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An Arm and A Leg
Published on Monday, July 19, 2004 by
An Arm and A Leg
by Steven Laffoley

The new television we watch is a high-definition, wide-screen, 57-inch monster. It cost an arm and a leg.

My wife, daughter, and I are staying in Boston, visiting my sister and her family. We watch this new monster television in a large, comfortable living room. We chat while the news is on, catching up on our lives. Then comes a story about American soldiers killed by a car bomb in northern Iraq. The kids stop playing. The adults stop talking. We watch. We listen. But my sister takes little notice. For her, it's just about the job.

She works for the federal government in systems procurement. Specifically, she ensures that military systems receive replacement parts. If a grenade damages the track on a tank, she gets the part ordered and delivered. Lately, she has been learning about new systems.

In this war, soldiers have been reclassified following the German military model. Instead of being humans, soldiers are now systems. When a uniform is torn to shreds by shrapnel. Or when a helmet is snapped off a head by a bullet. Or when a backpack is burned to ash by a bomb. My sister ensures that it is promptly and efficiently replaced. Replaced either for the existing "human" system. Or replaced for the "human" system's replacement.

Some of the new systems' parts she works with are extraordinary examples of this modern, high tech, war machine. The new Kevlar flak jackets, for example, have a fast acting, coagulating agent built into the lining. When the flak jacket is ripped apart, the coagulating agent fills wounds and saves lives - or rather, systems.

The results of this new technology are stunning. From WWII through Desert Storm, one in four soldiers died as a consequence of injuries sustained on the battlefield. But with these new Kevlar flak jackets, that figure is now only one in eight. Instead of dying, many of these injured soldiers become amputees.

How many amputees have been created by this war thus far? Difficult to say. The American government withholds this information keeping the public in the dark. In fact, most injured soldiers - like their dead comrades - are returned to America under the literal cover of darkness, late at night, out of view of the media. Besides, serious injuries in Iraq are so commonplace now they are rarely reported.

That said, officially over 5,000 soldiers have been injured in Iraq, though the unofficial estimates run as high as 10,000. And if we include the 25,000 soldiers reportedly suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the number of injured to date reaches a possible 35,000.

But no matter the number of injured, if a soldier gets his arms blown to ribbons. Or if his legs get smashed to pulp. And if he lives to tell the tale - now statistically twice as likely - my sister ensures that a new Kevlar flack jacket with the fast acting coagulating agent in the lining is promptly shipped off to the battlefield to outfit the next soldier - or rather, system.

You could say that business is good. Very good. Promotions and expansion abound in the systems procurement department. And the future looks bright. American Vice President Dick Cheney says the war on terror may last for generations.

But understand this: my sister is a wonderful person. A kind mother of two, gentle boys. A loving, thoughtful wife. And part of the expanding, vicious American war machine. A contradiction? Not necessarily.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote a book about the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann. In her book, Arendt argues convincingly that most evil is not the monstrous images of Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, or Saddam Hussein. Rather, evil is, mostly, white bread bland, sleepy bureaucrats just "doing their jobs" and "following orders." Average people who wake up one morning and commit immoral acts because the culture around them is suddenly immoral. Abu Ghraib is a good example.

When asked about this, my sister tells me she is defending her country. She is supporting her wartime president. She is ensuring the safety of American soldiers. She is stopping the "bad guys." She is just "doing her job." And true: these answers seem reasonable. But also true: these "reasonable" answers defend this war. And this war is evil.

In silence, we watch her new, high-definition, 57-inch, wide-screen television. We hear and see that more soldiers have been killed and wounded just outside of Baghdad.

I can't help thinking: this new, monster television cost an arm and a leg. And an arm. And a leg.

Steven Laffoley ( is a school principal, teacher, and columnist for the Daily News in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.


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