Ex-soldiers, dressed entirely in white hospital-like attire, some without an arm or a leg, stood or sat in the precincts of a shrine. Some played plaintive tunes on concertinas. Others had a little dog beside them to garner the sympathy of passersby. Often the dog wore a little beanie or sported cheap plastic sunglasses to catch people’s eye. Those disabled veterans of World War II were begging for money from their compatriots — compatriots who wanted more than anything to forget they had ever existed.
The country was Japan; the time, the summer of 1967.
I had spent the spring of that year in France, before coming to Japan. Being a typically impoverished graduate student in Paris, I searched for the cheapest place to have a hearty meal. I found it in the Club for Polish War Veterans. Being able to speak Polish, I felt right at home, though I was the only young person there, a lanky and cheerful American among still largely traumatized ex-servicemen.
But you could get a great Polish meal there for 5 francs, the equivalent at the time of about $1. I can still see the poor men, many of them only in their forties but looking two decades older, slouching over their meals. The hands of some of them shook so badly that all the soup in their spoons spilled before reaching their lips.
The disabilities caused by war make the aftermath as bad, for millions of people, as the war itself. Add to this the psychological traumas, the nightmares, the fits and the hardcore melancholy that war’s aftermath engenders, and you get an overall accounting of war’s monumentally grim impact on human beings.
Ratio of wounded to killed
When we speak of the costs of war, the ledger is never closed.
The war in Iraq has already cost the United States more than $250 billion for the military operations there. Conservative estimates come in at about $1 billion a week for ongoing operations.
In past wars, it was generally said that the number of wounded soldiers was about three times the number of those killed. However, due to vastly improved logistics that now enable casualties to be rushed to hospital for state-of-the-art medical care, this ratio has increased. There have been approximately 16,000 servicemen and women left disabled as a result of the hostilities in Iraq. As there have been more than 2,000 deaths among the U.S. armed forces, that would suggest a ratio of about eight to one. Yet the figure of 16,000 is certainly an underestimate. Many of those who return home in seemingly normal health may already be experiencing, or will experience, post-traumatic disorders until the day they die.
During the Vietnam War, the people of the United States were constantly made aware of the sacrifice that their soldiers were making for their country. The news announced the number of casualties virtually on a daily basis. This was one of the things that wore down America’s enthusiasm for that war. Americans eventually came to the conclusion that it wasn’t “worth it.”
The Bush administration has learned something from that “mistake.” The president avoids association with what he sees as these unfortunate negative aspects of the war effort. Publicity shots with injured veterans are rare. He steers clear of meetings with mothers, wives and husbands of Americans killed in the war in Iraq, since who could predict when one of them might throw accusations of guilt in his face.
Ever since the outbreak of the war, now nearly three years ago, the administration’s policy has been one of underestimation of loss. They must, at all costs, maintain the illusion that this war is “worth it.”
This methodical underestimation of loss contrasts with the common overestimation of loss in considering the tragedy of 9/11. Earlier this month, speaking on CNN, Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh from Indiana referred to the number of deaths in the World Trade Center attack. “These people [the terrorists],” he said, “killed 3,000 Americans. They have to be brought to justice.”
Actually, although that figure of 3,000 American deaths is often cited, nearly one in three of the World Trade Center victims was not American. However, America is happy to claim losses when they can be used to generate fervor for aggressive action.
Trillions of dollars
Let’s return to the war in Iraq, since that is the only major war that we now can have an effect on.
The costs of war must be tallied comprehensively. Military expenditures reflect only a portion of what a war is, in reality, costing a country that prosecutes it. (This, of course, leaves out the costs to the country being invaded.)
The true cost to the U.S. alone of the war in Iraq will soon be measured not in billions but in trillions of dollars. Again, this does not include the horrendous costs to the country on whose soil the war is being fought. The Vietnamese people are still suffering from the aftermath of a war that ended more than 30 years ago, with heavy traumatic aftereffects among aging veterans and deformed children being born as a result of chemical weapon attacks on the country. The U.S., of course, has washed its hands of the Agent Orange herbicides that it dropped, massively, on Vietnam. That’s their problem now: we’ve “moved on.”
In fact, you never move on. A war never ends. Its ledger of loss has no bottom line. It has reams of blank paper in it waiting to be filled in with the unspeakable losses of an unending aftermath.
Those war veterans in white, begging in the precincts of a shrine, may have been on the wrong side. No one wanted to know them for the shame and defeat they represented. Their compatriots just wished they would go away — and that was precisely what happened. Considered an eyesore in the leadup to the Osaka Expo of 1970, the streets were cleaned of them as if they were unseemly rubbish.
As for the traumatized World War II survivors in the Polish Club for War Veterans in Paris, most of them had fought with the Allies. But there were those there too who had joined forces, some under duress, with the German army.
But when a war is over, it doesn’t matter whose side you were on. Japanese, Poles, Americans, Iraqis . . . we all become one. We become part of the inestimable loss that war’s aftermath continues to rack up long after the war itself is all but forgotten.