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Americans can handle the real truth
by Mitch Albom
The Detroit Free Press
May 2, 2004

There was a popular song during the first World War. Its title was "Over There." It encouraged young men to "get your gun" and "make your mother proud of you." It told the world "the Yanks are coming . . . and we won't come back till it's over over there."

Today, for most of us, war is indeed, "over there." It arrives only in green-screen TV reports and controlled press briefings and presidential photo ops that say "Mission Accomplished." Some of us would like to keep it that way.

So last week, when images of flag-draped coffins appeared on the Internet, many complained.

And when USA Today ran photos of 116 U.S. soldiers who died last month in Iraq, many complained again.

When Ted Koppel, host of "Nightline," devoted his program Friday to simply listing names of all U.S. soldiers killed in this conflict, critics screamed he was a lefty.

And when photos emerged of naked Iraqi detainees, bent in horrible, sexually suggestive poses, while a U.S. soldier smiled and pointed nearby, critics yelled this was undermining our national interest.

Really? Since when was our national interest to stick our heads in the sand?

Staggering numbers

The first rule of war is young people die. As we coddle ourselves more and more in this country, we seem to believe that, through enough talk or "American Idol" distraction, we can make death go away.

We can't. When I hear people compare this war to Vietnam, I shudder, not because both didn't have some misguided perceptions, but because in that war, everyone's son was a potential soldier. We had a draft. If you were 18, you could be going -- no matter what you thought.

Today, we scream louder and have less on the line. Who's really fighting this war for us? Young men and women, mostly poor to middle class, largely minorities. We're very quick to urge they go over there and stick a boot in some Arab's behind, but we don't want to know when they come back in a body bag.

I remember once hearing of some students who decided, on a Friday night, to begin counting the Jews killed in the Holocaust. Not their names. Just counting, one number for every victim, from one to six million. They counted into the evening, through the morning, through the day, through the next morning. They stopped on Sunday night -- and hadn't even reached 300,000.

That's when you start to realize what "over there" is really about.

Pride of the military

Shame on anyone who hides behind "national security" or "respect to the families" as reasons for shielding the real costs of war, namely human life. Most military families I know want the world to know of their loss, and the pride they have in their fallen loved ones.

Just as most of them want atrocities brought to light. And when our people -- be they soldiers, intelligence, FBI, CIA or whatever -- start torturing and humiliating Iraqis in the same building that Saddam Hussein used to do it, they are no better than him. And they deserve no protection.

Sy Hersh, the investigative reporter who broke the My Lai massacre story three decades ago -- another ugly incident no one initially wanted to hear about -- was asked what should be done about this latest apparent transgression.

"Exposure," he said.

That may be a dirty word to the current administration. It isn't to real Americans. It is the essence of who we are. We can face the truth. We believe in the truth. And the truth is our kids are dying in this war and so are a lot of others'. They have faces. They have families. And now some have coffins.

Those are facts. Not right or left. Facts. Do with them what you will. But until we stop thinking of war as "over there," we will never take full ownership of who we are over here.

Posted: May 4, 2004


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