Not one single name did I know, or even recognize, in the list of names that I was reading, but I could still feel something for each and every one of them. Something painful. It emanated from the page, at first as a realization that they themselves were very real people—even though their images were only abstract to me—and then as a realization of their connection to someone else.
It was their age that struck me first. So young. Lives measured in too short of terms. I thought back to what it was I was doing at their age, and then forward to everything that I did with my life after that point. So much missed.
Here in Iowa, in the early days of Our Aggression in the Middle East, government buildings and businesses would lower their flags to half mast whenever someone from the state lost their life over there. At first it seemed to be rare, rare enough that the local media would often feature pieces about the soldier and their families, would still treat them as someone real—flesh and blood, belonging to someone.
But, after a while, I began to notice fewer of those pieces while the flags seemed to stay continuously at half mast. I began to think of them as permanently positioned there, and thought they would be until the end of the war. Over time I lost sight of them. I struggle now to remember the last time I noticed them, if they still have been flying low. Shame on me.
That particular day had been a dismal day for soldiers from Iowa, and so the paper chose to headline as much and list their names and ages. I think the oldest was in his early twenties. It made me curious about the average age of our men and women over there in active duty, curious enough to go out and research it on the net, even compare it to previous wars. It seems our soldiers today are a little older than in previous wars, but are still too young for this, in my estimation. Why is it a country sees fit to throw its best and its brightest, its bravest and most ambitious, its most fit and most promising, into the carnage of war?
I’ve never known anyone personally who has died in conflict, not in this war or any other. I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced the loss that a father or a brother or a son might feel over a loved one who went away in fatigues and never came back. I’ve never had to imagine what their final moments might have been like, or lose sleep over the empty feeling that I never had a chance to be with them or say goodbye to them, or in any way be even remotely connected with them in their passing. I’ve never had to answer that knock at the door that brought the news, news that would have to take your breath away. News that shattered the separation between the assurance and concrete comfort of a loved one in my life, and the immediately real absence of them. News that swiftly produces a sudden vacuum, a huge, gaping hole in your life.
Being a parent and just imagining what that would have to be like is both too potentially real, and too frightening. What would I ever do?
Because the conflict is usually so distant from our homes and the tolls often just a list of names in the news, we become jaded to the real costs of war, unless it strikes us personally. We objectify the enemy. We romanticize the warrior. We cling to an idea of war as right versus wrong, as good versus evil, as justified by our virtues versus irrational campaigns for power. But I think we fail to realize that it is, in reality, our attempt to press our life on to theirs, our attempt at Manifest Destiny, or—quite possibly—a product of our own greed and hunger for power. We strike a muscular pose on the world’s stage.
We still think we can win wars on foreign soil. We have too quickly forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. Our adversaries are no longer neat formations of uniformed minions, but instead are subtly different shades of the very people we believe we are there to protect, fight for, save. They no longer identify themselves for our easy killing, no matter how ingenious our killing devices, because they know they are no technological match for our massively funded weapons programs.
We still fight wars by rules long forgotten by others because we believe our wars are a matter of principle. They fight like the confederate that didn’t see anything wrong with taking a shot at Grant, atop his horse on a nearby hillside, as he looked over his troops going to battle.
This particular war was started with suspect reasoning. WMD’s never materialized, but just the threat of them—like a page ripped from the book written by decades of a Cold War nuclear threat—was just enough to raise our collective fears, sufficiently quell our questioning on whether or not it was the correct thing to do. Why do we feel like we have to stretch our long tentacles of weaponry into lands on which we’ve never lived, into a history so vastly different from our own, and into a way of life we will never understand?
We have no place there. We shouldn’t, and cannot, impose our definition of life and democracy on them, despite our convictions in how well it works for us. They are entitled to their way of life, and the mistakes they may make in living it, just the same as we are entitled to our way of life and the mistakes of our own history. And whatever threat we perceive is brewing there could just as easily be defended against, if not more so, with all those resources better utilized here at home.
But, my biggest question, the one that bothers me most, is this: at what point do we, either as a nation, or as a government representation, or as a presidential leader, so easily make the switch from thinking of a young man or a woman as a real person and convert them into an expendable resource? At what point do the functions of their living—breathing, speaking, feeling—disappear and make us able convert them to machines? At what point do their souls become invisible to us?
My questions are simple, maybe too simple. But I can’t get past them.
Why can’t we bring them home and stand them shoulder to shoulder along our border with Mexico, become our solution to southwestern states’ concerns over illegal immigration?
Why can’t we disperse them in dozens to our international airports and let them become the security that many of us would trust far more than that offered by insufficiently-paid people in poorly fitting suits?
Why can’t we let them swell the ranks of policemen and policewomen, and make our streets safer for everyone?
Or, for that matter, why can’t we let them become doctors or lawyers or artists or musicians or anything else they would dream to do with the rest of their lives, so long as it is not something that makes them a part of a grotesquely large and ugly killing machine? Why can’t we just stop making them machines?
Let them have the lives they deserve as much as any of us, without it being violently cut short, so far from home and loved ones, by an enemy neither they nor we will ever even see, let alone know or understand.
Because not one young man or young woman’s life is worth any attempt to convince a different culture in a faraway land that they should want our way of life.
Not one young man or young woman’s life is worth even a billion barrels of oil that might be sent back here with them, strapped on their backs.
Not one young man or young woman’s life is worth them bringing Osama Bin Laden himself into custody.
Not one young man or young woman’s life is worth any reason anyone can give me for us sacrificing it.
© 2010 Cody Kilgore. All Rights Reserved worldwide under the Berne Convention. May not be copied or distributed without prior written permission.