In the summer of 2001 I took a train across the continental United States – New York to San Francisco. On the train I spoke with a young man who, after serving time in the military, had just completed graduate school studying environmental law. He gave me a book called The Green Economy. He told me that a train traveling cross country for three days uses one tenth the fuel it takes to fly cross country. (We all learned in graphic terms later that summer just how much fuel fills a transcontinental flight.)
I asked about his military service, which he credited with giving him the financial resources to attend graduate school. We talked about the execution of Timothy McVeigh, which had just taken place, and how he, McVeigh had also been a soldier and we wondered if there was a small percentage of a certain kind of person who is drawn to the military.
With that prodding he remembered one sergeant who was responsible for his basic training. He told me that this sergeant was in the First Gulf War – known during the summer of 2001 as simply the Gulf War – and that he, the sergeant, had kept as a memento of sorts, fingers that he had cut off of dead Iraqi soldiers. A bag of fingers from soldiers either killed by him or someone else that he personally cut off and kept in a bag.
All the advanced technology of even the first Gulf War does not guarantee that the primitive brain is given a holiday. The distance that is a byproduct of modern war is perhaps not satisfying to some. Knowing intellectually the enemy has been pulverized and burned is not enough – some need to feel it, smell it, touch it – show it.
We wondered what psychological need carrying those totems satisfied. What did the act of cutting the fingers off of dead Iraqi soldiers do for the sergeant? Were they trophies? What did the bag of fingers mean to him and to the young soldiers he showed them to?
This story and those questions came rushing back to me as film footage from Falluja flooded our collective consciousness and challenged our understanding of humanity. What did beating the dead American bodies do for the citizens of Falluja? Did they sleep better that night? Did they feel safer? Satisfied? Powerful? Avenged?
What do the sergeant, Timothy McVeigh and the crowd in Fallujah all have in common? McVeigh kept his distance from his carnage – the sergeant and the citizens of Falluja were more intimate in their symbolic and actual atrocities. The bodies hanging from a bridge were both mockery and warning. The fact they were hoist onto a bridge – a symbol of reconciliation – added to the sickening display.
As for the sergeant, why the fingers? Fingers are like wings really – capable of creating breathtaking works of art, music and inventions. They can play the piano – put a ring on another finger – type – paint – build – cook - pull a trigger. But the fingers in the sergeant’s bag only hint at their former potential for glory – and murder.
The day after the incident in Falluja C-span asked its viewing audience if the graphic pictures of murdered and charred Americans should have been shown. A man from the Midwest called in to say – “Yes – we should see what our dollars are buying us.” Another caller claimed that you “can’t drop a five thousand pound bomb on people and expect them to love you.” Others, echoing the impulses of the murderous crowd, wanted Fallujah nuked.
It’s a seductive notion – vaporizing a group of people who can kill, dismember, cheer and blaspheme the human body. Because who could do something like that? Not anyone we know. We could do it by remote control – no one would have to endure the stench of burning flesh – we could make shadows of those people and then the world would be purified. We could do it at the touch of a finger.
The most important and tricky implication of the phrase “one nation under God” is not so much the question of God’s existence – but of the benediction and imprimatur that it gives all actions of the nation. Bombs created to tear human flesh somehow come off the assembly line with a seal of approval, while crowds in Falluja are subhuman. The thorny fact is that the crowds in Falluja are as human as the men they killed and defiled – as human as the people who pay for, make and deliver the bombs that “liberated” them.
The scene on the bridge is part of the gaseous equation that war and violence delivers to the planet. The haunting tale the stranger on the train told me gave a defining image for the current and perhaps perennial state of affairs. The divine dexterity of the human experience is being held hostage in a bag.
Bill C. Davis is a playwright – author of 'Mass Appeal', 'Avow' and the upcoming 'The Sex King' - http://www.billcdavis.com/