I cannot get out of my mind the photo that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on December 30, alongside a story by Jeffrey Gettleman. It showed a young man sitting on a chair facing a class of sixth graders in Blairsville, Pennsylvania. Next to him was a woman. Not the teacher of the class, but the young fellow’s mother. She was there to help him because he is blind.
That was Jeremy Feldbusch, twenty-four years old, a sergeant in the Army Rangers, who was guarding a dam along the Euphrates River on April 3 when a shell exploded 100 feet away, and shrapnel tore into his face. When he came out of a coma in an Army Medical Center five weeks later, he could not see. Two weeks later, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, but he still could not see. His father, sitting at his bedside, said: “Maybe God thought you had seen enough killing.”
The newspapers on December 30 reported that 477 American GIs had died in the war. But what is not usually reported is that for every death there are four or five men and women seriously wounded.
The term “seriously wounded” does not begin to convey the horror. Sergeant Feldbusch’s mother, Charlene Feldbusch, who, along with his father, virtually lived at his bedside for two months, one day saw a young woman soldier crawling past her in the corridor. She had no legs, and her three-year-old son was trailing behind.
She started to cry. Later she told Gettleman, “Do you know how many times I walked up and down those hallways and saw those people without arms or legs and thought: Why couldn’t this be my son? Why his eyes?”
George Bush was eager to send young men and women half a world away into the heart of another nation. And even though they had fearsome weapons, they were still vulnerable to guerrilla attacks that have left so many of them blinded and crippled. Is this not the ultimate betrayal of our young by our government?
Their families very often understand this before their sons and daughters do, and remonstrate with them before they go off. Ruth Aitken did so with her son, an Army captain, telling him it was a war for oil, while he insisted he was protecting the country from terrorists. He was killed on April 4, in a battle around Baghdad airport. “He was doing his job,” his mother said. “But it makes me mad that this whole war was sold to the American public and to the soldiers as something it wasn’t.”
One father, in Escondido, California, Fernando Suarez del Solar, told reporters that his son, a lance corporal in the Marines, had died for “Bush’s oil.” Another father in Baltimore, whose son, Kendall Waters-Bey, a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps, was killed, held up a photo of his son for the news cameras, and said: “President Bush, you took my only son away from me.”
Of course, they and their families are not the only ones betrayed. The Iraqi people, promised freedom from tyranny, saw their country, already devastated by two wars and twelve years of sanctions, attacked by the most powerful military machine in history. The Pentagon proudly announced a campaign of “shock and awe,” which left 10,000 or more Iraqi men, women, and children, dead, and many thousands more maimed.
The list of betrayals is long. This government has betrayed the hopes of the world for peace. After fifty million died in the Second World War, the United Nations was set up, as its charter promised, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”
The people of the United States have been betrayed, because with the Cold War over and “the threat of communism” no longer able to justify the stealing of trillions of the public’s tax dollars for the military budget, that theft of the national wealth continues. It continues at the expense of the sick, the children, the elderly, the homeless, the unemployed, wiping out the expectations after the fall of the Soviet Union that there would be a “peace dividend” to bring prosperity to all.
And yes, we come back to the ultimate betrayal, the betrayal of the young, sent to war with grandiose promises and lying words about freedom and democracy, about duty and patriotism. We are not historically literate enough to remember that these promises, those lies, started far back in the country’s past.
Young men–boys, in fact (for the armies of the world, including ours, have always been made up of boys)–were enticed into the Revoluttionary Army of the Founding Fathers by the grand words of the Declaration of Independence. But they found themselves mistreated, in rags and without boots, while their officers lived in luxury and merchants were making war profits. Thousands mutinied, and some were executed by order of General Washington. When, after the war, farmers in Western Massachusetts, many of them veterans, rebelled against the foreclosures of their farms, they were put down by armed force.
It is a long story, the betrayal of the very ones sent to kill and die in wars. When soldiers realize this, they rebel. Thousands deserted in the Mexican War, and in the Civil War there was deep resentment that the rich could buy their way out of service, and that financiers like J. P. Morgan were profiting as the bodies piled up on the battlefields. The black soldiers who joined the Union Army and were decisive in the victory came home to poverty and racism.
The returning soldiers of World War I, many of them crippled and shell-shocked, were hit hard, barely a dozen years after the end of the war, by the Depression. Unemployed, their families hungry, they descended on Washington, 20,000 of them from every part of the country, set up tents across the Potomac from the capital, and demanded that Congress pay the bonus it had promised. Instead, the army was called out, and they were fired on, tear-gassed, dispersed.
Perhaps it was to wipe out that ugly memory, or perhaps it was the glow accompanying the great victory over fascism, but the veterans of World War II received a GI Bill of Rights–free college education, low interest home mortgages, life insurance.
The Vietnam War veterans, on the other hand, came home to find that the same government that had sent them into an immoral and fruitless war, leaving so many of them wounded in body and mind, now wanted to forget about them. The United States had sprayed huge parts of Vietnam with the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, resulting for the Vietnamese in hundreds of thousands of deaths, lingering cancers, birth defects. American GIs were also exposed in great numbers, and tens of thousands, pointing to sickness, to birth defects in their children, asked the Veterans Administration for help. But the government denied responsibility. However, a suit against Dow Chemical, which made the defoliant, was settled out of court for $180 million, with each family receiving $1,000, which suggests that more than 100,000 families claimed injuries from the spraying.
As the government pours hundreds of billions into war, it has no money to take care of the Vietnam veterans who are homeless, who linger in VA hospitals, who suffer from mental disorders, and who commit suicide in shocking numbers. It is a bitter legacy.
The United States government was proud that, although perhaps 100,000 Iraqis had died in the Gulf War of 1991, there were only 148 American battle casualties. What it has concealed from the public is that 206,000 veterans of that war filed claims with the Veterans Administration for injuries and illnesses. In the dozen or so years since that war, 8,300 veterans have died, and 160,000 claims for disability have been recognized by the VA.
The betrayal of GIs and veterans continues in the so-called war on terrorism. The promises that the U.S. military would be greeted with flowers as liberators have disintegrated as soldiers die every day in a deadly guerrilla warfare that tells the GIs they are not wanted in Iraq. An article last July in The Christian Science Monitor quotes an officer in the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq as saying: “Make no mistake, the level of morale for most soldiers that I’ve seen has hit rock bottom.”
And those who come back alive, but blind or without arms or legs, find that the Bush Administration is cutting funds for veterans. Bush’s State of the Union address, while going through the usual motions of thanking those serving in Iraq, continued his policy of ignoring the fact that thousands have come back wounded, in a war that is becoming increasingly unpopular.
The quick Thanksgiving visit of Bush to Iraq, much ballyhooed in the press, was seen differently by an army nurse in Landstuhl, Germany, where casualties from the war are treated. She sent out an e-mail: “My ‘Bush Thanksgiving’ was a little different. I spent it at the hospital taking care of a young West Point lieutenant wounded in Iraq. . . . When he pressed his fists into his eyes and rocked his head back and forth he looked like a little boy. They all do, all nineteen on the ward that day, some missing limbs, eyes, or worse. . . . It’s too bad Bush didn’t add us to his holiday agenda. The men said the same, but you’ll never read that in the paper.”
As for Jeremy Feldbusch, blinded in the war, his hometown of Blairsville, an old coal mining town of 3,600, held a parade for him, and the mayor honored him. I thought of the blinded, armless, legless soldier in Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun, who, lying on his hospital cot, unable to speak or hear, remembers when his hometown gave him a send-off, with speeches about fighting for liberty and democracy. He finally learns how to communicate, by tapping Morse Code letters with his head, and asks the authorities to take him to schoolrooms everywhere, to show the children what war is like. But they do not respond. “In one terrible moment he saw the whole thing,” Trumbo writes. “They wanted only to forget him.”
In a sense, the novel was asking, and now the returned veterans are asking, that we don’t forget.
Howard Zinn, the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” is a columnist for The Progressive.