personal, ruminations

Necessarily Callous

Current figures suggest that more than 22,000 perished in Myanmar (Burma) this weekend. Now the story seems to be the most consequential in the world.

Yesterday’s figures suggested that more than 350 perished in Myanmar (Burma) this weekend. Then the story seemed like a regrettable natural disaster.

There’s that old axiom, attributed to Josef Stalin, that “one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.” I think there’s undeniably something to that. But I also can’t deny that I’m staring in the face two different numbers that make two very different impressions on me. In this cases, 20,000 deaths are a tragedy and 300 is a statistic.

It’s an ugly truth that I willfully ignore disasters when damage estimates are small. Unless you know someone who lives near the site of a natural disaster, it’s easy to ignore all the reports of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. It’s probably smart not to get too worked up over natural disasters we humans, by definition, have no ability to control. It may even be wise.

And yet I can’t escape the fact that doing so seems terribly, inhumanely callous.

People who’ve known hard labor know calluses. That toughening of the skin so that the pressure so often put upon it starts to cause no injury. Perhaps even no feeling. The toughening can be unsightly, but it’s the body’s natural and necessary response to pressures that would otherwise cause tissues to rip and bleed. Given the choice between a callus and an injury requiring attention and rest, our bodies will usually choose to toughen rather than tear.

Perhaps, in our concern for the welfare of others, we need a similar amount of callousness. A similar detachment and unconcern that allows us to get on with what needs doing in our lives. That allows us to get up after hearing about five American deaths in Afghanistan, or the death of 30 Iraqis in an explosion, or 20 in a tsunami, or one in an industrial accident.

We have no time to mourn all these losses. We cannot, perhaps, spare the time and energy to consider, regret, and mourn every loss of life anywhere in the world. We cannot even spare the time and energy to mourn every loss of a fellow citizen of our country. Or even of every loss of a fellow citizen of the city, province, or state in which we live. Sometimes, it seems like we don’t even have the ability to mourn those family member we lose.

I see the necessity of this callousness. I think it makes good practical sense as a means of survival. But that doesn’t make me any less disappointed to notice it within myself or others. Any less sure that it’s wrong to stare at immense loss and be unable to shed even a tear. Any less disappointed that I only see a tragedy when the death toll reaches 22,000. Any less sure that 350 is a tragedy. Any less disappointed when I overlook the tragedy of one.

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politics, world

How I Forgot Iraq

soldiersmediacenterSunset in Iraq

There’s been a lot of talk recently–especially among America’s chattering left–about how dire it is that Americans have forgotten about Iraq. Today being the five year anniversary of the invasion, what better day is there tackle the issue? I, one who listens quite often to the chattering left, have forgotten about Iraq. I’m wondering how anyone can not have forgotten Iraq.

To be clear, I’ve not forgotten about the country. I’ve not forgotten about what an debacle the after-invasion rebuilding effort was. I’ve not forgotten how incorrect the majority of commentators were about the necessity of going to war there. But I have stopped thinking about it.

The news of another bombing and of more American casualities no longer strikes as a tragedy or even unusual. It sounds like the same old news. And whether 4 or 40 or 400 died today if will surely fail to register with any of the needed depth.

I have come to accept the death of four of five Americans a week–and at least ten times as many Iraqis–as par for the course. This is not to say that I think the president was right or is right; he’s foolish if he really thinks that serving in Iraq is exhilarating more than it is terrifying.

But as galling as that recent statement was, as galling as a death of any single person is, there’s only so much worry or anger I can contain. Josef Stalin’s often credited with the phrase “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.” Similarly, during the Great Depression Harry Hopkins noted that “You can pity six men, but you can’t keep stirred up over six million.”

It’s a sad but true fact that my suffering causes me great pain and heartache. And at times where the suffering of others is made most plain to me, I can sometimes feel the same about their suffering. But the suffering those soldiers and civilians, injured, dead, or mourning, is not something I spend a great deal of time worrying about. Nor do I manage to worry enough about the mental welfare of troop constantly redeployed at heretofore unheard of frequency. The constant and apparently mild scale of tragedy is more than the average citizen can (or wants to) regularly worry about.

I have no doubt that hundreds if not thousands of people suffer anew every week that the simmering conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. I have no doubt that many of those suffering are Americans like me. It’s a tragedy that they have to suffer for the war there.

And though Iraqis and Afghans clearly suffered under the tyrannical regimes in their recent past, that doesn’t do much to diminish the suffering they’re now experiencing during the turbulent struggle for their countries. It’s a tragedy that this conflict, however terrible it’s predecessor, hasn’t been resolved by now.

But it’s not the kind of tragedy that has made me–until I sat down to write this–pay attention. It’s that miss-able kind that I don’t see and don’t hear and don’t remember. And so I, like much of the population, forget and ignore the terrible cost to this country and its citizens of this war. I, like much of the population, don’t worry nearly enough about the cost to civilians on the ground of this war. Of any war.

It’s an ugly truth that within days of publishing this with a heavy heart about the suffering I’ve so frequently ignored, I will again have pushed the suffering in Iraq, and engendered by the events in Iraq, out of my mind. I’ve certainly done it before. Though I agree that it’s a tragedy, I simply don’t have the power or will to constantly remember and despair at the ugly cost of war. That’s ugly, but it’s true.

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