The Grief of Baghdad

After having seen a couple of his buddies turn up dead in a ditch during high school, Tyson Johnson decided to leave his Prichard, Alabama home and make something of himself "because I knew where my life was headed."

So he joined the National Guard first, and then, for a bonus of $2999, he joined the army.

Now 22, he's back in Prichard, his life in ruins.

Johnson's story is just one of many from Nina Berman's powerful new book, "Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq'' (Trolley Ltd.). It contains short testimonials and a photo essay illuminating one of the dark corners of the war in Iraq: the stories and pictures of the permanently wounded men and women home from the war. If the pumped-up "Army of One" recruiting campaign is the "before" photo, "Purple Hearts" is the "after."

Cpl. Johnson's photo in the book is subtly disturbing; it creeps up on you. On a sunny Southern day, he leans gently against a chain-link fence, eyes downcast. Baggy basketball shorts sit low, Hanes underwear defiantly above the waistline. His trim torso is a collection of scars, the largest of which snakes from the bottom of the breastbone, diving into his navel, disappearing finally into that exposed Hanes waistband. Others emerge from his back; there's a patch covering something over his heart; what appears to be the work of sprayed shrapnel across his left side.

Despite the message written on his body, it's his words that will haunt you: "Well, uh, shrapnel down the back, shrapnel that came in and hit my head, punctured my lungs. I broke both of my arms. I lost a kidney. My intestines was messed up. They took an artery out of my left leg and put it into this right arm. They pretty much took my life. Pretty much."

He has trouble teaching his son how to count on his hands because, "You can see my fingers is messed up." Cpl. Tyson Johnson is 100 percent disabled, cannot support his family – and the National Guard wants its bonus back.

"Purple Hearts'" succinct introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a meditation on the concept of the "hero" since 9/11, paraphrases the stories within (though it serves as an adequate surrogate for the silenced stories of all the American boys and girls injured as a result of the war):

"Three of them were wounded in firefights. One was delivering ice. Another walked off into the desert on a bathroom break and stepped on a mine...The youngest of them all was wounded by a suicide bomber. Two of the solders who look the least damaged are blind, far more damaged than the camera can record. One soldier whose limbs are intact and who appears nearly normal is brain-damaged. A metal chunk from a bomb pierced his brain and left him a stranger to his family."
Thanks Mr. Bush

On the same day that the "Purple Hearts" exhibit opened at the Redux Gallery in New York City in early September, a family in Geauga County, Ohio (perhaps the mother of all battleground states), sent a huge message to President Bush – literally. Ken and Betty Landrus, the parents of Staff Sgt. Sean Landrus, who was killed in January, made an enormous sign which they held up from their front yard for passersby – and eventually news cameras – to see. The sign read: "Thanks Mr. Bush for the death of our son." The story was reported by the local NBC affiliate, WKYC-TV.

Interesting that during all its coverage of the war, the station hadn't bothered to contact the family of a local casualty of the war, to report on what it was like to have a child die in the war – to report on the consequences of our nation's policies. They never asked Staff Sgt. Landrus' widow and three kids what it was like either, though his youngest child, having been born shortly before Landrus left for Iraq, admittedly wouldn't have given a good interview.

A Mother's Tears

Meanwhile, a group of families who have lost loved ones in Iraq are launching a national TV ad campaign called "Real Voices." In the first spot, "A Mother's Tears," Cindy Sheehan addresses President Bush directly, the sadness and pain welling up in her voice as she describes the death of her son, Casey, and its aftermath:

"And his sergeant said, 'Sheehan you don't have to go'... And Casey said, 'Where my chief goes, I go'... And he died in his best friend's arms... I imagined it would hurt if one of my kids was killed, but i never thought it would hurt this bad. And especially someone so honest and brave as Casey, my son; when you haven't been honest with us, when you and your advisors rushed us into this war. How do you think we felt when we heard the Senate report that said there was no link between Iraq and 9/11?"

When was the last time you heard the mother of a dead soldier interviewed on TV? Or the wife or husband or son or daughter? If there have been any such interviews, they certainly haven't been as plentiful as, say, analysts dryly discussing strategy and the prognosis for "stability."

The group has three more commercials in production.

Clean War

During much of the Vietnam war, disturbing images like these were broadcast into American living rooms on a nightly basis. Along with protesters and returning heroes, like John Kerry, who were able to testify first hand as to the horror and chaos occurring "on the ground," these images ultimately proved a deal-breaker for many Americans.

That's the lesson that the Pentagon and the State Department took from Vietnam: The way to maintain support for a war is to keep the pictures and stories of the dead and the wounded from the American people. And so when the first Gulf War came to an end, the elder Bush was able to say, "The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula." It was clear that popular support for a war would be achieved far more successfully in this day and age without the mess. The "mess," of course, being the human cost and consequences of war, broadcast on TV, and therefore into the daily consciousness of the American people.

Coverage of that war did receive some criticism for portraying it with all the sensitivity of a video game – in retrospect. But the most scathing critiques were confined to the relatively short reach of the burgeoning alternative press. In the buildup to the current Iraq War however, it became apparent that new trends in the creation and distribution of information were going to make the possibility of another sanitary war highly unlikely. The execution of the war would be impossible should a large enough portion of the population come to believe that the real story was being withheld. Craftily anticipating this movement, the White House and the Pentagon devised a plan to both control the flow of information and to simultaneously give the impression that "unprecedented" access was available to American consumers. "Embedded journalism" was born, providing what Seattle-based media-culture Professor Robert Schuessler called, "live, spontaneous propaganda."

And in the beginning it was a "clean" war, a video game war. As smart bombs rained down on Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, it looked, from those "TV screens" (the same ones, President Bush informed us in last week's debate, that keep him up to date on Iraq) like a painless, lossless, distant victory we could all safely rally around.

"How Can I Follow This Guy?"

Uncontrolled images managed to make it through in any case. Who can forget those arresting images of flag-draped coffins (you can barely separate the words in that phrase anymore), previously prohibited, but smuggled into the American consciousness via digital camera and the Internet?

"Fahrenheit 9/11," and "Uncovered" brought analysis, connections, and information that readers of AlterNet, The Nation and other alternative portals had previously seen, but which the majority of Americans relying on TV and other mainstream sources hadn't.

Television commercials, like the "Real Voices" series mentioned above, concerned artists, like Purple Hearts photographer Nina Berman, and enraged individuals everywhere threaten to bring the consequences of war into enough living rooms a la Vietnam. And like Vietnam, it is sure to have an impact both on perceptions of the war and on the outcome of the approaching election.

Michael Skrzypek of Oakland, Calif., put it this way: "Two straight weeks of pictures of casualties on TV and the American public would probably demand an end to the war. There's a reason the military/Bush doesn't allow photos of military caskets."

William Saletan, writing for Slate, adds a slightly more complex psychological dimension to the equation. One of the emerging themes over the past month, and certainly a factor in the recent presidential debate, is "reality" and Bush's ability to acknowledge it. For Bush and his handlers, their inability to face what the CIA, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and several prominent Republican senators have all characterized as a downward spiral in Iraq, can perhaps be chalked up to spin and self-interest. But there has to be more than spin and self-interest behind the reluctance of many other Americans to face this reality. Saletan writes:
"We don't want to believe that we were wrong, that we've committed $200 billion and sacrificed more than 1,000 American lives in error. We can't imagine asking thousands more to die for a mistake. Bush can't imagine it, either. So, he offers himself – and you – a way out. Ignore the bad news, he says. Ignore the evidence that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs had deteriorated. Ignore the evidence that Saddam had no operational relationship with al-Qaida. Ignore the rising casualties. Ignore the hollowness and disintegration of the American-led 'coalition.'"
Is there some collective psychosis at play? Are we working together to suppress something too awful to consider? Surely it isn't surprising that those who simply can't maintain the fantasy, those who experience the cost of war most viscerally and on a daily basis are eager for others to be aware of the cost of war.

Like Captain George Sakakini, for example, the physician in charge of "greeting" the wounded at the Landstuhn Hospital in Germany (through which nearly every one of the 16,000 wounded American soldiers passes). An article in last week's Newsday profiled him and other hospital workers:
"Like his staff, who brim with frustration at what they see as the irresponsible disinclination of the American people to understand the costs of the war to thousands of American soldiers, the hospital's chief surgeon feels that most Americans have their minds on other things.

'It is my impression that they're not thinking about it a whole lot at all,' said Lt. Col. Ronald Place. As he spoke, the man who has probably seen more of America's war wounded than anyone since the Vietnam War sobbed as he sat at a table in his office."
Saletan believes that this is ultimately a failure of leadership. Referring to last week's debate, he pointed out just where Bush, despite himself, comes clean:
"Tonight he scoffed, 'If I were to ever say, "This is the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place," the troops would wonder, "How can I follow this guy?"'

Exactly, Mr. President. If you were ever to give them the correct assessment, they would ask the correct question."
I'm Burning

Toward the end of Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun," Joe Bonham, a WWI soldier who has lost all his limbs, his sight, hearing, most of his face in fact, is finally able to communicate by tapping out Morse code messages with his head. When an official then asks what it is he wants, he begins to turn the question over and over in his mind, passing over its absurdity to arrive at an acceptable answer. He wants to be on display across the nation:

"This will be the goddamndest dime's worth a man ever had. This will be a sensation in the show world and whoever sponsors my tour will be a new Barnum and have fine notices in all the newspapers because I am something you can really holler about. I am something you can push with a money-back guarantee. I am the dead-man-who-is-alive... I am the man who made the world safe for democracy. If they won't fall for that, then for Christ's sake they're no men. Let them join the army because the army makes men."

Note that he doesn't request an anti-war message to be plastered across his chest; only that people are able to see what war does bring.

The response from the impartial official: "What you ask is against regulations."

This 65-year-old episode happens to function as a pretty good metaphor for much of the media's reaction to the returning boys and girls of the Iraq war thus far: "We just can't report your stories; what you ask is against regulations."

All the more important then that John Kerry finally stepped up in last week's debate to challenge Bush's unconscionable distortion of reality. And the news media may well follow his lead. Just this past weekend, gruesome footage of Iraqi children being pulled from the site of an American strike was broadcast on national TV.

But before Kerry was able to safely challenge the fantasy of a bloodless war, it was the artists, filmmakers and citizens with the courage to do what the media hasn't, that led the way. What would happen indeed if the nightly news began to cover stories of American heroes like Cpl. Tyson Johnson's, for example, closing its newscast with him moaning, as he does in "Purple Hearts": "I'm burning on the inside. I'm burning."?

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