Sunday, July 20, 2008

Another American Tragedy

In a monstrous twist of irony, Joseph Dwyer, once a recruiting poster and Iraq war icon of American compassion, died of an inhalant overdose on June 29th, practically abandoned by a dispassionate military whom he’d served so well.

Actually, there are several monstrous twists of ironies. For a man whom Army Times photographer Warren Zinn had singled out for attention in the iconic picture above and whom the Army, desperate for early heroes to catapult the propaganda “proving” the humanistic impetus behind the invasion, never considered himself a hero. To Dwyer, he was simply one of several other guys just doing his job.

Another irony is that Dwyer didn’t even belong in Iraq. He’d voluntarily gone so a single mother of two wouldn’t be separated from her children or disobey deployment orders. That alone qualifies him for hero status.

Yet heroes such as Dwyer, Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch are branded heroes for all the wrong reasons by a Rumsfeld-era Pentagon that cynically regarded said heroes as mere pawns or cogs in a massive game of public relations that is meant to shore up and maintain support for a war regardless of how illegal or unjustified it may be. That way, to criticize the war is to criticize the hero. The two are inextricably entwined.

Forget the fact that Pat Tillman, who was surely killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, criticized the war in Iraq as “so fucking illegal.” Forget the fact that Jessica Lynch was unconscious when she was captured, her gun jammed, and apparently well-cared for at the Iraqi hospital from which she was “liberated”, cameras present and a tiny American flag slipped into her hand at the perfect moment.

And forget the fact that Joseph Dwyer, while actually assuming a heroic undertaking in evacuating wounded children from a battlefield, never considered himself a hero and who, as he’d tried reminding us, was just one of several guys doing the same job.

Barring posthumous worth, as in the case of Tillman, the Walter Reed scandal alone proved how shabbily we treat those who have sacrificed time away from their families, body parts and even more once their usefulness is at an end. John F. Kennedy once said that you can judge the greatness of a nation by how it treats its most underprivileged citizens. But as an adjunct to that axiom, it can also be said that the moral greatness and authority of a nation is delineated by how well it treats its wounded heroes. Since at least the Civil War, we have failed miserably, still are and likely always will.

Dwyer died on June 29th after he’d overdosed on refrigerator inhalants to keep at arm's length the demons that he’d brought back with him from Iraq. He barricaded himself and shot at imaginary enemies, hid under beds when he heard fireworks, and saw in the desert landscape of El Paso, Texas and the dark-skinned Hispanic residents another Iraq.

Anyone old enough to recall the shell-shocked veterans coming back from Vietnam and presenting identical symptoms will see something disturbingly familiar in Dwyer’s post-war life and the lives of others. Despite a cyclical history of violence, substance abuse and disturbing behavior since his redeployment, the Army never separated him from his weapons and whatever help he finally got from the VA consisted of a large handful of pills and little else, what Dwyer’s father called “a pharmaceutical lobotomy.” While the local constabulary insisted he was the military’s problem, the military was pointing their own finger at the civilian authorities.

When Dwyer returned from Iraq, he declined saying “Yes” when asked if he presented symptoms of Post Delayed Stress Disorder because he held out hope of becoming a police officer like his father and three of his brothers. It makes one shudder to consider a police officer with problems like Dwyer’s being given another gun and unprecedented powers over our civilian population.

Yet after the brass bands at the homecomings pack up their instruments and the red, white and blue bunting gets taken down, after the worshipful crowd goes home, the heroes are forgotten and essentially left alone to patch up their often tattered lives. Politicians and the top brass at the Pentagon immediately forget their names while they cynically squint at the war’s hellish, pockmarked landscape looking for other heroes to replace them.

We’re used to not hearing the names of these dead and living casualties to pass the lips of George W. Bush. What would impress me, what would help convince this cynical old veteran that we are indeed being offered change that we deserve, is for someone like John McCain and Barack Obama to mention people like Joseph Dwyer while they’re overseas and mouthing pious platitudes of gratitude to our heroes and heroes-in-waiting.

A nine year-old child, one of the children of the mother whose place Dwyer had taken, shows Dwyer's picture to his friends, reminding them of how he used to put his toys together, a lesson in respect and reverence that's yet to be learned by those far older and wiser while occupying and seeking power.


At July 20, 2008 at 5:40 PM, Anonymous pip said...

no; he's not a "hero". He's just another poor dumb sonofabitch who was stupid enough to volunteer to get himself flown half-way across the world and pushed out onto a battle field so a bunch of rich men with white hair and suits could keep themselves rich and powerful. A waste. period. an absolute total waste. caveat emptor.

At July 20, 2008 at 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad pip has so much mercy and compassion in him.

At July 21, 2008 at 7:04 AM, Anonymous pip said...

Nothing - not a thing - in what I wrote had anything to do with the absence of compassion. If my daughter goes out with friends after her shift, has a couple of drinks at a bar, climbs into her truck and in a split second moment of poor judgment, fails to negotiate a turn, rolls over and kills herself -- I can observe that her death is a waste, that she was dumb, that what she did was stupid. That does not mean I do not feel compassion and do not mourn her death every day of my life.

At July 21, 2008 at 11:31 AM, Anonymous oberle said...

Thank you pip, I agree. Anyone who volunteers to join the military in order to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq is no hero.

At July 21, 2008 at 12:50 PM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

Even if they were never meant to go and volunteer to keep a single mother home? Doesn't that count for anything?

And define the word "hero." I've ventured a pretty good one in the past and I'm kind of curious how it matches up to your definition.

At July 21, 2008 at 2:06 PM, Anonymous pip said...

"Hero" is a tabloid word, a comic-book word, a bullshit word, a word that has become so degraded by its overuse and so debassed by its oportunistic deployment as to have been rendered almost beyond regeneration. It is a word that has become so hopelessly colonized by its associations with "patriotism", "Americanism", "freedom-loving", etc. as to poison everything it touches.

No doubt, thousands of footsoldiers in Japan's imperial army and in the Wehrmacht engaged in acts of what some might call "heroism" -- saving a buddy, risking life and limb to secure a shipment to a strategic location, giving away a last ration so that a civilian might eat. But when was the last time you heard anyone use "hero" to describe a Nazi or Japanese fascist?

Are words immutable in meaning? No. Can words be transformed by deploying them in new ways and in different contexts? Absolutely. But to recirculate a word like "hero" by attaching it to some U.S. military posterchild does no service to the term or the historical circumstances in which it is used. Indeed, everytime the word "hero" is used to describe some putative selfless act of a member of the U.S. military in Iraq, it normalizes the unspeakable monstrosity of the U.S. invasion -- an invasion that has resulted in at least 500,000 to 1-2 million dead Iraqis, millions of refugees, destroyed cities, bombed out hospitals, schools, mosques, bridges, infrastructure, and so on. The effects of and aftermath of the invasion of Iraq is something for which every single member of the U.S. military has to answer -- every single clerk who signs a requisition form in Supply; every recruit doing 8 weeks scrubbing dishes in a kitchen; every hospital corpsman prescribing an anti-biotic; etc.

Each participant in an imperial military is important to its overall function and operation. This is what gets lost when words like "hero" are used to characterize members of the U.S. military.

Using words like "hero" to describe members of the U.S. military is ultimately designed to make Americans feel good about themselves and to distance themselves from the criminal responsibility of their government AND members of the military who, despite being born into the richest, most powerful society in human history, choose to exercise unparalled freedom by willingly entering into an imperial military.

In the final analysis, the freedom of expression carries with it the responsibility to think. I refuse to allow media cliches to provide the raw material that would frame how I conceive of and communicate an understanding of reality.

At July 22, 2008 at 12:26 PM, Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

my fucking god pip. any real artist has more than black and white on the pallete, and sometimes they let them mix a bit.

shades of grey motherfucker. shades of grey.

don't set up the rigid categories of "right" "wrong" "hero" "coward" to be shoving flesh and blood human beings into.

none of us will fucking fit. being human we are a mashup of contradictions, impulses, snap judgements, and, only very rarely, conscious deliberative action.

mostly you'll find shades of grey. nobody is all or nothing.

except maybe cheney, that motherfucker is nothing but pure ass evil with a healthy dose of greed thrown in for seasoning.

At July 22, 2008 at 3:09 PM, Anonymous pip said...


I don't "set up" the categories; they are cultural productions. I simply recognize them for what are and how they have become installed with meaning. (Or, as some obscure 19th century bookworm once wrote, "men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing.")

Nothing you say convinces me that under the current social and historical juncture the word "hero" is anything other than a cartoonish palliative designed to make Americans feel good about the little deeds of their "fellow countrymen", all the while standing on their tip-toes up to their nostrils in blood.

As for the rest . . . "hero", "Artist", "Evil", etc. . . . I'll paraphrase Thiemann: "Whenever I hear the word [insert liberal-humanist universalist nonsense], I remove the safety from my Browning."


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