Grandmère Mimi has been writing eloquently of the ongoing tragedy of the war in Iraq and the despair many share about how to end it. Memorial Day at The Wounded Bird brought memories of the quiet horror I experience each time I visit Gettysburg, especially in late May, in full sunshine, overcome with the smell of sweet grass, the sounds of chirping birds and insects, and the knowledge of all that transpired there. No matter how much joy and peace bless our everyday lives, we cannot forget, we can never forget, that the horrors of war are with us this day and every day, not just in sweet-smelling fields and in times long past.
But remembering isn’t the same as doing. It’s no wonder that Cindy Sheehan is weary of all the promises and flurry of activity among Democrats and others about ending our involvement in Iraq. As the casualties continue to mount daily, we keep hearing that if we want to Support The Troops, we must remain silent.
The "support the troops" line has worried me from the very beginning of the Iraq War, with the proliferation of car magnets, ribbons, and bumper stickers. It has always been, now and during Viet Nam, a paper banner meant to cover and dispose of any questions about the way a war is being waged and its purposes.
Yes, I understand full well the sensitivity about the need for respect for those who serve, the wounded and dead, and those who mourn for losses, living and dead. During all but the very end of the Viet Nam war, I was living in my hometown, a blue collar community where friends, neighbors, and acquaintances were hit hard by casualties, since few had college deferments or means to escape the draft and many chose to volunteer. Our city was also in the shadow of one of the nation's largest naval training centers, which meant many new recruits circulated in the community (us teenaged girls warned to stay away, though many were well-mannered, thoughtful young men) and some of my school classmates had one or both parents employed as civilians working for the military. The discussions we had throughout high school about the war were necessarily tempered by the knowledge that those around us had been personally affected.
Yet, when I ventured elsewhere among the suburban elite (summer school one year and another a National Science Foundation summer program at a Chicago museum), I discovered that young, angry war protesters, while maybe too polite to spit or heckle at returning soldiers, just didn't "get" that the soldiers were not the ones responsible for the war or the way it was being waged. Later in college in the hometown of Senator Joe McCarthy, I knew some students who would go into town to get coffee at a diner for the sole purpose of making fun of the "rednecks" who frequented it. In those days, anti-war sentiment was all too often tinged with moral smugness and disregard for those who lived and died by their own notions of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice.
While there has been some controversy in recent years as to whether the climate in our country during the Viet Nam war years was as hostile to servicemen as our popular culture later remembered it (see The Spitting Image), no doubt much of it was real. But instead of really learning from the divisions that tore us apart in the 1960’s and 1970’s and the folly of the imperialistic enterprise that caused them, all we seem to have gleaned from it is some hazy collective guilt that got put into the easy container of the “Support the Troops” slogan. Instead of keeping our minds fresh with the knowledge of the dignity and worth of each person who serves in the military, it seems to have worked only to have given us mass amnesia about how swaggering national pride can lead us to needless, wasteful death and destruction.
How tragic it will be if, like Viet Nam, the U.S. involvement in the Iraq war will only end when the number of our casualties reaches a number so high that the public cannot take it anymore and will finally find, somewhere, somehow, a political figure who will talk tough, claim victory, and order an “honorable” troop withdrawal, long, long after everyone knew that reasons for the war were a sham and that our efforts to restore peace and order were worse than futile. But how many more will have to die first while we protect our pride and our slogans?