dick cavett on the war

Dick Cavett, who was my favorite “talk show” host (interviewer, really), has a column in the “Times Select” section of the New York Times. I look forward to his columns—the way he writes leaves me sorry I finished so quickly and eager for more. He, along with Frank Rich and Paul Krugman, are I think are three of the voices that most need to be heard by Americans. Yet the New York Times puts their columns behind a barrier that most people can’t afford: the annual subscription price. I don’t know why they do this—they could put the recipes and business news and sports news and a lot of other content behind this barrier and allow public access to the voices that really need to be heard by all—the would be true public service worthy of a great newspaper. Or what once was a great newspaper.

Last week, Dick Cavett wrote a column that really struck me. I’ve been thinking a lot about this folderol about McCain and Obama having to apologize for saying soldiers’ lives are being wasted in Iraq. Retreating from the word “wasted.” When the truth of the matter is they ARE being wasted. As are the lives of all those Iraqis killed since we invaded. But read this excerpt from his February 28, 2007 column “What My Uncle Knew About War” [subscription required]—

I have a statement: Anybody who gives his life in war is an idiot.

I guess I left off the quotation marks to let the words have their full effect. They aren’t mine, but I’m related to them. They’re my Uncle Bill’s words, and his credentials for uttering the remark are a shade better than mine.

He may well have been the sole Marine to have survived driving landing barges on three bloody invasions in the South Pacific. I asked an old Marine vet once how rare Bill’s survival was. He was gifted of speech: “I’d say survivors of what your uncle did could probably hold their reunion in a phone booth and still have room for most of Kate Smith.” (We’ll pause while youngsters Google.) “My guess is that your uncle is unique.”

Bill said that aside from knowing that any minute was likely to be your last, the worst part of the job was having to drop the landing barge’s front door so the guys could swarm out onto the beach. Despite the hail of bullets against that door, he had to drop it, knowing that the front five or six guys would be killed instantly.

The phrase Bill hated most was “gave his life.” That phrase is a favorite of our windbag politicians; especially, it seems, the dimmer ones who say “Eye-rack.”

“Your life isn’t given,” I remember him saying, “it’s brutally ripped away from you. You’re no good to your buddies dead, and when the bullets start pouring in you don’t give a goddamn about God, country, Yale, your loved ones, the last full measure of devotion or any other of that Legionnaire patriotic crapola. You just want you and your buddies to see at least one more sunrise.”

Bill also served on land and experienced something so god-awful that he thought he would go mad: “Tom [his best friend] and I were trotting along, firing our rifles, and I turned to say something to Tom and his head was gone.” (Bill had great difficulty telling this. I guess I felt honored that he had not been able to speak of it for years.) He said the worst part was that while still holding the rifle, the body, now a fountain, continued for four or five steps before falling. He hated to close his eyes at night because that ghastly horror was his dependable nightly visitor for years — like Macbeth, murdering sleep.

By sheer chance I was out on the sidewalk in front of Bill’s house (we lived next door) when he arrived home from the war. I wasn’t even sure it was Bill at first, he looked so much older.

I blurted, “Hey, Bill, welcome home.” He was two feet from me but neither saw nor heard me. I knew the phrase current then. Bill was “shellshocked.” Not the current “post-traumatic stress disorder” or whatever the P.C.-sounding phrase is today. For the first six months he was home, he slept in the yard.

You will think less of me for this, but my friend Jim and I, noticing how poor Bill jumped at sudden sounds, thought a firecracker might be in order. Bill’s training kicked in by reflex. He hit the ground so fast it looked like film with frames removed. And, lacking the standard-issue shovel, he started digging with his hands. He never knew who did it. As for Jim and me, I trust that this will be deducted from our shares in paradise.

Isn’t it the excellent combat chronicler Paul Fussell who gets credit for the phrase “the thousand-mile stare”? It described the look of the haggard soldiers coming back from their first battle as the eager, fresh-faced kids — which they had been a few days earlier — filed past them on their way “in.” By definition, both groups were the same age, but there were no young faces in the returning group. They looked more like fathers than sons.

It amazes me that this bungled war can still be considered controversial. Who are the 28 percent anyway, who think that George W., the author of this mess, has “done a heckuva job”?

The other word Bill hated was “sacrifice.” Sacrifice is something you give up in order to get something in return. What good are we getting from this monstrous error? Cooked up as it was by that infamous group of neocons (accent on last syllable) who, draft-averse themselves, were willing to inflict on the (largely unprivileged) youth of this country their crack-brained scheme for causing democracy to take root and spread like kudzu throughout that bizarre and ill-understood part of the world, the Middle East.

What service is this great country getting out of all this tragedy, other than the certainty that historians will ask in disbelief, “Was there no one to stand up to this overweening president?”

I cringe at the icky, sentimental way the president talks about what we owe to the people of plucky little Iraq. You’d think we all grew up ending our “Now I lay me down to sleep…” with “… and please, Lord, be good to Iraq.” They detest us now, along with just about everybody else. Personally, I don’t give a damn what happens to Iraq, and don’t think it’s worth a single American life. Or any other kind. Haven’t philosophers taught us the immorality of destroying something of infinite value — like a human life — in order to achieve a possible good? I guess not.

For weeks the word “cause” has rolled around in my head, attached to an elusive quote. I found it. It’s from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” (as distinct, I suppose, from Paris Hilton’s “Henry V”) and it’s the part where the king, in disguise and unrecognized, sits at a fire listening to some of his men discuss the next day’s battle and what it means to be fighting in a good cause. One says, “But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place,’ … their wives left poor behind … their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle. … Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it.”

I think it’s time for the Democrats we sent to Washington do what we really sent them to do: impeach Bush.

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