The true cost of war

March 30, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Last week, as American soldiers marched toward Baghdad, I received an e-mail from Jim.

His name is pretty much all I know about him, although he also told me that he served in Vietnam and lives in Chicago. As near as I could tell, he just wanted to get a few things off his chest about the present war.

For instance, Jim is sharply critical of President Bush for what he calls "his shallowness, his incompetence, his arrogance and heavy-handedness." But, although he disagrees - to put it mildly - with the administration's decision to invade Iraq, Jim is also "glad we have the most and the biggest guns."

Most of what Jim had to say, though, concerned the emotional and psychological cost of war. "I accepted death before I set foot in Vietnam," he writes. "I accept death every day when I go out."

By which Jim means that he still feels a terrible vulnerability, what he calls "that combat-area paranoia," three decades after the end of the war. He says that he will not allow street beggars to get too close. He tenses in expectation of the bullet smashing into his head when he walks past a housing project. He is bitter and angry. And he is tragedy, waiting.

"The poor soul in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong attitude, might not see me coming," he says. "I hope it never happens. Over 20 years of counseling, therapy, groups, studying, role-playing haven't erased the anger, the rage."

Part of that rage is directed at the continuing existence of war itself, the fact that it now stains a new century. "I am," writes Jim in closing, "profoundly sad."

I offer you Jim's words because they seem to me painfully appropriate to this moment in history. At this writing, the death toll in Iraq stands at 45. That number will almost certainly be obsolete by the time you read these words.

And it's fascinating, isn't it, how quickly dead soldiers become simply that, simply numbers. Not that the loss of them does not pain us, and deeply at that. Still, enough are now dead that it becomes impossible for most of us to know or appreciate them as individual lives lost. We have crossed that emotional boundary where individual deaths become "casualties" - a number in a headline, not unlike the score from a baseball game. In most cases, we won't ever know their names, their faces, their dreams and fears. Because there are, in the end, too many of them.

War is a dehumanizing thing. As Jim puts it, "We're little green soldiers, disposable, dispensable, replaceable, forgettable."

He reminds me of other veterans I have known. Like Dave, who could not bear to speak about what he saw in Vietnam. And Greg, who spoke with a wistful longing of suicide.

I never know what to say to men like that. If you're a person of faith, of course, you invoke God's grace on their behalf. And certainly, I'd implore Jim to continue struggling for his soul with the aid of a good therapist.

But ultimately, your power and mine are limited here. Ultimately, resolution and redemption, if they are to be found, will be found by each man within each man.

So I share Jim's letter not from any expectation that you and I can do anything for him, but rather because I think maybe he does something for us. Namely, he reminds us that each of those numbers in the headlines has a face, a name, a hometown, a story. And that not every loss is physical, nor every cost financial.

On Tuesday, President Bush said he would ask Congress for $75 billion to fight the Iraqi war and experts began debating whether that was enough and what it meant for the economy. I suspect Jim would feel they're missing the point. "I'm the true cost of war," he says. "The debt that never gets paid."

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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