March 17, 2003

Collateral Damage
While I was passing time today, someone on Micah Wright's forum reminded me of "Johnny Got His Gun", which, right now, ought to be required reading for anyone who is even thinking about joining the army and serving his country. Micah Wright, incidentally, is the guy who writes "Stormwatch: Team Achilles", the comic book about a team of United Nations peacekeepers specifically designed to thwart superhuman violence around the world. Great stuff.

Anyway, Johnny Got His Gun is about a kid named Joe who's recruited to join the U.S. Army during the 1st World War. He gets hit by a mortar and, as a result, loses both arms, both legs, both ears, both eyes, his nose, and his mouth as far back as his neck in the explosion, but does not die. He doesn't have identification so, instead of being sent home, he's kept alive in a military hospital in France up until the 2nd World War. Needless to say, he can't talk. He has no way to speak to the outside world except by nodding his head in Morse code, and he can only receive messages from the outside world when people trace letters on his chest. Needless to say, he only learns this over the course of years, where he winks in and out of consciousness and sanity, remembering his past life, his dream life, the life he could have had, and how he ended up in this place ("serving his country"). In the end, he asks the generals who finally figure out who he is 30 years later to please kill him as a mercy. They reject that idea, keeping him on life support and restricting access to him so that none of the nurses who treat him ever communicate with him. It ends with him nodding his head, over and over again "S.O.S......S.O.S........S.O.S........"

It's written by Dalton Trumbo, who was, I believe, blacklisted from Hollywood during the HUAC hearings for being a communist. I saw the movie about 4 years ago and it really left a mark on me. Metallica has a song called "One" which is inspired by the movie and actually contains clips from the film in the video. It's also EXTREMELY heavy. The song ends with these verses:

Darkness Imprisoning me
All that I see
Absolute horror
I cannot live
I cannot die
Trapped in myself
Body my holding cell

Landmine Has taken my sight
Taken my speech
Taken my hearing
Taken my arms
Taken my legs
Taken my soul
Left me with a life in Hell

Anyway, it's a great, dark song. I started reading the book years ago and I had to stop. It put me right there inside what was left of that man's body. It was too much. Too horrifying.

Like I said: Should be REQUIRED high school reading.

Now, this is not to say that no one should join the Armed Forces. Clearly, these are the people that help create a world where people like me can criticize leaders who senselessly waste the sacrifices they're willing to make. And we are all eternally in their debt.

But, by the same token, EVERYONE should understand what, at a very human level, "going to war" really means. It's not just the coolness of smart bombs and stealth fighters. It's broken bones. Shattered bodies. Torn flesh. Eternally shattered lives.

And lots and lots of blood.

My point is, clearly there are things worth losing a leg or your capacity for speech over. But "freedom" and "liberty" have become such overused terms that they've almost lost meaning in the public discourse, especially when they're used to justify atrocities that fly directly in the face of their meaning. This entire country is so collectively distanced from the juicy side of war that it's almost anticeptic for everyone except the poor bastards on the "tip of the spear". We're only a few steps away from Eminiar VII in the Star Trek episode "A Taste of Armaggedon", where they let computers do the fighting and the people who are selected as casualties just step into a disintegration chamber so they can be neatly filed away as a confirmed kill. Without the horror of war, we have no incentive against war.

After all, why do you think the French and the Germans are so opposed to this war? Yes, the British suffered under the Blitzkrieg, but being bombed is a far cry from having you entire country overrun and enslaved, or, in the case of German towns like Dresden, completely reduced to a pile of cinders. Horror is a palpable, vivid, living memory in the minds of "Old Europe". We should learn from them rather than scorn them for not being as "bold" as we are. After all, "fools rush in...."
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