January 20, 2005
I listened to President Bush’s inaugural speech on my car radio and noticed how often he used the word freedom. As always, he sounded confident that this abstraction, freedom, is what America stands for and is fighting for in Iraq. He seemed to feel no need to define his terms or explain his reasons. He simply asserted that our freedom depends on the freedom of the rest of the world.
Afterward there was a lot of commentary on the speech, not very enlightening. The best response to it was a piece that was actually written some time before the speech was given. I read it when I reached home.
It was an article in The American Conservative by my old friend Fred Reed. Fred writes often on military matters, with special sympathy for the soldier. He now lives deep in central Mexico, because he dislikes what this country has become, and he has found a lovely town that reminds him of the America he grew up in. He’s also one of the best and funniest writers in the business, but his latest is serious, and few of his pieces have made me shudder as this one does.
He begins by observing that media coverage of the Iraq war seldom allows us to hear from our troops — particularly the wounded. They are off the screen, “throwaway people.” As far as most of us are concerned, they may as well not exist.
“Yet they are there, somewhere, with missing legs, blind, becoming accustomed to groping at things in their new darkness, learning to use the wheelchairs that will be theirs for 50 years. Some face worse fates than others. Quadriplegics will be warehoused in VA hospitals where nurses will turn them at intervals, like hamburgers, to prevent bedsores. Friends and relatives will soon forget them. Suicide will be a frequent thought. The less damaged will get around.
“For a brief moment perhaps the casualties will believe, then try desperately to keep believing, that they did something brave and worthy and terribly important for that abstraction, country. Some will expect thanks. But there will be no thanks, or few, and those quickly forgotten. It will be worse. People will ask how they lost the leg. In Iraq, they will say, hoping for sympathy, or respect, or understanding. The response, often unvoiced but unmistakable, will be, ‘What did you do that for?’ The wounded will realize that they are not only crippled, but freaks.
“The years will go by. Iraq will fade into the mist. Wars always do. A generation will rise for whom it will be just history. The dismembered veterans will find first that almost nobody appreciates what they did, then that few even remember it. If — when, many would say — the United States is driven out of Iraq, the soldiers will look back and realize that the whole affair was a fraud. Wars are just wars. They seem important at the time. At any rate, we are told that they are important.
“Yet the wounds will remain. Arms do not grow back. For the paralyzed there will never be girlfriends, dancing, rolling in the grass with children. The blind will adapt as best they can. Those with merely a missing leg will count themselves lucky. They will hobble about, managing to lead semi-normal lives, and people will say, ‘How well he handles it.’ An admirable freak. For others it will be less good. A colostomy bag is a sorry companion on a wedding night.
“These men will come to hate. It will not be the Iraqis they hate. This we do not talk about.
“It is hard to admit that one has been used.... [Some of these men] will remember that their vice president, a man named Cheney, said that during his war, the one in Asia, he ‘had other priorities.’ The veterans will remember this when everyone else has long since forgotten Cheney.”
The article ends: “They don’t hate America. They hate those who sent them. Talk to the wounded from Iraq in five years.”
There doesn’t seem much to add to that. But I think I’ll recall Fred’s words a lot longer than the president’s.