Memorial Day – The loss of strangers.

Please also be sure to take a peek at my earlier post, where I also link to a really wonderful essay about the particular case of young veterans grappling with this nation’s holiday in memory of their fallen brothers and sisters in arms.

Listening to NPR as I stood cooking the holiday meal for my family just now, I heard a Vietnam vet talk about the need to remember the individual lives lost in our wars — not just the numbers, but the people, and what might have been had they not been lost to us. It made me think of the Jewish notion (one I think that we share with Islam) that when we kill one person, it’s as if we’ve killed an entire world.

This reminded me that I had meant to do just that: Remember individuals, by urging you to go to the Washington Post’s Faces of the Fallen, and just click on a face or two. Consider the ages (21 — had Lance. Cpl. Jose L. Maldonado celebrated that milestone with a beer or two? 31 — did Staff Sgt. Mark C. Wells leave behind a spouse and children?), look at their faces, imagine their families. For a moment or two, hold these strangers who died so far from home in your hearts.

Back in 2008, when the United States reached the milestone of 4,000 dead, I wrote something about those from my own state, Illinois, who had fallen in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of what I submitted ran, and some time ago, on Veterans Day, I ran the original here on the blog. It seems right and meet that I should run it again today.

In honor of the fallen from my home state — may their memories be for a blessing.

The loss of strangers

As of this writing, 141 servicemen and women from Illinois are confirmed to have died in the course of the Iraq War.

They came from big cities, mall-strewn suburbs, and places I’ve never heard of: Patoka, Gays, Blandinsville, Mahomet. More than 90 of Illinois’s casualties were 25 or younger when they died; thirteen were still teenagers. They were all, every last one of them, strangers to me, but they died in my name.

I don’t know how to truly honor them, any of these people who died so far from home, not the ones from Illinois, nor the 3,859 others. So I find pictures online and look at their faces, at least a few, and try to register the facts. Try to give them that, at least.

I’m pulled in by certain names, the occasional goofy grin, people who seem, somehow, familiar. Navy Petty Officer Regina Clark, 43 when she was killed, originally from Colona, mother of a teenage son; Sean Maher, a Marine from Grayslake, not much older than Clark’s son when he died at 19, two days before he was supposed to go home.

John Olson, 21, from Elk Grove Village, looks as if he’s trying on his father’s hat; Christopher Sisson, 20, might have once hung out at the North Riverside Mall. Illinois’ first casualty, Ryan Anthony Beaupre, was killed on the third day of the war. In his picture, the 30 year old Marine smiles as if on vacation.

Uday Singh. Twenty-one when he died, an Indian national. He enlisted while living with an aunt in Lake Forest, shared a name with one of Saddam Hussein’s despicable sons, and became a US citizen only upon death. Singh was the first Sikh to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and one of his last emails home read: “You guys have fun while I go save the whole world. P.S. Pray for me.”

Pray for me.

I  pray for him and for all the fallen soldiers, for all the living soldiers, for the families, for all of us in this country, for the Iraqis who also mourn their children. I have always opposed this war, but whatever I may think of the people who sent our men and women into Iraq’s unbearable heat, I know that those who went, did so for me. For me and my children, from a belief that it is right to offer your body as a sacrifice for the country you call home – even if it has not yet given you a passport.

I know that for many soldiers, the military offers an escape; for some, it’s the only way to make a living; others are answering family expectations, or social pressure. Many oppose the war; many support it whole-heartedly. Some do bad things; most, I suspect, just try to get through their days in one piece, with one heart.

But in death, I cannot sort them from each other. I cannot call this one my brother, that one my foe; the war they fought has in some way sanctified them, brought them to a place I cannot reach. I can only look into their faces and thank them, look into eyes that can no longer look back, and ask forgiveness.

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American wars and personal responsibility.

I went to my nearest VA Hospital today, to apply as a volunteer.

As luck would have it, I arrived just as the lady who does the fingerprinting had gone on break, so I wasn’t able to actually apply. But I’ve filled out my form. I have a plan.

I admit that I’m a bit perplexed by my decision (taken the day after bin Laden was killed, and the two are very much related) to do this. As a near-pacifist who regretfully but begrudgingly accepted the war in Afghanistan and was powerfully opposed to the war in Iraq, a person who encouraged her brother never to register for the draft, and would never want her own children to serve in the armed forces of any nation, it doesn’t exactly seem like a natural fit. There are a lot of places that could use my time and my skills: women’s shelters, the food pantry, literacy programs. Why not give my handful of hours to another, equally worthy effort? One without the stink of war about it?

I keep thinking (for years now, frankly) about all these young men and women who get sent off to battle. Who are sent off by my government. Who are sent off, this being a democracy, by me.

If my country is fighting two wars (and kinda-sorta a third) — don’t I have some responsibility for that? For the people who take up arms (whether I agree with the specifics or not) and who all too often come home wounded, in body or spirit? Surely the fact that I almost literally never see any of them — in my family, in my neighborhood, or on my TV — doesn’t matter. They’re out there: fighting wars that our nation decided to fight, with weapons paid for by my tax dollars, their hopes and dreams shaped or shattered by what happens on the field of battle, or they’re out there: back home, trying on their old life for the first time in years, trying to carry all that we’ve put on their shoulders. They’re my compatriots. They’re my brothers and sisters. In some cases, in most cases, they’re my kids.

So after a decade, I think primarily because of the work done by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury (the story arcs of BD [continued here], Melissa, Toggle, and Ray, the issues they face, the Vet Center they go to, Melissa’s experiences when she returns to duty), various reports and interviews on Rachel Maddow’s show (particularly her segments with Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America), and one little piece I wrote a while back for the Chicago Tribune — I have finally come to the point where I understand that I have to look that responsibility in the face. I have to look those people in the face.

I don’t know what to expect (and I think that’s a good thing — when I start down a path that makes me nervous, I’m often better off going in a little blind), but I’ve already gotten my first surprise: The men and women I saw at the hospital today were all older than I expected. It was with some shame that I was reminded that there are, of course, a lot of vets out there, only some of whom are young enough to be my children, only some of whom picked up arms in the years since 2001. We send people into battle all the time.

My one concern is that I’m not great at following through on good ideas — which is why the minute I had this one, I called the hospital, and why I’m now a little nervous that having been thwarted today, I may just allow the idea to drift away. It wouldn’t surprise me.

So that’s probably why I’m writing about it here. Volunteering with the wounded isn’t like learning carpentry, or picking up knitting, or finding some way to sing in places other than my kitchen and my synagogue — this matters more. I want to hold myself accountable. Someday I’ll do those other things (and catch up on the photo albums, and finish that art project I started seven years ago), but this one I’m going to do today.

Or, you know, tomorrow. When the lady isn’t on break.

Pakistan! What’s up with that?

Soooo.

A whole lot of folks in America have been scratching their heads since Sunday night, a slow realization dawning that as little as we know about Iraq, as little as we know about Afghanistan — we know even less about Pakistan.

And it turns out Pakistan is really rather the point!

Truth be told, I don’t know a hell of a lot about Pakistan either, though I will say that over years of reading about other places (like Iraq and Afghanistan), I’d at least begun to get a sense that I was missing a very big piece of the story. Recognizing one’s ignorance — that’s the first step.

What I do know is how to recognize a good source when it falls into my hands — in this case a terrific book, one which had me feeling the expansion of my brain’s Pakistan Knowledge Node with each turning page: Pakistan: A Hard Country, the result of 20 years of reporting from the country by British journalist and author Anatol Lieven. The title is a nod to something Lieven has heard time and time again from Pakistanis themselves — they live in a hard country, and they know it.

If you’re pressed for time — or if foreign relations isn’t enough your bag that you want to commit to 480 pages — you would be very well served by reading just the book’s 38-page introduction, where Lieven carefully lays out the parameters of his subject and the outlines of his conclusions — but if you do have the time, I highly recommend diving in.

And, hey now! It turns out we probably should have been paying more attention all along. Pakistan’s population (170 million) is close to six times larger than Afghanistan’s, and its army is one of Asia’s biggest, best armed (don’t forget the nuclear weapons!), and most experienced — as Leiven writes: “Pakistan is quite simply far more important to the region, the West and the world than is Afghanistan: a statement which is a matter not of sentiment but of mathematics.”

We’ve known for some time that Pakistani intelligence plays a key role in Western anti-terrorism efforts, and have likewise wondered for some time if they were really helping us as much as we might want, but (in keeping with Western tradition), there’s been a tendency to focus on the extent to which their society mirrors our own.

We talk about the President of Pakistan, for instance, as if real power is found in that (nominally) democratically elected office, when in fact, Pakistan’s real power base is its enormous military (particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI), created and maintained out of a deeply felt and powerfully held animosity toward India — a country so much bigger than Pakistan that the latter can’t hope to genuinely keep up, relying instead on a kind of bristling deterrence, fed by a very mutual and deep-running distrust and loathing. (All of which is to say, by the way, that when we deal with India, we’re also dealing with Pakistan. Just, you know: BTW and whatnot).

Lieven grapples successfully with a truly gobsmacking amount of information, transforming it into a lucid — and not incidentally, fascinating — whole, parsing the social and cultural tapestry woven from Islam, kinship ties, the military, and global expectations and pressures (indeed, a sort of patchwork tapestry, as each small section of the tapestry is overlaid with, and butts up against, unexpected intricacies), pointing to issues that few on this side of the ocean appear to have even begun to consider (such as population growth and the climate: “In the long run,” Lieven writes, “the greatest threat to Pakistan’s existence is not insurgency but ecological change”).

His policy recommendations come with a depth of perspective, both historic and geographic — this last particularly important in a country about which people are forever going on about “lawless, semi-autonomous tribal regions” — and Leiven’s writing is excellent (though occasionally a bit paternal), an especially crucial fact in a book taking on a topic with which many readers will be entirely unfamiliar.

Moreover, he clearly loves the place and its people. Pakistan: A Hard Country is the work of one of those rare nonfiction writers who is able to get close enough to their subject to see its complexity, without either turning away, or becoming a partisan of one view or the other.

So, in short, if you’re thinking “Pakistan! What’s up with that?” – this book would be a tremendous starting point.

Even, as I say, just the introduction.

DADT repeal: And yet.

I am over the moon that DADT has been repealed. Over the moon!

Every once and awhile, we get the privilege of getting to actually watch the arc of the universe bend toward justice, and this week, we have had that privilege. In case you haven’t seen the President’s speech yet, I’ve embedded it below, because — as he so often does — POTUS made me cry, he touched on the truth so well and so truly (update: I can’t get it to embed! If you want to watch it, click here). I’ll be writing a few thank you letters over the next few days, starting with Representative Patrick Murphy who was so out front on this issue.

Furthermore, I can’t help but think how important the struggle itself was. The very fact that so many people have been out there, on our TVs, our radios, our internet, our newspapers, and in our private gatherings, at home, at work, wheresoever, talking about the civil rights of the LGBT community, about the bravery and patriotism of those who serve in our military — this fact is where the bend is really happening. Our country is a different place than it was two years ago, and the LGBT community has been moved immeasurably closer to the full recognition of their full humanity. This is a good and wonderful thing.

And yet.

Now that it’s happened, I will give voice to the one frustration that I have had: Why, oh why, must we fight for people’s right to kill other people?

Why is this where justice must start?

I don’t want to honor the Tuskegee Airmen — I want to fight for peace. I don’t want to fight for women’s right to combat roles — I want to fight for peace. I don’t want to fight for the rights of gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and the transgendered to serve openly in the military — I want to fight for peace. I don’t want to struggle for the rights of all and any to pick up a gun, cross an ocean and kill folks they’ve never met — I want to fight for peace.

I do not question the need for a military. I am not a pacifist. When a country is genuinely threatened, or when the lives of others are genuinely threatened, sometimes armed conflict is all that we have at our disposal. I understand that, and I do, in fact, honor the Tuskegee Airmen, think that women should be able to serve in combat roles and, as I just said above, am over the moon about DADT.

But frankly, this is the best we can do until we figure out how to do it better.

War is not honorable. War is not good. War is what we do because we’re still too emotionally and mentally stunted to behave with honor, to do good things — to truly value life over anything else.

As we limp our way through humanity’s toddler years — the years in which we respond to not getting our way by throwing fits and breaking shit, often with a genuine blindness as to what the fit costs — we are better off limping as a group. Each injustice set right, each human seen as fully human, leads us ever closer to the day when state-sanctioned violence will truly be used sparingly, and as a last resort.

I honor those who have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq; I hold in my hearts the families of those who have lost sons and daughters, fathers and mothers; I cheer for a President and a Congress wise enough to nudge our national policies along to a point where they are more closely aligned with our values.

And I pray for the day when my grandchildren’s grandchildren will look back on all this and see it for the barbarity that it is, and feel relief to have escaped our self-destructive foolishness.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

The loss of strangers – Veterans Day, 2010

Two humbling facts crept into my consciousness this morning. The first came as I listened to NPR and heard the reading of a fallen US soldier’s letter — I assumed, from the lyrical tone, that the letter-writer was from an earlier age. I assumed he had been killed in the Second World War. Upon learning that Second Lieutenant Leonard Cowherd, 22, had been killed in Iraq in 2004, I realized with a shock: I don’t think of these wars, our wars, at all when I consider Veterans Day.

I think of those wars that were long ago, those wars that meant “veterans” when I was a girl, up to Vietnam — not these wars, these wars that are churning out veterans and casualties on a daily basis, and have been for more than nine years.

The second fact (which is no doubt to blame, at least in part, for the first) is that I don’t know a single American soldier.

My country is fighting two wars, in which more than 5,700 Americans have been killed, from among the tens of thousands of young men and women we have sent into the cauldron, and I don’t know a one. There is something fundamentally wrong with that.

There is something fundamentally wrong with a social structure that is predicated on the fact that some go to war, and some never go near it. It is altogether too easy for me to forget about these wars, about our generation’s veterans, when my entire life is spent so far from anyone who pays the price. I don’t blame myself for the structure of society and the result it’s had in my life, but now that I’ve noticed it, I wonder if I might need to find a way to bridge the gap.

When America reached the milestone 4,000th death in 2008, I wrote something from my heart about Illinois’s fallen and submitted it to the Chicago Tribune. I was pleased and proud that it ran, but very disappointed that they had to cut it down considerably. I wanted to pay tribute, and I felt that the requirements of space meant that tribute wasn’t adequately paid.

As such, in honor of the fallen from my home state, I’ve decided to run the piece today as I originally wrote it.

May their memories be for a blessing.

The loss of strangers

As of this writing, 141 servicemen and women from Illinois are confirmed to have died in the course of the Iraq War.

They came from big cities, mall-strewn suburbs, and places I’ve never heard of: Patoka, Gays, Blandinsville, Mahomet. More than 90 of Illinois’s casualties were 25 or younger when they died; thirteen were still teenagers. They were all, every last one of them, strangers to me, but they died in my name.

I don’t know how to truly honor them, any of these people who died so far from home, not the ones from Illinois, nor the 3,859 others. So I find pictures online and look at their faces, at least a few, and try to register the facts. Try to give them that, at least.

I’m pulled in by certain names, the occasional goofy grin, people who seem, somehow, familiar. Navy Petty Officer Regina Clark, 43 when she was killed, originally from Colona, mother of a teenage son; Sean Maher, a Marine from Grayslake, not much older than Clark’s son when he died at 19, two days before he was supposed to go home.

John Olson, 21, from Elk Grove Village, looks as if he’s trying on his father’s hat; Christopher Sisson, 20, might have once hung out at the North Riverside Mall. Illinois’ first casualty, Ryan Anthony Beaupre, was killed on the third day of the war. In his picture, the 30 year old Marine smiles as if on vacation.

Uday Singh. Twenty-one when he died, an Indian national. He enlisted while living with an aunt in Lake Forest, shared a name with one of Saddam Hussein’s despicable sons, and became a US citizen only upon death. Singh was the first Sikh to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and one of his last emails home read: “You guys have fun while I go save the whole world. P.S. Pray for me.”

Pray for me.

I  pray for him and for all the fallen soldiers, for all the living soldiers, for the families, for all of us in this country, for the Iraqis who also mourn their children. I have always opposed this war, but whatever I may think of the people who sent our men and women into Iraq’s unbearable heat, I know that those who went, did so for me. For me and my children, from a belief that it is right to offer your body as a sacrifice for the country you call home – even if it has not yet given you a passport.

I know that for many soldiers, the military offers an escape; for some, it’s the only way to make a living; others are answering family expectations, or social pressure. Many oppose the war; many support it whole-heartedly. Some do bad things; most, I suspect, just try to get through their days in one piece, with one heart.

But in death, I cannot sort them from each other. I cannot call this one my brother, that one my foe; the war they fought has in some way sanctified them, brought them to a place I cannot reach. I can only look into their faces and thank them, look into eyes that can no longer look back, and ask forgiveness.

 

Source: Arlington National Cemetery Website http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/