The Romance of Death

My father was a young man during the Vietnam War. Health problems exempted him from conscription, but he had several friends who fought in the war.

I have several friends and acquaintances of long standing who are or were in the military, some of whom have been to Iraq as part of the occupation. A few years ago, I was getting ready to attend a gathering where a friend of mine, who had just returned to America after a year of dangerous duty in Iraq, would be present. I was talking to my father, who said, emphatically, that I should not inquire into the specifics of what Iraq was like, or what went on there, unless my friend brought it up himself. Let him leave Iraq back in Iraq.

To the extent such a thing is possible, anyway. If it’s possible at all.

My father had never been in the military, but he had some basic knowledge and common sense about the subject of war, sharpened by seeing what it did to people he knew. Unfortunately, not everyone is so endowed.

In mid-March, President Bush held a video conference with American personnel in Afghanistan. Addressing American troops, Bush said “I must say, I’m a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.” He went on to say, "It must be exciting for you… in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks."

Confronting danger, indeed. As of April 5, 423 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan since our invasion, according to the Defense Department [.pdf]. This is still going on; the most recent American combat death in Afghanistan, as of this writing, was on April 3. Several hundred more troops from other Coalition countries are dead, along with thousands of Afghan civilians and thousands of native combatants. Many times that number have been wounded; modern battlefield medicine means that many injuries that would have killed a man in Vietnam will merely leave him crippled or mutilated today. Last but not least are the unknown number of soldiers with psychological problems, potentially severe and potentially lifelong, for whom all the excitement and romance were too much for the mind to bear.

I too once thought that war was a romantic and exciting adventure. In my defense, I was five years old at the time.

Now, granted, I didn’t expect Bush to come out and say, "Gee, I sure am glad that I’m safe in the comfy White House while you guys risk death, dismemberment, and psychological devastation in a Third World hellhole." Still, I don’t think expecting the president to recognize the fact that deployment to Afghanistan is not a nature hike with the Cub Scouts is too much to ask. It would be comforting to believe that Bush is willfully lying and simply doesn’t care about the reality (and isn’t it sad to think that’s the better option?), but I’m inclined to take him at his word.

This is an issue that ought to transcend the question of whether the American military presence in Afghanistan or other military operations undertaken during the Bush administration have been good ideas or not. Regardless of whether a given war is right, it should be obvious to everyone even remotely connected to reality that actually fighting in it is neither a "fantastic experience" nor something to envy, and that it is callous and irresponsible to talk as if it were. One would think, given how much war supporters profess to admire and care about American soldiers and the sacrifices they make, that they would object in the strongest possible terms to Bush’s disrespectful trivialization of war.

There are already plenty of reasons to doubt the Bush administration’s competence in matters of war and peace – his lunatic ideology of forcibly exporting democracy, his general lack of competence and foresight, his demonstrated contempt for both the law and American ideals of freedom. We can add to that list his apparent belief that military service in a violent, war-ravaged country is not part of the grim price that the nation pays for waging war, but a benefit. If the man who wields the effectively unlimited war-making power of the modern American executive branch thinks that seeing people shot or blown apart is some sort of self-actualizing adventure, we may be in even more trouble than I thought.