He was someone who made different decisions than me, which is not to say that I found myself disagreeing with him on much. He was a soldier, he decided that was the way he wished to live his life. He was a thoughtful, reasoned human being - the evidence for this is in the writing he left for us, which is really how people become immortal - and understood that although his job broke things down into black and white that the world was nonetheless grey. The world was imperfect but he did not let a quest for perfection prevent him doing work he saw as good. He made his choice with knowledge of the imperfections, but also the knowledge that someone had to do it. I understand where he was coming from. I am sure that those who know me will be surprised and possibly credulous if I say that I very nearly made the same choice last year, if for no other reason than that I didn't tell anyone that I was even considering it. The reason I didn't was the same reason I always stay out of uniform, but I won't go into that here.
What I have to say, I hope won't cross the line into politicisation. I think this kind of thing goes beyond politics.
It is important that we know that we are all responsible for Olmsted's death.
Not all to the same extent, obviously. Someone, some group of someones, pulled a trigger and did the actual deed of killing a writer, a thinker, a husband, and a human being. That's not our fault.
But we put him there in the first place.
I am not talking about George Bush's rush to Iraq or any of that. The man was a soldier, had it not been this war it could well have been some other. Hell, the responsibility would be ours were he gunned down as he personally wrestled a two-year old from Osama bin Laden's icy death grasp while pushing the "self destruct" button on Kim Jong Il's World Nuking Device. We put him there not because of individual politicians or policies or countries or ideologies. Those would be easy problems to solve. Rather it was because we as a species are not yet grown-up enough, intelligent enough, compassionate enough or just plain willing enough to see the shared humanity in all the simple, dumbassed examples of homo sapiens sapiens on this rock to have yet worked out how to not throw rocks at the neighbouring tribe. The universe thinks of a billion ways to kill us every minute and cares not one jot whether this thin green smear on the surface of our tiny rocky mass is here tomorrow or not, and in this precarious existence we have not yet worked out a way to not organise ourselves into giant opposing groups whose job is basically to hurry nature along because we're just not dying fast enough.
The price for this collective boneheadedness is paid for first and principally by the human beings like Olmsted who bear the brunt and then by the rest of us who, as Donne observed, are diminished by his loss. It is not to his discredit that he put on the uniform -- the job had to be done. That it had to be done because we're stupid and ignorant doesn't remove the need any more than the street sweeper's job vanishes just because people should pick up their own trash or the police officer's job becomes redundant because people shouldn't break the law. He shouldered more than his share of the cost for our failings. For this he deserves respect and gratitude, but he also deserves far more.
His own words, his own request about what he wanted his death to mean, are as follows:
But on a larger scale, for those who knew me well enough to be saddened by my death, especially for those who haven't known anyone else lost to this war, perhaps my death can serve as a small reminder of the costs of war. Regardless of the merits of this war, or of any war, I think that many of us in America have forgotten that war means death and suffering in wholesale lots. A decision that for most of us in America was academic, whether or not to go to war in Iraq, had very real consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Yet I was as guilty as anyone of minimizing those very real consequences in lieu of a cold discussion of theoretical merits of war and peace. Now I'm facing some very real consequences of that decision; who says life doesn't have a sense of humor?
But for those who knew me and feel this pain, I think it's a good thing to realize that this pain has been felt by thousands and thousands (probably millions, actually) of other people all over the world. That is part of the cost of war, any war, no matter how justified. If everyone who feels this pain keeps that in mind the next time we have to decide whether or not war is a good idea, perhaps it will help us to make a more informed decision. Because it is pretty clear that the average American would not have supported the Iraq War had they known the costs going in. I am far too cynical to believe that any future debate over war will be any less vitriolic or emotional, but perhaps a few more people will realize just what those costs can be the next time.
People without Olmsted's insight or humility often berate those of us who are against war - be that in general or in individual cases - by belittling our knowledge and wisdom and pointing out patronisingly that sometimes you gotta fight a war, and hey, war ended fascism and slavery and communism and tyrannies all over the world, didn't it? We suffer from cancers in our society, goes the argument, and war is the chemotherapy that, albeit destructively and painfully, helps us deal with these cancers. But some of us believe that war itself, with its crippling losses of lives like Olmsteds, is just another cancer, another crippling and debilitating disease that stifles us as individuals and as societies, strikes good minds down before they have a chance to shine and sets up walls so that other minds cannot become great in the first place; that although war can defeat fascism, tyranny and communism it can also cause and sustain them; that rather than being a treatment it is a symptom of the disease.
And if this is true, then we owe it to Olmsted's memory to work as hard as we can in whatever way we can to ensure that the proportion of the cost borne by people like him in the future is minimised. We should, in fact, aim to eradicate it. We should feel the cost ourselves whenever we send a soldier off to fight and kill and die for us. We should feel it so hard that we never want to, that we only send them when we must, when the cost of inaction would be greater than the cost of action. That's our side of the bargain. They give us their lives, we promise not to waste them. Our aim, our golden, unreachable target should be that we never send a single soldier into a warzone.
Just as we may never be able to eradicate tumours in our biological bodies, we may never hit that standard. And even if it is possible we will not do it by wishing really hard, or by sitting in a circle and praying and chanting, or by convincing everybody with clever if long livejournal posts. If there is a solution it will be hard, expensive, slow and demoralising work finding it. But whatever the solution eventually turns out to be, even if it will never be found, our responsibility is to look for it, to understand what it costs for us to not know it yet, to comprehend that it is a problem which affects us all, and to try our damndest to do right by all the soldiers left doing this job. I have no doubt that we will fail many times before we break through and doubts about whether we will ever stop failing, but try we absolutely must.
Olmert made another statement in his last words.
On a similar note, while you're free to think whatever you like about my life and death, if you think I wasted my life, I'll tell you you're wrong. We're all going to die of something. I died doing a job I loved. When your time comes, I hope you are as fortunate as I was.
He didn't waste his life; reading his last words you can be sure of that. But it's very possible for us to waste his sacrifice. If we do not get angry, if we do not feel the cost to ourselves, if it does not hurt us and make us long to stop it, then we are not upholding our end of this bargain. And we owe him and every other soldier more than that.
I'll end this already-too-long post by letting Olmsted himself have the final word, from a post he wrote in September of last year. If he can have this attitude about Iraq, perhaps there is hope for us, buried deep though it may be.
While reports from Iraq sometimes seem to suggest that every member of the Iraqi Security Forces is only looking to advance their particular faction, the fact is that, like people everywhere, you get all kinds. Some of them are doubtless just infiltrators. But we also work with men who want to see their country be more than just a hotbed of factionalism. While the idea that inside every Iraqi is an American trying to get out is asinine, the idea that every Iraqi is devoted to nothing but endless killing of everyone like him is equally so. There are a lot of Iraqis here who are risking their lives to make their country a better place. If we can help even one of them do so, there's something to be said for that.
I don't expect that we will make any big differences in Iraq. The government doesn't appear to be interested in doing anything but preserve its power base, and I don't know if that will change even if the U.S. does decide to actually pull out, which seems implausible in any case. I can't make the Iraqi government work any better. I may not even be able to do much to make the Iraqi Army work any better. But I can try to help those Iraqis who want to make their country better succeed in their own small ways, and I can take advantage of my own position to directly aid Iraqis it is in my power to help. It doesn't sound like much. It probably isn't much. But few of us are destined to make a big difference in life; if I can make a little difference, that has to count for something.