Old and Dead Warriors

Memorial Day 2007: Are we still a grateful nation?

This Memorial Day the living, as well as the dead, have weighted my soul and torn at my heart. Those who fell in past wars–that the rest of us could live free–and those who now fight in distant, dangerous Iraq, for the same reason, were on my mind constantly and in my prayers every moment of this solemn day. And never more so than during a quietly poignant ceremony held this morning in a small park in the center of a Texas retirement community called Sun City.

I am certain passersby would have noticed only a small gathering of elderly men and women clustered near a white stone wall formally inscribed to remind us of those who paid the ultimate price. As for me, I saw them as old warriors, soft now with paunches and besieged with aches, pains, and bad eyes. But eyes filled with tears as a moment of prayer gave way to the plaintiff notes of Taps played on a lone bugle. “Go to sleep, Go to sleep”.

The sad refrain echoed across the Texas hills and faded quickly to leave only a murmuring breeze and a light drizzle as the few who had gathered stood silent and straight, eyes gazing back to another time, another era. The moment was about remembering. And I found myself wondering who or what they saw; what they heard reaching through the long past years to touch them so profoundly and freeze them in place like so many brittle statues. Oh the stories they must have lived and the tales of valor and selflessness they can tell.

It must be the self-oriented times we live in now that so many Americans will causally ignore a day honoring those extraordinary men and women who gave their lives in defense of our nation. It’s hardly on the people’s minds, if it’s given a thought at all between grilling in the backyard, the lake, or the mall. Unless of course, you were there in places like Iwo Jima (WWII), The Chosin Reservoir (Korea), Khe Sanh (South Vietnam), and most recently, the deserts of Iraq and the terror of Baghdad. Then you know. You know because you walked the walk as well as talked the talk. You went, you did your duty, and you came back burdened with memories almost sacred in that they were so good and at once so bad.

But the rest of us? We can only guess at the nature of war, our conceptions (or misconceptions) shaped and amplified by movies like “Band of Brothers”, “A Bridge to Far”, or “Twelve O clock High”. Or maybe we gained a sense of it from our own fathers who never liked to talk about it, but did so on rare occasions. Still, we will never come close to knowing and understanding the nature of the glue that deeply and irrevocably binds men of arms.

Author William Manchester (best known for his three volumes on President John F. Kennedy) fully understood it. He served with the Marine Corps during WWII and participated in the battle for Okinawa in one of the most pivotal battles of the war: the 10 day non-stop fighting to wrest control of Sugar Loaf Hill from an entrenched Japanese force of thousands.

Much later in life he would characterize those fierce days of battle as the “central experience of my youth” and the singular moment that defined the balance of his life. Here is how Manchester described the battlefield experience of a lifetime. It is a graphic, account, but comes as close as anything I have read that may help the rest of us comprehend what warriors do that we may live free. In his own words….

All greenery had vanished; as far as one could see, heavy shell fire had denuded the scene of shrubbery. What was left resembled a cratered moonscape. But the craters were vanishing, because the rain had transformed the earth into a thin porridge—too thin even to dig foxholes. At night you lay on a poncho as a precaution against drowning during the barrages.

All night, every night, shells erupted close to shake the mud beneath you at the rate of five or six a minute. You could hear the cries of the dying but could do nothing. Japanese infiltration was always imminent, so the order of the day was to stay put. Any man who stood up was cut in half by machine guns manned by fellow marines.

By day the mud was hip deep; no vehicles could reach us. As you moved up the slope of the hill, artillery and mortar shells were bursting all around you, and if you were fortunate enough to reach the top, you encountered Japanese defenders, almost face to face, a few feet away. To me, they looked like badly wrapped brown paper parcels someone had soaked in a tub. Their eyes seemed glazed. So, I suppose did ours.

Japanese bayonets were fixed, ours weren’t. We used the knives, or, in my case, a .45 caliber revolver and M1 carbine. The mud beneath our feet was deeply veined with blood. I was slippery. Blood is very slippery. So you skidded around, in deep shock, fighting as best you could until one side outnumbered the other. The outnumbered side would withdraw for reinforcements and then counter attack.

During those ten days I ate half a candy bar. I couldn’t keep anything down. Everyone had dysentery, and this brings up an aspect of war even Robert Graves, Siegfried Sasson, Edmund Blunden, and Ernest Hemingway avoided. If you put more than a quarter million men in a line for three weeks, with no facilities for the disposal of human waste, you are going to confront a disgusting problem. We were fighting and sleeping in one vast cesspool. Mingled with that stench was another—the corrupt and corrupting odor of rotting human flesh.

Manchester left the war a few weeks after Sugar Loaf due to wounds received when a Japanese six inch rocket dropped on his position. A Marine buddy blocked the explosion with his body saving Manchester and leaving him with the indelible image of his friend’s viscera coating his own wounded body with slime and blood. He carried that image along with his friend’s bone slivers and Japanese shrapnel embedded near his heart until his death in 2004. It was the battlefield surgeon’s decision to leave in the bone and steel. Those bone fragments meant more to William Manchester than his medals.

From now on, I may have fun during the first two days of the Memorial Day weekend, but on Memorial Day itself I will always make time to participate in ceremonies remembering the men and women who fought and died in the service of our nation for each and every one of us. I will honor and remember, with somber appreciation, their gallantry while keeping in my torn heart those they left behind. Shouldn’t we all do that?

Saving Nazanin

If Iran will callously disregard it’s internationally binding commitments not to kill, maim, and brutalize its own young women and children, how can other nations, by any sane reasoning, believe it can trusted on any matter.

Ateqeh Rajabi, a 16 year old girl, was publicly executed by hanging, August 2004, in the town square at Neka, Mazandaran Province, Republic of Iran. Her crime? “Acts deemed incompatible with chastity”.

The “incompatibility” in this case was sexual intercourse with an older man. During her trial (Ateqeh was not allowed a defense attorney and was left to defend herself), Judge Haji Rezail became outraged when the young girl removed her hijab (headscarf worn for modesty in Arabic cultures) He was further angered by her tendency to speak with a “sharp tongue”, presumably in her own defense.

Incensed by these unforgivable actions in his courtroom, Judge Rezail rushed to Tehran to urge the conservative mullahs comprising the Iranian Supreme Court to uphold, then and there, the death sentence he had pronounced on Ateqeh. They did; and upon his return to Neka, Judge Rezail personally carried out Ateqeh’s sentence by performing the execution himself.

Her corpse was left hanging for days as a deterent to other young girls who might stray. Though it was well known around Neka, the Iranian judge ignored the fact that 16 year old Ateqeh Rajabi was not only young, but mentally incompetent as well.

In an earlier Iranian case, May 2004, 19 year old Leyla Mafi was sentenced to 99 lashes to be followed by “stoning until dead”. Her story is a long and sad chronicle of abuse, lashes, cruelty and injustice. Layla had been forced into prostitution at the age of eight by her mother. At nine she conceived a child which led to her being whipped publicly on prostitution charges. At fourteen she had twins out of wedlock for which she was also brutally whipped under Iranian law

Leyla’s more recent infraction, the one earning her 99 lashes and a death by stoning sentence, involved her being charged with having another child out wedlock as well as being associated with a brothel. Amnesty International, which followed the case closely, reported that Leyla Mafa possessed the mental skills of an eight year old. Under pressure from several human rights organizations, the Iranian Supreme Court lifted the young girl’s death sentence in March of 2005, but upheld the 99 lashes which was duly meted out in February, 2006. After her punishment, Leyla was committed to an Iranian Institution for Women.

To our modern and civilized world these cases are extraordinarily crude, unjust, and excessive. But they occur all to often in the ancient, theocratic, male dominated culture of Iran. In fact, under current Iranian law, girls over the age of nine and boys aged 16 can face a death penalty for crimes such as rape and murder. Capital punishment is imposed in certain cases of illegal sexual relationships as well. At least 18 child offenders have been executed in Iran in recent years–eight of them in 2005.

If Iranian laws and judicial practices are heartless and unfeeling toward its women and children, the issue is made worse by a sick cultural bias in cases of rape. Observers of Iranian legal proceedings, many educated Iranian women among them, well know that victims of rape in Iran’s male dominated system can be and are, in a sordid twist of law, charged with the crime of having extra-marital sex. In an instant, the system that should assure them justice transforms them from victim to defendant. While their rapists are exonerated and go free, these women, some of them teenagers, face a penalty of 100 lashes–and even death.

This brings us to the case of 17 year old Nazanin Mahabad–uneducated and dirt poor–who, in a moment of profound courage during an attempted rape, took a bold stand for all of Iran’s women, children and young people. For her desperate action she earned a death by hanging sentence in 2006 at the hands of an Iranian court. Here is her story:

Nazanin and her niece, Samieh, had gone with their boyfriends to a park west of Tehran. It was to be a pleasant day in the sun and a needed respite from the poverty and endless menial labor that helped Nazanin and her five siblings subsist in a ruined home on the dusty outskirts of the city. It was a rare moment of girlish laughter and peace soon to be shattered. When three men approached the group they began harassing the girls and threatened the boys who fled in fear. It only took a moment then for the men to move on the girls throwing them to the ground and tearing at their cloths.

What stirred Nazanin to do what followed is a matter for speculation. Certainly it was a natural reaction rooted in a primal need to defend. But it may have been more. Nazanin had lived long enough in a society where rape was common and rapist were freed. Perhaps she saw the tragic irony in her situation. Be raped and face possible stoning or even death for extra-marital sex, or fight back for herself and her niece and face charges of attacking her male attackers. She chose to fight, pulling a knife she carried concealed because she knew well the dangers she and other girls routinely faced in around the poorer suburbs of Tehran.

Nazanin would take it no more. She stabbed one of her attackers in the hand, but when a second man suddenly attacked her with vicious and clear intent, she plunged the knife into his chest. He died from his wound. Charged with murder under the Iranian system, her story of rape called into question, Nazanin must have known that yet another Iranian court would leave her male attackers free and put another young girl to death by hanging. Her less than competent court appointed attorney seemed not to care, and Nazanin’s own simple plea had no influence in the court: “I wanted to defend myself and my niece. I did not want to kill that boy…no one came to our help.”

As the trial continued, Nazanin also asserted that she was acting to defend her honor and chastity. The Judge in the case rejected that argument out of hand, however, because a court ordered medical exam had shown Nazanin not to be a virgin. It was true. Little more than a year earlier, Nazanin, then 15, had been raped. Forensic physicians verified the scarring from that brutal attack as consistent with rape and the loss of virginity. This, and the fact that she had reported that rape as well to local police who ignored it, had no bearing in her Iranian court. In the end, she found herself facing a death sentence.

At that time, all hope must have abandoned Nazanin Mahabad. Alone in a prison, facing death, her fear became all consuming. But not all was lost. Word began to spread among caring factions in and beyond Iran. Pressure began to mount. Letters were written, thousands of them. Bloggers weighed in. Media picked up on the case and flashed Nazanin’s story to the world community of activists and organizations who wasted no time weighing in with Iranian officials. Petitions were created and sent with hundreds of thousands of names. By May of 2006, when Nazanin’s case came before the Iranian Supreme Court, the world was watching. And the Court knew it. In a not-so-surprising ruling by that time, it turned over Nazanin’s death penalty and sent the case back to lower court for a new ruling.

Today (Jan 14, 2007), with the assistance of new lawyers and the under the watchful eyes of a deeply concerned world, Nazanin Mahabad was exonerated of murder by the local court, her death sentence lifted. Thousands of anxious followers of this case breathed a collective sigh of relief. The court could have sent her to prison or even awarded the death penalty again, but the prayers, pressure and intervention of caring people won the day.

But Nazanin will not be set free yet. The court held that her self defense during the incident was an act of disproportionate force. A girl of 17 (at the time) defending herself and her niece against three men trying to rape them. Still, the court ordered that she pay blood money to the family of her deceased attacker in order to receive a full pardon. Until then she will remain in prison. Her lawyers are appealing the blood money ruling and seeking bail to free Nazanin at last.

The caring world still has some work to do in order to finally free Nazanin. I have little doubt it will happen. In the meantime we are left with Iran and its crude and warped system of justice for women and children. Its barbaric practices are even more disturbing in that Iran is among the nations of the world signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). As such they agreed with the rest of the world not to execute anyone for any offense committed when they were under the age of 18. These treaties also prohibit the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments.

If Iran will callously disregard it’s international commitments not to kill, mame, and brutalize its own young women and children, how can other nations, by any sane reasoning, believe it can trusted on any matter. I include in this line of thought their continuing assertion that they will only use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Authors Note: Want to help in Nazanin’s case? Go here: http://save.nazanin.googlepages.com/

An Independence Day for Iraq?

I am struck this Independence Day by the similarities in the fight for an American nation more than 200 years ago, and the fight for a new, free, Iraqi nation today. Throwing off the yoke of despotism, ending terror and oppression, providing for democratic self-government, and granting rights and justice for all citizens—all of this has a familiar ring to we Americans as we celebrate every July 4th. But for Iraqis, it represents now, more than ever, an end to hopelessness and a future filled with the promise of freedom.

When I shared these thoughts with an acquaintance the other day, he was quick to point out that America fought her own fight for freedom, but in Iraq’s case we’re “having to do it for them.” I suggested we, and other nations, were doing it as much “with” them as “for” them. He rebutted by saying “if they wanted freedom badly enough” they would have risen up on their own, fought their own fight. His voice fairly shook with contempt for America’s involvement.

I was about to explain the differences between a British despot 2000 miles away in 1776, and a ruthless dictator in your back yard and armed with modern weapons as well as a Gestapo type secret police. But he had to catch a plane for the Live 8 concert in Philly. He spoke of how compassion welled up in him for Africa’s suffering millions deprived of basic human needs. “We all need to come together and fix this” he said, adding we had the power to do it. I agreed, but wondered about his selective compassion for one group of people in desperate circumstances, but calloused lack of concern for another.

Iraq, of course, has had its own relentless and tragic human toll. It’s been documented by several notable international human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Refugees International. The findings of these and similar organizations were released in a 2003 White House Report. It revealed the inhumane consequences of Saddam’s 20 year rein of terror and genocide. Here are a few of the facts:

— Chemical attacks by the Iraqi regime, from 1983 to 1988, resulted in some 30,000 Iraqi and Iranian deaths. Saddam’s 1987-1988 campaign of terror against the Kurds killed at least 50,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 Kurds.

— The regime used chemical and nerve agents against at least 40 Kurdish villages between 1987 and 1988. The largest attack–on Halabja–resulted in approximately 5,000 deaths. Ultimately 2,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, the bodies of gassed men, women, and children left decomposing in the sun.

–Iraqi leaders privately acknowledged that 250,000 people were killed during the 1991 citizen uprisings, with most of the casualties in the south.

— More than 400,000 Iraqi children under the age of five died of malnutrition and disease over the last seven years because of the nature of the regime under which they live. Food and medical supplies never found their way to the people, much of it stockpiled for the regime’s leaders and cronies and for the military.

— Almost 10,000 documented executions occurred in Abu Ghraid and other prisons over the last 10 years. At least 130 Iraqi women were beheaded between June 2000 and April 2001. Mass graves and torture chambers are still being discovered across Iraq today.

America’s left, including Hollywood’s limousine liberals, delight in reminding us that “no weapons of mass destruction were found” as they continue contesting the US presence in Iraq. But in doing so, they turn their back on the scope of human tragedy reflected by the findings cited above. They display no feelings for the years of suffering and provide no answers for what they would have done to stop the terror and offer relief to fellow human beings who were being systematically exterminated and routinely tortured.

As for weapons of mass destruction…perhaps there are none greater than Saddam himself. The numbers cited above tell a compelling story of mass death and destruction. And clearly, the only real chance for Iraqis mired in years of sustained terror was help from others in the world community of nations. Our being there was, in fact, their only chance for political and social independence. At the moment it’s all very tenuous and dangerous to be sure, but give it time. Just give it time.

This year, amid the fireworks, parades, flags, outdoor grilling, and trips to the lake, my Independence Day will include thoughts and prayers for the Iraqi people. They have courageously stepped on their own path to independence. If they make it, as I believe they can, a world of freedom and prosperity awaits them.