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Steinberg: Words not enough to honor veterans

Marine Sgt. Thomas M. Gilbert 24 Downers Grove was killed by roadside bomb 2006 Iraq. This phohis bedroom made by

Marine Sgt. Thomas M. Gilbert, 24, of Downers Grove, was killed by a roadside bomb in 2006 in Iraq. This photo of his bedroom, made by Ashley Gilbertson in 2007, is part of an exhibition at the Stephen Daiter Gallery. | Ashley Gilbertson~VII Network

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Updated: December 13, 2012 10:34AM

Words are powerful. They are the gears of thought, the bricks and mortar of memory, spurs to action, the mechanism the human mind uses to imprint itself upon the world.

But words can also be weak. A thick cotton padding wrapped around reality, doublespeak designed to soften an often harsh world — “downsizing” those fired from their jobs, or phone books listing prostitutes as “escorts.”

Words can be used to fudge instead of act — a few years back, I focused in on the “Support Our Troops” magnets popping up on the back of cars. Support them how? By slapping a magnet on the back of your van? Is that it? Scant thanks, given the sacrifices made.

Sunday being Veteran’s Day, a lot of words about honor and duty and sacrifice were uttered, and rightly so. But for most, that’s the end of it, and I think it should just be the beginning. Since these recent wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have raged largely outside of public consciousness, it is incumbent upon us all, as responsible American citizens, who supported and paid for these wars, to make an effort to understand what they really are, what the men and women we sent to fight them have to endure.

The phrase “collateral damage” is one of the more abominable euphemisms, a bit of Vietnam-era Pentagon jargon for civilians killed and wounded unintentionally during a military operation.

It’s also the ironic name of a show of haunting photographs — “Collateral Damage: The Human Face of War” — currently on display at the Stephen Daiter Gallery on West Superior. The work of four photographers with Chicago connections — Samantha Appleton, Vincent Cianni, Ashley Gilbertson and Stephanie Sinclair — the photographs show war from its most horrific to its most mundane.

Collateral Damage’s six sections include “How America Thanked Me,” a look at gay vets, and “Never Ending War: Iraq.” I thought the most eloquent was Gilbertson’s “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” haunting black-and-white portraits of the bedrooms, the trophies and pennants, posters and pillow that slain American soldiers would never be coming home to. “Self-Immolation in Afghanistan” is the most awful, though also has the least to do with war — they speak to the medieval treatment of women in certain societies whether a war is going on there or not.

Proceeds from the show, and sale of the catalog, will be used to aid veterans’ causes. The catalog begins with a line from Henry James, “The war has used up words.” There’s truth in that — war is so hard, it tends to belie the words we try to drape over it. That’s why it’s important to push beyond words and try do something actual. You don’t have to go to the gallery — 230 W. Superior, the show is open Wednesdays and Saturdays and runs until Dec. 1. You can also view some of the photos online, at, though if you’re looking for the standard patriotic fare, you’ll be disappointed. It’s stark.

But then, trying to push beyond words in this realm is often unpleasant. When I wrote about Support Our Troops magnets, I decided to try to actually support vets in a real way, by using the column to find them employment. It turned into an exercise in frustration — most potential employers who contacted me were scam career academies looking to make a buck, and most vets who sent their resumes had skills that didn’t match the few real positions available. I think I found one vet a job.

Still, I was glad I tried, not only for that one guy, but for the better understanding of just how tough this one problem is. War is horrible, it radiates damage, and while I’m not saying that Veterans Day should therefore be horrible too, we don’t want to make it into a gauzy sentimental holiday either, like Mothers Day. If we can watch “The Ten Commandments” every Easter, we can watch “The Hurt Locker” or “Saving Private Ryan” every Veterans Day. Veterans should be made more comfortable for having fought in our wars — but everyone else should be made less comfortable, for having sent them.

Book notes

Most Chicagoans think of the University of Chicago as being in Hyde Park. But it also has an outpost downtown, the Gleacher Center, its school of continuing professional studies in the shadow of NBC Tower. The building is home to U. of C.’s Graham School and is where I’ll be talking about my new book, “You Were Never in Chicago,” with Bill Savage, Northwestern literature professor and the book’s editor, at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $10, but you can make half that back if you buy the book, because they give a 20 percent discount. Gleacher Center is at 450 N. Cityfront Plaza Drive. Pre-register online first, if you can.

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