During World War I, when the British Parliament was enacting a conscription law, so that draftees could replace the depleted ranks in the trenches, a politician declared, "The necessary supply of heroes must be maintained at all cost."
No, this is not an argument for a draft. And before we read those words we read theses
Reports from Afghanistan and Iraq have been numbingly discouraging, in part because, in the United States, they come as a steady stream of abstraction. We see the faces of American casualties on the evening news, and the fate of wounded GIs draws sympathy, but otherwise the human cost of the war is kept vague.
In Forgetten faces of war James Carroll reminds us of these facts only after he tells us of two Afghanis who died , and not when they detonated their bomb vests to kill the enemy. The first saw people at prayer in a Mosque and changed his mind. The other turned over thousands of dollars to his family and showed his vest, and his mother tried to remove it. In each case the attempt to remove the vest killed the men and those around them
I do not think James Carroll is widely enough read. His columns appear on Mondays in the Boston Globe. While at times I disagree with him in part, I find what he offers challenges my thinking.
I began by quoting the two passages I do to set a proper context, that is, to help us refocus our minds. World War I was a slaughter, where politicians and generals send young men to needless slaughter. One image in my mind is from Dickie Attenborough's terrific anti-war movie, "Oh what a lovely war" where we see the British General praying, ending with words like "And Please God, gie me a victory before the Americans arrive."
Why do young people go off to war? Why are the situations we encounter in Iraq and Afghanistan seem so intractable? Why do we, and our leaders, not fully understand what we are encountering. "The necessary supply of heroes must be maintained at all cost." What a horrifying idea!!!
I quoted the two paragraphs above the fold in inverse order. Between them, connecting them, is the following:
We know to the single digit how many coalition fighters have died, but estimates of Iraqi deaths span a range from tens to hundreds of thousands. A single death - a tragedy; a million - a mere statistic. Meanwhile, as the suicide bombers treat their bodies as weapons, so do we, as if those faceless killers are indeed the automatons their masters want them to be. Yet this tale of two bombers suggests that every such deed, no matter how prompted by indoctrination or despair, must involve human responses.
Carroll explores the depths of human feeling. I cannot effectively summarize and a partial quotation will not represent fairly. You do need to read the piece. I can offer from this part of the op ed the following:
The two incidents from Afghanistan offer rare glimpses into the human depth of this otherwise inhuman act. Ambivalence and fear surely accompany each bomber on the way to destruction; anguish and dread must fill the hearts of their family members, if they know ahead of time. After the fact, grief must anchor every feeling.
Perhaps, perhaps not you will say. It is tempting to believe that the ideology driving those young men is something so alien o all we hold dear that it must be the product of something warped, distorted, anti-all that is good in humanity, right?
Carroll reflects upon those affected, in te one example the mother wondering who could have done this to her child, the siblings perhaps realizing that they are about to die, and why? Or of the young man, who turned to prayer, to affirm life. He rightly describes those who who persuaded the young men to wear the vest as having manipulated them,
tricked them into imagining that death could be an affirmation
And in the last sentence of that series of thoughts, Carroll bring the focus where it must be, for us, for those in the nation that created the situation in which all this enfolds.
The conclusion of the piece is powerful, aimed at us. Let me quote the three final short paragraphs:
What is that situation but an explosive vest? It does no disrespect to these dead people to recognize this image as a metaphor of what we Americans have created. We are the bomb masters who have wrapped the body of Iraq in wires and plastic explosives. How can we remove the vest without blowing it up?
Iraqi civil war, conflict with Iran, Turkish-Kurdish violence, chaos throughout the Middle East - and now President Bush tells us that, if we don't defuse the regional body vest carefully, World War III will start. There it is. Bush himself acknowledging at last what, under his leadership, the United States has done. We have put an explosive vest on Earth itself.
And now our job is to get it off. The revelation here is that, in the new age, every bomber is a suicide bomber.
We have put an explosive vest on Earth itself. And hence the title of this diary.
Are we now like the young men who when they or others attempted to remove their vests were the cause of death and destruction? Can we get out without making things worse? What choices did the young men have, if attempting to remove the vest causes it to explode, merely to sit by helplessly, futilely, realizing that either they went forward and caused destruction, caused their own deaths without inflicting pain on "the enemy" or else stood by helpless and impotently, unable to go back or to do anything else constructively?
I also take that title and think not only about our military and geopolitical actions that have engendered so much violence, so much death and destruction. I think of the other explosive vest, that of global warming, climate change, environmental destruction. To avoid dying to protect oil supplies we are going to turn to coal, which pollutes even more heavily and which to obtain more cheaply we destroy mountains and valleys? Is this perhaps the mother of the young man attempting to take off an explosive vest only to destroy herself and her family?
I am sorry that I put up a diary that offers little hope. That is, I fully expect that reading Carroll and reading the diary might be quite depressing. I opposed going into Iraq, and like many I want to see the death and destruction end. But I also worry that the desire of many here to simply withdraw is the equivalent of attempting to remove an explosive vest as was tried in Afghanistan, with such tragic results.
Does that mean that I view those who pushed us into these endeavors as Carroll describes the bomb masters? He wrote
I think of the bomb masters, who recruited those boys, manipulated them, tricked them into imagining that death could be an affirmation.
The comparison may not be fair, because we do NOT tell our young (and not so young) men and women that they WILL die, although we hide the cost of death (no cameras at Dover) and we pretend that this is for a glorious cause. But we were lied to as to the impact of our efforts, as to the reason for our actions. And thereby is it possible that those who led us into this debacle have placed upon us an explosive vest that cannot be removed except with tragic consequences?
Let me take the images from Carroll a bit further, and attempt to answer my own query. Is it possible that one or the other of the two young men, if either had fully realized the situation he was in, might choose then his own self-destruction, but without harming others? Is it possible he might go to an open space, and then attempt to safely remove the vest knowing he might die in the attempt, but ensuring that no one else were harmed? Might that be an image that we need to keep in mind?
We have a bomb strapped to us. We cannot forever live that way. It must be removed. Perhaps we must accept the cost of the possible self detonation, pay that price while minimizing the harm to others.
It is possible that cynical people who advocated for this war did not care whether they won it or not: war makes profits, offers justification for suppressing criticism and civil liberties. They might not care how the war turns out. That is not here my concern: there will be a time and a place for accountability and placing responsibility where it belongs.
For now, Carroll's piece makes me realize that we must acknowledge the dangers of any course of action upon which we embark. This is NOT an argument against withdrawing. It is a suggestion that we think carefully about how we withdraw, so that the damage and destruction are limited. And it is an acknowledgment that as we have realized the nature of what we have strapped on, to which we have bound our nation, it is us who must bear the greatest risk and cost of attempting to unbind that connection.
Those are my thoughts, not Carroll's. I would be interested in yours, whether or not you agree with either Carroll or me.
Peace. My fondest hope always. Peace.