Early afternoon, hot and dusty: Bob Dunbar and I sat under a tree listening to gunfire. Like waves lapping at a beach, it neared and receded rhythmically. We were tired, filthy, and more than a little on edge.
When the shooting started, we’d been told to wait right there–and so we had. The barks of AK-47s getting closer again, I heard something in the leaves above us, a quiet rustling, quick then fading away. It came again. Bullets. I looked at Bob.
“There.” He pointed to a small building near where one gendarme, in a crouch, scanned the horizon. Keeping low, we dove against its nearest wall. The gendarme looked at us and grinned, then shot into the empty sky.
Earlier, we’d thought we were going to be killed; now we were just tired. Among refugees, we’d been walking when a group of soldiers had pulled us from the crowd.
We were ordered into the back of a jeep, a couple of soldiers jumping in with us. One of the soldiers’ guns wavering inches from Bob’s head as we bounced along. He asked the man to point it elsewhere or put on the safety catch. The soldier just laughed.
When we were finally motioned from the jeep, an argument started between our captors and gendarmes by the road. The gendarmes lost; we were handed into their care. They motioned with their guns, indicating we should start walking in front of them down a path leading into the bush–to kill us, we believed.
Maybe war is hell. I wouldn’t know. War, for us, was terrifying and boring, transforming and pointless. It was a morass of ignorance, of not know what was going on, of hearing one thing then its opposite. War was confusion, a filthy confusion that numbed us into incuriosity. And war is dominated by incompetence.
We had gotten drunk in it, gotten scared. We’d voiced stupid thoughts of bravado–and had been silly enough in it to have joked about it just as another bomb was falling, killing a dozen and wounding many more a short distance from us.
War is a lack of control, an inability to make decisions based on anything stronger than guesses. It makes one feel helpless–and angry.
This is what I thought about as I watched the devastating aftermath of Katrina. It was not like the tsunami, where order seem quick to reappear, but of war, where nothing anyone does seems to have any impact. Where it just goes on and on and frustration reigns. Where leadership seems the epitome of incompetence.
Those people, stuck on piers, in convention centers, on roofs, for nearly a week, lacking sufficient food and, often, surrounded by dead bodies, have certainly been through the equivalent of war.
Are the people who have shepherded them to places like the Houston Astrodome taking this into account?
Or are they simply treating Katrina’s victims as cattle to be moved to places of shelter and food, needing no more?
The devastation of Katrina cannot be counted merely in numbers of acres flooded and buildings destroyed. It will be counted in lives altered. Bob and I could (and did) return to intact lives. The victims of Katrina not only have faced trauma as great as war, but have nothing to go back to.
The rebuilding we do over the next few years has to also be the rebuilding of lives. The shock of Katrina will never be overcome unless we make sure we attend the damaged people.
Over the past week, our leaders (of all political stripes) have shown singular ineffectuality. The control they have finally taken will not be enough.
So it will up to us, the people of America to heal America from this trauma as great as war. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome will not be the only survivor worry, but it will be one. A government that cannot take care of its returning veterans will be woefully inadequate to take care of these tens of thousands. We the people can, however, though it’s going to take compassion and understanding.
And recognition that nothing like this, like war, has been experienced on American shores since 1865.