As I write, it's February of 2003, and the United States is preparing for a short, decisive battle in Iraq. But in February of 1945, the United States was preparing for another short, decisive battle. It was to take place on a small island in the South Pacific called Iwo Jima. Iwo was a critical step in our nation's wartime advance toward Japan--a nation which at the time had brutalized its own people, its neighbors, and our own territory of Pearl Harbor. Though the island was small, it was heavily fortified by the Japanese, who knew well in advance that its control was a strategic necessity for the Allies.
Nevertheless, some in the U.S. predicted a short battle--lasting from 72 hours to four days--to secure the territory. Others predicted heavy U.S. casualties--an estimated 15,000 service people--and were ridiculed. They were wrong on both counts. Iwo Jima took 26 days to secure. And there were 25,851 Marine casualties in that battle, only one battle out of the countless battles of World War II. Those are the recollections of William Manchester, in "Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War," published in 1979. Manchester was himself a Marine who saw combat on Guadalcanal and Okinawa.
Rather than being a walk in the park, Manchester writes, "The deaths on Iwo were extraordinarily violent. There seemed to be no clean wounds, only fragments of corpses. It reminded one battalion medical officer of a Bellvue dissecting room. You tripped over strings of viscera fifteen feet long, over bodies which had been cut in half at the waist. Legs and arms, and heads bearing only necks, lay fifty feet from the closest torsos. As night fell, the beachhead reeked with the stench of burning flesh."
Iíve been thinking about Iwo Jima these days because my father, a Fourth Division Marine, was there. Because he lived long enough to see his firstborn son, my brother, die at the World Trade Center on September 11. And because I watched the Space Shuttle Columbia return in a fireball to earth, instantly turning joyful reunions into unimaginably traumatic losses. I know what those people are feeling, and it is almost too much to bear.
What Iím thinking about are not military briefings, or ceremonies of commemoration, but human bodies. I remember early reports of the attacks on the World Trade Center in which eyewitnesses remarked, "itís raining human beings." I remember descriptions of shoes--hundreds of them--falling out of the sky. Of arms and legs and hands landing on sidewalks, news photographs of them quickly censored by mutual agreement as being too depressing for readers to bear.
Now I'm reading reports of the shuttle explosion, and of a mother in Texas with three sons, ages 4, 6 and 8, who were riding in an all-terrain vehicle when they came across the charred leg of one of the shuttle astronauts. Of the womanís neighbor, who found a badly disfigured torso, including the head, in her backyard. And of another man who found a human torso in the middle of the road. Itís raining human beings again.
One can argue that war, terrorism and accident, while producing the same outcomes, are not morally equivalent. But the common aftermaths illustrate something terribly important about the human condition. They serve as a reminder that in the end, we are only human beings: fragile, transitory, and short-lived. That even with the best of intentions, and the best of technologies, things do not always go as planned. And that, ultimately, the control we pretend to have over our destinies--a year from now, five minutes from now-- is an illusion.
In the end, itís a humbling experience--or at least, it should be--to remember that every bomb we drop on Iraq is going to be a World Trade Center. That children who witness terror and death are changed by them forever. And that to those doing the dying, the mechanism, motives and circumstances of their deaths are irrelevant. Theyíre still human beings. And theyíre still dead.
Itís a humbling experience.
Or at least, it should be.
David Potorti is a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows (www.peacefultomorrows.org).