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A Memento of War
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"Look at these!" my father demanded, triumphantly brandishing a necklace made up of a half-dozen teeth, hard, shiny, yellowish trophies of war ripped from the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier.

The soldier had been one of the 24,000 killed in combat with U.S. troops, my father among them, who had invaded the Marianas Islands in the South Pacific during the final months of World War II.

I was 12 at the time and, like all my patriotic buddies, fervently hated "the dirty Japs" who had started the war with a sneak attack and had done terrible things like beheading American prisoners.

For a moment, I shared my father's pride, his feeling of just revenge. But then he handed me the necklace. My stomach churned as I held the evidence of what I quickly recognized as the kind of terrible act I had been taught to expect of our enemies - but never of our troops, who were invariably described as morally superior defenders of democracy.

I had rarely thought about that moment of shock and disgust during most of the ensuing 59 years. But I've been thinking about it very much since the disclosures of what American soldiers did to Iraqi prisoners.

My father had a grotesque string of enemy teeth as a trophy. The abusers in Iraq had grotesque photos as theirs. And they, too, were part of a military force hailed by American political leaders as representative of what's right, and good, and true. They, too, must have looked on the enemy as almost less than human, of another race whose culture was clearly inferior and who were thus a target for abuse.

As I now recall that day in 1945 when I held a necklace of human teeth, I realize it was a defining moment in my life, a moment that profoundly influenced my beliefs and actions as an adult.

It was the brutality of our enemies that made them our enemies, so why act brutally in opposing them? No, we didn't have to love our enemies and in many cases definitely should not love them, but wasn't acting as they acted mean sinking to their level? Did it really make any sense to do unto others the evil they did unto us when we believed that the evil was just that - evil?

And whatever they had done, were our enemies not human? Was it not wrong to treat them inhumanely? And taking revenge -- that maybe made you feel good at least for the moment, but what else did it do? Did it bring back to life those who had been killed? Did it heal those who'd been wounded?

Obvious, simple questions, I suppose. Remember, however, that I was a 12-year-old. I didn't dare ask my father such questions, but obvious and simple as they may be, I have raised them and related questions ever since, most certainly in regard to the prison abuses in Iraq and also repeatedly in regard to capital punishment, that fruitless act of revenge that kills people in the name of the state while doing little or nothing to deter crime.

As for the prisoners in Iraq: It's not even certain how many actually committed any serious crimes, how many were herded into prison simply because they opposed the U.S. occupation of their country or might have information about those who were fighting the occupying forces.

Some of the prisoners undoubtedly were legitimately jailed. But whatever their offense, there's of course no justification for the abuse they suffered, no reason beyond the primitive, irrational emotions that led to the making of an unforgettable necklace more than a half-century ago.

Copyright Dick Meister