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Forgetten in Memorial: The Casualties of War

Despite the Memorial Day rhetoric, the White House and the mainstream media seem to have little interest in keeping count of the American soldiers who continue to die in Iraq -- never mind the Iraqi civilians.

| Mon Jun. 2, 2003 2:00 AM EDT

A few weeks ago I picked up the morning paper and, for the first time in months, there was no front-page story on Iraq. My response? I went right to the sports section. I knew I was indulging a delusion. Real peace had not arrived. Events in Iraq were as chaotic and distressing as ever. Even the killing hadn't stopped. American troops were firing on crowds of demonstrators; armed looters were still rampaging; children accidentally detonating unexploded ordnance; shoot-outs over gas evidently commonplace. But our Top Gun president had landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, victory was all but declared, and troops were headed home. The war was over, it seemed, so what was going on with the Celtics?

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How easy it can be to avert our eyes from suffering. "How everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster," W.H. Auden observed in his great poem ("Musee des Beaux Arts") about Brueghel's "Icarus." "Something amazing" had happened, "a boy falling out of the sky," yet even those who must have "heard the splash, the forsaken cry. . .had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

We've turned away most obviously from the casualties. Of course, even during the race to Baghdad the major networks gave little attention to Iraqi suffering, but they did at least keep a running tally of American casualties, offering profiles of just about every one of the initial fatalities. When the number of American dead reached 100 and U.S. troops helped topple the now famous statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, the media stopped counting and looked elsewhere. The most recent numbers I can find come from mid-May. A reasonable guess is that by now perhaps 170 American military personnel have died in Iraq. This means that "postwar" fatalities, from every possible cause, may already exceed combat deaths during the war.

As for the Iraqi military dead, it's impossible to find an estimate. Even antiwar critics have concentrated mainly on civilian casualties. We know the total is in the "thousands," but whether five, ten, or twenty thousand may never be determined. Somewhat more attention has been given to counting those war-related civilian deaths. Several sources, including a carefully reported count in the Los Angeles Times, put the figure in Baghdad at around 1700 and rising. For the nation as a whole, 4000 would probably be a conservative estimate.

American officials refuse to calculate civilian deaths or to initiate an investigation of which ones were directly caused by the United States. But they have offered a number of odd denials of responsibility. One of the most striking, if least noticed, came on April 25, when General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed that the 1500 cluster bombs dropped by American forces had resulted in just a single Iraqi civilian casualty. Estimates coming out of Iraqi hospitals, however, put the number of civilian deaths due to cluster bombs at several hundred and growing. Among the most indiscriminate of weapons, cluster bombs spray hundreds of small bomblets in every direction. Five to ten percent routinely fail to explode, but can later detonate when touched or moved by unsuspecting people, often children, who don't recognize them for what they are. These casualties continue to mount.

Of course, adding up the dead and wounded is but the narrowest way of measuring the costs of war. Haidar Tari, of the Iraqi Red Crescent, has been tracing Iraqis killed in the war who were buried without documentation. With a single example she focuses our attention on the legacy such a war leaves its survivors. "On one stretch of highway alone," she told a Los Angeles Times reporter, "there were more than fifty civilian cars, each with four or five people incinerated inside, that sat in the sun for 10 or 15 days before [the victims] were buried nearby by volunteers. That is what there will be for their relatives to come and find. War is bad, but its remnants are worse."

Even the shortest wars produce wounds of every imaginable sort that extend years, even decades beyond the cessation of combat -- wounds to the body, to the emotions, to the land, to witnesses and relatives, to every human relationship, to historical memory, to the generations that follow.

My work has made me acutely aware of war's long afterlife. For the past five years I've been crisscrossing the United States and Vietnam talking with people from all sides of a war that killed some 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese. I interviewed men and women, civilians and combatants, relatives and eye-witnesses, hawks and doves, increasingly conscious that the lives of an almost unlimited variety of people had been swept up and transformed by a history far bigger and more complex than any single person could fully grasp.

Whether talking with former grunts in small Appalachian towns, veterans of the North Vietnamese Army in dilapidated convalescent homes near Hanoi, or journalists in fancy hotel lobbies, what struck me was how visceral the memories still were, how close to the surface the emotions of war remain. It was often hard to believe that the accounts I was listening to were drawn from a many -decades-old war. Strangely enough, I found some of the most painful stories inspiring. The sheer struggle to make meaning of history's hardest moments -- the moments that don't go away when we turn to the sports pages -- is one of the greatest gifts anyone can offer the future. In the presence of those struggles I felt hope. Out of the wreckage emerged a few remnants of war with enduring value.

Now, with Memorial Day still fresh in the memory, and in the wake of our most recent war, one that will not end soon for many Iraqis and some Americans, it's worth turning back to the suffering caused by another war, now long distant but still painfully present, to help us recognize the kinds of realities we are too easily tempted to ignore.

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