The dogs of war, infamous for feasting on the carnage of battlefields, would be less vile if they did not hound civilians too. Once the dogs are unleashed nobody wants to claim ownership or responsibility for the diseases they spread. Because I entered life in 1941, just months before the Pearl Harbor attack, I was born into the stench of war the noses of those dogs hunger for. And because my nation has been at war (declared or not) every year of my life, the stench sickens me more and more. My affliction displays no obvious wounds––no scars, disfigurations, missing limbs. Rather I suffer from a persistent nausea, no doubt stimulated by the stench, for which there is no quick-fix. Please note: I’m no war hero and wouldn’t dream of asking for a Purple Heart. Nor does my status as citizen casualty inspire me to strain VA resources by seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress. Besides, the wars and their stresses are ongoing. Like millions of others I fear I’m doomed to carry my war sickness to my grave as I warily look over my shoulder at the dogs of war chasing me down.
The nausea routinely kicks in after I turn off the nightly news and I’m quietly alone. That’s when I begin seeing the zeroes with faces in them. The nightly news scenes are familiar to us––the car bomb explosion on the side of a nameless road, the crowded marketplace all fire and smoke, children holding their heads in disbelief as they try to believe their eyes, and one day a black-robed woman dead in a gutter in Kabul, her ear to the ground, a birthmark under her left eye, her mother next to her screaming as she pulls her hair out.
You know, this kind of thing. Over a lifetime scenes like this add up. Hundreds, thousands, millions of the wounded and dead.
The zeroes, like anti-inflammation pills, offer some relief, especially if there are enough of them. If one car bomb kills a half-dozen civilians but not me, then the ten car bomb attacks I’ve survived seem less destructive to me. Try imagining a thousand bomb victims, all those zeroes with faces in them. I find it easier to draw a blank.
I take some consolation from the fact that the facts come to me in miniature, no larger than the biggest high-definition TV screen. As such they only momentarily interrupt the stream of ads that blink their way past my consciousness to that part of my brain that desires relief from pain. Why pause on the face of a dead young woman, a foreigner, with a birthmark on her left cheek, when I can glimpse instead the gals in beer ads luring me toward them just before they go away to wherever used images go?
I find it easier to step around that woman lying dead on a street in Kabul. I see now that she was marked by fate to never arrive at the fruit vendor’s stall where oranges had just arrived from the countryside, and that her father, who for months had jealously kept unworthy suitors from her, was so struck by bottomless despair at the sight of his daughter dead that it would take three days for his rage to rise from the ashes of his sorrow. The dead young woman’s father now hates and hounds me, a perfect stranger, and would kill me if he could.
I resolve to go about my business as usual, and put the young woman’s life in perspective. She took up only ten inches on my twenty-one inch TV screen, and her death scene only three or four seconds of my life. Her eyes were closed, so I imagine them as chestnut brown, and I see her now finished thinking about some young man she had just met, wondering what he thought of her. The nausea sets in again, a deep sea-sickness nausea I also feel when I’ve eaten too much. The world of the birth-marked woman, the enormity of her bad luck, is too big for me to take in. I need to zero her out. A certain dosage of the customary is required of successful social life, so maybe it’s time again to share a good whine with good friends. Besides, the kids are in safe hands, in school.
My nausea bloats as I shrink, so I find it best to think small to make room for my self. Today new atrocities are announced: Fresh carnage from a bombing raid, six American marines lost when their helicopter crashed, the throats of two hostages sliced. All this information carries with it a democratic bias: All death is created equal.
That woman with the birthmark under her left eye and skin too lovely to touch––what does her mother think of when she’s sitting alone on the edge of her bed, her head in her hands? I don’t know the young woman’s name. How can I be expected to know her mother’s name too?
I have to do what I must do to self-medicate. I take daily showers and long naps. In a participatory democracy we all share equally in thinned-out blame. If I’m to endure my nausea, I need to fight against the dictatorship imagination has established in me. That imagination, when on high alert, may make good art, but it darkens everything with the knowledge it is hungry for. This hunger enslaves me to its need to connect, understand, feel compassion, make difficult moral choices, contribute, create, organize, speak out.