The disappeared

Thursday, February 26th, 2004

Jose Garibay, killed in action on March 23, planned to be a police officer.

A native of Jalisco, Mexico, Garibay and his family moved to the United States when he was a baby. He joined the Marines three years ago, and was awarded U.S. citizenship after his death.

The capsule bios of fallen GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan, suddenly a mainstay of the war’s press coverage, are more than just mini-memorials honoring dead servicemen, and they elicit more than just a shallow “Oh, how sad.”

These accounts are quick glimpses into the war itself, with the flag and glory peeled away, and as such are part of the corrosive trickle of sanity, or perhaps I simply mean awareness, that is slowly eating away at the legitimacy of war across the globe.

It’s getting harder and harder to dehumanize the enemy. Have you noticed?

Thanks to the Internet, we’re not dependent on the news filter of the U.S. media. We can read eyewitness, real-time accounts of the invasion from the point of view of the invaded, and read as well about who died.

Ihab Hamoodi, 32, who died alongside nine members of her family on April 5, had qualified in January as a consultant gynecologist. A lifelong resident of Basra, she worked at Basra’s teaching hospital.

It’s even getting harder for the military to bury its own dead. Used to be a crisp salute and a few platitudes about valor, blood sacrifice and the price of freedom were enough. Now the president doesn’t dare attend military funerals, and body bags from Iraq are deplaned under the cover of darkness.

No photos allowed.

Make no mistake, the dead are a problem, both ours and theirs. When special interests crank up the war machine, they have to sell us a feel-good war, precise and antiseptic. This is new. As recently as the Vietnam war, enemy body counts were part of the American public’s daily news fare; if we racked up higher kill totals than they did, we were winning.

Now just try getting enemy casualty estimates out of the Department of Defense. Its flacks ask us to be satisfied knowing that modern warfare is precise and that collateral damage is regrettable but historically low, and no accurate death figures are possible in any case.

The Project on Defense Alternatives has recently released a report called “Disappearing the Dead: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Idea of a ‘New Warfare,'” which makes the point that “occluding the human cost of these wars” is an intrinsic part of the DoD’s battle strategy.

Gosh, the American public will no longer tolerate wanton slaughter. What to do? Disappear the dead.

It’s called public relations, and it’s the one lesson of Vietnam our leaders have taken seriously. In the past, 18,000 corpses, which is our approximate total so far in the two countries, would be something to brag about. Now, shhh. “We don’t do body counts.”

The world is not changing fast enough, but it is changing. Millions of people around the globe took to the streets to protest the pending invasion of Iraq, seriously inconveniencing those plans. We couldn’t launch the invasion from Turkey, for instance, because its citizens proclaimed “We are all Iraqis.”

The construction of The Wall — the Vietnam War memorial on the Washington Mall, bearing only the names of America’ 58,000 military dead — signaled glory’s empty cup. We who remember that war, we who lost our friends and brothers and sons in it, will not allow our lifelong grief to be diluted by sentimental heroism.

“More than the truth would be too much,” as Robert Frost said.

Even though most U.S. newspapers have more or less supported the current war effort, they haven’t been able to ignore the changing public attitude on the value of human life. Thus every dead soldier gets his or her posthumous 15 minutes of fame on page 6.

Tamarra J. Ramos, an Army combat medic, was diagnosed with “unknown cancer” in August, while deployed in Egypt as part of several military operations, including Iraqi Freedom. She underwent chemotherapy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she died on Oct. 1.

Their lives are what we celebrate, not their deaths.