NEW YORK—Memorial Day 2004 was an especially poignant day of remembrance. With most Americans opposed to the faltering war against Iraq, friends and families of nearly 800 dead and 5,000 wounded soldiers struggled to find meaning in their loss. Another 80 U.S. troops have died, and many hundreds wounded, in our long-forgotten, ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
In an ideological role reversal, the military and pro-war conservatives have tried to minimize the magnitude of sacrifice. It took an anti-war Web site, and liberal-minded editors and producers, before banned photos of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover airbase saw print. PBS' centrist-liberal NewsHour with Jim Lehrer notes the names and hometowns of the fallen at the end of each broadcast; the hard-right Fox News, fearing introspection, glosses over the fallen. Had Ted Koppel—who is, it's safe to guess, a Democrat—dedicated an entire broadcast of Nightline to reading the names of dead American soldiers during Memorial Day 1969, supporters of the Vietnam War would have praised him for his patriotism. Hippies would have derided him for pandering to the right. When he did it this year, he was accused of politicizing the deaths, undermining the war effort and all manner of unimaginable villainy.
The left nags us about the bloodbath; the right ignores it. Pro-war or anti-war, however, both sides are the same in one respect: Death only matters when it happens to Americans.
It's a cliché of journalism: a single murdered blonde scores screaming headlines while "2,000,000 Chinese Die in Floods" gets a column inch under the fold on page 19. But chronically insular Americans have become so myopic since 9/11 that they only mourn their own soldiers—they don't even care when their allies bite the dust.
During the first three weeks of May alone, one British contractor, a Dutch soldier, an Italian, four Kurds, a Pole and a Russian died in occupation-related mayhem in Iraq. All these members of the "coalition of the willing" died fighting alongside our forces, but Ted Koppel didn't read their names on the air. By the way, a total of 122 non-U.S. coalition troops have died since Operation Iraqi Freedom began, 12 are missing and 125 have been wounded. Thirty-six journalists have died. So have an uncounted number of U.S.-trained Iraqi policemen.
Major Memorial Day observances didn't include them.
Respecting one's wartime adversaries, dead and alive, distinguishes civilized societies from barbarians. Architects of the war on terrorism, casting POWs as "enemy combatants" unentitled to Geneva Conventions protections and refusing even to count the enemy dead and wounded, have discarded this fundamental precept of honor. Dead Americans count; those they kill do not.
The following will come as a shock to readers with U.S. citizenship: The other 95 percent of the world's population doesn't value American lives and limbs higher than those belonging to Afghans, Iraqis or anyone else.
Belgians and Belarusians and Bolivians feel no differently about the deaths of an American corporal shot in the foothills of Bora Bora and a Pashtun Talib crushed to death by a U.S. bomb. Both deaths are equally tragic. If there is any empathetic disparity, most disinterested observers from overseas would tend to sympathize with the Talib, who died defending his homeland from invaders, more than with the American.
It's the same in Iraq. Vocal American critics of the Bush Administration emphasize the deaths of Iraqi civilians to make their case. Indeed, an inclusive Memorial Day would have referenced the innocents who died during our bombing, invasion and occupation. In his Bush-approved book Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward says General Tommy Franks estimated that 30,000 Iraqis died during the first three weeks of the war. According to the Associated Press, Iraqi morgue records lead to a low-balled rough estimate of 33,000 additional civilians killed between May 2003 and April 2004. (This doesn't include those killed in explosions or those who were buried without ever going to a hospital.) These 63,000-plus people—yes, people—paid precisely the same price as our soldiers for deposing Saddam Hussein. But unlike our soldiers, they didn't volunteer.
No one, even Michael Moore, talks about the dead Taliban and Iraqi government soldiers, many of them conscripts. Yet the these tens of thousands, every bit as much as U.S. celebrity war heroes like Pat Tillman (killed, it turns out, by "friendly fire") died performing their duty, defending their countries against enemy forces. The fact that their side lost cannot diminish the horror of their destruction, wipe away the grief of their wives and children, or dishonor their sacrifice. God knows we try. We pretend that our 880 dead soldiers, followed at a distant second by civilians reduced to "collateral damage," are the only losses that matter out of nearly 100,000.
American lives are precious, but we—and our soldiers—are no more valuable than any anyone else. Until we accept our founding principle that we are all created equal and start acting accordingly, we'll keep wondering why the world holds us in contempt.