They were going to look at war,
War, the blood-swollen god.
There is no more sobering fact about war than men (and women) will die; more often than not they will be young; sometimes it would seem they are mere children. Men and women who are eighteen are in this precarious place teetering between adolescence and adulthood. Just as they have risen above MTV, video games, and hanging at the mall, just as they have secured the right to the keys to the car, a chance to go to college and be away from home, a chance at living a life leading to the adult world, someone is shoving a gun into their hands, dropping them on foreign soil, and asking them to kill people in their own age group who are wearing different uniforms and speaking other languages. This strikes me as something rather preposterous. No matter, it has been thrust upon countless numbers of our young Americans for generations now, and it seems as always it is something we must expect to continue.
In the great old television series M*A*S*H, we got a glimpse every week of what war does to our kids. It is oddly salient that what was ostensibly a comedy taught a whole generation, myself included, about how horrific war could be. The impact of war results in losses, many losses, much more than even the best doctors can bear. Blood is spilled, sometimes copiously, and who can forget Hawkeye, Trapper, and the rest of the surgeons leaving the OR and cleaning up, spattered with blood like clumsy butchers, but truthfully just overwhelmed by casualties and their own human frailty.
I’ll never forget an early episode that I think is a microcosm for the entire series set in a Korean mobile army hospital. Hawkeye, usually played with irascible good cheer by Alan Alda, has lost a patient and is feeling down and out until Colonel Blake (the under-appreciated McLean Stevenson) sets him straight about war and their place in it. He says that Rule Number One is that young men get wounded and die in war. Rule Number Two is that doctors can do nothing about Rule Number One. This sets Hawkeye straight and he can return to the operating table, knowing that his actions are but bandages pressed down on gushers of blood, but he is determined to forge ahead with the bandages.
At this point, I think it is essential to look at some numbers about those who spilled that blood. Statistics are always helpful in formulating a basis for comparison. If we look at the number of Americans we have lost in wars since 1900, they are astonishingly and overwhelmingly a call for recognition. We may hear vague words about “Support our troops,” but a look at these numbers is reason enough to go out and do something meaningful for the men and women who are in service to this country, no matter how we feel about politics and the president and anyone else. And we shouldn’t forget those who served in the past. Look at that old man in a wheelchair who stormed the beaches at Normandy, or the fellow with one leg who survived the Korean cold, or another who came back from Vietnam, or the first Gulf War, and, if nothing else, say “Thank You.”
The following numbers reflect only American casualties.
CONFLICT NUMBER KILLED NUMBER WOUNDED MISSING IN ACTION
World War I
(1914-1918) 116,708 204, 002
World War II
(1939-1945) 407,316 671,846 78,000
(1950-1953) 36,916 103,284 8,117
(1961-1975) 58,193 153,363 1,833
Persian Gulf War
(1991) 299 467
(2001-present) 214* 479*
(2003-present) 1,954* 13,100*
*these numbers are approximate
-statistics obtained from NY Newsday
As we worry about the ravages of war abroad, Americans here in New York and elsewhere are facing the grim reality of a war at home. This is what people call a new kind of war. In World War One, the popular song “Over There” described a conflict that, while overwhelming and destructive, took place someplace else far away. While we were attacked at Pearl Harbor prior to our entry into World War Two, this was not the mainland United States and seemed “over there” for most people. Subsequent wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf were also far and away, though the magic of television brought each of these wars to us intimately, marking a dramatic change in perspective, especially for young people.
Unfortunately, this current war, whether we consider it as just the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the more expansive conflict of a War on Terror, seems precipitously close to home. We should have all been made aware of that on February 26, 1993, when the first attack at the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan took place. It surprises me even to this day that not more was made or done about that moment. It should have been a real slap in the face, a stark reminder that we were no longer safe at home. None of us! But that cold and snowy winter’s day seemed to be forgotten rather quickly until a beautiful late summer day on 9/11/2001 when the delusions of “over there” were irrevocably lost.
Whatever one’s feelings are about the current war, the concern (for me anyway) comes back to lives lost. People die in wars and, just like old Colonel Blake said, there’s nothing much doctors or any of us can do about it. Yes, we can aspire to be like a Cindy Sheehan and hope to have an impact, but in the end the boots are on the ground over there and we have to wonder when we might feel the wrath of our far away enemies over here. War is always repugnant and this one, seemingly dragging on interminably, will be affecting us for a long time to come.
I will end on a personal note. The other day I took my four year old daughter to the local mall to look for a Halloween costume. A middle aged black woman came walking toward us, and she was wearing a shirt that read: My Son is in the United States Navy. I don’t know what came over me, but I stopped her and said, “Miss, I just want to thank you for what you’re son is doing.” As I shook her hand, she didn’t cry but looked down at my daughter, forcing a smiled marked by fragility and tenderness. She patted my arm and nodded but did not speak and went on her way. We went into the store and my daughter picked out her costume and danced all the way back to the car.
On the way home I turned on the car radio and first heard the news of a possible plot to bomb our New York City subways. The “war” obviously continues.
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