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How We Die

Does it really matter?

by Michael H. Thomson
September 21, 2005

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How We Die
Pope Benedict and several news commentators have made much of the example of Pope John Paul II's death. A man we  watched go through the agonizing process of dying over what seemed to me to be several years. All of us have had family members who have experienced similar deaths. It's not pleasant to watch, but it is part of life.
I grew up in a era immediately following the era of James Dean. The motto:   "live fast and die young" was still in vogue to a certain extent during the years I attended high school.  A few classmates in my high school and some surrounding schools followed Dean's example - ending up in twisted metal coffins along the highway. I never considered this an appropriate way to check out, but there were some who were quite invigorated by the speculation of how fast the '57 Chevy was going before it kissed the oak tree. Not me.
A cousin of mine was on the Sheriff's Department and did quite a bit of forensic work.  His notebook and briefcase was a collection of notes and photographs of people who come to the end of their life in very undignified ways. One of the saddest examples was a man found in a flophouse motel sitting in his underwear with a single small caliber wound in his forehead because of a self-inflicted gunshot. Another gruesome photograph in the collection were the photographs of a torso found in a shed. No hands, arms, feet, or head were ever found. What a horrid way to go!
Which brings me to ways of dying that personally give me chills. The mortification of being eaten by a wild creature such as a bear, alligator, or shark is not a way I wish to be remembered. Think of the obituary:
Last Friday while cleaning his pond, Michael Thomson was attacked and –with the exception of his right foot - fully consumed by a 16-foot alligator. . . In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be given in Mike's memory to the National Wildlife Federation…
My nephew, Nicholas Thomson who lives in Brisbane, Australia went through the traumatizing experience of witnessing one of his mates being literally gulped by a Great White shark off the northeast coast while the group he was with was scuba diving. Horrifying!
I spent several years in the military and come from a family with a strong military heritage. As a young man, I listened to the tales of my grandfather who told of things that happened in the Mexican Punitive Expedition led by General John "Blackjack" Pershing and later gave a recounting of the deaths of comrades in sundry battles during World War I.  An uncle who saw combat during World War II also told stories of fallen comrades. In all of these stories, there was a strong element of stoic heroism by the fallen.
As a people, we do not like to think of our young people dying in war. We like to think of our young ones getting good educations, having fabulous careers, bearing children, retiring, and not dying before we do.
The body count in Iraq is growing and no evidence of victory is in sight. In my list of close friends, I mention the Photographer; see Winds of Change in the Land of the Big Easy.  The Photographer has a theory that there is a magic number when the body count in Iraq will become relevant to the American people. Neither he nor I believe the magic number has been reached yet, but we both agree it is not far away. So far, to many Americans, the deaths of over 1900+ soldiers has been nothing more than a brief distraction from their evening meal. Again, to paraphrase comments of The Photographer, 'many people have bought into the abstract piece of propaganda that "It's better to fight them over there than to fight them over here."  Propaganda aside, my concern, however, is the demoralizing manner of these brave soldier's deaths.
It is the lack of dignity in how these young men and women die that bothers me. We think of soldiers dying in combat in a process of bringing destruction to their enemies. This has been the case of most of our nation's wars – except this one. The enemy in Iraq has taken that process away from us i.e. Johnny didn't die exchanging fire with the enemy – he was blown up by a roadside bomb or IED. Johnny did not have any heroic input into the process – he was merely riding in a truck...
The above comments might not make any sense to most people, but how you die – particularly in a war is important.
Our enemy realizes this and has dealt us the indignity of having to collect scattered bits and pieces of our young people and ship them home in body bags.
The indignity of how our soldiers are dying and of course, the magic number will eventually end this war – long before any political goals are achieved…

Comments (8)

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Larry Slay from Brewton Alabama writes:
September 21, 2005
I agree with Mr. Thomson's thoughts in some of his writings but in this, How We Die, especially when it brings into question our American troops, I would have to say it is not how we die but WHAT WE DIE FOR, especially when it comes to our American soldiers. A terrorist dies by flying a plane into a building and that is how he died but WHAT did he die for?

Think about it Mike.

Michael H. Thomson from Paeonian Springs, VA writes:
September 21, 2005

First, let me preface by saying that I am not some kind of peacenik waving a sign with a chicken's foot surrounded by a circle. When I retired from the military in 1988, I truly regretted that I couldn't have served in the first Gulf War that was to come 3 years later. I gave three of my children to the military service - one is still there. So don't you lecture me on the safety of American troops!

You raise a valid question, What we die for? Since you seem to have all the answers, why don't you answer that question and tell all the PO readers what our soldiers are dying for in Iraq. Don't come back with some simplified poppycock such as God and country. I want to hear a real answer. An answer that will state your position unequivocally.

Tell us how much better off the country is going to be ten years from now because of this war and tell us what the war has accomplished to this date. While you're at it, tell us where the Weapons of Mass Destruction are hiding. You've put yourself out there Larry, so let's hear your answers.

Bobbie Wilkinson from Hamilton, VA writes:
September 23, 2005
I couldn't agree with you more, Mike. If President Bush had a son or daughter in the military --- a duty he, as a young man, avoided by using his family's power and influence --- would he have been so certain of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Would he have proudly sent his son or daughter off to fight, realizing that he or she might return home in a body bag, as have way too many others?

I ache for all those beautiful young lives, lost in a war we never should have started. I ache for the futures they were denied, for the families they left forever shattered, for the children who never laid eyes on their fathers.

Our troops need to come home NOW. It's already too late for too many.

Richard from Seattle writes:
September 25, 2005
I knew a guy who died in Gulf War I. He choked to death on MRE crackers. I'd love to hear Larry's explanation on what he died for. The same can be said for the dozens of accidental or friendly-fire deaths in Iraq. They say this is the best-trained army in the world. No. Not when 20% of the casualties are non-combat related.

larry slay from brewton al. writes:
September 30, 2005

Frist, let me preface by saying that I do not have all the answers. Do I believe in GOD and country, you can bet your m-16 on that. I will state my position uneqivocally and then I want to hear some answers to some questions I will purpose.

1. How much better off is the country going to be 10 years from now? I don't know but I do know that on Sept. 11 America was attacked. If someone attacked me personally I would fight back.

2. What has the war accomplished to this date? A mad dictator has been over thrown and captured, now the people have the choice in Iraq, it is called freedom. That is what has been accomplished. I liken' it to having a bully pushing some kid around but when he knows that his big brother will stand up for him, the kid is free to do what he wants not out of fear but out of freedom to do what he wants to do.

3. What has the war accomplished to this date? Mike, has there been anymore attacks on U.S. soil to this date?

4. The weapons of mass destruction, where are they at? Turn you eyes toward the Twin Towers which no longer are there. Could you not say the planes which crashed into those buildings were not wepons of mass destruction?

Now to cut to the chase, the weapons of mass destruction are to be found in the very heart of men. Now my turn to ask you some questions. Would you have sent troops to Germany, Italy and Japan after Pearl Harbor was attacked? Where were the weapons of mass destruction to be found then? What has World War II accomplished to this date? It is not why we die but is WHAT WE DIE FOR.

P.S. When in Crawfordvill dont do as the Crawford-villans do....ha

Michael H. Thomson from Paeonian Springs VA writes:
September 30, 2005

You're dodging my questions.

You know the WMD I'm talking about is the chemical, biological, and nuclear agents that George W. Bush told the American people were in Iraq. They were never found and to this day no one knows where they are or if they ever existed. Why did George Bush lie to the American people?

What did the mad dictator or Saddam Hussein have to do with the attacks on the twin towers? Absolutely nothing. Because of the Invasion of Iraq we slowed down our pursuit of the organization that was behind the twin towers attack and to this day we have never found him or even come close to finding him and his henchmen.

As to going after Bullies why haven't we gone after Castro who is 90 miles away or the mad dictator who does have verified nuclear weapons in Korea - or while were at it, the mad dictator who is leading Venezuela. Why haven't we gone after the mad dictators who rule Saudi Arabia where the majority of the terrorists came from. Why is our leader, George W. Bush still kissing the robed rears of the Saudi's? If you talk to the surviving families of 911 they are asking the same questions. Why is George so cozy with our enemies, the Saudi's?

What does Germany, Italy, or Japan have to do with Iraq. Iraq never attacked us. Islamic terrorists with ties to the Taliban attacked us.

While you are making specious comparisons to World War II with the Iraq war, let me throw this one at you. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president during most of that time had a son named James Roosevelt who was a commander of the second Raider battalion of the Marine Raiders, a brave organization that fought behind enemy lines in WWII. During the war James received the Silver Star and the Navy Cross.

As well as Roosevelt, many members of Congress - Democrat and Republican - had children who fought bravely in WWII. Some died.

If the President and his majority in Congress believe so much in this war, where are their children? Why aren't they in the conflict risking their life like everyone else? Even Al Gore Jr. had the guts to go to Vietnam.

Again, Larry, I'll ask you, What are our kids dying for in Iraq? So far you haven't answered me.

William from TX writes:
December 29, 2005
Mr. Thomson, Larry, and Richard:

Mr. Thomson: I am 30 years old, married, three kids. I was head of the accounting department of a local bank. On 9 July 2005 I joined the Army. I am today a US Army Infantryman. Why did I join? My country is at war and Americans are dying. Do I agree with the war? No. Do I think we should bring our soldiers home? Yes, everyday I pray for that. But our leaders, good or bad, have decided this is what is best for our country. So, I will do my duty. You're right, as a newly trained infantryman, I want to face the enemy that is firing at me. But I will fight the enemy when and where I can. A soldier's fate is usually not to choose the way he will die. It is for him to do what he is told. If that means patrolling a road that might have an IED, then I gladly do my duty. Don't blame President Bush for the manner in which our enemies fight. Also, don't forget that the men and women of our Armed Forces are all volunteers. They agreed to follow the orders of the officers appointed over them, you remember the oath. If they die doing so, then their death is honorable, even if their enemy is not. And to answer the question as to what the kids are dying for? They are dying for each other. They are dying for the man or woman to their right or left.

Larry: It's not about God or country. It's about carrying out your orders to the best of your ability because that is your job and that is what your buddy to your right and left are counting on you to do. These kids wanted to be in the Army or the Marines. Talk to any of them, coming or going. I bet most of them will tell you that they are glad of their experience, they want to be there. Sure, its tough, hell, its a combat zone. But they are still doing what they volunteered to do.

Richard: You are not much of a military historian are you? Do you know how many casualties, as a percentage, are caused by the enemy? In WWII, according to US Army statistics, only 20% of all hospitalizations were caused by enemy contact. The rest were friendly fire, combat training accidents, and sickness. Have you ever eaten a cracker from and MRE? Its amazing there aren't MORE deaths caused by those things!! Obviously I take personal exception to your comment on the training of our troops. Say what you want about the President, he can defend himself. As for the great men and women who serve as Drill Sgts in the US Army, they spend two years of their life, gallons of sweat and blood, and at least 85 hours a week doing their damndest to make sure our American Soldiers ARE the best trained soldiers in the world. Don't let USA Today or some slackjawed faggot on the evening news tell you about the training of our troops. Believe me, we train until we get it right, then we do it 199 more times for good measure.

I hope we can all agree that whether this war was a blunder by a power hungry President, or if it might actually help the Iraqi people, our men and women in uniform are worthy or our highest praise. What they die for and how they die is not really at issue anymore. The fact that they wear our flag on their right shoulder should remind us that our prayers and support should go with them. Leave the rest to the politicians. Honestly, how many times in the annals of history can you find a war that was anything more than politics or economics at it source? Let them fight, just be proud of them when they get home.

Michael H. Thomson from Paeonian Springs, VA writes:
December 29, 2005
Dear William,

Since we are telling our age here, I am 60 years old and I served in the military for 29 years. Yours is a good well written letter and I would invite you - when you have the time - to consider sending us a few articles on your experiences in the military. You sound like you have some stories to tell - stories that would be beneficial to the thousands who read the Partial Observer. We can't pay you, but we would be happy to give your thoughts the exposure they deserve.

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