The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks received vast attention in the U.S. media. Another 10th anniversary date, however, is approaching without nearly the same attention.
Ten years ago on Friday — Oct. 7, 2001 — the war in Afghanistan began.
Last week, artists and an Army vet gathered at the Form + Content art gallery in downtown Minneapolis.
On display there were art pieces representing the reality of that war. But mostly, there was conversation.
“Our hope is to at least get people talking about war,” said Camille Gage, curator of the gallery, artist and a co-founder of an organization called 10 Years and Counting.
Year-old group wants to increase attention
That year-old group is led by artists from across the country. It is staging small events, such as the one in Minneapolis last week.
How is it possible that we’ve been at war for a decade with no deep national discussion about the human and financial costs?
“People have been overwhelmed by all of the wars,” said former Army Capt. Riley Sharbonno, who served as a nurse at the hospital attached to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq beginning in 2004. “There’s just no clear understanding of what these wars are about or the impact they have. I think people in this country have defaulted to the experts. We’ve place a blind trust in the experts.”
Sharbonno, who lives in Minneapolis and works as a nurse at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and Amplatz Children’s Hospital, has created a book for the Veterans Book Project, which has done a series on the people affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His views on the wars are deep and complex, but they begin with the fact that he is not a pacifist.
“I believe we need a military, and I think it’s right that our military will do what it is asked,” Sharbonno said. “I was committed to that when I joined, and I still am.”
Sharbonno’s experiences are profound.
Abu Ghraid nurse still haunted by experience
He was assigned to the Abu Ghraib prison six weeks before it became notorious with the release of photos showing U.S. military personnel torturing prisoners. The immediate outcome of that revelation was near constant mortar attacks.
In response to those attacks, Sharbonno recalled a night when that war became so personal to him.
That night, a small contingent of Marines was sent on a mission to track down those attacking the prison. There was a firefight. Two Marines were killed, and four others sustained wounds.
The bodies and the wounded were brought back to the hospital. The wounded were treated and then stood guard over the dead, who could not be airlifted away until daylight. It became Sharbonno’s job to continually ice down the bodies of the two dead throughout the long night.
The dog tag on one of the dead showed that he and Sharbonno shared the same birth date.
“I’d seen more than 100 people injured by blasts and it didn’t get to me personally in the way that did,” Sharbonno said.
In time, he came home from the war — and that’s when he started to feel a sense of disillusionment.
“People weren’t talking about the lifes being lost, or the injuries — they were complaining about the costs of war. That disgusts me.”
It is remarkable how different this war has been covered journalistically from previous wars. Especially photographically, it’s been sanitized.
During the early years of the war, photojournalists were even prevented from showing the flag-draped coffins of American dead being brought back to the U.S. Not until 2009 did President Obama officially lift that ban.
One of the most powerful pieces of art at last week’s show is Gage’s photo of a single flag-draped coffin on a black background.
But, of course, there are costs beyond the thousands who have been killed and maimed in the decade of wars.
State Sen. Scott Dibble was at the Minneapolis gathering to talk about those costs. Minnesotans, said Dibble, have spent more than $27 billion in tax dollars to support the war. That’s money, Dibble points out, that could have been spent in building infrastructure in our communities.
Dibble introduced a resolution in the state Senate last year pointing out those realities, but it’s languishing in a committee.
“It’s hard to get people even talking about the wars,” said Dibble.
But for some, it’s impossible to ignore the horrible realities of wars.
Sharbonno said he still has nightmares of those hours spent in the hospital at Abu Ghraib icing down the body of the Marine who shared his birthday.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.