Haiku resident Bill Stroud thinks of his friend “Ranger” this time of year.
“I might have a couple memories, but I’ve balanced things,” Stroud, a member of Vietnam Vets of Maui County and a former mayoral candidate, told me. “I do see my friend, my best pal’s face, though. He was shot in a bar room fight. Stupid stuff. He was shot in the chest, and the guy then pointed the smoking gun at me. ‘Who’s next?’ he asked. Not me, and I ran to get the medic. We took him to the hospital. They cut a hole in his chest and had to massage his heart, but he died. I was a helicopter door-gunner during the war, and this was the closest thing to hand-to-hand combat I saw.”
Stroud was 20 when he saw his friend die.
Children, to an extent most people never think about, fight our wars. And they always have—Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t just being satirical when he subtitled his World War II novel Slaughterhouse-Five “The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.”
I’m thinking about this as I scan three terse Department of Defense press releases on the desk in front of me. They’re just ordinary DOD releases announcing the recent deaths of three ordinary soldiers.
One says 25th Infantry Division Sergeant John K. Daggett, 21, of Phoenix “died May 15 in Halifax,Canada, of wounds suffered May 1 in Baghdad, Iraq when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle.”Another says that 24-year-old U.S. Army Corporal Jessica A. Ellis of Bend, Oregon “died May 11 in Baghdad, Iraq, of wounds suffered when her vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device.” The last reports that U.S. Army Specialist Mary J. Jaenichen, 20, of Temecula, California “died May 9 in Iskandariyah, Iraq, of a non-combat related injury” and that “the incident is under investigation.”
“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies,” Mary O’Hare sneered at the narrator in Slaughterhouse-Five’s opening pages,” and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by the babies like the babies upstairs.”
It’s easy to forget that U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (D, Hawai‘i) was just a 20-year-old second lieutenant when he lost the use of his right arm in a horrific battle that later earned him the Medal of Honor. World War II was both relatively quick and a long time ago.
But as the war in Iraq grinds on through its sixth year of stalemate, it’s impossible not to notice. Look again at Specialist Jaenichen’s death notice: she was just 15 when President George W. Bush first ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
“Dick Cheney and I have a simple message today for men and women in uniform, their parents, their loved ones, their supporters,” Bush told a crowd of veterans in Wisconsin during the 2000 presidential campaign. “Help is on the way.”
Since then, 4,582 American soldiers have died and another 30,000 have been wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’ve been dying since the early years of this decade and will continue to die long after Bush finally leaves the White House in 2009.
War is waste. All wars everywhere and for all time have swallowed men and materiel whole, with little regard for cost. My father, born a few months after Hitler smashed Poland, would tell me of seeing newsreel footage shot just after the war of perfectly good jeeps and trucks pushed off the decks of aircraft carriers—which themselves were bound for mothball fleets and eventual conversion into pots and pans—because it was cheaper to just dump them in the middle of the ocean rather than haul them all the way back to the states.
That’s relatively benign. On April 28 of this year, U.S. Senator Bryon L. Dorgan’s Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing on far more nefarious “contracting abuses in Iraq.” The hearing, which received little mention in the press, contained numerous examples of how private contractors like Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR)—beneficiary of $27 billion worth of contracts with the U.S. Army—have been alleging screwing over taxpayer and soldier alike.
“I observed burn pits throughout my time in Iraq, which resulted in millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars being wasted,” former KBR ice plant operator Frank Cassaday testified according to the committee website. “I saw large, ten foot deep trenches dug in the sand where computers, electronic equipment, and military items that could not be burned were buried… It appeared to be routine practice at KBR for employees to pad their hours and for KBR management to staff unnecessary workers on a project… At Camp Fallujah, I observed the KBR ice plant supervisor and the KBR foreman stealing refrigerators from the military.”
Cassaday testified that KRB “charged the government $75 just to wash a bag of laundry,” even though the laundry machines were in such poor shape clothes were often returned to the base’s marines still wet.
Linda Warren, a former laundry foreman for KBR, testified that her colleagues routinely stole from soldiers. “KBR employees would break into a ‘connex’ box, which is a trailer full of supplies, and steal items, including lumber, air conditioners and tools meant for the troops,” she testified. “So instead of troops using these items, KBR employees took them for their own use. Sometimes the KBR employees would trade these items with Iraqis.”
KBR officials deny all of the above charges. But the abuses Cassaday and Warren and others have alleged are easy to understand. The Bush Administration has steadfastly refused to provide any oversight of the companies operating in Iraq. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to protect and even indemnify them from possible prosecution.
Private military contractors are not children. Many (including Cassaday and Warren) are Republican Party hacks or ex-servicemen and women who’ve already seen combat. In any case, they make far more money and do far easier jobs than anyone wearing a uniform.
And in many ways, they’re making the whole concept of Memorial Day obsolete. Increasingly, corporations like KBR and Halliburton are taking over our wars. In fact, there are at least as many private contractors in Iraq today than American soldiers.
These companies do everything from fixing ice machines to guarding VIPs. Some, like the notorious Blackwater Worldwide, have even sent men into combat. Of course, when contractors die—even in the act of performing heroic acts—we rarely hear about it. The biggest exception was the March 31, 2004 incident in which four Blackwater guards were brutally killed in Fallujah—an incident that so enraged President Bush he ordered the marines flatten the city, which they did.
Unlike previous presidents, George W. Bush has proven extremely paranoid concerning our war dead, even taking the extraordinary step of banning civilian photographers from Dover Air Force Base when cargo planes carrying the bodies of dead soldiers arrive. To date, he has also not attended a single soldier’s funeral.
Our war dead, though, are all around us.
Every year, a big group of state officials, kupuna, military service representatives, scouts and residents gather at the Maui Veterans Cemetery in Makawao for a Memorial Day commemoration. They also have lots of coffee, tea and donuts, but really, everyone’s there to remember our honored dead.
Walking through the cemetery one recent afternoon, I was struck by its size. There are hundreds of graves, the earliest dating to the 1950’s. Most of the World War II vet’s graves carry designations for either the 442nd Regimental Combat Team or the 100th Battalion—famed combat units made up of Japanese-Americans that saw very heavy fighting in Europe.
The stones commemorate the old and young, but few in between. Florus H. Cassell, listed as a private in the 2nd Nebraska Infantry in the Spanish-American War, died at 73. William K. Wilcox managed to make it to First Sergeant in the U.S. Army without apparently ever seeing combat, eventually dying in 1980 at the ripe old age of 93.
Then there’s Hiroshi Nagamine, a 25th Infantry Division sergeant who died in the Korean War at the age of 20. Staff Sergeant Katshiro Kanemitsu of the 442nd died in World War II one day shy of his 21st birthday.
There were various objects left by the grave markers. I saw small flags, flowers, golf balls, leis, shell necklaces, a broken coat hanger, cans of Coke, Pepsi, Coors Light and Budweiser, bottles of water, an unopened bottle of Courvoisier, mangoes and a small stone bearing the following inscription:
“No farewell words were spoken, no time to say good-bye, you were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why.” MTW