Thistlethwaite: Let’s not go to war in the Middle East, again
As the drumbeat of war sounds again, stop and think: What did the last wars in the Middle East accomplish? Nothing. Nothing except suffering for those troops who sacrificed their lives, or their physical and psychological health.
Think of the suffering of their families. What do they feel today after the Trump administration’s action in killing Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani by drone strike at a Baghdad airport and Iraq asks the U.S. to leave? This is what we have accomplished after all their blood and toil?
There’s a reason those who have fought in war, like Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (who coined the phrase), say, “War is hell.”
To know war as a soldier is to know that it is horrific. Hell can be defined simply as the furthest away you can get from what is good and right, the furthest away you can get from God; war is hell because whether we succeed or fail in a military objective, everybody finally loses a lot, even those who live through it.
Families of those who served also know that war is hell. My grandfather spent three years in the trenches in France. He was one of those for whom the term “shell shock” was invented. He came home from the Great War without a physical scratch on him and he was a ruined human being. Those who knew him before he went off to France described him as fun-loving and kind; he returned furiously angry, unable to concentrate and he became an alcoholic, self-medicating for his psychic pain. He lived with our family and most nights he would awake in the night, screaming. He screamed for about 50 years. After the war, he lived the rest of his life, simply, in hell. And my family visited hell with him.
Those who have served know this best. That is why it is particularly worrisome that so many of those with direct military experience have already left the Trump administration. And the Commander-in-Chief? Well, he had bone spurs.
Another group of people who know war up close and personal is military chaplains. The chief chaplain in Iraq for quite a few years was a graduate of my seminary and someone I taught. He and I stayed in frequent contact, and he remains a good friend.
When the HBO documentary “Baghdad ER” was released, he emailed me and asked me to watch it. He wanted to know how the role of the chaplains was depicted. I did watch it, and I thought their presence was depicted well.
Before you decide to support another war, I urge you to watch this documentary. It was filmed at the 86th Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq. The film clearly shows the devastating injuries and death occurring in the Iraq war.
There is no politics, no grand rhetoric about mission accomplished. The documentary is about what happens to bodies in war.
In the first two minutes of the film, bloodied, nearly naked bodies on stretchers are carried into the hospital, and then an amputated arm is removed from the operating table and placed in a trash bag. The amputated arm belongs to an African American. As it is carried to the trash bag, the viewer of the documentary has a brief glimpse of the injury to the bodies of African Americans in American wars today. African American enlistment in the services has increased significantly over the years and low wages in the civilian sector is a factor. Today, student debt is becoming another great recruiter for the military. When people say that something costs “an arm and a leg,” when it comes to having no choice to pay down your student debt other than to enlist and perhaps lose a limb in another war, that’s perhaps not a metaphor.
In the documentary, blood is everywhere, on the bodies of the wounded, mopped from the floors and cleaned from the tables. Despite the high survival rate of injured soldiers in Iraq (90%), death still occurs. At one point, an Army chaplain, reciting last rites for a soldier, calls all the violence “senseless.”
While graphic, “Baghdad ER” shows injury and death as the reality of war. The continued reality of war is the struggles of family members who mourn the fallen, and the struggles of those veterans who survive with dreadful injury, whether physical or psychological as was the case for my grandfather. It is crucial that society not turn away from this, the real costs of war.
Let’s not do this again. Have we learned nothing from the failures of the last nearly 20 years of war in the Middle East?
No matter what your politics, watch this documentary and see if you think sending young, healthy bodies into more war in this region is a good idea.
Don’t turn away from the blood. It is the reality of war.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.