A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
If you’re in the U.S. military or you’re a veteran, you probably know casualty figures, especially deaths, from America’s wars. To cite one example, America lost more than 58,000 men in the Vietnam War. Their names are inscribed on the “The Wall” in DC. I’ve been there. Seeing all those names is a devastating experience.
But “The Wall” undercounts the number of American dead from that war. Just the other day, I was talking to a veteran, a graduate of West Point, about Vietnam. He told me he had two classmates who became pilots and who worked with Agent Orange, a toxic chemical defoliant, in Vietnam. They both died later of brain tumors from their exposure to the chemical. Their names are not on The Wall.
I shared this story with a colleague, and he wrote back that his father’s best friend flew Agent Orange around in the Pacific, relocating it after the war. After being exposed to it day after day, he died of cancer in his early thirties. His name is also not on The Wall.
Wars are not over for our veterans after the U.S. government says they are. Consider the surge in veteran suicides, especially for those in their fifties and sixties. Estimates vary as to how many Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives, but the number may be as high as 100,000. PTSD, chronic pain, depression, alcohol and drug addiction, and many other conditions linked to war ultimately become an unbearable load for many of our veterans.
(And as I’ve written about elsewhere, the cost of war was much much higher for the Vietnamese people, to include the continuing costs of exposure to Agent Orange.)
My point is this: As a country, we just don’t recognize fully the true costs of our wars. It’s not enough to add up the billions spent or the number of combat deaths. We need to reckon with the aftermath of our wars, the way that veterans keep suffering and dying from wounds they suffered, many of them hidden from view, but no less real for that reason. And we need to reckon with the destruction we inflict on other peoples and countries, for the “American way of war” is profligate with firepower, from high explosive and napalm and cluster munitions to Willy Peter (white phosphorous) and depleted uranium.
And maybe, just maybe, if we ever truly reckon with the cost of war to ourselves and others, we’ll strive harder to avoid war in the future.
A coda: Can we ban forever the term “surgical strike”? Can we ban forever the term “collateral damage”? Can we ban these and similar weasel words that diminish the horrifying and murderous nature of war?