Many tiny flags and one big wound

"It's more or less a slap in the face to everyone who's given their lives in the war."

""Blane Newfield, SOU sophomore and Iraq War vet.

"It" was a sea of tiny flags that seemed to stretch forever across the SOU campus. Some 127,000 of them were white and represented the 600,000 Iraqis (a disputed number) killed since the 2003 invasion. Eight hundred and fifty red flags stood for the 4000+ fallen American troops.

Blane Newfeld took away a different message from what you'll find at : "The purpose of the Iraq Body Count Exhibit is to raise awareness of the human cost of the Iraq War. The Exhibit is non-political, as the numbers speak for themselves."

They speak to many of us with great power. Scanning that vast fluttering expanse gave a scale to the carnage of war that could be felt instead of analyzed and argued. That has rarely happened in the course of this stage-managed war, with media correspondents carefully embedded and pictures of flag-draped coffins strictly banned. Otherwise we might get all empathic and emotional. Informed, empathic citizens are not what you want when you're making war without compelling and credible reasons.

The SOU vets didn't sound moved. "It's very vague," Newfeld said, "and in my opinion it's leading to imply that all these deaths are the fault of the U.S. military."

Mike Rubin, a 26-year-old SOU junior who served in Iraq for seven months, thought the exhibit unfairly blamed the military for all the deaths. "They haven't clarified if these were Iraqis killing Iraqis, if these were Iranian insurgents killing Iraqis, if this was IEDs (improvised explosive devices) from Syria or Iran."

That's true, and &

to drop back to left-brain thinking for a moment &

completely off point. Everyone from State Department career diplomats to Middle East scholars to George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft in their book "A World Transformed" made the same pre-invasion prediction: the removal of Saddam would probably unleash a chaotic sectarian bloodbath beyond anyone's control. Wrote the first President Bush in the 1990s, "Had we gone the invasion route, the U.S. could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land."

None of which will impress these two well-spoken veterans, because they're coming more from feelings than analysis (which, remember, is exactly what the Body Count Exhibit invites us all to do).

It's easy for those of us who have always opposed the war to roll our eyes at their reaction. At first I did, thinking This is not all about you guys. Could you let go of your reflexive defensiveness for one damn minute to see that this thing is bigger than all of our political biases put together? Could you let yourself just feel the human tragedy long enough for us to consider together whether "100 years or more" of this is tolerable? And if it is, where are we going to put all the little flags?

Then I realized something else. This "human tragedy" I'm invoking has affected vets in ways I can barely imagine. I haven't looked into the closing eyes of women and children as they've drawn their last breaths on the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah. Many vets have.

I haven't had to wonder if the 6-year-old crossing in front of my Hummer is part of a plan to blow me up, and whether to stop or roll over him. Some vets have.

And I'm not the target of these online comments from the May 2 Tidings article:

"In fighting this war you have brought disgrace to us as a country. Don't come back all high and mighty crying foul because you were dumb enough to go fight an illegal war. You're a war criminal as far as I'm concerned, and should be treated as such!"

"[He] feels 'insulted' because he volunteered to be a paid murderer and has been forced to look at his handiwork."

"If they [feel insulted] my first question would be 'Oh, really? Why, exactly? What did you do over there?'"

Those are attacks. When attacked, the human being gets defensive.

To be clear, other readers praised these vets. And I have to add that within this online thread were some of the most vicious comments I've ever read, symptoms of a festering collective wound. Before the Body Count Exhibit fades from memory, is there any healing in sight?

I'm not sure, but I have a question I'd like to ask annoyed veterans: what could you hear or see from Iraq War opponents that would let you believe that what they most want is reduced human suffering and violence stemming from world events since 9/11?

And I'd like to know what it would take for war opponents to become less amazed that a combat vet from Iraq can't get in the exhibit's spirit.

And &

very, very much to the point &

the Welcome Home Project invites us all to gather at OSF's Bowmer Theatre on Memorial Day, May 26 at 6 p.m. to honor returning veterans. No advocacy, no blame, no old scripts or judgments. Just welcome"&

166;home. (More at or 482-1072)

is the author of As If We Were Grownups, Forest Blood and the new novel Unafraid (with excerpts at ).

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