Tuesday’s paper carries an item concerning 17 civilians killed in an Afghan air strike, complete with military apologies and on and on.
That strikes me as strange, with my memory of the Warner-Pathe Newsreels shown in movie houses during the Second World War. Waves and waves and waves of B-17 ‘Flying Fortresses’ spilling gut-loads of bombs helter-skelter like so much cascading firewood over German cities, this on a daily basis for months and months. The deliberate fire-bombing of civilian populations in Dresden and Cologne, celebrated by American and British commanders as a ‘breaking of the will’ of Germany. As though those terrified residents had any will other than to see peace finally come.
Thus we demonized the people of entire nations and do it yet, but with restrictions.
War has become at once more deadly and more selective. It is as though ‘smart-bombs’ are the answer to all moral questions and we somehow expect victory to be achieved without private agony. Our own young men and those of our adversaries come home to their families dead or in pieces, physically and/or mentally. Yet we somehow expect, by inference in our headlines, to be able to destroy an insurgent site buried deeply in a civilian neighborhood (indeed, are there any other kind?). This, without killing some of the wrong people, or the right people’s families.
As a nation we have no living memory of war on our soil, no conceivable understanding of what it must be to huddle beneath waves of bombers dropping blizzards of bombs. We share no collective understanding of what it is to crawl from the devastation to see if our home, or that of our dearest neighbor, is still standing, if the separated portions of our families still live.
Not until 9-11, that is. And the vision of terrified Americans fleeing that destruction still is not an equitable comparison to Saigon or Berlin, Cologne or Nagasaki. Yet within that single morning the collective vision is freeze-framed in our memory. Our national conscience accepts 20, 30 or 50,000 retaliatory deaths in the need to strike back, but 17 collateral dead in an Afghan strike is something for which we expect an answer. That is how selectively skewered the national psyche has become since Vietnam. We are still snake-bit and it’s good, I think, but it's weird at the same time. It’s a journey over a distance necessary to come to terms with war and what war does to the innocent as well as to ourselves.
Stalin’s quote again comes to mind; “A single death is a tragedy, 100,000 dead is a news event.” Now tragedy and news event are closing the distance between one another to 17.