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Numb or Alive

IN 1971, John Kerry, as a young man testifying before congress, demanded to know:
''How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" He was referring to the Vietnam War.

In 2006, we need to be asking, "How do you ask someone to be the last person to die for a lie?" We need to be asking about Iraq, and about Afghanistan.

We must remember the long train of lies that got us into this "war on terrorism." It wasn't so long ago that they shouldn't be fresh in memory; rather, I think we'd rather forget. That might seem easier than solving the problem. But, sooner or later it's a problem that's going to be solved, and the sooner that happens the more families we'll save from the senseless loss that now happens every day, and sometimes many times a day.

I saw a TV segment the other night about how servicemen and women who lost limbs in battle want nothing more than to finish up physical therapy, learn how to walk on that fake leg, and go back to the war zone. I don't doubt the veracity of the individuals who are speaking in their own voices. I just doubt whoever is choosing their particular message to be the one we see and hear.

Though it may have faded to ancient lore by now, for more than a year into the United States' invasion of Iraq, photos of killed soldiers were 'prohibited' from publication. Whether the government got away with this maneuver or not, it's still unconstitutional -- and it seemed destined to fail at one particular moment near the Aries New Moon of 2004 (exact on the Aries Point, "the personal is political" point).

First, a woman named Tami Sicilio, a US contractor working in Kuwait, released to the Seattle Times a photo she took of 20 flag-draped coffins on their way home, lined up in an airplane.

Then just days later, an organization called The Memory Hole, which had used the authority of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to demand any such photos in the military's possession, obtained hundreds. This happened after the government lost an appeals procedure brought against it by The Memory Hall, and had to make them public. (They are linked from the front page of Planet, in the photo caption.)

Had these images been broadcast on national television in the first weeks of the war, we would have had the other side of the story, what is politely called 'the human cost': death. Had we spent some hours reviewing such images long before the war started, we might have called off the whole thing.

By hiding these images from us, and by banning news coverage of funerals (a rule which thankfully some news organizations now break), what the government did was in effect to ban grieving, and to block the opportunity to grieve. But the people who started this war have never been big on expressing feelings. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, there was no period of mourning; nothing besides airports and monuments were closed, in a defensive measure; life sort of hobbled on the rest of the day and into the week. K-Marts didn't close for a single hour, and we were told to go out for dinner to help stimulate the economy.

Can you believe that schools and business were not shut on the 12th? Not for a single day?

Compare that with the day and days following John Kennedy's assassination: the nation and much of the world closed down, the US for three days, out of respect and in acknowledgement of shock, urgently taking time to respond to the loss. Imagine a still world, businesses closed, theatres dark, public transportation on minimum schedule. Nobody was in any shape to work. It would not dawn on you to go to the movies the night of Nov. 22, 1963.

By ignoring our war dead, we've stayed in shut-down mode since things took that sudden turn for the worse, in the summer of 2001. Very little has improved since then. Dignity seems to mean nothing.

In other countries, when soldiers come home from the battle front, they are given full state honors, as they have been since time immemorial. In the United States, we pretend war could somehow exist without the sacrifice of life, or we play along with the sick joke. Very likely this is something that's done to us, as in brainwashing and educational processes; if you're a media droid, you might want to run a quick checklist of your beliefs. I am pretty sure I understand why this game is foisted on us: to see our fallen honored properly would evoke emotion. Emotion would mean we are feeling, and feeling might mean we start to feel sick at the deaths of so many people, and the losses to so many families, for no reason, all for a lie.

I ask on behalf of people deployed in Afghanistan as well, what has become the forgotten war, and one that was started in the wake of the many unconscionable lies that constitute what we call "September 11."

We are, as a society, being denied both the truth, and the right to grieve our losses; they are the same and one. Families who have given sons, daughters, husbands and wives, are being denied public recognition for their sacrifices. How it's been made somehow unpatriotic to speak about or acknowledge the loss of a warrior is a black miracle that could only be accomplished by dark minds blinding people to their own good senses. Well, and everyone who keeps kitting the snooze.

If you think about it, there is a sick logic to this, besides the obvious public relations stance of keeping bad things out of view. The net effect of hiding those killed in action is to deny the pain of the situation, on a pandemic scale. We miss a chance to feel the power of the truth, no matter how painful. Our own mortality, which is recalled by any death ritual, might evoke enough fear or compassion to lead people to commit deeply to a change. We might look at one of those funerals or one of those caskets coming home and decide it's just not worth it.

And as long as we don't see the consequences of our actions, or lack thereof, as a society, we might not believe they exist. That's the false promise of a karma-free ride down a very dangerous road, one that so far has only led to pain.

A perhaps cynical, even sinister way to view the Iraq tragedy is that it's an ongoing lesson in how to shut down, en masse, a quality in the public which always comes in handy when tyrants have a long list of crimes to get away with, about which people might otherwise get upset.

People who can't feel and don't care make great slaves. If you've been pushed there, maybe consider it part of your educational process; your own tax dollars paid for it. Or, maybe consider it something to revolt against. One thing about a revolution is that almost everyone who shows up is awake.

People who can indeed feel have access to another kind of information. Those who feel can work in simpatico to others who feel, without the need for a big effort at coordination. Imagine waves of feeling, compassion and action spreading across the United States and around the globe. Imagine millions of minds just getting it. Feel, and the body speaks and gives hints to right and wrong, true and false, trustworthy or not.

The choice is ours: numb or alive.

Keith Olbermann: History Lesson on Vietnam