The names of the American dead in the Iraq war are now the latest football in the political struggle for the hearts and minds of America. Cindy Sheehan was the first to stand up and ask publicly and loudly why her son died and why other sons and daughters will also die. Sheehan asks what America and the world get in return for these sacrifices. Her vigil and the questions she asked have tapped the frustration of all who question this war. At last, it seems that this country is beginning to realize the folly of our military adventure in Iraq. We remember the dead and ask “Why?” And no good answers come from the administration, only talking points and misinformation regurgitated over and over. That and slanderous ad-hominem attacks on anyone who dares question BushCheney.
The dead are a powerful presence. BushCheney knows this, which is why he prohibited photographs of the coffins returning from Iraq. Now the supporters of the war come out and demand that anti-war activists not use the names of “their” dead, whom they fully believe died to protect America. One even carries a picture of Sheehan’s son, claiming that her actions have dishonored and betrayed
his sacrifice. Their answer to Cindy Sheehan is that more Americans (and Iraqis as well) must die in order validate the service of their dead loved ones. When pressed for some idea of what they expect from that service, given the nightmare that Iraq has become under American occupation, all they can do is offer platitudes about freedom, democracy and human rights, even in the face of events that offer virtually no hope of achieving those results.
BushCheney and his dangerously optimistic supporters have every reason to fear the dead. These are the soldiers and the families to whom he and his administration must ultimately answer. The lack of a good answer will forever haunt the perpetrators and supporters of the Iraq war. They are the testament this administration’s pride and arrogance. America has seen this before, in Vietnam. Whatever objectives this nation had for siding with French colonialisn in Indochina and supporting a the neo-colonialist regime in the south after the French defeat (and, in my opinion, those reasons were spurious from the get-go), they soon morphed into the nebulous justifications of national honor, saving face and honoring the dead. In 1968 Richard Nixon narrowly won election claiming to have a secret plan to end the war. Hubert Humphrey and the Democrats had so little credibility on Vietnam that America was willing to trust Richard Nixon!
Two years later I participated in my first combat assault in Vietnam. Nixon’s plan apparently involved sending me and many others to a war that supposed to end. Imagine how pissed off I was; in harm’s way for no good reason. My sacrifices and possible death were simply a cover for politicians who were more concerned with saving face than recognizing the unpleasant reality of Vietnamese nationalism and determination (sound familiar?). More than death (which prospect terrified me), I feared being one of the Vietnam dead whose sacrifice could only be honored by continuing the killing. I wanted to leave instructions for my funeral: no flag, no military, a letter screaming out my rage and betrayal. (I never did, though. I couldn’t look my death quite so explicitly). Fortunately I did not die. But I did serve, although neither my country or Vietnam benefitted from my sacrifice. I got a masters degree on the GI Bill and qualify for VA health care but I returned to face with 30 plus years of guilt, shame and anger at surrendering my humanity to such a spurious cause. I at least survived, to remember.
Understanding the motives and feelings of America’s dead in Iraq is difficult for anyone other than their closest relatives. Even then, the understanding may be clouded by sentiment or the soldiers’ unwillingness to share uncertainty and fear with their loved ones. Cindy Sheehan has every right to ask BushCheney for a real explanation for the sacrifice of her son. The counter protesters do not. They did not know her son or what he believed. At the same time, we in the anti-war movement cannot speak for any of the dead whom we do not know.
What I do know is that these men and women served their nation honorably, that we owe them the respect their sacrifice deserves. BushCheney wants the dead to be invisible; even more so now that his incompetence is becoming all too apparent. That is not the soldiers’ fault. They served when called. BushCheney wasted their sacrifice.
BushCheney is afraid of the dead. They silently testify to his folly. This administration can hide the photographs of returning coffins and offer platitudes and ever changing rationales for their actions but it cannot erase our memory. Simply invoking the names of the dead is to question why they were called. And BushCheney has no answer.