In Iraq, they are just numbers, bloodstains on a road. But in the little town of Madison in Wisconsin last week, they were all too real on the front page of the local paper, the Capital Times. Sergeant Warren Hansen, Specialist Eugene Uhl and Second Lieutenant Jeremy Wolfe of the 101st Airborne Division were all on their way home for the last time.
Hansen’s father had died in the military. Uhl would have been 22 at Thanksgiving but had written home to say he had a “bad feeling”. His father had fought in Vietnam, his grandfather in the Second World War and Korea. Two of the three men were killed in the Black Hawk helicopter crash over Tikrit just over a week ago.
But of course President Bush, our hero in the “war on terror”, won’t be attending their funerals. The man who declined to serve his nation in Vietnam but has sent 146,000 young Americans into the biggest rat’s nest in the Middle East doesn’t do funerals.
Nor do journalists, of course. The American television networks have feebly accepted the new Pentagon ruling that they can’t show the coffins of America’s young men returning from Iraq. The dead may come home but they do so in virtual secrecy.
Things are changing. At a lecture I gave in Madison last week, there was a roar of applause from the more than 1,000-strong audience when I suggested that the Iraq war could yet doom George Bush’s election chances next year. A young man in the audience stood up to say that his brother was in the military in Iraq, that he had written home to say that the war was a mess, that Americans shouldn’t be dying in Iraq.
After the lecture, he showed me his brother’s picture – a tall 82nd Airborne officer in shades and holding an M-16 – and passed on a message that the soldier wanted to meet me in Baghdad next month.
But I’d better make sure I don’t reveal his name because those in America who want to keep the people in the dark are still at work.
Take the case of Drew Plummer from North Carolina who enlisted during his last year in high school, just three months before 11 September 2001. Home on leave, he joined his father, Lou, at a “bring our troops home” vigil. Lou Plummer is a former member of the US 2nd Armoured Division whose father, unlike Mr Bush, served his country in Vietnam. Asked for his opinion on Iraq by an Associated Press reporter, Drew Plummer replied that “I just don’t agree with what we’re doing right now. I don’t think our guys should be dying in Iraq. But I’m not a pacifist. I’ll do my part.”
But free speech has a price for the military in America these days. The US Navy charged Drew Plummer with violating Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: Disloyal Statements. At his official hearing, he was asked if he “sympathises” with the enemy or was considering “acts of sabotage”. He was convicted and demoted.
Yet still the US press turn their backs on this. How revealing, for example, to find that the number of seriously wounded soldiers brought home to America from Iraq is approaching 2,200, many of whom have lost limbs or suffered facial wounds. In all, there have been nearly 7,000 medical evacuations of soldiers from Iraq, many with psychological problems.
All this was disclosed by the Pentagon to a group of French diplomats in Washington. The French press carried the story. Not so the papers of small-town America, where anyone trying to tell the truth about Iraq will be attacked.
And while the Pentagon is now planning to have 100,000 GIs in Iraq until 2006, the journalistic heavyweights are stoking the fires of patriotism with a new and even more chilling propaganda line. One of the most vicious has just been published in The New York Times. Claiming that Saddam’s torturers are attacking American troops – some of his intelligence men are now working for the occupying army, but that’s another matter – David Brooks writes that “history shows that Americans are willing to make sacrifices. The real doubts come when we see ourselves inflicting them. What will happen to the national mood when the news programmes start broadcasting images of the brutal measures our own troops will have to adopt? Inevitably there will be atrocities that will cause many good-hearted people to defect from the cause … somehow …the Bush administration is going to have to remind us again and again that Iraq is the Battle of Midway in the war on terror …”
What on earth is one to make of this vile nonsense? Why is The New York Times providing space for the advocacy of war crimes by US soldiers? I doubt the US channels will broadcast any images of “brutal measures” – they’ve already had the chance to do so and have declined. But atrocities? Are we now to support atrocities against the “scum of the earth” – Mr Brooks’ word for the insurgents – in our moral campaign against Evil?
Amid such filth, we should perhaps remember the simple courage of Drew Plummer. And remember, too, the following names: Army Private First Class Rachel Bosveld, aged 19, Army Specialist Paul Sturino, aged 21, Army Reservist Dan Gabrielson, aged 40, Army Major Mathew Shram, aged 36, Marine Sergeant Kirk Strasekie, aged 23. They, too, came from Wisconsin. And they, too, died in Iraq.