A Response to Thomas Palaima

By Susan Van Haitsma

I always read with interest the columns of UT classics professor, Thomas Palaima. He and I have visited together concerning issues related to his course on war and violence studies. I appreciate his insight and experience.

Palaima’s American-Statesman commentary, “A grieving mother asks an impossible question,” (8-23-05) states that Gold Star mother, Cindy Sheehan and the hundreds of supporters who have traveled to Crawford, Texas to join her, are asking a question which “has no factual answer.” Palaima suggests that families of soldiers killed in Iraq must deal with their grief as all of us must when confronted by “death and severe trauma” in our lives. Palaima recounts several personal brushes with death in the context of accidents that he has survived, reminding us that there appear to be no satisfactory reasons why, in accidents, some die and others are spared.

But, soldiers who are killed in war do not die as a result of an accident. Most of the killing that is done in war is neither unexpected nor unintentional. The decision by US government leaders to invade and occupy Iraq involved certain knowledge that US soldiers and Iraqi civilians would be killed. US government leaders did not know how many persons would be killed or what their names would be, but they chose instruments of death as their method and knew that death would result. Somehow, leaders decided that the deadly human consequences would be worth the imagined gains of their cause. Sheehan and thousands of other ordinary Americans are asking President Bush and his administration to explain their cause and name those gains. If there are no factual answers to this straightforward question, US leaders are not leading.

Even if one thinks of the deaths of Iraqi civilians and US soldiers in Iraq as unfortunate accidents, what does that say about our culture of life? Most accidents assume a calculated risk – a gamble. Is a culture of life furthered by deciding that some lives are expendable? By willingly wagering the lives of the youngest adults in the US and the lives of young and old in Iraq, praying that certain family members and friends are not killed or injured, physically or mentally, whose lives are being traded for whose? What parents would give the lives of their children to protect their own?

As Sheehan has said many times, her son, Casey, was not ‘lost’ in war, he was killed. Killing does not happen accidentally. I appreciate the way she has often stated that her son was an “indispensable part” of her family. Love for our children is something we know deeply; it is the fiercest love of all. Our children are indispensable parts of our families and our larger communities. Why would we allow our 14 – 18 year-olds to be wooed by military recruiters? Why would we decide that our youngest adults should bear the brunt of war?

We would do well to listen closely to soldiers who are returning from Iraq. During the annual Veterans for Peace convention held August 4 –7 in Dallas, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) shared powerful testimony of their experiences in Iraq and their reasons for calling for withdrawal of troops. Said one member of IVAW from the stage during a plenary session, “When people tell me they are proud of what I did in Iraq, I say, “Well, I’m not. You don’t even know what I did over there.’”

Iraq war veteran and conscientious objector, Camilo Mejia, spoke candidly about the prison term he served for desertion when he refused to return to Iraq because of human rights violations he witnessed. He reported receiving support from other soldiers for his stand against the war, yet warned against the “culture of silence” within the military that discourages truth-telling about the costs of war.

From prison and since his release last February, Mejia has been an eloquent spokesperson for the rights of conscience. “By putting my weapon down,” he says, “ I chose to reassert myself as a human being.” He has helped mobilize support for other GI resisters, including Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who has recently begun a 15-month prison sentence for refusing to serve a second tour of duty in Iraq. Amnesty International has adopted Benderman as a prisoner of conscience.

Palaima suggests there is no human plan that explains why persons are killed in war. Veterans and family members of soldiers killed in Iraq are speaking out and suggesting otherwise.

Susan Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth and is an associate member of Veterans for Peace

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