Monday, May 30, 2011

Six Thousand Thirteen and Counting

Sorry to harsh any mellow you're working on this holiday, but I continue to be so fucking outraged by these wars Bush started, the whole bullshit WMD pile of lies, and the fact that the government continues to keep the majority of us so insulated from the mounting death toll that I thought I'd post a little reminder.

For years I used to keep a big sign on my front lawn with an updated death toll of US Troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also to note the estimated number of civilian casualties in those countries. I'm ashamed that, after that sign wore out, I didn't replace it. I think I need to replace it. For now, I just did a quick search to track the most recent numbers. According to the Washington Post-- which last updated its numbers on May 23, 2011, so far there have been SIX THOUSAND THIRTEEN TROOP FATALITIES. My hunch is that in the past week those numbers have already gone up and I'm pretty sure they don't include all the soldiers who come home and kill themselves-- a number that is also alarming and continues to grow.

And the numbers don't reveal all the soldiers with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries-- folks whose lives are forever haunted and ruined even if they never do get a proper diagnosis. The army's response to TBI is especially despicable-- they don't even want to acknowledge this as an actual diagnosis. According to an NPR report, if you combine concussions suffered by US Troops as well as more severe brain injuries, we're talking more than 200,000 head injuries, and more than 40% of the concussions go undiagnosed. reports somewhere between 101,097 and 110, 421 Iraqi civilians killed since Bush launched the war in 2003 (Yes, that's right, the US has been engaged in this conflict for MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS.) If you want to see some pretty pie charts breaking down thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, check out this report issued by the United Nations.

And please, too, on this Memorial Day, consider all of the other injuries-- amputations, dismemberments, little kids and women obliterated, children of killed and permanently scarred US Troops. Please, REMEMBER THEM ALL.

Not intentionally (unless it was subconsciously) I spent the last week listening to the audiobook version of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, about his experience in Vietnam. Billed as a novel but probably not exactly that, the book (in which O'Brien's character is named Tim O'Brien) talks a lot about telling the story of, and what constitutes the truth, and how you better watch out for any accounts that are draped in big heroics. I've avoided reading this book for years-- not to keep my head in the sand but because I suffer another kind of PTSD. Not the kind brought on by senseless war, the kind brought on by childhood trauma. I'm not here to get into that, except to say that having PTSD gives me insight I wish I didn't have, a glimpse at the tip of the iceberg of the sort of PTSD soldiers must suffer. People with PTSD don't necessarily have visible scars. Some people think we're full of shit when we talk about this thing. I tell you, it is real and it is a killer. I spend every minute of every day living in hyper-vigilance. My partner and my son both know that you do not walk through my house silently. You better be whistling or text me in advance to let me know you're heading from one room into another, because if you don't, and if you come up behind me quietly, we are all going to suffer for it. If you are lucky, you find a way to manage it, but PTSD never goes away, and there is no telling how many soldiers are going to have to deal with it-- along with their families and communities (so, like, all of us)-- for the rest of their lives.

So I was afraid of O'Brien's book. But I wanted to at least try it. Not to torture myself. But because I try to think of these goddammned motherfucking wars EVERY SINGLE DAY. I try to remember how many young soldiers are over there every day, and to hope with all my heart that they somehow (how?) manage to come home not too damaged. I hate that the government banned showing photos of soldiers coffins. And I ask every one of you go right this second and take a look at the photos by Todd Heisler that initially accompanied a series in the Denver Post by Jim Sheeler that detailed the lives of soldiers whose job it is to inform stateside relatives of their son's and daughter's war deaths. (The first photo you'll see if you click the link, a larger version of the one on the book's cover, is one I will never, ever forget.) That series later was published in a longer version book called Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives. And if you ask me, I think every single one of us should spend today reading The Things They Carried and Final Salute and maybe watching The Hurt Locker, too.

It's been a long time since a book made me cry, but O'Brien's did the trick handily. I didn't need too much of a nudge in this direction. The Vietnam War was one of those weird things in my life-- I was far too young to comprehend it while it was happening. But I remember helping my mother make care packages for our friend, Mickey. I especially remember packing up Jiffy Pop Popcorn and though I was probably only four or five when we sent that, I have spent the rest of my life associating that popcorn with the war. I remember POW and MIA bracelets. And, many years later-- when I was about the age of so many young soldiers shipped off by politicians whose own fortunate sons would never see combat-- I remember visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC for the first time. If you have not ever stood before that stark monument, with its listing of more than 58,000 names, let me tell you something. What you see, besides all those names is this: yourself, reflected back at you. How I cried when I stood there.

Last summer or the summer before, I was over at Wheatsville and, knowing my son was out at a park with some friends, I picked up some food to drop off for them-- a little impromptu picnic. I drove over to Rosedale Park and spotted them-- four or five young men, 18 and 19 years old. Call me a morbid one, but when I saw them-- so tall and thin, playing Wiffle Ball like little children still adjusting to their young man bodies-- I instantly thought of Vietnam. And then I thought of Iraq and Afghanistan. Here were these kids, precisely the same age as so many kids who were drafted in the '60s or who, in these current conflicts, signed up perhaps not out of patriotism, but out of lack of better choices. And I thought how I would sooner break my own son's legs than have him be drafted or sign up for a war started as some vanity project by the most delusional POTUS that ever lived.

And, to be completely honest, I also couldn't help thinking about that stupid song that came out-- wasn't it part of a soundtrack to a Stallone movie? Nu-nu-nu-nu-nineteen.... A song that incorporated a loop of a news announcer explaining the average age of Vietnam soldiers was 19.

These wars have gone on far too long, Bush's legacy, so many dead, and I'm not even going to bother trotting out the financial costs today. Because today is about remembering all of those soldiers who have died, far far too many of them courtesy of bullshit wars waged by the power mongers who look at the front liners as nothing but disposable pawns.


indigo warrior said...

My son is in Afghanistan. He's serving in the Army. It's an all volunteer Army these days. I know why my son is serving in the Army, and it's not because of some cock and bull story spun by any president.

My dad was a volunteer during Vietnam. I don't know what the percentage is of volunteer or drafted members of the military who served, or who died.

I know both of these wonderful men chose to serve in the nation's military for reasons civilians wouldn't understand.

I personally find our war/violence based economy as offensive as most. Jimmy Carter told us to get off the teet of foreign oil. Republicans hushed that up pretty quickly. And no one is doing a whole lot to actually make the changes needed. At least no one I know. More offensive to me is the Patriot Act - we all get to live with that another four years and our president didn't even have to actually sign it, he 'autopenned' it. Pretty disgusting? On one hand to have our young people giving up their lives for liberty (or so we are told) and on the other to have the president give them away.

Spike Gillespie said...

Hey Warrior,
I did not know that your son is in Afghanistan. I hope my post was clear enough (but maybe it wasn't) re: not feeling any condemnation for the soldiers. And something I didn't say but perhaps should have is that I know that a lot of folks enlist with a clear vision and get a good deal out of being in the military (my nephew for example). I just get so damn chapped at how the government is not forthcoming with a lot of info, how so many soldiers who need mental health care don'e seem to get it, and, of course, all the bush shit and.... oh you know what I mean.

I was just thinking about you yesterday-- I can't tell you how many times that phrase you told me pops into my head, "We got mad and we broke shit." Love that.

see ya soon,

indigo warrior said...

We are the government. As fucked up as it is, ultimately, it's our responsibility.

I know people aren't angry with our soldiers the way they were during Vietnam, and I get where you are coming from. I just hope you know that a lot of people died so you could do this - speak freely in a public forum. Maybe that's not why this time around, but I think you can bet that many of them chose to serve for the same reasons. That's the point of Memorial Day. Gratitude and remembrance.

How many of our elected officials actually have served? Screw 'em. Take care of the government on election day.

I thank the people I see in uniform. When I talk with someone at school who is a veteran I thank them. I encourage all of your six readers to do the same.