that? A friend of our family served in the infantry in Vietnam, and came back with two purple hearts. I've never heard him talk about it but I've heard a bit of his story second hand from his brother. He endured it with apparent equanimity, but he never finished college and I always felt that he fell short of what he might have accomplished in life. A few years later, I volunteered to work for a shelter for homeless men in Washington, D.C. One of the men who stayed there had been horribly burned in Vietnam, and he was badly disfigured. He would wake up screaming in the middle of every night.

I never thought for a moment that our nation could repeat such insanity, but it seems there is a sickness deep in our national soul. Mark Twain sliced through to the abcess in 1904, in The War Prayer, which I recommend reading on this most painful day. For those who may be unfamiliar with it, it begins:

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener. It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety's sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

You may remember that in 2004, when Marines in their scarlet and blue dress uniforms came to tell Carlos Arredondo, an immigrant from Costa Rica, that his son Alex had been killed in Iraq, Mr. Arredondo doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. He was in Florida at the time but the family came from my home town of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. (Roslindale, where Mr. Arredondo now lives, is next door.) Alexander Arredondo's funeral was one block from my house. The Latino storekeepers and others who I know from the neighborhood were there. Carlos Arredondo tells his story here.

He says, "And what I learned of Vietnam in my country? I never understood what they was fighting for. Costa Rica, it was my home when I was a boy, and we had the same climate, same weather, and I was afraid the United States would someday come to Costa Rica and do the same thing. So, when my son told me at age 17 that he was going to join the service, I said, "Oh, no," and he said, "Don't worry, Dad." And then:

The day of my son Alex's wake, I was on a stretcher because of the burns. On morphine, so I don't remember many people. I remember hugs, shaking hands. And I remember waiting outside of the funeral home for my ex-wife for two hours, not wanting to see my son's body by myself. When I first approach the casket, I thought it might be hard to recognize him, because we had not been told yet what killed him. We hadn't learn yet that he had a wound in the temple of his head, so that he had a three-inch-wide hole in back of his head. But it was him. And seeing him laying flat in a casket, I thought, he's not breathing and that he looks a little different, a little older. That his hair is a little bit longer. Wanting to reach him I was lifted off the stretcher and climb up to kiss him, to touch his head, his hands, his fingers, his shoulders, his legs, to see if they were still there. I lay on top of the casket, on top of my son, apologizing to him because I did nothing for him to avoid this moment. Nothing.

This must end. And there is one way, and one way only, to make sure it does not happen again. And that is to establish, through the criminal justice system, that people in positions of greatest power in this country also have the highest degree of responsibility. To lead the country into war by lying to the citizenry and the Congress is a crime. And we must deal with the people who did it as criminals.

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