Years ago I vacationed in Hawaii and once there visited Pearl Harbour. It's a wonderful national park and stirring memorial to one of the most horrendous flash-points in modern history.
I was present with an atomic bomb-like hangover on account of an all-night Honolulu pub crawl. My thoroughly wretched state made me the pariah of the tour bus and added a solitary, depressing vibe to the excursion - which proved strangely fitting when you're walking around a quiet and respectful place where lots and lots of people have died.
As I strolled through the well-manicured greenery eating one of the best egg salad sandwiches I've ever ate (from a vending machine, no less) I came across this face here on a modest plaque. That's Doris Miller, whos' story was indifferently portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the lacklustre blockbuster Pearl Harbour.
Mr. Miller was a cook aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia when the Japanese attacked. At first Doris busied himself carrying his wounded crewmates to safety, including a Captain who was hit while on the bridge. As the battle reached its climax Miller manned a .50 calibre anti-aircraft gun, having received no training in its operation. It is said he brought Japanese bombers down and sustained injury himself as the West Virginia took in water below decks and eventually settled at the bottom of the harbour. He was the first black man to be awarded a medal of valour (The Navy Cross) in World War II.
Doris later served aboard the U.S.S. Liscome Bay which was sunk by torpedo in the Battle of Tarawa. He was never seen again and was reported Missing In Action. Just like that.
I cried after reading of his demise. In just the short reading of the plaque I came to feel a fierce admiration for such a courageous character; the cook who became a war hero and I felt that his end was grossly undeserved. He had already done his duty to the utmost but that terrible war demanded even more, like a monster with no notion of fair play.
It was Ernest Hemingway who wrote: "In modern war... You will die like a dog for no good reason." The statement is not just true but it seems burdened with the exhausted, frustrated and fatalistic feelings of a man who learned that lesson in the practical manner rather than someone like me, someone who merely reads what a giant like him wrote and tries to absorb the meaning while sitting on a comfy couch.
Shortly before I started this blog a group of seven soldiers collaborated on an editorial that was published in the New York Times. Titled "The War as We Saw It," it painted a stark and realistic picture of the mission as seen in the eyes of the troop-writers. It ran counter to much of what the likes of General Petraeus has been saying and was treated as a controversy piece; an unwelcome injection of reality amidst the sugar-coated propaganda. You can read it here...
Just a month later two of the writers have since died in a vehicle accident. Apparently a third has been shot in the head but his fate is not yet sealed and so there is little news to report.
When I found out about this I thought of Doris Miller and the good Ernesto's famous quote. I don't know why these situations make me feel so bitter and angry. If I were to guess it might be that my sense of poetic justice is so enraged by incidents like this. War heroes deserve to go home, don't they? And those in war who so eloquently educate us on what they see, are they not a precious resource, a part of our human treasury whos' knowledge and outlook might council the policy of peace in the generations to come? No, they're nothing but dogs and if they don't die today they will die tomorrow regardless of their contributions, great or small, so long as the war grinds on.
As we lionize the lives of our heroes we wind up glorifying war and so are doomed to perpetual military engagement because we miss the lesson. It's not just that people die in war but Great People die, the people we need in order to keep our civilization at the top of its game. Perhaps if our societies focused on the stupid and inglorious ways these heroes met their end then we might ponder a little more on the pointlessness of standing by while conflict cherry picks our citizenry.
Meanwhile President Bush's exit strategy in Iraq is becoming increasingly clear. There will be the full contingent of troops present up until he leaves office. Changing the course in this conflict will be the job of the next President, not his.