Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?

These milestones come along, reminding us and the wrath struggles to break free again. The anger is never really absent, just dormant like a sleeping volcano.

Back when the pack of professional liars in Washington DC and their slavish corporate press still had Americans brainwashed that Iraq was a threat to the United States, General Tommy Franks–then the chief military planner of the catastrophe in Iraq–said, “We don’t do body counts.”

He didn’t want anyone to know what might be behind the numbers.

I could say the same thing now, as we arrive almost simultaneously at 1,000 US military fatalities in Iraq and the third anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

So I’m saying it. This is not a body count. This is not about the number of dead GIs. This is not about almost 7,000 wounded. It’s not about 14,000 dead Iraqis, or any of the considerable inventory of macabre enumerations we might clinically extract from the orgy of cruelty that is now Iraq.

We won’t do body counts. War is more than a number. This war is an expanding ocean of unanswered pain, and it cannot be reduced to a number.

One thousand times now, people have arrived home or looked out the front door only to see a military sedan, with two troops in their dress uniforms.

This was my nightmare while my own son was there. An army sedan.

When people see it, they know in that terrible instant that someone they pushed out of their own body, someone they saw take a first step and speak a first word, or with whom they made love, or the anchor in the stormy world that is a parent, someone called brother or sister or grandchild that sedan with the survival officer and the chaplain signifies that this someone has been erased and is no longer in the world with us, that something shocking has happened to the living body we once held close and will never hold again.

One thousand times now, as George W. Bush and his entourage smirked and plotted and slapped each other on the back, those left to live have been flayed with grief then set adrift in the void of their own loss to seek some trifling scrap of consolation. Why?

It’s so the oxygen thieves who run the US Empire can chase after their grandiose delusions in drawing rooms, surrounded by an army of servants attending to their every whim, and so the class they represent can continue to accumulate money. That’s why a thousand ripped up bodies have been shipped home–boxed and draped in bright new flags to sanitize the obscenity.

These pampered fucking sociopaths have no conception of the anguish of ordinary people, of how inconsolable is this loss.

When we reflect on the personal enormity and breathless depth of the sorrow of ordinary people that we know, then maybe we can begin to understand how that pain is mirrored in the ordinary Iraqi people who have been occupied–where their children have been bombed, homes destroyed, husbands and fathers and wives and mothers and best-friends and sons and daughters and grandchildren and neighbors and schoolmates killed and maimed, whole communities reduced to rubble, dignity daily kicked face first into the mud, humiliation their daily bread and fear their meat, the very soil transformed into a radioactive toxin that leaves women giving birth to pitiable monsters and people rotting in their own bodies from inexplicable malignancies.

This is what we can appreciate about others when we begin with the loss of those we think of as our own. This is what we can comprehend about who is the real enemy here; when we begin to really see the kind of personal devastation that is the price of this war. And a price paid for what?

The same Tommy Franks who didn’t do body counts once, in his soldierly way, called Douglas Feith, one of the intellectual architects of this enterprise of grief, “one of the dumbest motherfuckers on the planet.”

Yet Franks–ever the obedient servant–has now climbed up on a political cross to sop up the guilt for the “Mission Accomplished” fiasco organized by Karl Rove’s reptile myth-makers. Franks now enthusiastically campaigns for the election of George W. Bush, a de facto chief executive whose cognitive capacities make Feith look like Robert Oppenheimer.

Franks is teaching us something right now far more significant than how to count or not to count corpses. He is teaching us with his example where our own culpability lies. Obedience.

It would seem that Pete Seeger’s lyrics from the last great American antiwar movement still apply:

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Oh, when will WE ever learn?

STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee. His periodic essays on the military can be found at http://www.freedomroad.org/home.html. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is bthn@mfso.org.

Goff can be reached at: sherrynstan@igc.org


Stan Goff retired from the US Army in February 1996. He is a veteran of the US occupation of Vietnam, and seven other conflict areas. His books include Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press), Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century (Soft Skull Books), Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cascade Books), Mammon’s Ecology: Metaphysic of the Empty Sign (Cascade Books), Tough Gynes: Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men (Cascade Books), and Smitten Gate (a novel about Afghanistan, from Club Orlov Press).