The Dead

[Professor Gilbert granted us permission to reprint this somber reflection. We are also grateful to him for being an early signer of our letter to President Obama. Peace to all on this most difficult of days, Angela, CHA.]

by Alan Gilbert

Under Bush, dead American soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq were flown secretly to the US. There was no public act of mourning, no attention to coffins.

But as I was flying to Chicago for a connecting flight to Richmond this week, the pilot came on the air to announce that two soldiers, an honor guard, were seated in row 14. Could they be allowed to get off first, he asked, to honor them and their fallen comrade?

As the flight landed, the captain repeated the announcement. The two soldiers stood up and many people applauded. I did not, nor did the black officer who was sitting next to me. I said: “I don’t know about applause. Seems like silence and prayer would be more fitting.”

I was in a window seat. I and he took turns looking out, he sometimes turning away (hard to look too long at one who paid such a price; not everyone is killed or wounded among soldiers, but it is people one knows, never far…). Six soldiers, two black, four white, marched up to the ramp where the flag-draped coffin was brought out, lowered to the ground. They stood three by three, and then a black officer turned to face the ramp, receive the coffin.

The army, below sergeant, is the one, genuinely integrated institution in American society. Wednesday morning, in a class at Metro, Armando, an army vet, said to me firmly: “you’ll be at the Occupy Denver march this Saturday.” I said no, I am going to a black history conference in Richmond this weekend. He then told me about being one of the two hundred people who had marched on Broadway this past Saturday, and how good it felt.

Among the demands floating from this Occupy Wall Street movement is the demand to withdraw troops at last after 10 years from Afghanistan. A march in Washington will raise this shortly. Wednesday evening, 10,000 workers from many unions and college students marched on Wall Street, demonstrating their solidarity with the growing movement.

The honor guard received the dead soldier. He will be buried with honors. In America, now, perhaps private air lines can share the dead briefly with ordinary citizens. Perhaps we can think, now in the Obama era, of why we should withdraw, why there should be no more dead on far away foreign soil, having not the vaguest idea of why they were in Kandahar nor any hope of doing damage to Al-Qaida (that was done by the seals taking out Bin Laden in Pakistan, but not by invading armies, let alone drones which take a tremendous civilian toll, are morally vile, politically breed new enemies and are counterproductive).

The soldier and I spoke briefly of the war. Someone behind us said: it’s cheaper to send the honor guard and the corpse by private airlines…

The human effects of American militarism are amongst us. There was no comment on the war (United Airlines is a business, and the war complex, like Wall Street, does not want to hear from the citizens). But Chris Tranchetti, a naval officer and my student who has written a master’s thesis on Socrates and Jesus, sent me the following story from the Atlantic of an officer shot through the throat who miraculously survived, his caregiver and others who suffer like him.


The link below describes some of the human cost expended during our 10-year war of choice. See here.

I continue to pray for my brothers in arms and that these wars will end soon.


PTSD and crippled limbs haunt those who were flown out of Afghanistan and Iraq, who would, in other wars, have been killed, but have been pulled back from the dead. And their movements and suffering haunt we civilians who encounter them…

This is no official mourning, no Periclean Funeral Oration or Lincoln at Gettysburg. See here, here and here. But it is the arrival, in our midst, of the dead accompanied by a promise of integration – Dr. King’s dream as edited, ignoring the rest of the speech, by the corporate media (h/t Bob Harris) – in grief and mainly among soldiers.

The images linger. American militarism and finance have brought the country – the 99% – to its knees. Occupy Wall Street is standing up. But the still voices of the dead, those whose lives have been wasted or transformed through crippling with aggressive war, the homeless who now haunt and will haunt our streets for fifty years – they were all there in the quiet, slow movement of the coffin.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, American Military Culture, Death, George Bush, Iraq. Bookmark the permalink.

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