Friday, November 15, 2013

I Once Was a History Major

Musings on War

Frieze of Infantry Men above the Pension Building Portal
     I once was a history major which may surprise some of you.  I think what interested me were the stories.  I grew up visiting the sites of Williamsburg and Jamestown.  My Grandfather fought in the Civil War and my Dad fought in WWII.  Two years ago I visited the National Building Museum in Washington D.C.  It is America's leading cultural institution devoted to the history and impact of the built environment.  I was delighted to find that this museum was the original Pension Building constructed during the 1880's post Civil War.  Paperwork with the names of many of my family members was shuffled about in this quite elegant building when it functioned as the Pension Bureau.

Hall of the Former Pension Building
     Not one human individual has had family untouched by war.  The men in my family fought as Vikings, fought for Welsh kings, drummed in the French and American War, drove wagons in the civil war, brought home a sword for booty from the Spanish American War, drove trains in France in the WWI, served in the Air Force in London during WWII and in the National Guard in recent wars.  I don’t know what the women were doing.  I wasn’t wise enough as a child or a teenager to ask more questions of my Dad.  I think part of my searching for more stories of my family is the reason for my interest in history and therefore in war.

    Yesterday I went to a quite amazing talk about the Iraq War given by an Iraqi journalist, Haider Hamza. He came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship and will be continuing on as a Rhodes scholar.  He is studying Global Security and Conflict Resolution.  For two hours he showed photos that he took during the time he was a journalist embedded with the United States forces.  With each visceral slide he managed to convey the viewpoint of this soldier, that mother, or of this prisoner.  A child of ten, who was registering as an insurgent on the morning after his father had been killed by United States forces, was given the same compassion as the newly-trained American soldiers, who just killed innocent civilians.  The common thread in every photo was that people make horrendous choices, while they try to hold to some ethical sanity. Haider tried to convince the child that his future would be more worthwhile if he used his articulate skills to better the world.  The child could only hold to that he was now the man of the family and needed to uphold the honor of his father.  The soldiers had just lost two of their unit and suffered from grief.  The soldiers didn't know the language to get the information that they needed and didn't know anyone even to ask.  They weren't at home, didn't know the territory.  They were carried away by their emotion of loss.  War comprises small impossible situations, decisions and actions like these, one after another.

     After the nightly twelve-hour curfew Haider said that he would begin is day daily at the morgue.  He would search the corpses for any information about who they were and how they were killed.  He sometimes recognized friends or acquaintances having grown up in Baghdad.  The United States military does not keep track of civilian deaths.  Now here is the conundrum on the larger scale.  John Tirman in his book, "The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in American Wars" has researched statistics on civilian deaths.  Here is a quote from the description of his work.

    "Americans are greatly concerned about the number of our troops killed in battle--100,000 dead in World War I; 300,000 in World War II; 33,000 in the Korean War; 58,000 in Vietnam; 4,500 in Iraq; over 1,000 in Afghanistan--and rightly so. But why are we so indifferent, often oblivious, to the far greater number of casualties suffered by those we fight and those we fight for? 

    This is the compelling, largely unasked question John Tirman answers in The Deaths of Others. Between six and seven million people died in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq alone, the majority of them civilians."

    Six or seven million and those figures don't count drone strike deaths!  Tirman suggests that while Americans may be indifferent to these figures, others in the world are not.  Civilian deaths help drive recruitment for insurgent groups.  But is the military indifferent?  I would contend that they are not.  They are caught in a bigger ethical issue just like those soldiers on the ground.  When I attended John Tirman's talk in a small and elegant board room at Georgetown University two years ago, I was the only attendant out of about seventeen individuals who could claim to be just a civilian.  The State Department, Army, Air Force, and Marines all from upper levels of administration were in attendance.  This doesn't indicate indifference to civilian deaths.

      Somewhere between Haider studying Conflict Resolution and the military trying to figure out how to do their job and minimize civilian damage, there is an intention afloat.  When I asked at Tirman's talk about what the military does about civilian injuries, the response from a few of the military present was quick and sincere.  "We are mandated to give medical care to civilians."  When I asked this question the military personnel in the room visibly leaned forward and brightened.  Here was a little window onto their intention to act compassionately were it possible

     As you can see, traveling means taking advantage of lectures.  November with Veteran's Day in the middle happens to be a month of lectures and events of military interest.   
Ranger Salute at the Washington WWII Memorial
     This week I also attended a lecture on the Buffalo Soldiers.  These are the African American military units renowned for being the most decorated units in the US.  To end this post on a lighter note, here is a fact that I didn't know before.  See that Park Ranger in the lower left hand corner of this photo?  You recognize him by the hat, right?  The Buffalo soldiers were the first to wear this style of hat.  President Roosevelt assigned the Buffalo units the task of protecting the redwood forests.  They were the first guardians of our forests, now honored by the use of the hat style by Park Service employees.

    This showing of the flags was a part of the Veteran's Day honor ceremony at the WWII Memorial in 2012 (when it wasn't closed by sequestration).

Peace will come.  One intention at a time.

1 comment:

  1. What lovely thoughtful and insightful offerings! I'll enjoy travels with Kathy and Lizzy (currently snoozing quietly on the couch) after a busy morning out.


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