Flipping the pages of a newspaper I ran across an AP dispatch buried in the back pages. In it, a grief-stricken father in Florida just informed that his 20-year-old marine son had been killed in Iraq, angrily tried to ignite the van carrying the marines sent to tell him the news, and in the process burning him severely. "My husband did not take the news well," his wife said. And a few days later another story about a mother in New York state mourning the death of her soldier son and filled with anger. "I don’t think it’s fair that so many mothers and fathers, siblings have to go through what I’m going through. Is it about oil? I don’t know what this war is for. We don’t want anyone else to die in this useless, stupid war."
It’s too much to bear.
I used to commute to work by rail with a neighbor who lived down the road. He had been an Air Force Captain during the Vietnam War and one of his jobs was to visit families and tell them a family member had died in the war. Tell me more, I pleaded. I’m sorry I told you that, he said apologetically. It was hard. He did tell me that he’d never allow his sons to join the military.
Some memories: My boyhood pal Porky never returned from the Korean War. The laconic and pleasant Trinchintella boy, who helped around his father’s neighborhood gas station and was trained for Vietnam as a helicopter gunner, was grievously wounded and died in a military hospital in Japan, his parents at his side. My former student Ronald Boston, shy, unathletic, African American, a kid who tried so hard to get good grades. His mother tended my mother in a nursing home and told me one day she had a dream in which Ronald was killed in Vietnam. Poor Mrs. Boston. Poor Ronald. He never did make it home except in a casket. In an earlier "good war," Irving Starr, whose family owned the Deli next door, was killed during a raid over Ploesti oil fields. His body was never found. Phil Drazin who used to play ball with us younger kids. When his father learned the news he raced out of his store and ran screaming into Strauss Street. I wish I remembered the name of an 18-year-old who lived in an adjoining apartment. 0ne summer afternoon his father walked from work toward the bench outside the building in which he lived and began sobbing. My mother, who was very good about such things, embraced him as he cried for his only son.
I have never forgotten any of them. I visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and New York City. I devour books by Paul Fussell, Samuel Hynes, W.Y. Boyd, E.B. Sledge, all of whom lived as soldiers or marines through the carnage of war and memorized Donald Hall’s poem "1943" ("They toughened us for war…Dom died in the third wave at Tarawa…"). During the Vietnam War, I interviewed several hundred combat veterans for a book I wrote about three hawkish soldiers who believed they were fighting for freedom, four doves that spoke of atrocities and smashed ideals, and three I thought of as "haunted," perhaps forever. I wrote, "Never before in American history have as many loyal and brave young men been as shabbily treated by the government that sent them to war."
These days I scan the lists of killed GIs in the New York Times, many of whom, now nearing a thousand, are rarely mentioned in conservative or liberal mass media. Perhaps they really don’t care enough to even print their names.
But mainly I think of them because the same people who sent them to war in Iraq and are now subtly promoting yet another war, this time against Iran. "Forget an 0ctober Surprise, a much worse one could come in September," wrote the experienced foreign correspondent Martin Sieff in the Washington Times. "Full-scale war between the U.S. and Iran may be far closer than the [distracted] American public might imagine. Iranian defense Minister Ali Shamkhani’s recent bombshell threatened to retaliate should the U.S. or its Israeli partner target nuclear facilities. "Believe him," said Sieff, ominously.
September or not, and given the fact that U.S. troops are currently tied down in Iraq and more than 130 other places around the world, it’s still "a serious confrontation," said Iran expert Cliff Kupchan of the Nixon Center. And who is promoting the notion of another preemptive attack and if need be wasting yet another generation of American men and women in war? None other than our neocons, who always remind me of Charles Edward Montague’s delicious put down of British hawks in World War I when 8 million soldiers were killed and millions of others perished in an entirely unnecessary war. "War," said Montague, "hath no fury like a non-combatant." Don’t hold your breath waiting for news that members of the clan will be sending their kids to recruiting stations.
Leading the charge on the government side is Under Secretary of State John Bolton, their point man and ultra hawk in Colin Powell’s reticent and pusillanimous State Department. Bolton recently told his fellow true believers at the Hudson Institute that Iran has hidden a vast nuclear arms program for nearly two decades. "We cannot let Iran, a leading sponsor of international terrorism, acquire nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to Europe, most of Central Asia and the Middle East, or beyond" — meaning New York, Washington and Los Angeles, I imagine. The same bellicose talk has emanated from Condaleeza Rice and the usual hard line pundits, the identical people who brought us the daily casualty lists but whose caskets we are not allowed to photograph or see. They can’t come right out before the election and admit Iran is next on their imperial agenda, but it’s very much on their minds.
Here’s a nightmarish scenario: U.S. and Israelis bomb Iran, its nuclear facilities and even more (or vice versa) and Iran counterattacks against Israel’s Dimona nuclear facilities and maybe Israel proper. A draft is reinstated to provide hundreds of thousands of additional cannon fodder to fight 70 million non-Arab Iranians who in the 1980s absorbed 500,000 deaths in a savage war against Sadam’s Iraq. More Middle Eastern terrorists are created and American college campuses erupt in fury. Sixties redux, only worse.
But possibly this is just a replay of the hoary Dulles-Nixon "madman" theory to keep adversaries guessing. Or maybe there will be secret talks aimed at settling the problem? Or that Washington’s neocons have learned a painful lesson after Iraq and rue all those American and Iraqi deaths, not to mention the badly wounded. Frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Prowar imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling changed their tunes once their sons died in World War I. Kipling could only assuage his grief and guilt in his shattering couplet:
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Murray Polner, [send him mail] a onetime draftee, wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and edited When Can I Come Home? about exiles, deserters and antiwar prisoners during the Vietnam era. He is the book review editor for Historynewsnetwork.org.