Not everyone wants to see the pictures of the dead bin Laden. There are those that believe in keeping them confidential so as not to martyr him further. Giving him a burial at sea made sense, because there would be no gravesite at which to mourn, no large crowds of demonstrators to make pilgrimages there. Those that are not frothing-at-the-mouth conspiracy theorists have no need for proof that he is dead (I wonder if people would be demanding to see the pictures or birth certificates if President Bush, a white man, was commander-in-chief). And maybe there are others who may have different reasons for not wanting to see those pictures.
A long time ago, I knew a soldier in one of the elite branches of the military. “Mess with the best, die like the rest” was their slogan. He was young and impressionable and untested in battle when he went through the training; first jump school and then sniper school. It was before the fall of the iron curtain and he joked, “Kill a commie for mommy.”
A few months after he graduated and earned his wings, he was scheduled to come home for a Christmas break.
There was a small blip on the news the day of his scheduled arrival. The U.S. had invaded Panama, a seemingly insignificant country. I called his mother. “Are you sure he is coming home?” I asked. “We invaded Panama early this morning.”
“He said he’d be here. He’ll be here.”
“Have you heard from him?” I asked.
“No. But he’ll be here.”
I am not sure if it was willful denial that caused his family to slog through the snow and drive to the airport and wait for him at the gate, back when such things were still within the realm of the possible pre-terrorist attacks and color-coded pre-recorded warnings that were forever stuck on orange. As the passengers filed off the plane and the waiting area emptied, he was not among them. His mother, thinking there was a mistake, asked the gate agent to check the plane and see if anyone was still on it. Perhaps he was in the bathroom or struggling with a bag.
He was not there.
Like that, he had disappeared.
For a month his mother sat glued to the sofa, watching the endless reels of CNN. She learned the first point of invasion was the airport. There were firefights in the slums while the president holed up in his palace, refusing to surrender. Psychological warfare, not unlike that used by most teenagers on their parents, was employed, as troops blared rock music endlessly, speakers pointed at the palace.
Through it all his mother drank, smoked endless packs of cigarettes, and placed calls to his command station expecting answers to her questions about his whereabouts and of course getting none. It was, after all, a military invasion. Why she thought the U.S. Army would share classified information about troop movements and staffing with a soldier’s mother was a mystery. Perhaps she just needed to talk to someone there, to feel a sense of connection. When she got nowhere, she grabbed a few minutes of exhausted sleep, her head near the phone. She ignored the answering machine and refused to leave the house. She was falling apart. It was a sharp contrast to the beaming mother who stood by his side at his graduation. What did she think? He was an elite soldier. An Army Ranger. They fight. They kill. They get killed. That is the deal. No one thinks about the deal when they sign the papers.
He later told the story. Helicopters dropped the battalion and motorcycles into trees. They were chuteless, so as not to be shot down from the sky. The men hacked the cycles out of the trees and road them to the Rio Hato Airport, where they rained hell. When you own the airport, you own the region. You can land planes and bombers and little birds-helicopters-and make short work of an invasion. It was all done by cover of dark of a new moon on winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, to avoid the lunar illumination of the stealth movements, giving away the invader’s plans as they lunge across the territory.
The mechanics, of course, of all invasions and this one as well, are mostly classified and entirely hazy, lost in what some experts dub “the fog of war.” Things unfolded, and when they did, what was happening was not entirely clear. There was adrenaline and there was noise and there was that darkness that was an advantage and a disadvantage. Some things went according to plan: riding the motorcycles to the airport; and some did not: getting separated and being fired upon by a division of your own troops. Some things were a success: capturing the airport; and some things were not: watching your friends die in front of you.
After the frenzy of battle there was nothing. To prove that he was there and that it happened, to capture the reality of those moments, he decided to take pictures.
A man face-down, sprawled on the concrete floor. A river of blood flows from his head.
Men shattered from the bullets of machine-gun fire, caught unawares, half-dressed in the middle of the night.
A body in a heap, resembling a pile of crumpled laundry. And in the background a stack of brightly wrapped Christmas gifts. The invasion was December 20. Five days before Christmas. The gifts would probably go unopened.
The pictures weren’t necessary, he said later. It wasn’t the bodies so much, but the images of the presents he couldn’t forget. The kids of the men he killed had lost their father on Christmas. He told me this the freezing January night a month later, after his family had feted him with a hero’s welcome and a turkey dinner and a post-Christmas Christmas.
He was drinking heavily. I went into the next room and heard the back door slam and the sound of my car backing out of the drive, then speeding down the street. “Great,” I thought. “Should I call the police? He is driving drunk. He could hurt someone, or hurt himself.”
In the end I didn’t call. He came home. He had driven to the lake. He stood at the shore where he said he couldn’t get the images out of his head.
I came across the pictures a few days later, splayed across his bedside table. Curious, I picked them up and leafed through them, then stopped. It seemed obscene to me, to be looking at the images of the dead.
Eventually he came to a certain peace about it, but it took time. He was trained to do a job, but he was still a human being. He still had his humanity. It is a blessing, but it also makes the business of war and special operations hard. Damned harder than the fighting forces let on, I suspect.
Osama bin Laden had it coming and he knew it. One cannot argue that he deserved to live. He killed and was continuing to plan the deaths of thousands. I often wonder if he was mentally ill, like Stalin, Hitler, or others, lost in his ideology and his bloodlust. A paranoid schizophrenic. His own son, disinherited, told reporters his father told him as a young teen that he was no different than the others, and he would easily kill him, too.
But despite the evil deeds that were the sum of bin Laden's life, I was sad that day that I learned he was dead. There was no real resolution. He was fabulously wealthy, charismatic enough to engage hundreds to follow him. I thought of the good he could have done with the gifts he had squandered instead on a life devoted to terror. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the war on terror. And in the end, this gentle-eyed man turned fanatical killer had lost his humanity along his journey.
The Navy Seals were lauded as heroes, and indeed they are, but real heroism comes in maintaining their humanity after they do their hard jobs, as that soldier in Panama did. I wonder if the Seals need to see those images, broadcast and republished again and again. I suspect they are not remorseful about killing bin Laden, but it is still hard to get those images out of their heads.
As for me, I don’t need to see those pictures. It’s done. Onward.