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Collateral Damage

No one's lost and no one's missing
No more parting, just hugs and kissing
And all these stars are just for wishing
In my heaven....

"Not in front of the children." That's a phrase most of us associate with bitter marital feuds, a reminder that children are often frightened or hurt when adults lose control of their emotions; that little eyes and ears see and hear more than we think they do.

That harsh words, spoken in the heat of anger, can leave ugly scars.

It's a pity so few of the participants in our often fractured debate on the war spare a thought for its smallest victims:

CamerynLee was only 3 years old when her father, Lance Cpl. Eric J. Orlowski, a Marine Corps reservist, was killed in an accidental shooting during the first days of the Iraq war. Now 8, she is suddenly hungry for information about the man she remembers only in sketchy vignettes: Did he like chicken wings as much as she does? How about hockey? Was he funny?

In a grim marker of the longevity of the war, children who were infants or toddlers when they lost a parent in action are growing up. In the process, they are coming to grips with death in new, more mature and at times more painful ways — pondering a parent they barely knew, asking pointed questions about the circumstances of the death and experiencing a kind of delayed grief.

Families and bereavement counselors say that media coverage of the war, dedication ceremonies and even school events — in which most classmates have both parents in attendance — can all heighten yearning for the missing parent. For young children, the flood of prickly feelings and questions often arises just as the surviving parent is moving beyond his or her own intense grief, sometimes with a new spouse or partner in the picture.

In prior wars, children of soldiers and Marines killed in action would have medals, stacks of letters, perhaps a few photographs or, if they were very lucky, a faded clipping from the local newspaper to help keep the memory of a lost loved one alive. To such meager artifacts would be added endless quiet recountings of birthdays, vacations, holidays and the thousand shared moments - trivial, poignant, or hilarious - that make each family happy in its own unique way.

But the children of today's fallen warriors are growing up in a digital age, surrounded by often disturbing images and multimedia Is it too much to ask that when these smallest Americans look for traces of their missing fathers or mothers, the first image to spring to their minds should comfort, and not horrify?

One by one, the children of war are growing up. They are learning to read, to take an interest in the world around them, to follow politics and the nightly news. They surf the Internet. And what they find as they explore their increasingly divided nation should disturb and shame all of us. For instead of discovering that the world is in capable hands, they are finding a nation of self-absorbed, petulant children in grown-up clothing, squabbling and tearing at each other and eroding the very underpinnings of civil society with no conception of how our actions impact those who depend on us.

The media demand the right to film the dead, grievously wounded, and the dying, though such stunningly insensitive and dehumanizing behavior goes against the very civilized norms they hold up as a mirror to the Bush administration. Indeed, the oft-cited Geneva convention forbids the photographing of detainees. to protect them from threats or acts of violence. But this prohibition is also intended to protect their honor and dignity against the dehumanizing public curiosity, insults, and abuse of which our species is unfortunately all too capable. Oddly, though the media regularly use the Geneva 'humane treatment' standard as a stick with which to beat the administration about the head and shoulders, they appear singularly reluctant to submit to that standard themselves.

A point seldom made is that the media itself violated international norms of civilized behavior when it literally drenched a salivating world in lurid images of Abu Ghuraib.
Was it really necessary, to show those images over and over at that frequency and intensity to get the story told? Or were the press indulging a prurient desire to pander to the lowest common denominator? Did they consider how offensive such images would be to a society that values honor and dignity far more highly than we do here in the West; one that considers the loss of "honor" in a young unmarried woman, for instance, such a unremediable shame that her male relatives have no recourse but to kill her?

Of course they didn't. There was money to be made, and ratings to be considered. Neither do they consider how humiliating and dehumanizing it would be for an American soldier or Marine to be videotaped rolling on the ground in agony just after his leg had been blown off, or (God forbid) crying in his sleep. Such moments make for great television: they represent the gritty reality of war. And if the children happen to be watching as Daddy gasps out his last breath on national TV, well, where was Mommy?

The media really can't be responsible, and after all accountability is for the elected and appointed branches of government. The Fourth Estate is a rule unto itself. Unlike every other known human institution, the media seem to believe that in this one special case, absolute power does not corrupt absolutely. They will brook no checks and balances, obey no laws, submit to no standard or authority. They can police themselves.

One might be tempted to believe this, if not for the media blackout after reporter Jill Carroll's abduction. Sig Christenson, president of the Military Reporters Group, pointed out exactly how the media again betrayed their own principles:

Christenson stressed, the key objection he has to such a blackout is the way it portrays the media as giving its own members special treatment. "We already have readers who question our credibility," he said. "In this case, there will be people who think we consider ourselves different and worthy of special treatment."

This begs the question, to those war correspondents who cry foul when the Pentagon won't let them shove cameras in the faces of wounded and dying soldiers without permission, "If you were lying there wounded, would you want a camera in your face?" More importantly, would you want your 6 year old daughter to watch you bleed to death on national television? Would you want your son to stumble across a video of a sniper's bullet passing through your brain, to watch pieces of your head explode in slow motion on the New York Times web site, floating across cyberspace for all eternity? Would you want him to watch numbly as your buddies rushed to your side in shock, as they cradled your twitching form, as they swore, screamed in fury, sobbed; a public passion play enacted before millions for their entertainment; better yet, with an interactive comments section!

Goodbye Daddy. And thanks for the memories.

Can't wait to see your flag-draped coffin on TV. And in my newspaper. And maybe on a few billboards. And if the media and the President of the United States don't show up to snap a few photographs with Mommy crying and perhaps catch Grandpa breaking down at the grave site, how will America know we're really at war?

After all, who really believes in privacy anymore? This is the age of BritneyCam.

This is America's war.

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost our capacity for self restraint. At his retirement ceremony, General Peter Pace spoke eloquently of the need for civility and limits in our national debate. If you have a moment today, or tomorrow, or even this weekend, stop and listen to his speech. It is worth hearing. It saddened me greatly because it brought to mind the day it was announced that he would be replaced by Admiral Mike Mullen. I recall it vividly because I was appalled by the vicious and completely unsubstantiated attacks on his character from the antiwar Left. His critics could not have been more wrong about General Pace, but they seemed to have been seized by a strange madness, an almost Olbermannesque determination to validate their world view by criminalizing political disagreement. Unreasoning hyperbole like Olbermann's only fuels the determined obstinacy of people like this gentleman, who couldn't back down even when faced with evidence that Randi Rhodes fell:

It’s not a huge leap to jump from viewing conservatives as those for whom ‘lying is second nature, if not first, who make up the most corrupt Administration in history, who trash the Constitution and who stop at nothing to get their way to accusing them of committing violence. C’mon, if the GOP was willing to steal the 2000 and 2004 elections, beating up a woman who dares to speak truth to power is no big deal. Once you tell yourselves enough times that the right hates women, especially women with brains, it’s a small step to figuring they’re no longer satisfied with abusing women verbally. Since the right obviously isn’t happy limiting themselves to violating our civil rights on a daily basis, it makes sense that they’d turn to beating up their critics.

False story, but accurate… because every conservative is a potential mugger. If they haven’t yet turned to beating up their critics, it’s just a matter of time.

It is acceptable for us to disagree about the war. It's acceptable for adherents of both sides of the debate to grow passionate about their respective beliefs. With the stakes so high and the tragic cost of war growing ever greater, it is right and proper that we should care, should grow angry, should shed more than a few tears. What is not acceptable is that we should so forget ourselves that we dishonor those who have served this nation well and faithfully, whether they support this war or not. And the truth is, we cannot know this for certain all of the time, for they are lost to us.

Sometimes we have their words, left behind in a letter or an email or even a song, and sometimes not. But even then there is really no guarantee those words encompassed their entire thought. The truth, as this young man's story so poignantly demonstrates, is often a far more painful and more complex tapestry:

Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception (though there are countless like me).… Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics.

And here's something from one of his last letters home:

I was having a conversation with a Kurdish man in the city of Dahok (by myself and completely safe) discussing whether or not the insurgents could be viewed as "freedom fighters" or "misguided anti-capitalists." Shaking his head as I attempted to articulate what can only be described as pathetic apologetics, he cut me off and said "the difference between insurgents and American soldiers is that they get paid to take life—to murder, and you get paid to save lives." He looked at me in such a way that made me feel like he was looking through me, into all the moral insecurity that living in a free nation will instill in you. He "oversimplified" the issue, or at least that is what college professors would accuse him of doing.

In his other e-mails and letters home, which the Daily family very kindly showed me, he asked for extra "care packages" to share with local Iraqis, and said, "I'm not sure if Irvine has a sister-city, but I am going to personally contact the mayor and ask him to extend his hand to Dahok, which has been more than hospitable to this native-son." (I was wrenched yet again to discover that he had got this touching idea from an old article of mine, which had made a proposal for city-twinning that went nowhere.) In the last analysis, it was quite clear, Mark had made up his mind that the United States was a force for good in the world, and that it had a duty to the freedom of others. A video clip of which he was very proud has him being "crowned" by a circle of smiling Iraqi officers. I have a photograph of him, standing bareheaded and contentedly smoking a cigar, on a rooftop in Mosul. He doesn't look like an occupier at all. He looks like a staunch friend and defender. On the photograph is written "We carry a new world in our hearts."

The dead are lost to us, yet they live on in the hearts of their wives, their sweethearts, and saddest of all, in their children. They cannot be reduced to slogans or names on a T-shirt, or a symbolic flag on a coffin.

The dead of this war do not belong to us. Let them belong, first and foremost, to their families. And for God's sake, can we not have the decency to spare a thought, as we argue and wrangle and fight over the war on terror and the future of this nation, for the collateral damage that we do to the children they leave behind?

Someone should protect them. Let it be us. It's the least we can do.

9 Comments

I guess it's only news when there's victimhood or the perception thereof... I want to add something, a request, to your post. If any of the readers, lurkers or commenters are in the position to write to the child of a fallen comrade, please do it. I know it may be a little painful for you but the gift of your memories is priceless. Most of them won't have any of their own and will have to rely on others' to get a sense of their lost parent. Also, Doc Kirby is one of the finest young men I've ever had the pleasure to know. Just sayin':)
 
Carrie, even notes from a stranger can be a blessing. I'll never forget the beautiful note I got from Roslyn Carter after my father died of Leukemia when I was 11.
 
My mother in law told me many times how much comfort she got when people took the time to include a remembrance of my father in law in a note or a card. It gave her back something of what she had lost and reassured her that he was not forgotten.
 
FbL, yes, I am sure that was a comfort (and I'm glad she did that for you) but what I was referring more to were people who served with that lost parent. People who could give great anecdotes like "when your dad pulled that really great prank on the 1st Sgt." etc..Filling in some blanks for those kids as to what their parent was like/about. Cass...Exactly!!! Having their loved one forgotten is the nightmare they don't want to live through.
 
This whole discussion is one reason I do the memorial posts for the fallen of Kansas or who have touched the Castle in some way - so that when people google (and they do) they'll find a place marked by respect, by people who have "been there, done that." And those who haven't, but who honor the fallen.
 
And, why we have the Rulez. Because it helps to keep this to a minimum: Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost our capacity for self restraint. At his retirement ceremony, General Peter Pace spoke eloquently of the need for civility and limits in our national debate. If you have a moment today, or tomorrow, or even this weekend, stop and listen to his speech. It is worth hearing. It saddened me greatly because it brought to mind the day it was announced that he would be replaced by Admiral Mike Mullen. I recall it vividly because I was appalled by the vicious and completely unsubstantiated attacks on his character from the antiwar Left. His critics could not have been more wrong about General Pace, but they seemed to have been seized by a strange madness, an almost Olbermannesque determination to validate their world view by criminalizing political disagreement. Unreasoning hyperbole like Olbermann's only fuels the determined obstinacy of people like this gentleman, who couldn't back down even when faced with evidence that Randi Rhodes fell: It's one reason I work with a politician who is not my fully natural ally - and we both work from our common ground. It's why I encourage Ry to post his contrarian links. Because I'm tired of spittle flecked ranters and I want some civility. And I strive to keep this place a relative oasis of calm amidst the raging moonbats and wingnuts. And as long as my sister keeps reading, I'll know I'm still succeeding.
 
Thank you, Mr. Donovan, for enforcing those rules. This is one of the few places that has calm discourse on the web. To be honest, it has gotten to the point where certain sites are like Slashdot: read the comments if you want to see general stupidity and rage. Cassandra, it is true that many people wave the GC about like a stick without having read it. Always makes for fun debates when someone doesn't understand the rules they are citing.
 
I talked with a blogger last night who is on the brink of quitting b/c of the whole flaming thing. It is really getting out of hand. I don't see what is so hard about treating other people like human beings.
 
This is a moving post. I had the pleasure last year of meeting a girl whose father was a Special Forces NCO. He was 39 years old and dropped dead from a heart attack, doing nothing dramatic. She was working for a house cleaning business and cleaning my messy house. She had gotten out of highschool a semester ahead of schedule, but had qualified to graduate a year early. She had just finished her first semester at junior college with a 4.0 GPA. She is a good kid and I told her to go do some detective work on scholarships, as millions of dollars go unawarded each year. She's a cinch to get a free ride at a good university. I am going to call the cleaning company and ask them to have her call me, as I have several hundred pounds of elk meat. She and her family are from Oregon and her dad hunted. She once offered to buy elk from me (illegal, and I got skunked that year), said she and her mom love it.