Posted by: JanF | August 17, 2010

Casualty of War: A Person … Not a Number

Today’s post is about tears. Tears for a person and her family and for our country.

One of the most vivid memories I have of the first year of the Iraq war was of the death of a young woman from New Berlin Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. Michelle Witmer was a 20 year old member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company and the vehicle she was in while on patrol in Baghdad was ambushed by insurgents. She was killed in the attack. Her story and the story of her two sisters (including a twin sister) who were also in Iraq with the Guard were in the local and national news.

On my way home the other day, I was tuned in to NPR’s All Things Considered (link includes audio and transcript) and Michele Norris was interviewing John Witmer, Michelle Witmer’s father, about a book he has written about her story and the larger story of women in combat:

Six years ago, Michelle Witmer of the 32nd M.P. Company in Baghdad became the first female National Guardsman killed while serving in Iraq.

Even before her death, her story had garnered national attention. Michelle Witmer had marched off to war with her twin sister, Charity, and older sister, Rachel. Newspapers and TV networks could not resist the story about three telegenic women from New Berlin, Wis., decked out in camouflage determined to serve their country.

The book is Sisters in Arms: A Father Remembers. Here he is sharing the prologue to the book along with some images of Michelle:

Excuse me for a minute.

Okay, I’m back. It was the tears again.

It hits me all over again each time I hear her name and see her picture.

I didn’t know Michelle Witmer, I don’t know her family but every time I see her face I am reminded of the horrible tragedy of war.

Why does this resonate with me? Maybe because I am a woman, maybe because I have sisters, maybe because I have a daughter, maybe because I am a human being struck by the utter tragedy of a life lost before it could be found.

Over 4,400 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003. (For those keeping track, that would be over 4,200 and Michelle Witmer since major combat operations ended and the “Mission was Accomplished” on May 1, 2003). President Barack Obama has stated that by August 31, 2010 our military presence in Iraq will have ended.

Those 4,400+ are not numbers. They were human beings who had people who loved them (and will miss them terribly) and whose deaths moved people who did not even know them. I can’t read the IGTNT diaries on DailyKos except to click the Recommend button because the faces there are like the face of Michelle Witmer. And they haunt me.

As we enter the 20th year 10th year of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan (sorry, I confused us with the last major world power who got stuck there), we are still counting. And counting.

I understand why we have a military, I understand that some military actions may be necessary to protect our country’s vital interests but I think it is easy when you have a standing army to decide too hastily that an interest is “vital”. And very often this decision (whether an interest is “vital”) is left to a small group of people: some of them with axes to grind and some with money to be funnelled to their friends.

I was a teenager during the Vietnam War and I saw how that war tore apart the country in part because it touched everyone. It was hard to not have an opinion about something that was on the TV every day and reached into every neighborhood. That was our last war fought with drafted troops and there was no escaping from the meat grinder of Vietnam unless you were the children of privilege or knew how to game the system.

I am not going to propose that we bring the draft back.

I do, however, think we need to have a “draft mentality” where we do not send troops to wars of choice or wars to protect the “vital interests” of American corporations and industries. A “draft mentality” requiring that before a single soldier is deployed, the people who make these decisions have to stop and think “Is this conflict worth sacrificing my daughter’s or son’s life for?” Because if it isn’t, on that most personal level, we should not be drawn into the conflict.

Somedays it feels like being anti-war has fallen out of vogue. I guess that is fine because actually I am not very trendy.

But I am proud to be an anti-war Democrat.

(A version of this was originally posted on 08/17/2010 at BPI Campus)