Memorial Day 2005: never again?
By Dan Smith
Global Beat Syndicate
Washington—Over Memorial weekend, where thoughts inevitably returned to memories of comrades, living and dead, from my own war of three decades ago, it struck me that this year the conflict of emotions for many is particularly poignant. Sixty years on, the ranks are rapidly thinning among those who vowed, after World War II, “never again.” And many who endured the nightmare of Vietnam see the same errors and hear similar justifications about what is occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan today that, as 30 years ago, mocks that pledge.
The world can never erase the record of its failure to keep that pledge made six decades ago. But it can and must rededicate itself to fulfilling that promise if there is ever to be a day when humanity turns its resources and talents to waging peace.
How to start? President Bush’s trip to Moscow in May suggests a powerful symbolic way forward.
Mr. Bush went to there to mark the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day—the first time a U.S. president has attended such an event in the Russian capital. Among the “allies,” the people of the Soviet Union suffered the greatest losses: 7.5 million military dead and 20 to 30 million civilian fatalities, most coming after Hitler attacked the Soviets on June 22, 1941. These losses were unacknowledged for decades in many western accounts of the war, almost as if Russo-Asian lives didn’t matter.
The patriotic ritual of the occasion included ceremonial wreath laying by world leaders at Russia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the type of ceremony replicated in most nations’ histories on dates of national and, particularly, military significance.
While countries commonly have national monuments to their military dead, only Russia has a corresponding monument remembering civilians who perished in war in numbers far exceeding regular military personnel killed. Picasso’s “Guernica” is the West’s nearest equivalent to a “Tomb of the Unknown Civilian.”
This omission points to an unacknowledged imbalance, even in western democracies, between rhetoric and reality about the value of every human life and its contribution to society. When it comes to war, the United States in particular spends vast sums on technologies designed to distance the warfighter from the actual fight—in military jargon, reducing the need to “close with the enemy.” Thus the Pentagon uses stand-off, precision guided weapons launched from as far as hundreds of miles from the target. And when the “precision” is not so precise, Washington “regrets collateral damage,” but justifies it in terms of reducing U.S. fatalities.
While the number of military casualties is relatively precise for the wars of the 20th century, the number of civilians killed—directly or indirectly—in those wars is difficult to assess. In 1993, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, estimated that of the 87.5 million people who perished in those wars, 54 million were civilians—62 percent. Other war historians estimate that some 32-40 million soldiers perished in the last century’s many wars. But with total war fatalities spanning a range of 130-170 million, civilian casualties would account for 75 to 76 percent of total deaths associated with armed combat.
Today in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other unnamed places where the “war on terror” is being waged, the Pentagon officially counts only coalition casualties. Various Iraqi and Afghan agencies and ministries have gathered sporadic statistics, but as yet, a comprehensive accounting is missing. Of course, how authorities characterize the dead is key; through ignorance or duplicity, innocent civilians undoubtedly are lumped together with rebels, insurgents, or guerrillas. Even so, women, children, and old men are disproportionate among the dead—witness for example, Chechnya, where approximately 63 percent of the fatalities are civilians.
A recent UN report on protecting noncombatants noted that as the 20th century progressed, the ratio of military to civilian fatalities in war shifted from 9 to 1 to 1 to 9. At the very least, this reversal demands a visible, symbolic acknowledgement of the terrible waste that war entails and of the promise—yet unkept—of “never again.”