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     Volume 7 Issue 33 | August 15, 2008 |

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The Berlin Wall

a Twisted Antenna and the Price of Patriotism

Nader Rahman

Photo: namguardianangel.com

Washington DC's 'Newseum' dedicated to news, journalism and the effect they have on almost every sphere of our lives, is situated in a massive building, sprawling out at 250,000 sq feet. It has seven levels of galleries covering everything even remotely related to the news. For those who are inclined, it is a must see attraction in the heart of the capital.

I walked though it, trying to take it all in. There was just too much to see. I soon found myself in front of the largest section of the Berlin Wall I had ever seen. Five massive blocks with garish graffiti stood out like a Trabant in West Germany and their sheer size and presence put the cold war into perspective. Behind the wall they even had an East German guard tower, it must have soared over 30 feet into the air. Even though its inhabitants had long gone I could feel a ghostly pair of crosshairs on the back of my neck. The experience was as chilling and surreal, the Berlin Wall stood less than three blocs from the White House and Congress. The wall fell a long time ago and with it the air of Soviet invincibility vanished as well. One floor above the wall was an exhibit that had people teary eyed, quiet, pensive and emotional.

In the Newseum they have a permanent display on the news that shocked the world, a day known as 9/11. There is a massive wall with what seems like the 100 most important newspapers in the world and their first editions after 9/11. The headlines all sound the same, terror, war, apocalypse but what is most moving about the exhibit is that they have the mangled top of one of the world trade centre's buildings. There are many famous pictures of the rubble of the buildings, with just the twisted antennas from the roof being visible. They somehow managed to acquire the very antenna that was so widely photographed and stood like a beacon of hope to a nation. Only then did I realise how fitting it was to have had the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 antenna together. They were both symbols of power, one being militaristic and the other being economic. They both stood for vastly different ideologies and they were symbols of the prevailing superpowers of their era. They both fell and last but not least they wounded the so-called invincibility of the nations they represented.

The same day I strolled through the Newseum I found myself in the streets of Washington DC, confronted by a woman in shorts and a ragged t-shirt. I was walking to a pharmacy and she came up to me and asked for change, “I'm an Iraq war vet, could you spare me some money,” she said. I didn't believe her, until she pulled out her Army ID card and while I felt horribly for her my emotions against the war in Iraq took over as I looked the other way and walked without looking back. After giving her life to her nation, that vet was now roaming the streets for money, is that how the government treats its patriots, I thought?

Photo: oldtimer.worldpress.com

Later the same night as I was walking back to my hotel I was introduced to a young man dressed in a blue t-shirt and khaki trousers. He looked barely older than me and was introduced as yet another vet. I found it hard to believe, his arms were tattooed and there was something very boyish in his face, something I thought war would have erased. We sat down in the lobby and started talking, I was still trying to figure out if he was telling me the truth, surely a soldier can't be covered in tattoos and still be in the army. He explained how he was a recruit and not an officer, thereby allowing him to his personal body modifications. He pulled out his Army ID card, the second one for the night and only then did I begin to believe.

He was 25 years old, had been in the army for six years and had served three tours of duty. It was amazing that he managed to do all of this and he was still so young. I asked him what he was doing in DC, he said that he had been injured after a bomb had exploded six feet away from him in Afghanistan. Less than two months ago he was doing combat duty, now he suffered from short term memory loss, all for his country and its illegal wars, I thought. He was being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, the hospital that was at the centre of the neglect scandal not too long ago, where thousands of vets have been neglected both physically and mentally. He had to seek treatment, I was starting to feel bad for him; he told me how the army had treated him and most of the people who had been injured during the war.

After being discharged from the army they will pay him a residual salary of $2,000 a month, which with the current state of the US economy is nothing. Apart from the fact that after discharge, he will lose his medical benefits he will end up like many other war veterans thinking that their work and patriotism is worth a mere two thousand dollars a month. He would get $2,000 only because his rank was that of E6 which is very high for someone that young. An E1 who got injured would get even less than that a month, even though he or she may have lost an arm or a leg. “Where is the honour in fighting for your country like a patriot and then being screwed out of a decent livelihood by your one time employers?” he said. I had no answer, he was on the verge of tears when he said, “I've done two 12 month tours of duty in Iraq and one 18-month in Afghanistan. In the process I've lost more than just my temporary memory and what do I get, nothing but a cold handshake from my government. Was it worth it? No! not at all, this is not what I fought for!”

He was proudly a member of the 101s Airborne Division, possibly the most famous US Army division. They were immortalised in a critically acclaimed mini series Band of Brothers for their role in WWII and he was more than gushing when talking about it. Tears welled up in his eyes when he said, “During WWII we knew why we were fighting, this time we don't even know that. We are fighting a war against unknown enemies and not being compensated for our losses, things could not be worse”.

The Berlin Wall fell and AK 47's proliferated the world's arms markets. The twin towers fell and disenchanted soldiers proliferated the streets of America. Some just asking for some money, some just wanting to be heard and some just questioning if the price of patriotism is $2,000 a month. If only the Newseum had an op-ed exhibit, this topic could fill a room.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008