Landfill ghosts


It’s too simple-minded to call it what it is: Military waste. What else are we to make of the belated revelation that the remains of “at least” 274 American soldiers and more than 2700 unidentified miscellaneous body parts have been dumped in the King County landfill just south of Washington, D.C. And it would be crass to call it a cover-up.

I’ll be frank: I have a serious aversion to military funerals. The solemn soldiers, the flag-draped coffins, the bugler playing heartbreaking taps, the huddle of deeply pained loved ones trailing the procession––I often feel used not by them, the sorrowing participants, but by those who attach the solemn emotion and dignity of the ritual to their current political agendas. See, they say without saying it, here’s another one of ours innocently victimized. I told you so. We need this war. We need to keep this from happening again. We need more money for the military. We need you to vote for me.

So support the troops. Put a yellow ribbon on your car bumper. If you really are a true American.

How can we not grieve for the soldiers? They leave family, friends, lovers and jobs behind, and some don’t come back alive. Don’t we also have to have sympathy for the administrators of the disposal problem? Who were these lost soldiers, and how do we connect them to lost families? Whose leg, arm or skull shard is this? They come with no names and addresses attached. We can freeze or incinerate to prevent bad odors and disease, but then what do we do with the remains? They’re not much of anything any more. Please, will somebody tell us what to do?

Who do those in charge of the immediate disposal problem talk to, and what do they say to their families and to themselves when they go home from work?

What I find reassuring, especially in sub-zero temperatures, is to drive past one of those small societies of gravestones huddled next to a country church. The dead seem to be at home there where they routinely went to church, and the silence surrounding them seems to put an end to the battles they’ve won and lost all their lives. On that little plot of land they’ve achieved not only a sacred blessing but common ground. I like to wander among the stones, read the names, and imagine the lives. A lot of the dead have the same last names.

Some primitive communities gave burial a similar vitality that seems to be distancing itself from us today, especially given the widespread belief that there exists a heavenly city, beyond this vale of tears, where at least some chosen individuals will live happily ever after in resurrected bodies. All burial ceremonies involve symbolic rites that are intended to honor the dead while expressing and helping to mitigate the sorrow of the living, and while hell works well for those requiring revenge belief in heaven helps many get through their ordeals. But some primitives, without believing in either heaven or hell as “places,” insisted that the actual body of the deceased be present at the funeral rite, not ensconced in a photograph, empty casket or dust-filled urn. Early Greeks, for example, those who scratched out their livings in small villages long before mythic hero hoards exported their years of slaughter, pillage and rape to cities like Troy, believed it was unnatural, indeed blasphemous, for their dead to be buried away from home. Their local deities required that proper burial be a home town event. Any lost body not buried in a local tomb in accord with proper rites was doomed to be transformed into an endlessly miserable wandering ghost, lost to the community. Only in an actual community could the deceased, in memory’s eyes, continue to live, and only in this way could the deceased remain as part of the community. Especially since an actual tomb was visible nearby, death brought tolerable closure, and enduring connection, to the living.

Home-burial as a sacred rite became embattled when people massed themselves into city-states and later into nation-states that collectivized their males into armies that found profit in wars of plunder waged away from home. Village boys kidnapped to serve in these armies often never returned home, many of them ditched in distant lands. Over the centuries, as armies and weaponry became larger, bureaucratized, and more lethal, a strategic rule evolved that is becoming more difficult to enforce as the world shrinks and lethal technologies increase their range: Export the war to someone else’s turf. Win away from home, then return for the parades and enjoyment of the spoils. As populations and war machines have increased and multiplied, so have mass graves full of invaders and innocents alike. In the twentieth century millions of casualties have been landfilled like garbage, and the twenty-first century is off to a horrifying start to continue the trend.

Especially in a time when the word “conservation” is slipping into disuse in favor of “growth,” what seems to be getting lost is the sense of how massive the waste has been. There is sullen and muted suspicion, often across political lines, that there has been plenty of waste, but deficit hawks in particular, while they’re obsessive over budget deficits, seem unwilling to calculate the losses generated by the wars they sponsor behind closed doors. The waste they fund seems distanced, away from home, and therefore the need to be accountable for it is also put out of sight and out of mind. The things they don’t like to count don’t count. Casualties are brought home one by one, with little enough ceremony to disturb the public peace, and those who sorrow––neighbors, friends, family, lovers––also tend to disappear from public view. War, a massive public event, is privatized.

The primitives, with their local gods and home town rites, insisted that their dead had an actual place in life, a home where they could find some final peace. As our world “shrinks,” mainly under the influence of technologies, we routinely move away from home, especially if there’s a job somewhere else. But this mobility, which promises adventure, opportunity, and prosperity, makes displaced persons of us too. Family ties are loosened, tied to quick-fire electronic exchanges and holiday visits. Our uncertainties require us to rent rather than buy into a place to live happily ever after in. Family becomes redefined as special friends that come and go. From our new distances acquaintances are divorced from the immediate application of the five senses evolution has honed for our understanding of the world. Our abandoned home towns matter as places with nostalgic value fit to visit for some reunion. Meanwhile, we move from place to place, finding it convenient to leave our environmental messes behind for someone else to worry about.

American soldiers who spend their holidays in some foreign land no doubt feel the alienation more profoundly than civilians who have become accustomed to it “at home.” The spaces these soldiers stare into across desert sands are crossed by no freeways they recognize. Since the Vietnam era there has been no consensus about whether any of our wars have been either necessary for national security or morally defensible. And those opposed to our wars have allowed pro-war factions to expropriate the flag and other major symbols of national unity for their exclusive use. In this way a nation becomes divided against itself and the extreme political partisanship that results makes cooperative compromise difficult. Hard-headed division digs in for more battles at home. So soldiers naturally ask: What am I doing here? What am I fighting for? What homeland am I defending?

It’s easy, and probably most accurate, to answer the first two questions in cynical, and mercenary, terms. But the third question––What homeland am I defending, especially this far away from home?––requires an increasingly abstracted response. We all have a place of birth, but more routinely now it’s not where we live. We’re often not well grounded in any “home town,” or, if we’re city dwellers, in a neighborhood we can call “ours.” We all pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States, but Columbus, Georgia, feels like a foreign country to a lot of people in Columbus, Wisconsin. So-called American corporations offshore many of their assets and thousands of jobs to distant lands, and their “lean” business practices seem indifferent to the reduction of individual employees to a skeletal workforce made up of anonymous pawns. When American soldiers pause to think about the dirty work they are ordered to do in some faraway place, they have good reason to wonder not what homeland they’re fighting for but whose private profits they’re dying to increase.

I’m still primitive enough to see the ghosts of their casualties hovering in the bad air above the King County landfill, just south of Washington, D.C. Though I don’t hear their actual voices I suspect they telling us they’d like to come back home to real places where genuine homes exist and where reconstruction of towns, neighborhoods and a sense of community is taking place.