The International Herald Tribune recently published an article about a new Army medical book on trauma wounds. The reporter said that "the gruesome photographs illustrate the grim nature of today's wars, in which more are hurt by explosions than by bullets, and body armor leaves many alive but maimed."
That's a naive statement. Probably since World War I, and certainly since World War II, explosions have killed more people than bullets in most wars. As for the maimed, since time began there have been more people wounded than killed in wars. In the War of Northern Aggression, 140,415 Yankees were killed in battle, and 281,881 were wounded. More than 200,000 died of "other causes," which usually was disease.
Body armor is about as old as war itself, and the bureaucratic label "improvised explosive device" is government-bull language for booby trap. Booby traps also are old. The only thing new is the bureaucratic language, which the press, like a parrot, repeats.
I'm not knocking the reporter. His story about the medical manual was well-written. It just struck me that every generation seems to go through the ritual of discovering sin for the first time. The present younger generation is seeing war for the first time in Iraq and Afghanistan. As wars go, they aren't much. In five years, we've lost a little more than 4,000 souls. The single battle of Okinawa killed 7,600 Americans on land, and another 5,000 were killed at sea by Japanese suicide bombers. Nor should we forget Hiroshima, where 80,000 people died in about 10 seconds.
Altogether, some 55 million people died in World War II, and that war, at least for us, lasted only four years.
War indeed is grim and horrible, and it's no surprise that nearly all governments try to hide the horror from the civilians back home. As long as war is a parade with flags and bands and bumper stickers, it doesn't seem so bad. On the field of battle, strewn with body parts, excrement, blood, and the smell of burned flesh, it becomes a pretty hard sell for the military public-relations types.
The human species being what it is, pacifism is suicide, but every single American should be against war except as the last extreme resort. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was not worth 4,000 American dead and another 29,000 wounded. He had no weapons of mass destruction, and he was definitely not an imminent threat to the United States. The Iraq war is one for which George W. Bush and Dick Cheney should not be forgiven. There was no excuse for ordering it. The American troops didn't die for freedom; they died because Bush didn't like Saddam or because the American establishment wants permanent military bases on a big pool of oil.
I said during the buildup to the war that it's too bad we couldn't stage an old-fashioned duel, strip Bush and Saddam down to their shorts, give them each a bowie knife, and lock them in a dark room. Politicians have become more reckless as they have become less accountable for their sins. At least Saddam has paid for his.
Harry Truman was fond of saying that the only surprises are the history you don't know. Though these latest photographs of torn bodies shocked the reporter, wars always have torn-up bodies. I recall the photographs in an older Army medical book that you wouldn't want to look at over lunch. I expect every battlefield presents a grim picture — men hacked to death with swords and axes no doubt were not pretty to look at. Or, for that matter, people stepped on by elephants or eaten by lions.
I've noticed one thing about all the dead bodies I've seen: It's obvious the person who once inhabited the body is no longer there. It's a good argument that there is such a thing as a soul. Whatever the mystery of life is, you can tell when it departs by the change in the appearance of what's left behind.
Charley Reese has been a journalist for 50 years.