Four Thousand And One
Richard Hall was 21 when he died in France on Christmas Day, 1915. This fact is cast in raised bronze lettering on his marble monument in the basement of Baker Library. Richard has the interesting distinction of being the first Dartmouth man to die in World War I. Although Richard was singled out for recognition among the war's many dead, he died just like every other: alone. However much we talk about death as a journey or a passage, it is a personal experience that yields no mercy and knows no discrimination.
At the time, Richard was serving as a volunteer ambulance driver in Alsace; his monument says he "died for France and the freedom of nations." Even though a stirring eulogy reprinted to the right of the monument talks about how he had "fallen on the field of honor," it was a German shell that brought his young and promising life to its abrupt and violent end. The casing of that shell was reclaimed from the battlefield and eventually found its way back to Dartmouth where it resides on display next to that memorial and a couple other mementos.
It was with a different explosion, this time from a roadside bomb, that another grim milestone was crossed last Monday: 4,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. This landmark invites us to reflect on modern sacrifice.
I can't say I know the sacrifice of war. Looking over the latest young faces in the New York Times' "Roster of the Dead," I don't recognize any and not one name rings familiar.
For most of us privileged Ivy League students, war is a removed phenomenon fought by a different class of people in unseen corners of the world. We do not send immediate family members to fight in war. We cannot feel the impact war has on lives, cultures and economies of local people. We civilians are not asked or compelled to share in its financial cost. To us, war is forever a statistic. The 4,000 American dead and 15 times as many wounded might double, triple, then quadruple still without impacting us. We are fortunate sons in terrible times.
Increasing our isolation from the effects of war is the nonchalant attitude we take to the suffering of foreigners. The 20th-century tragedies we choose to mark annually are Pearl Harbor and 9/11 -- when bad men who don't look or talk like us attacked the soldiers and businessmen who look and talk like us. Even Americans who had never been to New York City, let alone the Towers, or didn't know anyone connected to the tragedy were profoundly affected. Yet these same people care and know little about the massacres in Darfur, the deprivation of human rights in China or the extreme poverty in Asia and Africa. Even in Iraq, the milestone we recognize is 4,000 dead American troops, not the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians.
Why should we care? There is always a nationalistic bias in world competition and time spent worrying about people we'll never meet is a poor allocation of resources. But, while war is a necessary tool of nations, the words we use have led us to become more loose and reckless with our perception of it. By saying that men like Richard "fell" on the "field of honor," or that his modern counterparts "gave their lives" as "casualties" in the "human cost" of battle, people cheapen what actually happened to them. They were killed. They were murdered by other men. Our sugarcoated cloak of delusion only serves to justify tragedy in the eyes of the living and inspire an unhealthy romance for war in new generations.
In removing ourselves from the process of war "" by knowing no one who fights, by not caring about the foreign civilians who bear the personal costs and by deferring our own financial cost of war "" we have insulated ourselves completely. To honor those killed, we should not just build another monument. Rather, we should dedicate ourselves to dismiss those euphemisms that make the terrible act of war more palatable and distant to those who already fail to feel its effects.