On Monday, May 30th 2011 Americans will commemorate Memorial Day, an annual observation of Americans who have died in war. But how best to observe Memorial Day (which, incidentally, doubles as the unofficial start of summer)?
First, let’s consider how not to commemorate it. I suggest you avoid going to city park, getting sloshed on a case of beer, and then driving into your neighbor’s mail box on the way home. (I take it there will not be much controversy that this scenario is best avoided. Alas, despite this fact, surprising numbers of Americans will end up doing something much like that.)
So how should you commemorate Memorial Day? I suggest you do so by telling (or listening to) stories of great soldiers. But I don’t mean listening to propagandistic narratives of victory and valor that blur national sins and cover up the personal cost. Rather, I suggest you tell or listen to real stories, true stories that count the cost of war.
Like what, you ask? Well you might start with a public showing of the 2007 documentary “Body of War” directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue (yes, that Donahue). The film tells the story of Tomas Young, a veteran of the Iraq War who returns from Iraq paralyzed and must now learn to survive in a crippled body even as he begins to question the war in which he served.
Typically wounded veterans like Young are rolled onto stage at Memorial Day and 4th of July events just long enough to receive a round of applause. It is a shameful game of exploitation that masks people from the true impact of war. “Body of War” is unflinching in communicating what happens after the “gimps” are rolled off stage. Over and over the viewer is forced to realize the full impact of war, and it ain’t pretty. It is quite surprising to realize how a body is impacted in countless unforeseen ways by a major injury like paralysis. For example, given his paralysis Young is now unable to empty his bladder completely and thus needs the help of volunteers — including his own mother — to insert a catheter into his penis several times a day so the urine can be drained out. And he can no longer regulate his body temperature and is subject to dizziness and fainting spells. And never mind the long list of pills he must take on a daily basis. This is now his life.
We have heard much over the last few years about the cost of the Iraq War. In monetary terms economist Joe Stiglitz famously estimated the total cumulative cost at being three trillion dollars. But that’s just a dollar value ascribed to things that can be counted. What’s the cost to the life of Tomas Young? You’d never guess if you just saw him wheeled for two minutes onto stage to wave and smile. After watching “Body of War” you’re still not sure how much the war cost Tomas Young. But you do know one thing: it is more than you can count.