They Died in Vain; Deal With It
Many of those preaching at American church services Sunday extolled as “heroes” the 30 American and 8 Afghan troops killed Saturday west of Kabul, when a helicopter on a night mission crashed, apparently after taking fire from Taliban forces. This week, the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) can be expected to beat a steady drumbeat of “they shall not have died in vain.”
But they did. I know it is a hard truth, but they did die in vain.
As in the past, churches across the country will keep praising the fallen troops for protecting “our way of life,” and few can demur, given the tragic circumstances.
But, sadly, such accolades are, at best, misguided — at worst, dishonest. Most preachers do not have a clue as to what U.S. forces are doing in Afghanistan and why. Many prefer not to think about it. There are some who do know better, but virtually all in that category eventually opt to punt.
Should we fault the preachers as they reach for words designed to give comfort to those in their congregations mourning the deaths of so many young troops? As hard as it might seem, I believe we can do no other than fault — and confront — them. However well meaning their intentions, their negligence and timidity in confronting basic war issues merely help to perpetuate unnecessary killing. It is high time to hold preachers accountable.
Many preachers are alert and open enough to see through the propaganda for perpetual war. But most will not take the risk of offending their flock with unpalatable truth. Better not to risk protests from the super-patriots — many of them with deep pockets — in the pews. And better to avoid, at all costs, offending the loved ones of those who have been killed — loved ones who can hardly be faulted for trying desperately to find some meaning in the snuffing out of young lives.
Best to Just Praise and Pray
Far better to pray for those already killed and those who in the future will “give the last full measure of devotion to our country.” In sum, by and large, American preachers are afraid to tell the truth. They lack the virtue that Thomas Aquinas taught is the foundation of all virtue — courage. Aquinas wrote (to translate into the vernacular) that all other virtue is specious if you have no guts.
Writer James Hollingsworth hit the nail on the head: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” Like the truth.
Those who often seem to ache the most in the face of unnecessary death are mothers. Many mothers do summon the courage to say — and say loudly — ENOUGH. Yes, my son (or daughter) died for no good purpose, they are strong enough to acknowledge, painfully but honestly. He (she) did die in vain. Now we must all deal with it. Stop the false patriotism. And, most important, stop the killing.
Cindy Sheehan, whose 25 year-old son Casey was killed in Iraq in 2004, is one such mother. She and others have tried to put a dent into the strange logic that attempts to translate unnecessary death into justification for still more unnecessary death. But they get little air or ink in the Fawning Corporate Media. Rather, what you will hear in the days ahead from the FCM is well honed rhetoric not only about how our troops “cannot have died in vain,” but also that Americans must now redouble our resolve to “honor their sacrifice.”
President Barack Obama set the tone on Saturday:
“We will draw inspiration from their lives, and continue the work of securing our country and standing up for the values they embodied.”
Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, also primed the pump for the FCM, saying Saturday, “All of those killed in this operation were true heroes who had already given so much in the defense of freedom.”
And Joint Chiefs Chairman went even further in professing to know “what our fallen would have wanted” us to do — namely, “keep fighting.” Mullen added that, “it is certainly what we are going to do.” All this was duly reported in Sunday’s Washington Post and other leading U.S. newspapers —without much comment.
Over the next several days, TV viewers will get a steady diet of this kind of disingenuous logic from talk show hosts feeding on the grist from Obama, Mullen, Allen, and others. After all, many pundits work for news organizations owned or allied with some of the same corporations profiteering from war.
Too bad CBS’s legendary Edward R. Murrow is long since dead; and the widely respected Walter Cronkite, as well. Taking the CBS baton from Murrow, who had challenged the “red scare” witch hunt of Sen. Joe McCarthy, Cronkite gradually saw through the dishonesty responsible for the killing of so many in Vietnam. He finally spoke up, and said, in effect, any more who die will have died in vain.
(The very long hiatus between Cronkite and Scott Pelley, newly appointed “CBS Evening News” anchor, has been particularly painful. The jury is still out, but I harbor some hope that Pelley may try to follow CBS’s earlier, prouder tradition, if by some miracle his corporate bosses allow him to. Given today’s prevailing atmosphere of obeisance to Establishment Washington, Pelley certainly has his work cut out for him. We shall have to wait and see if he has it in him to take the risk of rising to the occasion.)
Corporal Shank & Specialist Kirkland
Five years ago I was giving talks in Missouri, when the body of 18 year-old Cpl. Jeremy Shank of Jackson, Missouri (population 12,000) came home for burial. He was killed in Hawijah, Iraq on September 6, 2006 while on a “dismounted security patrol when he encountered enemy forces using small arms,” according to the Pentagon.
Which enemy forces? Two weeks before Shank was killed, Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser, acknowledged that the challenge in Iraq “isn’t about insurgency, isn’t about terror; it’s about sectarian violence.” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Makiki added, “The most important element in the security plan is to curb the religious violence.”
So was Shank’s mission to prevent Iraqi religious fanatics from blowing up one another? What do you think; was that worth his life?
On September 7, 2006, the day after Shank was killed, President Bush, in effect, mocked his unnecessary death by drawing the familiar but bogus connection between 9/11 and the “war on terror,” of which he claimed Iraq was a part. Bush said, “Five years after September 11, 2001, America is safer — and America is winning the war on terror.”
Flowery Funeral Words
Back at the First Baptist Church in Jackson, Missouri, Rev. Carter Frey eulogized Shank as one of those who “put themselves in harm’s way and paid the ultimate sacrifice so you and I can have freedom to live in this country.”
Correction: It was not Cpl. Shank who put himself in harm’s way; it was those who used a peck of lies to launch a bloody, unnecessary war — first and foremost, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, not to mention the craven Congress that authorized it and most of the FCM that led the cheerleading for it.
Was separating Shia from Sunni a mission worth what is so facilely called the “ultimate sacrifice,” or — for other troops — the penultimate one paid by tens of thousands of veterans trying to adjust to life with brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and/or missing limbs?
Despite the self-serving rhetoric about “heroes,” the young, small-town Shanks of America stand low in the priorities of Establishment Washington. They are pawns in the war games played by generals and politicians far, far from the battlefield.
Even in the Army in which I served, troops were often referred to simply as “warm bodies;” that is, at least before they became cold and stiff. But that term was normally not accompanied by the mechanistic disdain reflected in the memo by a Fort Lewis-McCord Army major that came to light last year.
On March 20, 2010, Specialist Derrick Kirkland, back from his second tour in Iraq, hanged himself in the barracks at Fort Lewis-McCord, leaving behind a wife and young daughter. Kirkland had been suffering from severe depression and anxiety attacks, for which he had to bear severe ridicule by his comrades.
As for his superiors, it was Army policy to do everything possible to avoid diagnosing PTSD. And so, Kirkland ended up becoming a new entry on a little-known statistical table; namely, the one that shows that more active-duty soldiers are currently committing suicide than are being killed in combat.
Not a problem for Maj. Keith Markham, Executive Officer of Kirkland’s unit, who put the prevailing attitude all too clearly in a private memo sent to his platoon leaders. “We have an unlimited supply of expendable labor,” wrote Markham.
And, sadly, he is right. Because of the poverty draft (aka the “professional Army”), more than half of U.S. troops come from small towns like Jackson, Missouri and the inner cities of our country. In both these places, good jobs and educational opportunity are rare to nonexistent.
I suspect that one factor behind the very high suicide rate is a belated realization among the troops that they have been conned, lied to — that they have been used as pawns in an unconscionably cynical game. I would imagine that corporals and specialists, as well as high brass like the legendary two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Marine Gen. Smedley Butler, often come to this realization belatedly, and that this probably exacerbates the pain.
Butler wrote “War is a Racket” in 1935, describing the workings of the military-industrial complex well before President Eisenhower gave it a name. It is not difficult for troops to learn that the phenomenon about which Eisenhower warned has now broadened into an even more pervasive and powerful military-industrial-corporate-congressional-media-institutional-church complex. Small wonder the suicide rate is so high.
And for what? Please raise your hand if you now believe, or have ever believed, that the White House and Pentagon have sent a hundred thousand troops to Afghanistan for the reason given by President Obama; namely, “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” the 50 to 100 al-Qaeda who U.S. intelligence agencies says are still in Afghanistan.
And keep your hands up, those of you who fear you might throw something at the TV screen the next time Gen. David Petraeus intones that wonderfully flexible phrase “fragile and reversible” to describe what he keeps calling “progress” in Afghanistan.
Troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know better. It must be particularly hard for them to hear the lies about “progress,” and then be ridiculed and marginalized for having PTSD. It seems a safe bet that some of those have read Kipling, and on occasion wish they had found release by following his morbid advice — awful as it is:
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your gawd like a soldier.”
The Establishment Church
I added “institutional church” into the military-industrial-corporate-congressional-media-institutional-church complex coined above because, with very few exceptions, the institutional church is still riding shotgun for the system — and the wars.
I find that most men and women of the cloth avoid indicting “wars of choice,” even though such wars were quite precisely defined at the post-WWII Nuremberg Tribunal as “wars of aggression” and labeled the “supreme” international war crime). They know that in such wars thousands upon thousands die — civilians as well as military.
But then fear seems to walk in, for preachers all too often fall back on platitudinous, fulsome praise for those who “have given their lives so that we can live in freedom.” And, as the familiar phrase goes, they say/think, “I guess we’ll have to leave it there.”
And there continue to be relatively few outspoken folk like Cindy Sheehan, painfully aware that courage and truth are far more important than fear, even when that fear includes the painful recognition that the life of a beloved young son was ended unnecessarily. There are some who dare to point out that the mission given our troops has made us less, not more, safe at home, and ask what is so hard to understand about Thou Shalt Not Kill? The FCM ignores these Justice folks, so all too few know of what they say and do.
It is a curiosity that the Bible and the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, seem to have become OBE (overtaken by events) and no longer inform the sermons of many American preachers. Odd that the relevant teachings from this treasure trove seem to have become passé or, as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said of the Geneva Conventions, “quaint” and “obsolete.”
I have this vision of Stephen Decatur smiling from the afterlife as he watches more and more acceptance being given in recent years to his famous dictum: “Our country, right or wrong.”
Let me suggest that preachers consider drawing material from yet another source in thinking about the wars in which the U.S. is currently engaged. Instead of fulsome encomia for those who have made “the ultimate sacrifice,” they might be directed to Rudyard Kipling for words more to the point, if politically and congregationally incorrect.
Two passages (the first a one-liner) shout out their applicability to U.S. misadventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and — God help us — where next?
“If they ask you why we died, tell them because our fathers lied.”
“It is not wise for the Christian white
To hustle the Asian brown;
For the Christian riles,
And the Asian smiles
And weareth the Christian down.
At the end of the fight
Lies a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased;
And the epitaph drear,
A fool lies here,
Who tried to hustle the East.”
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his career as a CIA analyst, he prepared and briefed the President’s Daily Brief and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).