Forgotten Faces of War

One news story from Afghanistan last week told of two tragedies. In Paktika Province a young man, whose chest was wrapped with an explosive vest, was en route to the place where he would detonate himself. But then, he saw people at prayer in a mosque, and he changed his mind. He went to the police. He began removing his explosive vest, but it went off. He alone was killed. In Uruzgan Province, a young man, recently home from Pakistan where he had attended a religious school, announced a similar intention to his family. He was going to kill the enemy by killing himself. The article said that he handed over $3,600, presumably a reward for what he was about to do. In front of his mother, brother, and two sisters, he displayed his explosive vest. The young man's mother was horrified, and she immediately tried to remove the vest from his body. The bomb detonated. The young man, his mother, and his three siblings were killed instantly. Reports from Afghanistan and Iraq have been numbingly discouraging, in part because, in the United States, they come as a steady stream of abstraction. We see the faces of American casualties on the evening news, and the fate of wounded GIs draws sympathy, but otherwise the human cost of the war is kept vague. We know to the single digit how many coalition fighters have died, but estimates of Iraqi deaths span a range from tens to hundreds of thousands. A single death - a tragedy; a million - a mere statistic. Meanwhile, as the suicide bombers treat their bodies as weapons, so do we, as if those faceless killers are indeed the automatons their masters want them to be. Yet this tale of two bombers suggests that every such deed, no matter how prompted by indoctrination or despair, must involve human responses. During World War I, when the British Parliament was enacting a conscription law, so that draftees could replace the depleted ranks in the trenches, a politician declared, "The necessary supply of heroes must be maintained at all cost." A seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers is what makes the American war the horror that it is. Villains to one side, heroes to the other - but who are those bombers? Who are their mothers, brothers, and sisters? The two incidents from Afghanistan offer rare glimpses into the human depth of this otherwise inhuman act. Ambivalence and fear surely accompany each bomber on the way to destruction; anguish and dread must fill the hearts of their family members, if they know ahead of time. After the fact, grief must anchor every feeling. I think of that mother. What was the meaning of her life if not the well-being of her children? What could be worse than the death of one's children by one's child? As the mother saw the suicide vest on her son, and as she then tried to wrestle it off, how could she not have been screaming inside, "Who did this to my child?" I think of the siblings, witnessing the horror unfolding before them. How helpless they must have felt, with their last glance fixed on a violation of all they had been taught to love and value. I think of that first bomber, who, en route to killing, accidentally caught a glimpse of worship, which is nothing but the wish to affirm life, which is another name for God. I think of the bomb masters, who recruited those boys, manipulated them, tricked them into imagining that death could be an affirmation. And I think of those who created the situation within which all of this unfolds. What is that situation but an explosive vest? It does no disrespect to these dead people to recognize this image as a metaphor of what we Americans have created. We are the bomb masters who have wrapped the body of Iraq in wires and plastic explosives. How can we remove the vest without blowing it up? Iraqi civil war, conflict with Iran, Turkish-Kurdish violence, chaos throughout the Middle East - and now President Bush tells us that, if we don't defuse the regional body vest carefully, World War III will start. There it is. Bush himself acknowledging at last what, under his leadership, the United States has done. We have put an explosive vest on Earth itself. And now our job is to get it off. The revelation here is that, in the new age, every bomber is a suicide bomber. James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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