This past Sunday we celebrated our nation’s 234th birthday with fireworks, barbecue, and apple pie on a holiday that reminds us that we live in the greatest country in the world. Our founding fathers fought nobly to win freedom and preserve our way of life. Similarly, we have heroes among us today, risking their lives every minute of every hour overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan so that we can feel safe in our country. These wars have been compared to the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and in the same way, people try to draw parallels between President Barack Obama and President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s was only one of three presidencies dragged down by that conflict, in terms of the political cost, the billions of dollars spent, and the thousands of lives lost.
And now President Obama is facing the same kind of drain. Many Americans, some not much older than my high school classmates, are being killed and maimed in this new war. “The Hurt Locker,” a 2009 movie about three heroes in the Iraq war and the struggles they faced, was received with widespread appraise, even winning six Academy Awards. The film really seemed to resonate with the American people, almost as a wake-up call or a reality check, which I think is a great thing. A few weeks ago I had a reality check of my own involving the war.
I have known Dr. Ken Larsen my entire life. He and my father were fraternity brothers in college, and though Dr. Larsen always jokes that my father got him into lots of trouble, they both did okay, since he went to medical school and my dad went to law school. Dr. Larsen was the best man in my parents’ wedding, and he and my dad remain the best of friends to this day.
He normally works as an emergency room doctor in Connecticut, but recently he has volunteered months at a time on the frontlines as a trauma surgeon in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently he came to see us and to talk to my brother Will’s fifth grade class at Millstone River School about living and working in a war zone. He showed the kids there the PG-13 version of the slideshow he’d made about life in Baghdad and Afghanistan ER; at home, we got the R-rated version that showed the graphic reality of battle casualties.
Blood, guts, bullet injuries, missing limbs, shrapnel wounds, broken bones –– we got to see it all on slides that depicted the horrors of war along with a live commentary by our family friend about exactly what we were seeing. What was especially impressive was what he said about his role as a doctor: that his job was to treat the enemy injured as well as our own, and he had treated soldiers with Taliban and Al Qaeda ties. When it came to his duties as a doctor politics were swept aside, and his mission was to relieve human suffering. His words made me think long and hard about the battles we are fighting.
I wondered why, if our family friend could treat everyone with the same respect and give everyone basic medical rights and dignity, they can’t just stop blowing each other up in the first place.
One major difference between the wars we are fighting now and the war in Vietnam is the relative lack of political protest and vocal antiwar sentiment today. There was a huge counter culture in the 1960s, mostly revolving around younger generations outraged with the war to an extreme, inspiring riots and protests.
People say one of the biggest problems of youth today is ignorance or indifference or both, and this is completely sad and disturbing to me. War is exaggerated and even glorified in today’s society.
One example of this is the new craze among my 11-year-old brother and his friends, and even kids my own age and older. It’s called Call of Duty, a war game played on X-Box live. I personally can’t stand it, but apparently it is all the rage. A recent commercial advertising its broad appeal bragged, “Everyone’s doing it!”
It was interesting that when Dr. Larsen was describing his time in Afghanistan and Iraq, Will was familiar with all the terminology he was using, from the names of guns to the names of the tanks, helicopters, grenades, and other weaponry. What I’ve observed of the game reminds me very graphically of war movies. These kids are getting quite a realistic experience, from the background scenery to the blood spatter and wounds. Quite frankly, it is scary, and hopefully my brother will never have to do any of this in real life. When Will was younger he was afraid of the draft; now our generation glorifies war in video games and movies.
I think that all people, but especially teens like me and kids like my brother, need to recognize the difference between the virtual realities of war on the video screen versus the harsh realities experienced by actual soldiers and people like Dr. Larsen.
This July 4 I was thinking about war and how saddening and pointless it all seems to be. While I was staring at the blazing fireworks I couldn’t help but think about the roadside bombs that injured many of Dr. Larsen’s patients. I watched my little brother beam when he heard the crackle in the sky, and I thought about the poor young men and women who couldn’t be with their families for this holiday and eat hot dogs off the grill.
Then I went home and saw the front page of the July 4 edition of the New York Times, which features a story and photo of 22-year-old Brendan Marrocco from Staten Island, who lost all his limbs in a roadside explosion.
While I read the article, I wished for more people to understand that however realistic and exciting technology can make war appear, however dramatic and necessary politicians can make it sound, nothing is more devastating than the truth that is lived by people like Brendan Marrocco and Dr. Larsen.