Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

THE WAR -- The Human Costs


“… And the appearance of the wounded, bereft of arms, of legs, eyes put out, flesh wounds in the face and body, and uniforms crimsoned with blood, proclaimed with equal force the savage horrors of human battling with weapons of war.”

This is how a New York World correspondent described the grim scene of July 21, 1861, as bloodied troops of the Union army struggled into Washington after the battle of Bull Run. Sometimes called the first battle of the first modern war, the horrors of the Civil War were sketched, photographed and written about in the truth of gruesome detail from the bombardment of Fort Sumter to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox courthouse.

Assaying the death and carnage of this massive blood-letting, historian Drew Gilpin Faust writes: “Soldiers struggled for the words to describe mangled corpses strewn across battlefields; families contemplated the significance of newspaper lists of wounds: “slightly, in the shoulder,” “severely, in the groin,” “mortally, in the breast.” … For the first time civilians directly confronted the reality of battlefield death rendered by the new art of photography. They found themselves transfixed by the paradoxically lifelike renderings of the slain of Antietam that Mathew Brady exhibited in his studio on Broadway.”

The public of Lincoln’s day could not have found refuge from the “patriotic gore” of the war had they wanted to do so. How things have changed.

As we know by now, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being reported in ways that shade civilians from the heat of death and human suffering taking place in those violent worlds. The Iraq and Afghanistan nightmare toll rolls on in the far distance. We are familiar with roadside bombs and suicide bombers, but the death and destruction of lives and bodies, the work of war, all takes place in lands filled with place names we have quit trying to pronounce. And the dead and the wounded for life barely register on our consciousness, not quite visible, not quite real.

After accepting five-and one-half years of wars churning toward ever-changing objectives, we’ve become comfortable with our can’t see, don’t see, won’t see sensibility. Few at home clamor for wider, deeper, more detailed coverage and analysis of these ongoing wars. No one asks to see the images of the bloodbath we created. Only the exceptionally persistent and courageous search out and are willing to gaze at bodies blown to pieces by IEDs along roadways and human bombs delivered to market place crowds.

Over four thousand American troops have died in Iraq; last week the five-hundredth death was marked in Afghanistan. The military issues the names of the dead, their age, rank, unit and hometown. This spare accounting arrives on most days of our busy weeks, day in and day out.

In the early years of the wars, our dead heroes returned home in the cargo holds of commercial flights. Travelers on holiday and frequent flyers on important business trips might glance out the windows of planes and see a flag draped coffin preceding their suitcase up the luggage ramp into the space beneath where they were seated. Did this require them to think about what they were seeing? The military now uses private chartered jets.

The wounded come home in far greater numbers. They have sacrificed much and arrive unannounced. They are ignored as they depart from hospitals and rehab centers to take up the difficult strands left of their lives. The stories of the medical conditions, red tape encountered in their searches for help and lonely depression they face only occasionally break through the surface of non-stop news on Brett Favre, “American Idol,” whatever.

If we should decide to search out the price being paid by the heroes of these wars, the flesh, bone, blood and breath of their sacrifices, where would we look? Because most of us will be lucky enough to not lose a close loved one in these wars, and only a few will ever attend and support a grieving family who has suffered such a loss, I recommend the reading of Jim Sheeler’s magnificent book, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives.

Sheeler wipes away the anonymity of those who made the ultimate sacrifice; he documents the courage of families left behind; he honors Marine Major Steve Beck who takes on the crushing, necessary task of notification and support of the families of the fallen. Major Beck is a hero who honors heroes. He works with a dedication that is deserving of medals and promotions not yet imagined by the military brass sitting behind polished desks.

Read this book to better understand the total and final loss exacted by these wars.

On the wounding of these brave women and men, there is now a book that should be in all libraries, public offices, and especially in the hands of every politician holding or running for office. Television newscasts should open and close with a shot, presented without comment, of a photo from this book. Newspapers need to regularly run excerpts and photos from this book.

War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003-2007 was written and designed to teach surgeons going into these war zones what they will see, what to expect, and what practices are effective. This book has been praised by the military medical establishment. This book has saved lives.

Before War Surgery was published (order from U.S. Government Printing Office), attempts were made to censor it and keep it from being made available to the public. Along with flag-draped coffins, our war government does not want American citizens to see the horrors of war.

War Surgery is filled with photos of the human damage coming from the wars we are a part of — burns, bleeding, limbs shredded, amputations, an unexploded rocket embedded in a soldier’s hip. This is not video game pixel violence or summer movie special effects and stunt man make believe.

Dr. David E. Lounsbury, a retired Colonel and 1991 and 2003 Iraq vet and one of the three authors of War Surgery had this to say about the attempts to censor and restrict this book: “I’m ashamed to say that there were folks even in the medical department who said, Over my dead body will American civilians see this.”

The Civil War journalist quoted above offered this observation and prediction: “Most horrible were the sights presented to view, and never to be forgotten by those who witnessed them.”

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drone on: What have we seen? What will we remember?
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This piece was first published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, August 17, 2008.

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