|Jan/Feb 2005 Salon
There’s a song that has the refrain: "What shall we do with all this useless beauty?" Elvis Costello recorded it, more than once, I think, and it’s a sweetly ironic little piece, literate and lyrical, as you might guess from this one line.
It has drifted into my mind several times lately in a context not intended by whoever wrote it. Some one of my personal imps keeps changing the last word to "courage," and I know why.
We are overwhelmed just now with courage. Unfortunately, we are squandering it in a bad cause.
I had better say right away that this isn’t, technically, an "anti-war" piece. I can easily admit that war can be less evil than its alternative. Statements like "violence doesn’t solve anything" are just plain stupid. It depends on the problem. The Nazis were the kind of problem that could only be solved violently, and I am extremely glad we had the will, means, and above all the courage to defeat them in war.
But that is a very long way from embracing war as a normal solution to international problems. I have argued against our current war elsewhere and see no need to repeat the arguments here. Suffice it to say that this war is an obscene adventure concocted by the cowardly poltroons of one faction of the political Right Wing in this country. I am a long way from being alone in this view; a majority of the people polled recently considers the war "a mistake." But on it goes, and it will not stop for a very long time.
We ask our soldiers—I include all our military men and women under this word; no slight intended to sailors, airmen, or (God forbid) Marines—to set aside some of their rights as citizens. Sure, go ahead and vote, but for the duration of your service, the Chain of Command will make one large political decision for you. If the Commander In Chief says "go to war," you go. We do this in the name of protecting the political freedom of all our citizens, and if you can’t appreciate that paradox, maybe you shouldn’t have considered a military career.
While the war continues, you may confidently assume that our soldiers will fight bravely. They always have, and courage is habit-forming, like any other trait that is constantly reinforced. Besides, young men and women are simply biologically determined to be brave. Humanity would have perished long ago if they weren’t. Add to this the fact that our forces are well armed, supplied, and above all trained, all of which help the brave to persevere.
Alas, in this age as in many others, corrupt and cowardly old leaders use this bravery as fuel for their corrupt schemes. Again, I’ve belabored that point elsewhere, and so have many better writers with more influential pulpits. Eventually, when it is long too late, those of us who are still alive can say, "We told you so." It will not make us happy to say it.
My wife works at the local Veterans Hospital,where I am an occasional outpatient. It’s a good hospital, and it needs to be. They care for veterans of all our wars. (And of the times of uneasy peace between them for that matter. I never went to war in my two years of soldiering, but I qualify for treatment there.) Most of the patients have "service connected" ailments—the residue of combat wounds, of course, but also the illnesses inflicted by exposure to chemical weapons (our own—the chief culprit is Agent Orange).
The hospital also treats a host of psychiatric problems that afflict battlefield survivors. A premise of psychiatry is, I assume, that the doctors are less crazy than the patients. The culture of that hospital is, alas, insane. Their clientele has been damaged by warfare. The halls are full of men in wheelchairs, on crutches, with empty sleeves or empty eyesockets, all souvenirs of war. You might think that war would be a dirty word in those clinics. But it is not. Instead, the hospital administration never misses an excuse to drench the halls in battle nostalgia, hosting reunions of this or that campaign. War, they insist, is good, is noble, is in fact holy. So out come the flags and the bands and the honor guards, and every eye is wet.
This makes about as much sense as a hospital devoted to rehabilitating auto-wreck survivors having weekly rallies in favor of drunk driving. Hey, one for the road!
The casualties from the current Iraq war have begun to arrive at the VA Hospital. Remember, you have to be a veteran to be treated there, not on active duty. These people are no longer fit for active service, so they have been fired from their jobs as soldiers. They are not retired; they haven’t served long enough to get retirement status and benefits. They do get some disability benefits, but I doubt anyone can live on them, let alone raise a family, and of course a lot of these young ex-soldiers are married and some already parents.
My wife, who spent several years as a nurse caring for dying children, is no sissy. She has seen far too much suffering to be a pushover for a sad story. But some of the things she sees at work are past her pain threshold. One will suffice as an example:
She now works as a medical photographer. Among other things, she takes pictures of patients to document their injuries, partly to track their treatment and partly to determine their degree of impairment, which in turn determines the amount of their Government compensation, calibrated, God knows how, in percent of disability.
One of the first of the new wave of veterans from Iraq—not the 1991 invasion, the one going on now—was a young ex-Marine who was blown up by a roadside bomb. He was a mess. One leg gone (prosthesis working nicely, thank you), one arm gone (no prosthesis yet, thanks for asking), the other hand crippled, one eye gone, and various bits of metal still stuck here and there. His wife was with him, a plus; lots of marriages are co-casualties of war.
Marti took the pictures of his various stumps and scars, and asked him how things were going. He said he’s always wanted to be a Marine, ever since he was a little kid, and it was hard to face the fact that he couldn’t be one any more. Marti asked, couldn’t they find something for you to do in the Marines? No, he said; and besides, he didn’t want a desk job anyway. He thought maybe he could get work as a night watchman somewhere.
Marti finished up her work, sent the couple off to their next hospital appointment, and found a quiet place to cry. She doesn’t usually feel the need to do that. But seeing all that courage go to waste can make a grown woman cry.
Grown men, too.