"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
The snow was coming down pretty heavy as I walked towards the National Mall. I've always liked walking during a snowstorm; everything seems so quiet, every noise is muffled, even here in D.C. And this storm was a doozy, hammering much of the East Coast.
I don't know why, but I started heading for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There weren't many people there; few visit during weather like this. As I walked by the panels, relishing the stillness, I came upon a man in fatigues. Though one of those floppy green hats covered his head, he seemed under dressed considering the cold. The area around him was devoid of wind and snow, as if the Wall created a sheltered harbor from the storm. He was staring at one panel, at a spot about chest high. Upon my approach, he said to no one in particular, "Goddamn bastards are doing it again." The sound of his voice startled me; I flinched, and stopped. He turned to look at me.
"We never learn, do we?" he asked. My quizzical look made him chuckle, and he continued as he turned back toward the Wall: "It never ceases to amaze me what we let ourselves be turned into cannon fodder for. We let ourselves get talked into all sorts of horror, and only after the body bags start piling up do we begin to wonder why."
We both knew he had my attention now. "Know how many names are here?" he asked. "Something like 50,000," I replied. "You make it sound like a goddamn statistic" he said, "There's Fifty Eight Thousand Two Hundred And Twenty Nine names on this Wall." He said the words slowly, enunciating each one. "Fifty Eight Thousand Two Hundred And Twenty Nine. Every one of them a son; a brother, or a father, a husband, a cousin, a lover, a neighbor, a friend. Fifty Eight Thousand Two Hundred And Twenty Nine boys brought home in boxes. For what? For fuckin' nothing. And now the bastards are gonna do it again."
"You mean Iraq ?" I asked. "That isn't gonna be for nothing. Saddam is dangerous, he has to be stopped."
The man could barely conceal his contempt. "Give me a break. A danger to who? Us here in the U.S. of A.? Is his navy off our coast? Is his air force flying over our cities? The only danger he poses is to his neighbors, maybe, and they're so worried about it that they're willing to let us die for them, but won't fight him themselves. And they want us to pay them for the privilege. With friends like that . . . ." His voice trailed off. "Maybe you're right," he finally said, "this isn't for nothing. It's for oil."
My raised eyebrows made him shake his head, and he went on: "I don't know what's worse. Killing people over political philosophy, like in my time, or for oil. Hey, at least this time we might get something for our blood. Like ol' Tecumseh Sherman said, 'Nations go to war when there is something to be got by it'. Now oil can be got by it. After a great start, we're gonna be no different than any other empire that came down the historical pike.
"And I know what you're gonna say next. 'He sponsors terrorism'. Where's the proof? I thought we were going after bin Laden for that. But wait, Afghanistan ain't got any oil. So we need another monster, who's got something worth taking. And Saddam is so damn convenient. Yeah, he's an evil sonovabitch who deserves to be taken out, but are we the ones who should do it? Are our kids the ones who should die for it? Is he worth another Wall like this?
"And what the hell is terrorism, anyway? It's not a thing; it's not a place; it's not a person. It is a political and military strategy, that's all. Having a 'War On Terrorism' is as ridiculous as having a 'War on Flanking Maneuvers'. You'll end terrorism when there's no longer anything for anybody to get pissed off about. As for now, maybe if we looked at why people are pissed at us, we'd begin to understand. Hell, it doesn't matter whether they're right or wrong; it's what they perceive that motivates them. What you have to address is why they perceive things as they do. Only then will you start to get a clue. And spare me the bullshit about them hating us because of our freedom. We haven't been truly free in a long time. And now we're letting all this demagoguery convince us to give up what little liberty we have left. Big Brother Lives!
"Look at history, man. The Romans began with a republic, just like we did. The freedom and prosperity that followed made them complacent, apathetic. They became fat and happy, and mistakenly figured that government was responsible. Since their government was such a Good Thing, it didn't need watching, so few paid it any attention. Those with a knack for politics took advantage of that to increase their power, and also their stash. Eventually the republic degraded into an empire, and suffered the fate of all empires. They go broke trying to keep control of every place they've conquered.
"We're heading down the same road. Only this time, it's happening faster. It took three, four centuries for Rome to decline and fall. We might do it in three or four decades. Hell, maybe three or four years. Or months! Who the hell knows?"
He paused for a moment; I could see him trying to calm his breathing. He began to slowly read from the Wall, his eyes moving randomly over the panel. "David T. Hilton. William C. Langham. John A. Gibson. Richard Galan. Danny Lee Frye. Cecil D. Lamm. All these boys blown off the face of the Earth, because we just can't keep our noses out of what's happening on the other side of the world. Ever read George Washington's Farewell Address?" I shook my head. "He told us not to concern ourselves with what other countries are doing to and amongst themselves. He said it would just get us mired in a big mess. But did we listen? Nooooo. He warned us! Jefferson warned us! Most all of the Founders warned us! John Quincy Adams, about thirty years later, said 'America does not go out in search of monsters to destroy.' Well, now we do, John Q.
"You know what I finally figured out? People don't start wars. Countries don't start wars. It's governments that start wars. Fuckin' governments. And we go along with it. Whenever you see a problem, social or economic or political, and think that government should do something about the problem, do a little homework and you'll probably find that government is the source of the problem. And war is just the epitome of government problem solving. So what if a majority thinks that this coming war is right. The majority is just something that government manufactures and manipulates to give the appearance of legitimacy to what government does.
"And as for those government bozos who say that those who question their plans and motives is unpatriotic and aiding the enemy, well, they can just kiss my ass."
I stared at the ground. Thirty years of fear, of doubt, of anger, of hurt, of rage, was coming out of him in a rush. It made me uncomfortable, but I couldn't move from that spot; I wanted him to continue. He seemed to sense this.
"You know what really galls me? How those that seem to yell loudest for war have never seen one. They've never seen a buddy disappear from the waist up after a shell hit, then see his legs stand there for a moment before falling over. They never saw a friend all psyched up about going home tomorrow after finishing his tour get hit in the belly with shrapnel, see his guts spill out, then watch him try to gather up his intestines lying in the dirt. They never saw what napalm does do a little girl's skin. They never saw a 19-year-old from Iowa screaming and writhing on the ground because a mine blew his legs off. They never saw a man take a bullet through the brain, then watch his body flop around on the ground for a minute or so because it doesn't realize he's dead. They never put pieces of someone into a bag, not knowing who it was until you read the tags, because there wasn't any face left to go along with the other parts. They haven't seen the shit I've seen, and they want to do it all over again. Those bastards!
"But what really makes me mad is how those who should know better seem to have forgotten. All those vets in Congress, POW's even, who know what I'm talking about, but will go along with the calls for war because it's politically expedient. Don't they remember? Do they really want another generation of kids to experience that shit? Have they gotten so accustomed to the trappings of power that people are just pawns, tools, mere things to be manipulated for their own ends? DO THEY KNOW WHAT THE FUCK THEY'RE DOING?
"But it doesn't matter. We'll let them do it anyway."
He began walking away, head up but eyes looking down. As he receded into the swirling snow, I saw him raise his face to the storm, toward Capitol Hill. "DAMN YOU BASTARDS!" was the last thing I heard as he disappeared into the white.
I turned to the panel next to me. The wind and snow came heavier now; I hunched my shoulders and lowered my face. My gaze fell upon names near the bottom. William R. Hunt. David F. Bowman. Hector L. Sanchez. David W. Wooden. Gary B. Jones. Oscar L. Thomas. Ramon Hernandez Torres. Thomas C. Mays. Woodrow D. Adler. Jonathan Blue Jr.
The characters and circumstances of this story are fictional. The ideas expressed, however, are not.