24 October, 2005

"Honoring" the Fallen

[Update below]

I've been turning over in my mind an issue that I'm hoping you guys can help me clarify. Something has long bothered me about those who claim to honor the memory or sacrifice of soldiers who die, simply by reading or printing their names.

When This Week with George Stephanopoulos first started ending their shows with a scrolling list of recent KIA in Iraq, I was so angry I nearly put my foot through the TV screen. It felt terribly intrusive--I didn't know the people behind their names or even why they died, so it felt almost voyeuristic. The program listed name, age, and place of origin, if I recall correctly. It was combined with some rather haunting and agonized-sounding music. Pretty soon they started added the names and photos of notable figures who had died in the last week, too. Somehow it didn't feel quite as offensive anymore.

Other shows have done similar things either regularly, or in a special event--as Ted Koppel did when he read the names of all the American soldiers who had died in Iraq.

I find these kinds of things deeply disturbing, but not in a way that might be typically thought. I am intimately aware of what the loss of a loved means; I know what it means to grow through your preteens and onward without a beloved father. I know what it's like to watch your mother cope with losing the love of her life in the prime of his, and what it does to a family's financial future. I think every day of the losses that are suffered in the current fighting. Seeing a list of names of people I don't know is not going to make me any more aware of the cost of war. And besides, the societal/emotional costs extend much farther than the physical loss of life.

So, why is this so emotionally upsetting to me? Here's my theory: Without context and meaning to their sacrifices, the reading of names can be only a political statement.

Many events have included the reading of the names of those who died in the attacks on 9-11. To me, that feels a little different because those people were victims and because their loss is something we experienced corporately--even for those of us who didn't lose someone or someone-of-a-friend that day, we were still impacted by it in very personal ways. We don't need any context to be explicitly given; we know why they died--they died as innocents, as noncombatants in an unjust act of war. To read their names is to mourn, to once again rage against the injustice of what was done to them. Their deaths were senseless, and no "context" is ever going to change that.

Many of the milbloggers post pictures and stories about those who have lost their lives in the current fight. They include information about the personality, laudable characteristics, the fallen person's military work, etc. And as John does at Argghhh! with his reference to a time to dance, their lives are celebrated for who they were and what they did. Those don't offend me, and I think it's because when you read them, you are reminded that they contributed to the world, and of why they thought the dangerous work they did was worth doing.

But to simply read without context the names of those who died in battle because they chose to serve us in an inherently dangerous way is something else entirely. To mourn them without context of their sacrifice and courage turns their deaths as senseless as the deaths of those who were murdered on 9-11. The message is that their deaths are without meaning, an inherently antiwar message that I doubt they would have supported in life. Because no context is given for how or why they died (was it an VB-IED that exploded in a crowd of kids as they were patrolling to keep the streets of Baghdad safe? Was it a sniper as they stepped out of their vehicle to do a security check? Was it an IED as they were delivering supplies to their fellow soldiers? Was it in a firefight with people who had planted an IED that killed other soldiers?), their deaths are given no meaning. We simply respond emotionally--"Oh how terrible! Somebody died."

Yes, that's unspeakably terrible. That's what makes war so awful. And that's why we must take war so seriously. But those who are willing to lay down their lives for another are usually hearalded as heroes--they are willing to sacrifice for something they believe in, whether it's their own family, American ideals, or the physical safety of America and Americans in general. And if we simply say, "They died," we rob them of that status, for we never know why they died, or what their death may have accomplished, and what their lives meant. They're simply victims.

And as I've posted before, most warfighters find the idea that they are victims--whether of their political leadership or of those who fight against them--abhorrent and dishonorable. And I do, too. Maybe that's why I find this kind of "honoring" so emotionally inflammatory.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this... What is your reaction to "honoring" fallen warfighters simply by reading their names or having the names scroll by on a TV screen? Does my theory on this sound reasonable? Do you think there is anything valuable in reading their names devoid of the context of information or ceremony? Please share your thoughts. I'd really like to know...

This is how you "honor" one of the fallen. Though he may be the 2000th soldier to die in Iraq, he is not a number.

Linked at Mudville Gazette's Open Post