Words Fail Us In Wartime

"I gotta use words when I talk to you." -- T.S. Eliot

The trouble is -- words don't make it anymore, if they ever did. "Support Our Troops" -- the signs are everywhere, planted in front yards, spelled out on marquees, plastered on grocery-store windows and car bumpers. I don't know what they mean.

Did you catch that wire service account the other day about an Army sergeant who was appalled when doctors at a US military base refused to treat three Iraqi children who had been burned severely when they set fire to a bag of explosive powder left over from the war?

An Army spokesman later explained that "the children's condition did not fall into the category that requires army physicians to treat them ... There was no inappropriate response on the part of the physicians."

Are we supposed to support those of our troops who refuse to alleviate the suffering of children?

A half century ago I was stationed with a Marine air wing outfit in Korea when a villager was critically injured after being struck by a US military vehicle. A doctor assigned to the base attempted unsuccessfully to treat the man. He died and about a week later an edict was handed down by some Pentagon official who wanted to be Donald Rumsfeld when he grew up: Thou shalt not treat indigenous personnel.

The doctor responded with a suggestion that the Pentagon official might consider going "straight to hell. I'm a doctor, this is what I do, and court-martial me if you don't like it." He went on treating ill or injured Koreans, undoubtedly saving a few lives in the process.

Who, here, are we expected to support -- an idiot armchair warrior who sees no special value to Korean lives or a doctor in the field dedicated to saving them?

Are we supposed to support the actions of those of our troops who a few weeks ago fired into a crowd of unarmed Iraqi civilians gathered to protest the continuing US occupation in the midst of turmoil and chaos in Baghdad? Maybe 10 persons were killed, maybe 20. Who knows? Who cares? Wholesale Iraqi deaths mean nothing, but one dead American soldier is worth front page headlines from sea to shining sea.

I am no less baffled by another key phrase of the moment -- "weapons of mass destruction" -- though this may be less important because, despite the fact that no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons have been found in Iraq, a recent University of Maryland survey indicated that one-third of the American public believes they have been, and 22% are certain they were used against US troops during the war. Definitions lose their value when confronted by massive misinformation.

But should "weapons of mass destruction" be limited to these particularly deadly kinds? What label, for example, should be affixed 'to the huge bombs, the tanks and heavy artillery that preceded and accompanied the shoot-everything-that-moves rapid northward advance of US troops to Baghdad early in the war? These weapons claimed the lives of anywhere from 3.000 to 10,000 Iraqi civilians, depending on who you choose to believe. Are these "weapons of minor destruction?" The survivors of their victims, many themselves maimed, may be forgiven for thinking they are. And are we supposed to support the American troops who so efficiently used them?

Words, words and more words, but what do they mean? Who is the real terrorist? When a Hamas suicide bomber blows up a bus and kills 25 Israelis, that, we are told, is an act of terrorism. When Israeli troops retaliate with airborne attacks that kill three times as many Palestinians, that, we are told, is an act of antiterrorism. And that ratio is correct -- the most recent statistics placed the number of dead Israelis at 800, the number of dead Palestinians at 2,400 during the last 34 months of violence.

Finally, if the militant Hamas forces are terrorists, what were the militant Irgun forces who, among other bloodbaths., blew up the British office wing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel in 1946, at a cost of 91 lives? The Irgun violence was aimed at convincing the British and the international community to create a Jewish homeland, and their actions, lethal and horrible as they were, undoubtedly played a role in Israel's creation two years later. Today's Hamas violence is aimed at convincing Israel and the international community to create a Palestinian homeland. So far, it hasn't worked.

The trouble is -- words don't make it anymore, if they ever did. The greater trouble is -- they're all we have. Except, of course, for guns.

Joe Lersky is a retired newspaper editor who lives in Grove City, Ohio.

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