by Joe Scarry
Every year at this time — as the “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” approaches — I think about a letter that my grandfather received when he was serving in France during WWI.
The letter to “Granddaddy” Melker was from the pastor of his church in the anthracite coal mining town of Eastern Pennsylvania that he came from. In page after page of small talk, the pastor apologizes for failing to write for so long and then builds up to the point of the letter. “A terrible disease has struck the area . . . people call it the “flu” . . . many in our own community have fallen to it . . . including someone very dear to you, someone in your own family . . . I’m talking about your sister, Margaret.”
I am struck to the core every time I read those words. I don’t want to imagine what it is like to be in the midst of the carnage of war and then be blindsided by the kind of pain enclosed in that letter, to boot. For me, Martin’s experience reading that letter in France stands for the experience of every veteran.
Often it takes something very local, very specific, for any one of us to grasp the pain brought about by our society-wide, even global, injustices. For me, the words in that letter epitomize all the pain that we, as a society, allow our young men — and now, women — to suffer when we induce them to go be our soldiers.
Can we translate the personal into the communal? Can our wish that things could be different for one person find expression in social action?
One way to do this is simply to be honest about the true costs of war, including the long term health consequences for people who serve in the military, and the corresponding long-term costs that our society must commit to bear. (And I am reserving for another time the discussion of the long term health consequences for people who serve are on the receiving end of U.S. war and occupation, and the corresponding long-term costs that our society must commit to bear as a result of that.)
How long-term? “Studies show that the peak years for government health care and disability compensation costs for veterans from past wars came 30 to 40 years after those wars ended. For Vietnam, that peak has not been reached.” (See “Cost of Treating Veterans Will Rise Long Past Wars”)
Here’s a modest proposal: instead of talking about the economic stimulus created by military spending in our congressional districts, and all the “good jobs” that high-tech military production creates, let’s start a responsible accounting of the money that we promise to spend caring for and healing the veterans we’ve already caused to be injured. Let’s draw a line in the sand and be honest about the debt we are already obligated to repay. And then do the hard work to assure that the money is there to pay those costs.
We are a country that has a hard time imagining the anguish and suffering that we cause as a result of our addiction to the use of force and war. Maybe the best place to start is to get real about the financial consequences.
Consider the moment in the film All Quiet On the Western Front when the young soldier returns to visit his old high school. The soldier visits the class of the teacher who had goaded him and many of his classmates to enlist in the first place. Encouraged by his teacher to tell about the “glories” of being a soldier, he delivers a damning verdict . . . .
The recurring theme of the The Hurt Locker is “We’re done here.” The tension of each encounter with a bomb is followed by the moment when the hero successfully defuses the bomb, and then announces “We’re done here.” The deeper theme of the movie is psychological: the solder is addicted to the excitement. He is unable to go on with a normal life. He keeps going back, again and again, to Iraq, to defuse more bombs. (HE is NEVER “done”.)
Today, ALL Americans have been made part of the “kill chain” by high-tech, hyper-modern killing with drones. It’s time for us to see that this new type of killing has put ALL of us behind the trigger. The bad news is drones have made all of us more implicated and culpable than ever. But the good news is that the drones also offer up clear pathway to putting a stop to the immoral, dishonorable, unlawful killing.