Stories From A Life

Been there. Done that. Writing about it.

Sally Swift

Sally Swift
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
June 14
VP, Repartee
Swift Retorts
sally: a journey, a venture, an expression of feeling, an outburst, a quip, a wisecrack ... me


APRIL 30, 2009 12:02AM

Picturing War, From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan

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"It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." Robert E. Lee

This is the 34th anniversary of end of the War in Vietnam. It's being ignored. And that's wrong. As history is doomed to repeat itself, we are also meant to learn from our mistakes. Yet here we are, mired in two unpopular, politically motivated wars just like Vietnam, right now.

Vietnam is a chilling object lesson of the savage, wanton waste of war. We should have learned that before we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I will never forget sitting on my bed, rocking and crying as our despised president faced national TV cameras and gave us the only good news ever to leave his lips ... the war in Vietnam is over.

This era's despised president is now history. To remember and learn and remind our new president the lessons of Vietnam for the 21st Century, we will need visual aids.

"It is only the dead who have seen the end of war." Plato

dead soldiers

Unlike the years of Vietnam, personal tragedies of Iraq and Afghanistan have been deliberately hidden from us. Shown only in newspapers, mostly at the local level.

Did you know that more U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan during 2008 than in any other years since the U.S. invaded in 2001? To date, 1135 soldiers have died there. 4278 soldiers have died in Iraq. And almost 100,000 civilians have also lost their lives.

This story just about broke my heart.

anthony jones  
Anthony Jones came home to Georgia on leave to meet his newborn son. He wasn't very sanguine about returning to Iraq. "I want to live this week like it is my last," he said. "The chances of going over a third time and coming back alive are almost nil. I've known too many who have died." Sgt. Anthony G. Jones, 25, was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, Iraq three weeks later. (And good god, on my birthday).

We have been given censored, sanitized or deliberately misdirected and inflammatory versions of exactly what the government and the military wanted us to see... not one frame more.



Those of us who lived during the Vietnam era might not remember much but no one could forget the pictures. Vietnam was truly the first war to assault our nation's collective sight as well as our souls.

life vet


Some of the images are so engraved in the public consciousness we don't have to see them at all -- they appear in a flash behind our eyes at the mention of "the naked little girl screaming from napalm burns"  (above) or "the helicopter evacuating people from the roof of the US Embassy" (shown at the top). Or "civilian with gun to head."

gun to head 

All the countless pictures of death and destruction and pain in Vietnam bore eloquent witness to our outrage. They were the hooks on which we hung our grievances at the injustice of an abominable war.  

Journalists with unprecedented access took life-threatening chances to bring us photographs and videos. They defined a disastrous chapter in American history as never before. And became a horrific reminder of the impact "freedom of the press" could have on our collective psyches.

wounded on litter 

If you remember or have seen clips of television news during Vietnam, you know it was the real deal. Network news honchos back then may have pandered to their sponsors' censors, but never to the federal government's.


Never has the media so caved and cowered under government imposed censorship than today's psuedo-infotainment conglomerates that pass for news organizations in today's world.

Show Us Body Bags and Coffins


In the beginning of the Iraq war the government allowed some journalists to join certain military units. We gained a new word: embedded. Intrepid journalists were embedded here, there and everywhere.

But we at home weren't seeing anything unique, unusual or even particularly gruesome. We certainly weren't seeing news.

More than 30 years after Vietnam we see so much fictional gore on prime time TV that the pictures they showed us seemed ho-hum.  Even scenes of actual beheadings on the Internet haven't managed to shake our collective lack of response to horror.

We're numb. Jaded. Bombarded by fictional television, movie and video game savagery. Our ability to summon shock and outrage at blood and guts has swirled down too many fake viscera filled drains.

We've absorbed violence into our daily lives in such a way as to minimize its impact on anything but our eyes. It's become theater. Incredible. Phantasmagoric.

wounded in plane

Even so, we're still not seeing anything we haven't seen before. And worse, we've been denied information and access far too long in the holy name of "national security."

Everybody carries on about the gruesome and disturbing pictures of torture by our own government under that same banner, but no one has yet stood up, organized, protested, demanded full accountability of ALL involved for all the atrocities of these unholy wars.

War and torture will never penetrate our self-absorption until it's made personal and much more real.

soldier and child 
A U.S. soldier cradles an Iraqi child wounded by the blast of a suicide bomber.

Are we numb to the pictures? Or can television bring the reality of war home to us uncensored? During Vietnam, it gave us live firestorms of battle.

Far more stunning were the quiet scenes at Dover Air Force Base and others around the country showing grief-stricken families meeting the coffins of loved ones killed in action.

You could barely breath, let alone speak as flag-draped symbols of heroism accompanied by solemn soldiers marched onto the screen and into our consciousness.


Not a drop of blood. Just unadulterated reality. Of loss. And despair. 

coffins at dover

For many Vietnam-era viewers it was the nightly sight of dozens, hundreds, thousands of flag covered coffins on military tarmac that pulled them off their couches and out into the streets to howl in protest.  


Protests? What Protests? 

sheehan arrest 

Other than a determined, "Gold Star" mother named Cindy Sheehan and a few hundred followers of her dedicated organization, few anti-war protests aroused much attention or commitment. The few that did were met largely with apathy and have faded from view.

But the killing continues. The dead still come home to families devastated by their loss.

 boy with coffin

 "The time not to become a father is eighteen years before a war." E. B. White

American's attitude toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems more theoretical than real. That should and would change dramatically, irrevocably if military and government censors allowed us to see body bags and coffins coming home to their grief-torn families.

family coffin

This is an award-winning photo, part of a series about a soldier's body returning from Iraq. 
coffin in plane 
When 2nd Lt. James Cathey's body arrived at the Reno Airport, Marines climbed into the cargo hold of the plane and draped the flag over his casket as passengers watched the family gather on the tarmac. Todd Heisler, The Rocky Mountain News

During the arrival of another Marine's casket last year at Denver International Airport, Major Steve Beck described the scene as one of the most powerful in the process:

"See the people in the windows? They'll sit right there in the plane, watching those Marines. You gotta wonder what's going through their minds, knowing that they're on the plane that brought him home," he said.

"They're going to remember being on that plane for the rest of their lives. They're going to remember bringing that Marine home. And they should."

Mr Heisler also received an award for his heartbreaking follow-up picture. It literally made me weep. And then, oh god, the description.

wife on floor 
The night before the burial of her husband's body, Katherine Cathey refused to leave the casket, asking to sleep next to his body for the last time. The Marines made a bed for her, tucking in the sheets below the flag.

Before she fell asleep, she opened her laptop computer and played songs that reminded her of 'Cat,' and one of the Marines asked if she wanted them to continue standing watch as she slept. "I think it would be kind of nice if you kept doing it," she said. "I think that's what he would have wanted."

Carrying the Weight of War

carrying coffin

"You always hear all these statements like freedom isn't free. You hear the president talking about all these people making sacrifices. But you never really know until you carry one of them in the casket. When you feel their body weight. When you feel them, that's when you know. That's when you understand." Sgt. Kevin Thomas, 2006

A first person account from another passenger on a plane bringing home yet another dead soldier was just about more than I could bear.

Last week, while traveling to Chicago on business, I noticed a Marine sergeant traveling with a folded flag, but did not put two and two together. After we boarded our flight, I turned to the sergeant, who'd been invited to sit in First Class (across from me), and inquired if he was heading home.

No, he responded.

Heading out, I asked?

No. I'm escorting a soldier home.

Going to pick him up?

No. He is with me right now. He was killed in Iraq. I'm taking him home to his family.

The realization of what he had been asked to do hit me like a punch to the gut. It was an honor for him. He told me that, although he didn't know the soldier, he had delivered the news of his passing to the soldier's family and felt as if he knew them after many conversations in so few days.

I turned back to him, extended my hand, and said, Thank you. Thank you for doing what you do so my family and I can do what we do.

Upon landing in Chicago the pilot stopped short of the gate and made the following  announcement over the intercom.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to note that we have had the honor of having Sergeant Steeley of the United States Marine Corps join us on this flight. He is escorting a fallen comrade back home to his family. I ask that you please remain in your seats when we open the forward door to allow Sergeant Steeley to deplane and receive his fellow soldier. We will then turn off the seat belt sign."

Without a sound, all went as requested. I noticed the sergeant saluting the casket as it was brought off the plane, and his action made me realize that I am proud to be an American.

So here's a public Thank You to our military Men and Women for what you do so we can live the way we do.
signed: Stuart Margel -- Washington, D.C.

How much longer must they carry the horrendous burden of war?

 crying soldier

The stark reality of the numbers, the immutable display of the enormity of our nation's loss -- that should stop us dead in our tracks. 

We must want to stop the train wreck of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as many tried so hard, and finally succeeded in stopping the war in Vietnam.

Too late for far too many.

boy at wall

War Child International - Home page 

Iraq Body Count

iCasualties | Operation Enduring Freedom

The VietNam Veterans' Memorial Wall Page Photo Gallery 

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Sally, This is tremendous. Don't know what I could add that would contribute. Thanks for reminding us all.
You have me crying. Certain photos do that.

War doesn't just kill those who have died - it kills off bits of the survivors souls as well.
Thank you Ralph and Anni. This one isn't about me or ratings or meta mania. Except in the sense that I just had to put it out there in the ether, trying to help people remember and react and fight these damn wars until we're out for good.
Well done, Sally.

I sure wish Life Magazine were still around--I'll never forget their photos of Vietnam. Not only have there not been photos on a similar level of power from Iraq and Afghanistan (yet ), but the deliberate stifling of the news, and the Media's cowardice about Iraq in the wake of 9/11 really make me angry. Bush wasn't the only one who let us down. Those flag draped coffins make the cost of these two wars horrendously real.

Nothing about Afghanistan makes me happy, but I'm far more angry about the deliberate deception involved in drumming up popular support for Iraq. Especially now that it's clear the lies were cold-blooded and deliberate; they always meant to invade. They just had to wag the dog hard enough to get us to go along in our panicked sheep stampeded. What utter bastards.

We need to become a nation of Cindy Sheehans. We've GOT to get out of Iraq.
War will end when politicians are forced to fight them.

While the politicians are allowed to send our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers to sacrifice while they themselves sit safely home, war will be a reality. And death will be a constant companion.

I've had my moment of silence this morning to honor the friends and relatives who fought, some of whom did not come home alive.

Never forget.
Great post, Sally. This is an exceptional essay with photos.
True as true gets , Sally reminds us:

"American's attitude toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems more theoretical than real. That should and would change dramatically, irrevocably if military and government censors allowed us to see body bags and coffins coming home to their grief-torn families."
Ironic that you posted this as I was posting my plea:

Winter Soldiers, Forgotten Warriors
Oh my god. Thank you so much for these pictures, and this exceptional post. The stories were so heartbreaking, and the picture of the soldier holding the Iraqi kid made me tear up a little bit. It sort of looks like a modern, real-life version of The Pieta. Rated.

And wholehearted agreement.

This is one tough post, Sally. Seems so long ago. Brought back a flood of memories about what was going on at the time of VN war. Amazing how we saw all images then, all the gore and fear and horror, but we don't seem to learn from it. I am downhearted about humanity. Thanks for reminding us how far back we have slipped in terms of reportage.
I shouldn't have read this at work.

Thanks for posting. I don't remember Vietnam first hand (too young) but it has been so well documented that sometimes I forget I saw it as history.

Iraq (all wars) should be well documented.
As a Vietnam Veteran I was genuinely moved by your piece. I came home on a C-141 with 90 coffins on it. I think about that flight almost every day. Thank you for all the work you put into this.
Every war since Korea has been a waste. GI's are only dying for Halliburton and Blackwater's FINANCIAL freedom, nothing else.