Shame of Baghdad

prideofbaghdad1.jpgA video made the rounds recently that purportedly shows a Marine in Iraq chucking a puppy off a cliff. I say "purportedly" because even though I've read about it, I can't bring myself to watch it. Some have claimed that it's a fake, but most agree that it's real, and there's even an investigation on to track down the offending soldier. In one of life's increasingly less entertaining coincidences, this all happened when I was fresh off reading Brian K. Vaughan's stellar and heartbreaking Pride of Baghdad, a graphic novel inspired by the true account of four lions who escaped the Baghdad zoo during the bombings of April 2003. The book plays as a grim fable as the lions make their way through the ruins of the city and attempt to survive amid the rubble and chaos of a world being destroyed. Vaughan's writing is as sharp as ever: He delineates the four main characters and their personalities in a matter of pages before plunging them and the reader into a journey that can only be described as harrowing. I will not here reveal what happens to the central cast, or even to the ancillary characters — including the rest of the animals who escaped the zoo, a giant bear being kept as a lethal pet, and a wise old turtle living down by the river — except to say that, as is the case in the real world and Vaughan's stories, not everyone makes it out safely. However, the real power of the story isn't just the way Vaughan gives it an emotional resonance, but in the way he uses a tragic climax to illustrate a broader point about the war in general. After a few panels of silent scenery, Vaughan simply states that the preceding was based on a true story before concluding with, "There were other casualties as well." And in one moment, the story manages to spiral up and out, taking the pain and joy and nameless other yearnings and focusing them on the human cost of the fighting. I say all that because reaction to the video generally fell into three camps. Most everyone was appalled, and a few people even expressed something like sad resignation that this had happened, as if being away from home and fighting in a war is all the excuse you need to mindlessly kill a harmless animal. But many people used the video as a way to turn the focus back toward the human lives lost, saying that it doesn't make sense to get all worked up over a dog when people are dying. This is the right idea, but the wrong execution. It's wrong because it assumes that a dog's life is worthless and should serve as a reminder that real people are dying every day, when in actuality that dog is the best way for people who don't have any connection to the war to see it for just what it's doing to those who are affected by it. The war has become a senseless thing, a lumbering and unjust beast whose appetite for willing soldiers and innocent civilians is impossible to satisfy. But seeing a dog, a pup whose only mistake was to find himself in the hands of the wrong Marine, killed with the kind of offhand you never want to imagine someone having — that's affecting in a way that death counts and press spin could never be. That's why we're right to get worked up about the video. The human cost suddenly comes screaming home, and not because the dog was just an animal; it's because it was alive, and that life ended in a place where people are killing each other every hour.