Hear those who have been to war
September 14, 2004
He is very brave with other people’s children.
A grieving mother spoke those words about President George W. Bush recently, after her 22-year-old son died in Iraq.
Her words resonate in light of President Bush’s military record: he received preferential treatment and still failed to fulfill his National Guard duties. Yet the president, through his political fronts, continues to attack Sen. John Kerry’s record in Vietnam. Perhaps the most offensive criticism is that Kerry dared to object to the Vietnam War upon his return from service.
Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt – these things happened more than 30 years ago; they were young men who might make different choices now. But this is not about youthful impetuousness. There is much more at stake.
Writer, poet, and veteran Donald M. Murray says, “I write about war because I think it is the duty of soldiers who have survived combat – where death and injury often come from flying body parts – to tell those who make wars about the realities of combat.”
So, First Amendment rights not withstanding, who better to comment on a war than a combat-tested soldier fresh from the battlefield?
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Sen. Kerry stands in a long line of soldiers who have seen and tasted war – and who have come home to tell about it. I wonder if President Bush would be so eager for the “enemy” to “bring it on” if he knew the absolute finality of battle and had to send his own children to slaughter.
Loren Baritz, in his book “Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did” explains how, in order for the United States to have become involved militarily on behalf of South Vietnam, we had to “invent” the country, shape the enemy, and define the issues at stake. “We decided what was right, what was civilized, what was lawful. Then we sent our soldiers to that far away place to do the dirty work.”
Sound familiar? And we know how that story ended.
My suggestion to President Bush, who never set foot on a battlefield, is to come clean about our reasons for going to war; to question his advisers who so eagerly name the enemy, define the issues, and create catchy phrases to scare us into a patriotic frenzy; and to listen. Listen to the stories that veterans tell, including Sen. Kerry’s.
Read the stories of Tim O’Brien, a combat veteran and the most important writer to have emerged from the Vietnam experience, who tells the truth – as he lived it. Before President Bush so bravely sends our children to war, he should read O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” in which the narrator explains how he and another soldier were ordered to climb a tree and remove a comrade’s body parts after an explosion: “I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines.”‘
Read the poetry of Wilfred Owen, probably the most respected English war poet, who in 1917 recorded images of the battlefield while in an Edinburgh hospital recovering from wounds. “These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished,” he wrote.
Later, Owen described walking behind a wagon laden with a comrade injured by a gas bomb: “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,/ He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning./ If in some smothering dream you too could pace/ Behind the wagon we flung him in,/And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,/ His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;/ If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/ Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,/ My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/ To children ardent for some desperate glory,/ The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori.’ It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
Owen never questioned the patriotism of soldiers or the moral obligation to engage in warfare when required – but he questioned those who used the battle cry of patriotism to send others to fight.
Wilfred Owen saw only four months of combat, but it was enough for him to understand the cost of war. He recovered from his wounds, returned to the front, and was killed. He was 25 years old.
Our president is very brave with other people’s children.
President Bush never stepped through the screaming carnage of a battlefield, never tasted the bitter bile of terror, never smelled the stink of desperate fear, never pushed a comrade’s bloody intestines back into a gaping wound, never reached over the side of a swift boat during a firestorm to grasp the hand of a dying man, never called out in mortal agony for his mother.
Yet he has cleverly connected Iraq to Sept. 11, created an arch-enemy, declared a righteous war, and continues to send other peoples’ children to fight it.
Since the war on terror is the number one issue for Americans this election year, let’s address it head-on: If we have to send our children to war, shouldn’t they follow a commander-in-chief who has been there?
Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City. She recently received an Honorable Mention in the 2004-2005 Nevada Arts Council Artist Fellowship Competition for excerpts from a collection of poetry, “Il Pettine: The Comb.”