When the Word Trade Center went down, The New York Times generously and appropriately honored every body with a brief character profile composed with considerable artistry—a monument in miniature to the over two thousand gone. More than a gesture, the much-lauded feature underscored how much we value our fellow citizens—our neighbors, for Christ’s sake. Each of the dead was more than a face—each had a family and friends and interests opening into a web of ties that rippled throughout our society. Each man’s death diminishes me, wrote John Donne. And he was right.
Note that Donne didn’t qualify his statement by specifying that it was an Englishman’s death alone that reduced him. You may be sure he would have, had that been what he meant. He had a way with words.
While it may sound like the start of a very bad joke, one of the key questions we in the United States need to ask ourselves is: how is a dead Iraqi civilian different from a dead American (of any sort)? Certainly most of the dead began with two ears, two eyes, two arms, two legs. One heart. And we may assume all corpses carry the same passport.
Yet I suspect there must be some difference between them, between “their” dead and “ours”—otherwise, how could we justify paying so little attention to the Iraqi non-combatants we’ve killed? While there’ve been over two hundred “American” humans killed (every one of them unnecessarily, many by friendly fire), some 11,000 Iraqi civilians have died. They have died, we must acknowledge, for us. These are the people we decided wanted liberation. It was our call, and it was in response to our wound. In short, it was our cause. Their country—but never mind. Their lives, too. Oh well.
These slaughtered civilians are the very people Rumsfeld & Co. insisted would welcome us with open arms. And maybe they did. It’s possible that thousands of the dead were glad someone finally chased Hussein from Baghdad. What’s disturbing is that we’ll never know. For some reason, we don’t think it important to find out how many people we’ve murdered, never mind who they were.
It is unspeakable, almost. We kill innocent people, but we refuse to talk about it. Not in the media and not among ourselves. Ignoring the facts on the ground, however, doesn’t change them.
A few supporters of the war have said explicitly they’re not troubled by the civilian casualties (cost of doing business, etcetera)—yet not one has to my knowledge shown any interest in getting details about the dead.
Their indifference puzzled at first. Did they know something the rest of us didn’t? Were they savvy veterans, steeled in the ways of the world, the deeper truths of reality? Unfortunately, on closer inspection, it became clear that: a) these were almost never war veterans making such claims; and b) there was no deeper truth they were seeing, while there were many they were evading.
What they were hiding from were the faces of those whose deaths they helped bring about. Every one of the 11,000 dead civilians (never mind the military casualties) remains a presence on this planet, a permanent indictment of his murderers. Each had a family and friends—all of whom will remember how the victim died and who killed him. The blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands eventually drove her mad. The blood on the hands of our current murderous regime, and its many millions of supporters, has already had a similar effect. Bring on the death penalty. The games have begun. The only remedy to violence the mad can imagine is more of the same.
But the rest of us need not agree.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, AGNI, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.