As I sat transfixed in front of the TeeVee, glued to Donald Trump’s speech, the image of a sobbing Carryn Owens, widow of Navy Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens, elicited a welter of emotions in this viewer. How could one not be moved by such a pure effusion of raw emotion? I felt so bad for her, and part of me hoped that America, my country, would be touched and awakened by the pain and damage shouldered by military spouses and their families who get the dreaded visit at the front door.
The thing is most who “serve”, and I put that in quotes because I think it needs to be asked “serve what, and whom”, are invisible to a huge population of 300 million in the USA. They return home mostly unnoticed except in small military ceremonies, and those unlucky or valorous enough to make it back in a flag-draped box do so very much under the radar of public awareness or view. This is of course deliberate, so that our many regime-change counterinsurgencies and the grief they visit on loved ones here in the homeland won’t translate into any widespread public opposition to endless failed military adventures. This was one of the more important perception management lessons learned from the war in Vietnam by the political class, where disturbing images on TeeVee of pain and suffering abounded.
As Carryn’s raw and honest tears flowed, I began to become uncomfortable as I think did many TeeVee viewers. It was unseemly to keep the cameras on her for so long, almost invasive. I felt bad for her. It seemed to have morphed into spectacle for other reasons than to honor her and her husband, as the millionaires and billionaires stood and applauded for so long, almost as though she had somehow become an unwitting prop in the relentless propaganda spectacle that has enveloped America with regard to endless war. Military grief is a somber and awful thing, and this awkward too-public intrusion into Carryn Owens’ private despair became painful for me to watch.
I once did TDY (temporary duty) on a U.S. Army honor guard detail while training as a Combat Engineer at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. This was in 1967 while the Vietnam War raged and where I would end up, and the boxes containing young men or parts of young men coming home to America were like a river of horror. This TDY was in rural Missouri, what is now referred to in a snarky way as “flyover country”. The funerals were in quiet and achingly beautiful American heartland farming country. The cemeteries were adjacent to humble and simple usually Baptist churches. There were no TeeVee cameras. One group of mourners of family and neighbors I recall assembled in numbed grief numbered in the many hundreds. This would nowadays be very Red State Trump country.
The thing is, a military funeral in a setting like this is a powerful thing. There is no spectacle or manipulation undermining the grief. What seemed to be happening at another gathering this week where the assemblage was decidedly different in status and power. I was one of the honor guard which provides the 21-gun salute toward the end of the eulogy. After that comes the playing of taps, and it is the saddest moment, where pure notes of sorrow drift over the assembly. I recall hundreds of people openly weeping. Even we with the rifles and spit-shined boots were trembling to keep our emotions in check.
So during Carryn Owens’ grief on national TeeVee I was torn with sadness and anger. What began as respect seemed to bleed into manipulation and a kind of dry, forced performance, not real respect, because the clapping hands seemed more about being seen than about sincerity. And that makes a former soldier angry. I don’t think I am alone.
There were other ingredients in the emotive mix. I couldn’t help thinking about another death in the Yemen raid that of an eight-year-old girl, one Nora al-Awlaki, whose photo on Google could be of anyone’s impish and adorable child. She was killed violently, by a high-velocity American bullet, but lingered for a while so it is reported. This is the kind of thing that happens in counterinsurgency operations, by accident or sometimes cold, malevolent evil. So there was much trauma and suffering and grief by another family a world away. I thought after witnessing Carryn’s pain that other family members in that other world are living the same universal emotion of grief. And knew that in this country it is not considered proper nor even acceptable to point this out, which makes me feel trapped and surrounded and imprisoned as a person.
As a war veteran I have a keen interest in the causes and dynamics of war and the buildup to war, so was on the lookout for any slim handle of rhetorical hope from Trump, one of whose few redeeming qualities has been denunciation of regime-change and the endless string of American military disasters in the Middle East and Africa. I keyed on Trump’s phrase “peace and stability”, knowing how coded political language is, and felt some guarded optimism. This phrase means getting along with Russia, which no sane individual could find fault with. Unless you’re a Democratic Party hack or Michael Moore pushing on the demonize-Putin button. I lost all respect for Michael this past week as he flogged Trump-Russia “connection”, for which there still is no evidence. I suggested to one of my former-Marine buddies that Michael should enlist in the U.S. Marine weight-loss program at Parris Island if he’s serious.