Not Just Innocent Women and Children

Last night, I came across CNN’s list of American and Coalition casualties, which includes photos and some basic information about the men and women (mostly men) who have been killed in action in the war against Iraq. It got me thinking about the Iraqi soldiers who are dying in the war, men whose faces we will probably never see (except as unidentified corpses in the sand). It is an interesting feature of our war-talk that we give special weight to the plight of women and children, but not men, and expecially not soldiers. Men are, it is understood, capable of taking care of themselves. Men support wicked regimes, not women (and, of course, not children). Men make the important decisions, and they make them capably and willingly, while women (and, of course, children) just follow orders. Men make up nations, while women (and, of course, children) are simply “their” women (and, of course, “their” children).

It bothers me that I am unable to feel as strongly about the deaths of men serving in the Iraqi military as I am about the women and children “back home”, the ones who prepare meals for, give pleasure to, take pleasure from, reassure, keep house for, and otherwise take part in the lives of the soldiers “at the front” (is there a “front” in this war?). This is not to spread the blame around, but rather to say that these are people just trying to live their lives in the best way they know how. They might not have chosen Hussein, any more than we chose Bush, but those are the cards they were dealt and, just like here, a lot of people choose to play the cards they are dealt. I’ve no doubt that, again, just like here, there are people who are resisting, who will even welcome this invasion as their liberation, and there are people who, again, just like here, are indifferent to the whole thing, but do the rest of them deserve to die? I don’t agree with this war, and I hold our soldiers responsible for their part in it, but I don’t want to see them die! Our soldiers are men and women that I probably wouldn’t be friends with, that I probably wouldn’t even have been civil to (nor they to me), that probably would disagree with me and what I stand for at every turn, but none of them deserved to die on the battlefields of some dumb bosses’ war, no matter how strongly they believed in the cause. And the same for the soldiers of Iraq.

As usual, Jeanne d’Arc at Body and Soul offers some wise and well-put words about the our reactions to war. Although she is speaking specifically about the deaths of civilians in the “explosions” that struck the market in the Shaab district of Baghdad, her words apply across the board to everyone who has to die on account of this war. “When people die like that, the only thing to do at first is grieve. The only thing to do second is celebrate their lives. Anything else is an abomination…. We understood that when Americans died. We need to understand that the same thing is true when Iraqis die.”

I feel for the men of both Iraq’s and America’s armed forces. They are doing something terrible, and many of them will die in the process. Others will come or go home with terrible scars, some physical, some emotional. Decades from now, movies will be made and books will be written, commodifying their suffering, and we will hold those books and movies in the highest regard, like we do Slaughterhouse Five, The Deerhunter, Johnny Got His Gun, Catch-22, and the rest. But right now, those men are really out there, really trying to at least act the part of “men” as well as they can. I wish I could say their sacrifice was worth it, but it never is. Men came back from WWII, the “good war”, the one everyone points to as the example of a war that mattered, and found black men hung from trees, drunken Indians laid out by “helpful” whites across the railroad tracks, and a growing Cold War that would forever throw the good will and integrity of our government into shadow.

I speak here from emotion, and nobody respects arguments from emotion these days. “Be realistic”, we are told. Well, I speak here unrealistically, as befits the Age of Unreason. Men and women are dying. Not the ones who will benefit from this war, not the ones whose freedom is at stake, but the “expendable” ones, and I don’t want to think of people–any people–as expendable.

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