Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Flag Has Fallen: We May Not See It Raised In Our Lifetimes

Yesterday at ThinkProgress there was a story about an op-ed by Army Sgt. Jim Wilt asking "Why don’t we honor our fallen servicemembers?" Noting that President Bush ordered flags lowered to half-mast to honor the victims of the Virginia Tech Massacre, Sgt. Wilt wrote: "I find it ironic that the flags were flown at half-staff for the young men and women who were killed at VT yet it is never lowered for the death of a U.S. servicemember."

In some ways, it's a good question. Lots of people have noted in the days since the massacre that the deaths in Iraq are less noted than those in Virginia, although they are no less violent. Keith Olbermann noted that as many young Americans died in Iraq in the ten days before the Virginia Tech Massacre as died in the massacre; others have noted that that many Iraqis die in Iraq on a daily basis. The former deaths should make us mourn the deaths of our fellow citizens, who sacrificed their lives in our country's service (whatever we think of the ends that their commanders -- who we as a people picked -- chose for them); the latter deaths should call us to conscience for a situation in which, as Andrew Sullivan noted, we are ultimately responsible for the security -- a responsibility we are failing far more manifestly than any of the authorities so hastily blamed in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre. But even setting aside Iraqi deaths that are our ultimate responsibility (as current politics would no doubt do), surely we could -- and should -- lower the flag for our own soldiers?

But in another way it's a silly question -- one that Sgt. Wilt answers almost immediately: the death of a servicemember in Iraq
lack[] the shock factor of the Virginia massacre. It is a daily occurrence these days to see X number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq or Afghanistan scrolling across the ticker at the bottom of the TV screen. People have come to expect casualty counts in the nightly news; they don’t expect to see 32 students killed.
So he settles for asking that flags be lowered for a day in the states in which slain soldiers originate -- and the bases on which they serve. (Some do, some don't.) A request that is both utterly reasonable and heartbreaking in the low level of respect it asks for.

Why not ask for more? Why should not the violent deaths of American soldiers be honored the same way the deaths of American students and faculty are?

Because the flag would never fly high again. Because, at least until we leave Iraq (January 2009 at the very earliest, and I fear likely later than that) American soldiers will continue to die.

There isn't the shock factor. We get used to it: humans are remarkably good at getting used to ongoing things. And if the things are off in the distance -- happening to someone else -- maybe it isn't even all that remarkable. "The sound of gunfire off in the distance -- I'm getting used to it now."

But these are real people -- the Iraqis, innocents whose deaths we are ultimately responsible for even if we are not their murderers; our fellow citizens, who have lost their lives for the failed policy of a failed president who is too proud and detached from reality to admit his failure.

For Bush to order the flag lowered nationally, even once, for an American soldier who died in Iraq, would ensure that it was not raised again during his presidency -- and quite possibly not for long after. He can't lower the flag for the same reason he won't go to the funerals, and the same reason they ban photos of the coffins returning home: once opens the door to others -- to all. Only by shutting our eyes can we avoid seeing what he -- what we, in installing him; what we, in not doing enough to oppose him -- have done.

Apparently the murderer at Virginia Tech blamed us for his murders (I haven't watched the video nor read the manifesto). Obviously he is wrong about that. But for the deaths of American soldiers (and Iraqi civilians), we -- to widely varying degrees, and Bush above all -- do bear (partial) responsibility. Without our actions, they would not be dead. If we acted now, to end this horror -- which we won't -- no more will die.

So our flag will go on flying high, ignoring the deaths of those who gave their lives in service of this country that will not honor them. Better to shut our eyes, to ignore their sacrifice, than to acknowledge our own guilt.

But of course the flag has fallen, even if we obstinately refuse to see it: the deaths cannot be undone. The shame on our national honor -- of torture, of rendition, of aggressive and unjustified war -- cannot be undone. The damage to our republic and our freedoms can be undone only with great cost; it may never be. All that physically lowering the flag would do would be to acknowledge that.

Lower the flag? How could Bush order that? The flying flag is all he has left: the hollow appearance of patriotism.

If Bush lowered the flag, we would see the stains on it. Better to keep it riding high and shut our eyes against anything out of the ordinary.

Lower the flag? If we lowered the flag, it might not be raised again in our lifetimes.

Maybe it shouldn't be.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

It's for this reason that I decided to start putting up the number of American dead in Iraq on my front door. I keep track through a website and change it about once a week. It's very sobering. I know that the Americans who have died in Iraq are only a fraction of the dead, but I think it is important for us to acknowledge our own war dead and know at least part of the cost. I also noticed how upset we were all about those who died at Virginia Tech - but the number of people killed there in one day is only a portion of those who died in Iraq every day.