Random Thoughts on Death, Dying, and the Reality of America’s Wars

Jarecke's photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America
Kenneth Jarecke’s 1991 photo of a dead Iraqi was considered too disturbing to publish in America

W.J. Astore

Americans tend to fear death.  It makes us uncomfortable.  Yet death is inevitable.  Its inevitability should teach us to revel in the richness of the here and now.  It should also teach us the foolishness of undue pride.

All is vanity, the Bible teaches.  Death reminds us of this — that human vanity, as unavoidable as it may be, is ultimately shallow.  There are riches out there that we should seek away from the glaring and garish light of vanity.  Riches that give deeper meaning to life.

Of all cultures in the world, I wonder if there’s another that ignores or denies death as much as American culture.  We’re the culture of new beginnings, fresh starts, reinvention, and also of the perpetual now, of youth, of defying or denying death through face lifts, cosmetics, adrenalin-driven adventures, and so on.  Technology and consumerism also provide distractions.  After all, how can I be nearing the end if I have the latest iPhone or iPad or if I’m wearing the latest hip fashions?

Our funeral homes seek to deny death with open casket rituals in which the dead person is made up to look alive.  Paul Fussell skewered this cultural tendency in his book, Class.  We use euphemisms like “passed away” or “passed on” for “died”; the descriptive term of “undertaker” has morphed into “funeral home director.”  Our religions stress life after death, not death itself.

We even deny that our wars produce death.  Think of the Bush/Cheney Administration, which refused to show photographs of flag-draped coffins of American troops, ostensibly for “privacy” reasons but mainly to minimize the deadly costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (Indeed, we don’t talk of troops dying in combat; we talk instead of troops “paying the ultimate price” or “making the ultimate sacrifice.”)

In minimizing the cost of war to its troops, the U.S. government and media also seek to deny the reality of death to the enemy.  War coverage in the media is often stock footage showing drones or aircraft firing missiles, enhanced by graphics and music.  You might see an enemy building or truck blowing up, but you’ll never see dead bodies.  Too disturbing, even though violent gun play and bleeding corpses are routinely shown in American crime shows and movies as entertainment.

In the first Iraq war (Desert Storm) in 1991, the photographer Kenneth Jarecke caught a powerful image of a dead Iraqi soldier burnt alive in his truck on the infamous “highway of death.”  Jarecke believed his photo would change America’s vision of the war, which in the U.S. media had been staged like a Hollywood production, neat and sanitary and clean.  But no U.S. media outlet would publish the image.  It was relegated to overseas publications.

What price do we pay as a people by ignoring death?  We lack a certain depth and maturity; put differently, we are callous and shallow.  Death has little meaning to us, especially the deaths of those in other lands.  For in seeking to deny the inevitability of our own deaths, how can we possibly recognize and process the death of others?

A death-denying culture that rains death on others using drones named “Predator” and “Reaper”; a culture that finds images of war dead too disturbing even as its TVs and movies and videos are saturated by bloody murders.  What are we to make of this?

The most powerful speech I’ve seen in any movie is that of Chief Dan George in “Little Big Man.”  In trying to make sense of the White Man’s war on Native Americans, Chief Dan George’s character, Old Lodge Skins, suggests that the White Man kills because he believes everything is dead already.  Lacking a moral center, the White Man has no sense of, or appreciation for, the sanctity of life.

Do we deny death because in some sense we are already dead?  Dead to the richness and sanctity of life?

Random thoughts, as promised.  But I hope they stimulate thought.  What say you, readers?

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8 thoughts on “Random Thoughts on Death, Dying, and the Reality of America’s Wars

  1. A few years ago, I was attending a medical conference on Aging in our American Society. One of the speakers was a Medical Ethicist from the University of Washington in Seattle. Much to the shock of the audience (doctors and nurses) this professional talked about how when someone is dying, the higher the level of religiosity the more the family wanted done for the patient at end of life. In other words, if the family viewed themselves as highly religious, they wanted their loved one put into the ICU and wanted the doctors to do everything they could possibly think of that might delay death or save the life. When asked why, the overwhelming response was “So God will have time to perform a miracle.” Now why God would need “time” to perform a miracle I have never fathomed.

    I am new to this blog but find it very interesting. Thank you.

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    1. An interesting comment. Why, indeed, would “gods” need “time” to perform magic “miracles.”

      I have similar thoughts when I hear people say about some other unfortunate person: “There but for the grace of god go I.” It seems to me that they could just as well say: “There and by the curse of god go they.” Unfortunately for any hope of clear thinking, a theological conundrum arose in the Western world with the replacement of multiple, fickle Greek gods by a single schizophrenic God who — as a consequence of Its alleged omnipotence — logically must take the blame as well as the credit for anything that happens anywhere at any time. As I wrote in my poem “Boobie Theology”:

      The Concept of the Single God
      Leaves little more to mock.
      Yet charlatans consider it
      Their tawdry trade and stock.
      No worse idea ever crawled
      From underneath a rock.

      Given enough time and resources, medical science will no doubt find a cure for more diseases and injuries, thereby prolonging the useful (or parasitic) life of those who can afford the treatments. So human intelligence and perseverance can sometimes put time to good use. One can hardly say the same of the “immortal gods,” for whom the very concept of time could have no possible meaning.

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      1. American Wars. Some of us have felt like we have been on a battlefield within our medical world for the past twenty years or more. What is it I read about a billion dollars being spent on the current bombing in Iraq and Syria……. Now we have Ebola in this country. I wonder how the American people would feel if they understood we have had a shortage of IV fluids in hospitals in this country for the past year? IV’s are essential to support and treat Ebola symptoms. How much IV fluid could one billion dollars buy?

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  2. There are some Christian fundamentalist religions in this country to whom viewing the “open casket” is almost a requirement at a funeral. I attended such a funeral for someone very close to me and after the service the pastor came up to me and said “aren’t you going to view the body”. I was so irritated at his intrusiveness to my personal grief I curtly told him to bug off ” I want to remember my friend as he lived”.
    I lived through the Great Depression and WW II and I cannot remember a time when our country and the entire world has been in such economic and political turmoil and yet our citizens find “political” discourse to be “impolite”. It is considered pushy or impolite to raise the question of Palestinian, or Iraqi deaths and our involvement in any personal or social discourse.
    Yet we are ready to cause more deaths because we hear that a rogue group has beheaded Westerners. At the same time the Saudi’s, who give us our oil “fix” behead dozens of their citizens every year and we don’t blink an eye. We fear ‘our’ death but show no compassion for the death of others. Texas, the death capital of this country has a governor who relishes the death of others in their execution chambers. It is always the “others” deaths we don’t mind, but fear our own and that lies behind or acceptance of others deaths around the world with our antiseptic ‘drone’ killings under the guise that it is protecting our lives. .

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  3. The open casket reminds of people who comment that the deceased “looked good” or the undertaker “did a good job”. Yogi Berra told his wife that “you always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours”. 🙂
    On the serious side American Indian medicine man Rolling Thunder said, “The most basic principle of all is that of not harming others. That means all people, all life, and all things”. Such “primitive” thinking.

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  4. I think America’s death denial — and as a long-time hospice volunteer, I can vouch that it is no figment — is a symptom of an essentially juvenile, even infantile, culture.
    Consider the ways we talk about war (and to some extent, crime), with civilian and military leaders and media who talk about chasing “bad guys” without a hint of irony or recognition. Each new successive enemy or potential enemy is described with a kind of ultimate comic-book Manicheanism — enemy X is “evil” or “inhuman” or the “greatest threat we’ve ever faced.”
    Of course, the same is true on the other side of the ledger, as millions of Americans thoughtlessly and self-servingly proclaim everyone who serves in the military is a “hero,” and never mind that the troops and veterans themselves almost universally reject such an absurd notion. Meanwhile, not only do we seek to hide away all evidence of war’s violence, whether toward the “heroes” or the “inhuman” enemy, but we turn our “heroes” into abstractions so we don’t have to ponder the consequences of our war lust. Consider for a moment about the term “boots on the ground,” a blithe synecdoche that quite literally removes all humanity from the equation, just as do the terms “hero” and “inhuman.”
    The only quibble I have with Bill’s musing above is with the idea that America exists in a “perpetual now.” On the contrary, I would assert that we’d be better off if we were more present-focused, rather than so many millions literally looking past this “fallen world” to some theoretical horizon and ultimate paradise. Such thinking insists that this life is really only an “hour upon the stage,” and subtly — or not so — allows us to pretend we don’t really have to care about what happens here.

    Clay Bonnyman Evans

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    1. Yes, that’s a good point, Clay. What I meant was this: Many Americans act as if there is no future. And if I don’t have to worry about future generations, I can consume all I want, guilt-free. Another version of this — call it “denying the future of real time” — is the idea that our future is not of this world, but of some higher/heavenly realm. Eschatological time. Such a belief has the same effect: who cares about the earth, global warming, resource exhaustion, etc., if the Apocalypse/Second Coming is nearly upon us?

      In a way, they’re versions of the same thing in their implications and effects: me-centered denial of the real future which is increasingly limiting options for future generations on planet earth.

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      1. These remarks about the mindless “present” of America remind me of an incident from the 1960s when a reporter for a Los Angeles television station interviewed a sweet young thing who had announced her intention to go join the hippies in San Francisco. The reporter asked her: “How will you support yourself? How will you find anything to eat?” Her wide eyed, vapid-grinning answer: “Why, food … is!”

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