To Find Out Something Only Dead Men Know

So much of life is happenstance, incidental to where we think we're bound and who we imagine or pretend we are. A chance encounter, an unanticipated experience, a man we meet or a book we read or some disease or disaster transforms us. Two roads diverge and we strike off into the woods taking neither. Or we recoil at the choice and retreat. We make much of the spectacular, but we often do not recognize the small significances when they rise up to trip us or divert or accelerate us. Some say "everything is changed since 9/11"; but Tom T. Hall remembers the year that Clayton Delaney died.

Sometimes we need to watch some television. I've known several persons who banned the appliances from their homes. A friend of mine says he never watches network news. I say there's a difference between watching and believing. If God hadn't wanted us to read he wouldn't have made toilets. If I shouldn't watch television why am I so tired some evenings after work that I just slump into a chair and stare at the opposite wall? The Jehovah's Witnesses thoughtfully (and I do mean thoughtfully-theirs is not a common, shallow faith of convenience, however annoying their visits) give me tracts and I read them. Exxon and Pfizer and Nissan present me with their versions of the way life should be, and briefly and skeptically as I read the Watchtower accounts of The Flood I watch the sanitized, corporatized comics on ABC. Everything gives you something.

I wasn't going to watch the Ken Burns World War Two miniseries on PBS. The promos put me off. I am so sick of war. I would not watch "The Big One" made again grand and glorious over five or seven or nine nights of sneak attack, industrial and martial awakening and inevitable victory. We so love war that we will not let the old ones go even as the new Congress extends our present occupation six months and scores of billions at a time. The dull, low, short, utilitarian concrete span over the Kennebec connecting Randolph to Gardiner has lately grown a plaque naming it the "Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge." What about the Alamo? The Maine? My Lai? Where are the lies of yesteryear and how do we commemorate them?

But I did watch a good deal of it. It sucked me in. (Wars do that.) It proved to be other than what its promos promised. (Wars do that, too.) It didn't change me (not every incidental odd happenstance does, of course), but it started me on the path that led this morning to this essay and I have learned over the course of several hundred such small journeys to expect that change will come to someone, somewhere, because of what some of us do or say or write or show each other. The War, I cannot say it more simply, gives us an opportunity our government denies us-it shows us war as war is, not as we wish or pray or fancy it might be.

I did not know so much film was shot, so well, so close to the fire and fragmentation, the dying and the dismembering. And so much of it in color. You don't see the color at first. It's a coral island, blasted clean of trees, its very bedrock bleached white by phosphorus fire. Everywhere ash-white and gray-and black char. And bodies, pale and crooked and still. But the camera moves in. The bodies, crumpled, twisted, opened, bleed, have bled, have leaked guts and brains. What's black and white and red all over? War. Bloody war.

And there are the flames. Pure jets of white and yellow burning gasoline shot up the hillsides, into the caves, burning them out. The Japs. The enemy. I remember the movies from my childhood. But the men interviewed, some sixty years on, remember the island, the beach, the ascent, the assault, the rout and retreat and re-advance. They remember and they still dream. No man could do these things and not change, one says. I hope no person could even see these images and not change.

The war sixty years behind us was "The Good War" we think. But my friend said he couldn't watch parts of it because the carnage was too disturbing. These headless corpses, burned children, ditches full of bodies like an excess of roadkill swept aside by a grader unsettled him. Still images, half-century old film, phosphor dots on a cathode ray tube of persons dead before most of us were born: these things trouble us. Who would stand in the middle of the real deal, hearing the flesh tear, smelling and tasting death all around? Who recommends it? Supports it? Funds it? Makes possible its daily continuation in our name, with our money? At least it's "Over There."

I see Damariscotta Hardware is selling a rat trap manufactured by the D-CON people. Its trademark protected name is the NO VIEW, NO TOUCH trap. And so we would have all our death, I think. No view, no touch. Have somebody I don't know kill somebody I've been instructed not to like by whatever means possible, somewhere I don't go. Make it happen, tell me I'm safer and the world is a better place because we do it. But don't show me the pictures. Don't let it touch me.

Monday night the local news showed a happy homecoming. A live soldier, a family reunited. Then at eight o'clock Mr. Burns showed us the firebombing of Dresden, Germany: six hundred thousand dead, mostly women, a hundred thousand children. That's half the current population of this State of Maine, burned to death in their homes. Bodies stacked twenty feet high in the streets.

It was a bouncy, breezy Perry Como lyric: "it was mighty smoky over Tokyo." (Well, I've always been a sucker for a tight internal rhyme, you know.) Tokyo-sixteen square miles incinerated in one night; a hundred thousand dead; a million burned out of their homes. Seven tons of napalm on each of several hundred B-29s; a bomb every fifty feet. General Curtis LeMay, no crazier than some of the generals testifying before our sad and gullible Congressional committees today, but more honest, said, "I suppose if I had lost the war I would have been tried as a war criminal." Japs. They started it. Remember Pearl Harbor.

One airman interviewed in the documentary remembers a leaflet distributed to the pilots and crews that delivered this lethal fire. The entire population of Japan constituted suitable targets, it said; there was no such thing as a civilian. Guilty babies, you know; murderous little Jap toddlers. "Remember, nits grow into lice" (Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, 1863, Idaho-another war, another time).

Sunday night's episode was "Must See TV", too. After a hideous battle on an incidental, unnecessary, non-strategic Pacific island, one soldier told how the men in his company raided the Japanese corpses for souvenirs. Bad enough, you might say, but it was war; we had to kill them before they killed us. So a few guys took a few pistols or uniform insignia. But did they have to go through the dead men's wallets and laugh at the pictures of their wives and children? I saw it on my screen. Some of you did, too.

And we heard this man tell how a fellow marine used his knife as a chisel to pound the gold teeth out of a still-conscious Japanese casualty, refusing even to shoot him before butchering and robbing him. And did this happen? No. It couldn't have. President Bush told us: "America does not torture." But "I can't think for you," as Bob Dylan said, "You'll have to decide." Did we? Do we? Should we? Watch the show; buy it on DVD; show it to your children, your students if you're a teacher. We need to see the bodies, the blood, the broken men who fought and killed and died by the millions.

Then, Monday night, PBS correspondent Ray Suarez interviewed hopeless long-shot presidential candidate former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel. I have never heard so direct and honest a politician so clearly and forthrightly answer such plain questions. And neither have you. The parties, the frontrunners, the advisors and handlers and pollsters and pundits and network newsreaders and editors are collectively incapable of or uninterested in clarity, directness and honesty. You know or feel this as surely as you know that behind each pure marble cross in Arlington or each folded flag handed over to a wife or mother is a pointless pile of guts and bones that was a man or woman wasted.

And what to do about this war, now longer than World War Two, Senator? "I'll have our troops home in a hundred and twenty days." How? "I'll put 'em on airplanes!" Imagine that. The reasons for going to war were false-lies, all lies, and Bush knew it and Colin Powell knew it and Hillary Clinton didn't bother to read the briefing and this complicit Democratic Congress just keeps authorizing the billions of dollars to keep the bombs bursting, the blood spattering and dripping and spurting, and Joe Biden says it would take years to bring them all home if we started tomorrow.

In 1940 the British evacuated 338,000 soldiers from Dunkirk France in nine days using seven hundred boats. How many airliners are in the U.S. commercial fleet? How many seats? How much standing room in the aisles? Our president can suspend Habeas Corpus; can he nationalize airplanes, or is it best that they continue their normal flights to Disney World and Vegas?

This war is illegal, the occupation immoral, its continuation detrimental to our domestic security. The president promotes it; Congress supports it; the public is powerless. Senator Gravel says the people have no power to make laws, and that those who do make them make bad ones and promote dangerous policy. And he's right. And he has no chance of becoming president. We will get Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani, and we'll have our wars.

Mr. Suarez thanked Mr. Gravel. "Thank you!" he replied. "It's the first time I've had the chance to say these things." Send for the transcript. Watch the documentary. Take your kid to the recruiting station if you think we need to "fight 'em over there" this one more time.

Sunday's episode used the dreaded "F-word." Twice. FUBAR. SNAFU. Said it right out loud, without any ellipses or asterisks. They'll get complaints about that. It's tasteless. How dare they. Children might be watching.

Oh, blessed irony that snarls back at us in our hour of deepest need. You know how these PBS shows end. But it was never so apt: Corporate funding for War is provided by....

Mr. Cooper's father was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, stationed at Griffis Air Force Base in Rome, New York. Since he survived the war, he was able to contribute to this next generation of citizens and must be held, therefore, in some measure liable for this and other unpleasant works of his son.

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