Let's do this one backwards. Sometimes you can make better sense of a situation by going in the back door and poking through the rooms in the ell while the committee is hearing the reading of the last meeting's minutes in the parlor. There are standard procedures, forms, methods for the personal essay, and I don't come before you to object to most of them, but neither do I mind violating any conventions, however useful or satisfying they may be most days.
Shall we state a thesis, then support it with an array of examples, case studies, statistics? Is it more satisfying to roll out the evidence, perhaps increasing the size of the explosion or the quantity of money or blood in each new scene until even the most skeptical reader shall be with us when we get to Thus: or So, or Q.E.D.? Either will work, and hybrid organizations are possible too.
But whether the general or the specific comes first or last, I find most essays, including most of my own, proceed by one route or another toward a positive end. Even the terrible cataloguings of all that is unraveling politically, environmentally or socially usually wrap up with at least a paragraph that offers hope. Time is short, but together we can make a difference. Much has been lost, but with knowledge gained we can build a better future. They're teaching the Bible in Oklahoma but all across New England good liberal Unitarian couples are raising open-minded children. It's darkest before dawn. If we all get out and vote for Democrats we can take back America.
Who wants to read an essay of despair? We'll find out. I'm going to write one. Today we shall start on the sunny side and then go against traffic to stand in the chill shadows and ask ourselves if hope has any purpose beyond small town names or popular book titles.
I don't watch much television. But don't send me any anti-TV literature. I don't blame the Vast Wasteland for the ignorance of the populace, the shallowness of our culture or the rise of consumerism. And you know, radio, even the beloved Public Radio, can be as lame as television, but without, of course, pictures. Any technology can convey crap. (Readers not disposed toward the conclusions I draw will even now be muttering that this paper may be an example of such a medium.) Among those shows which I will arrange my time to accommodate is Bill Moyers' Journal. I'm getting so I have a hard time watching Charlie Rose. He bloviates all over his guests, often answering his own rambling questions; he makes certain we know how many celebrities he knows; and he keeps giving war criminal Henry Kissinger a forum.
Bill Moyers seeks out men and women whose stories, whose experience, whose points of view take us to places and positions and conclusions we would not have discovered on our own. He engages thoughtful persons in humane discourse. That such people and ideas exist, that for an hour any of us may live in their company, is a delight and a wonder. But the hour does end.
Last Friday night Bill interviewed Phil Donahue, former daytime TV talk show host, now turned filmmaker. Together with co-producer and cinematographer Ellen Spiro he has created Body Of War, the story of Tomas Young who joined the Army after 9/11 to fight in Afghanistan, but was sent to Iraq instead. Horribly wounded, now paralyzed and with continuing medical issues, his story is the one that goes untold, unknown, except by those who live it and their families.
The four thousandth American soldier was killed in Iraq this week. That made the news for a day for two. We don't know and don't much care how many mercenaries ("contractors") have died. Guesses at the number of Iraqis we've killed deliberately or accidentally or inspired others to kill range from several hundred thousand to a million or more. Most of us can't point to Iraq on a globe; we keep our distance from the citizens of that country we "liberated" by believing them glad for the "democracy" we gave them or, in the case of the burned and obliterated, pronouncing them "terrorists" and "haters of America." So be it.
But can we care even for our own? Four thousand is a heap of dead people. But for a war that has continued for over five years, that has cost, by the most careful accounting, at least three trillion dollars, that's not many corpses. Massive technological superiority and improved battlefield medicine have made death less likely. But the devastating wounds our boys and girls now survive are one of the hidden stories of this war built on deception.
You can make the small effort of Googling up Bill Moyers' Journal. There you'll find everything I could tell you about his show, this movie, if I were granted even more space here than I already subvert. Please do it. Do it particularly if you retain any affection for our adventure in Iraq, because if you support the war you ought to support it knowing what it is and what it does, rather than because of what you think it is or want it to be.
Phil Donahue: "My inspiration for this film was the naked child running from the napalm. Remember that Vietnam picture? I mean, terrified, this little girl is totally naked... See the pain. Don't sanitize the war. If you're gonna send young men and women to fight for this nation, tell the truth. That's one of the biggest reasons for the First Amendment, and we haven't been. And so I thought 'I will tell the story,' the real story of the harm in harm's way."
And this is the high point of my work today. I can imagine, as you will after watching or reading what you find at Moyers' website, that we will find our way out of the wretched combination of self-absorption and self-pity and self-aggrandizement that let us be so easily manipulated into becoming the world's foremost aggressor nation. The President is a liar, it is true. But we stand in line to buy the lies. And Congress writes the check. The Democratic Congress as surely as its Republican predecessor has given every nickel ever demanded, with far too few questions asked or meaningful objections made.
But books and movies and messages from the liberal pulpits and editorials and op-ed essays could make a difference, couldn't they? We can see our mistakes, change our course? Here now begin the short descent from Bill Moyers' vision to Cooper's reality. Sorry.
I don't know how the subject came up. We had been talking about many things, agreeing mostly, or laughing over our differences about those subjects that don't matter. Then my friend said, "It pisses me off when people get all agitated because we firebombed Dresden in World War Two." (I guess we had landed on Iraq during our chat, probably by way of considering our mutual lack of affection for any of the three current major-party presidential contenders.)
I think I said how ashamed I was that my own country killed civilians and tortured its prisoners and lied to its citizens. "It's war!" my friend objected, his exasperation with me and those like me obvious. "That's what war is: people get killed." And who can argue with that?
And with that I did understand, at last, something I had not previously grasped. All the talk about staying the course and finishing the job and not quitting and America never losing and killing more so that those already dead will not have been killed in vain-all this is predicated upon the unstated, accepted I think as faith or as almost natural law, precondition that war is a useful and necessary tool with its own particular operating instructions.
You plug in the cord or battery and you squeeze the switch. The tool shuts off when the hole is made, the cut completed, the victory won. There will be blood. Hold hard to whatever fantasy you like from your youth in a more promising time. What if they gave a war and nobody came? Trust me-they'll come. War is entertaining to some, glorious to many. The kids we kill are "Heroes", they "made the sacrifice so we can all be free."
Warren Zevon had a song in another time about a more personal subject, but equally sad and perhaps equally bereft of hope as our present situation. "I can saw a woman in two," he sang, "but you won't want to look in the box when I'm through."
So we say we want to win, and that little girl will just have to keep running down that dusty road with the napalm eating away her skin. Cities will burn and villages must be set on fire, and a family will be herded into a corner of its home and interrogated and maybe shot and sometimes raped and occasionally tortured by your son or mine. And we'll elect either a man who bombed villages in Vietnam and who advocates staying in Iraq fighting for another decade or a century; or we'll choose a woman who believed or says she believed the transparent Bush-Cheney-Rice-Rumsfeld propaganda, or we'll try a fellow who some say once made a great speech against the war but who votes to pay for it and who says he wants a bigger Army, a hotter effort in Afghanistan and maybe an incursion into Pakistan.
And worst of it all, my friend who argues so heatedly in favor of war has his own children, indistinguishable from Iraqi or German or Vietnamese or Cambodian children or any of the other children we've burned and bombed to death, and I know he would be ruined by their loss or harm. But he tells me those Iraqi parents will just have to live with their dead kids-it's war.
Some stand on bridges and hold up signs. A few get arrested for throwing blood at Condoleeza Rice. I turn my typewriter toward this dark corner every month or two, though some readers tell me they've had enough of this subject, have heard enough of it from me, are tired of war essays, if not yet tired of war itself. We all labor in vain. We are most of us too many years and miles removed from what war is and does to be able to feel its heat and recoil from it.
Readers accustomed to my style will be at least pleased to know that the movie has a soundtrack, Body Of War: Songs That Inspired An Iraq War Veteran. Beyond that I cannot tell you much on the subject to suggest we will not in some months' time be briefly considering our five thousandth dead soldier.
Mr. Cooper reports that lately several persons have written him expressing their concern for his emotional well-being, so dark and stark are some of his recent essays. He assures them that he remains a congenial, cheerful soul, poised on this cusp of spring to once again engage vibrant living nature. He does, though, remain a realist and thinks everything will get much worse before anything may begin to get better. Complain or correct him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This piece was first published in The Wiscasset Gazette (Wiscasset, Maine)