Soldiers killed in action are now seen more as lost sons and fathers than as fallen heroes.
The deaths of coalition soldiers has thrust the families of troops fighting in the Gulf into the spotlight.
The pregnant wife of Captain Philip Guy, one of the eight British servicemen killed in a helicopter crash, paid tribute to her husband: ‘I know he died a true hero. He died for his Queen and country and to make the world a safer, better place for us to live in, for his children to grow up in.’ (1)
But this traditional dedication, emphasising her husband’s duty and the cause for which he died, was unusual. Other families seem isolated, having difficulty knowing what role to play. The way they have talked about missing, worrying about and grieving for their loved ones has often been deeply personalised.
Where before families might have tried to keep their fears under wraps so as not to damage public morale, today they often discuss their worries in intimate detail. Bill Eastwood, whose 19-year-old son is fighting in the Gulf, told a journalist: ‘I’m in here pacing the floor watching the news. It’s an empty house without him around…. I find myself just pacing back and forth just worrying about the young guys…. My days are filled with anxiety.’ (2)
Others have actually come out and criticised the war in which their relative is risking his or her life. The father of dead US Marine Sergeant Kendall Waters-Bey was interviewed on CNN about his son’s death. He brandished a photograph of his son, and said: ‘President Bush, take a look at this man, because you took my only son away from me.’ (3) You took my son away: this father understood his son’s death not as a sacrifice in the line of duty, but as a life stolen from him by the president.
Another wife of a British soldier in Iraq, who lives on an army base in Germany, said that seeing the prisoners-of-war being paraded on Iraqi TV made her feel angry about the war. ‘It makes me feel like if this wasn’t going on, those people would be home safe’, she said (4). ‘People are losing relatives, sons and daughters’, said Mr Waters-Bey.
The ways that families and friends have grieved their losses have often been deeply personal. People have left flowers and messages at some of the dead UK soldiers’ barracks. The wife of British Marine Commander Seymour left a note pinned to a picture of herself and her son that read: ‘For my Daddy. I love you loads. So does Mummy. We will miss you always. God bless you. Lots of love from your baby bear and Tinkerbell.’ (5)
Members of the public have also left messages. ‘Our thoughts are with you. We really do care’, read one note (6). The public too, it seems, is also relating to combat deaths in emotional, personal terms – through relatives’ private grief, rather than in more traditional ways.
In their public statements, relatives have tended to emphasise the individual qualities of the dead soldier, as much as they do the cause for which he died. Samantha Roberts, the wife of Sergeant Steven Roberts, the first Briton who was killed in combat, paid tribute to her ‘unique’ husband, describing him as an ‘outgoing and sociable’ man who was loved by all he met. ‘We loved each other deeply’, she said, ‘he is totally irreplaceable’.
Briton Lieutenant West, who was killed in the helicopter crash, was described by his fiancée as ‘patient, thoughtful and considerate’. Even the Navy seemed to personalise his death, releasing a statement saying that: ‘Both families were looking forward to celebrating the couple’s marriage in August, and his loss is hard to bear.’ (7)
Here, the deaths of soldiers in military action seems to be treated in much the same way as any other tragic death. The dead man is seen as a lost husband, son or father as much as a lost soldier. The flowers and notes at army and navy bases are more reminiscent of those left at the scene of car crashes than they are of traditional means of commemorating war dead.
Notions of honour, patriotism and duty that once gave a death in action a different significance to other kinds of deaths seem to have been eroded. Often, it is perhaps not clear to relatives exactly what it is that the soldiers are fighting for. This has left the families of soldiers much more isolated than before – they have few terms in which to understand the risk and sacrifices that are being made.
Some families have responded by setting up support groups. One American reverend has established a group for families of servicemen. ‘We just want to help. We just want to let the families know. “You’re not alone”‘, he said. The group offers material support to the troops – packages of personal-care items and snacks – and emotional support for each other (8).
Others have sought to remain in contact through the internet. Before the conflict started, a US Marine unit established a website – showing photos and mini-interviews with soldiers. ‘Families really crave verbal communication…. They really want to hear that voice’, said one of those involved in the project. And other relatives have stayed glued to the war news – ‘I think it helps, because you know where he is, you get a good feeling for where he is and get a feeling of the danger he’s facing’, said one soldier’s father (9).
But not only are families who focus on their soldiers’ roles as husbands and sons, rather than as men of duty, less able to play their traditional role of supporting the troops on the home front. This also may mean that their risks and losses will be harder to bear.
(1) Tributes paid to British Gulf dead, Western Mail, 25 March 2003
(2) Watching and Waiting, Derek Thomson and Dean Schabner, ABC News, 24 March 2003
(3) A country divided begins to feel pain, Observer, 23 March 2003
(4) Watching and Waiting, Derek Thomson and Dean Schabner, ABC News, 24 March 2003
(5) Boy, 3, leaves flowers for father as toll climbs to 14, Cahal Milmo, Independent, 24 March 2003
(6) Comrades grieve for victims of Sea Kings’ crash, David Harrison and Andrew Alderson, Sunday Telegraph, 23 March 2003
(7) Tributes paid to British Gulf dead, Western Mail, 25 March 2003
(8) Families of soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom pull together, Jim Irwin, Associated Press, 25 March 2003
(9) Watching and Waiting, Derek Thomson and Dean Schabner, ABC News, 24 March 2003
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