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For the week of April 23 - 29, 2003

Opinion Columns

A face to war

Commentary by JoEllen Collins


The face of Army Private First Class Ruben Estrella-Soto looks at me from my Sunday paper. One of the listed casualties of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he appears in his high school graduation cap and gown to be smiling and hopeful, ready to take on all that life has to offer. His age is 18. I study some of the others: Marine Corporal Bernard G. Gooden, 22, proud in his dress uniform; Army PFC Anthony Miller, 19, beaming in his Army cap; and Marine PFC Juan Gualalupe Garza Jr., 20, serious and intent. They all look terribly young to me.

Anyone who has lived through the last few years understands the precept that war and terrorism are rather vague concepts to comprehend in the abstract but heart wrenching in the concrete. Certainly visiting the Vietnam Memorial is profound in part because each soldierís name is etched in the wall. Statistics about a flood killing thousands in Bangladesh arenít as affective as, say, the photo of one child orphaned and crying in the streets after the devastation. We all respond more fully to specifics. Our image of Vietnam is often of the naked young girl fleeing napalm. Thus when The New York Times publishes the faces and stories of those people whose lives were lost on 9/11, it is almost unbearable reading. The reality that the editors still have not completely finished the list is proof of the enormity of the loss.

Likewise, when we see pictures of Jessica Lynd being transported home or hear about the release of seven other American prisoners of war, we are warmed. The television coverage of the interrogation of those same prisoners was tough to watch. Paraded before the camera were individual American soldiers, far from home and obviously terrified. Now we are relieved that they are safe.

So, last week when I saw the Timesí coverage of the toll of American dead, I carefully searched each photo in honor of the servicemen "doing their duty." Then I read accompanying text for information about the young fatalities and noted an uncomfortable fact: As in Vietnam, when we had the draft and lottery, the names and pictures suggest that a disproportionate amount of our fighting forces are composed of minorities. Of the 45 listed in this article, about 50 percent were either Hispanic or African American, although in the 2000 census those two designated groups compose about 25 percent of the U.S. population. Iím not sure what this means any more, with a volunteer army, but I think it is worth noting.

During the Vietnam conflict, I remember dinnertime conversations about the dreaded draft. Most of the middle or upper class or well-educated managed to escape being called up through deferment, conscientious objection, or other methods. Because it was a lottery, of course, many young men who didnít want to be soldiers were conscripted anyway, so the pool was wider then than now.

The call to military service is, of course, still a noble one for many, and I am sure that families with a history of such service inspire similar paths in their offspring. Even with a volunteer army today, though, except for the officers who come from our fine military academies or university ROTC programs, most of the recruits who fight for the rest of us still possess fewer options than their college-bound brethren. Several of the soldiers described in biographical sketches I read saw service as a means to eventual upward mobility. They planned to benefit from the promise of vocational training or future aid for college education.

Whatever their reasons, most of these young dead went to Iraq with the queasy knowledge that they might become statistics. Several expressed their idealism and patriotism; they had a sense of the importance of their sacrifice. Many stated their pride at being American and representing all of us in this war.

I think it is appropriate to note that only one of the over 500 congressman who make life-and-death decisions on the behalf of all of us has a son serving in Iraq. It worries me that we adults send our young to validate our beliefs. It always has been so, and it always will be so. The American poet e.e. cummings captured it in his great poem about World War I, "my sweet old etcetera." A young soldier, in a muddy ditch in Europe, speaks of getting letters from his family, who hope he will "die etcetera bravely of course" sending similar platitudes while he is suffering in the trenches.

I open the paper again to another shining young face. Army Private Devon Jones, 19, dreamed of teaching English in a high school like the one from which he had just graduated. With a horrible family history (his mother was imprisoned and he shuffled between group homes until he and his two younger brothers found a foster home), he was, according to his foster mother, "very grateful." He hoped to further his education and help support his brothers by enlisting. Upon hearing of his death, Private Jonesí former English teacher "had to remove his photos from the wall. Otherwise she could not stop crying," according to The New York Times.

So let us honor the Estrella-Sotos and Joneses of this war and also remember the losses to this country Ö the future patriots, workers, teachers and parents gone too soon.

 

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