Monday, July 23, 2007


It will be a good day when there's no longer reason to read something like this by David Benjamin:

No matter how many times I turn the page in the New York Times and encounter the headline, "Names of the Dead," I feel awkward. I'm tempted to bow my head or raise my eyes heavenward, light a candle (if I had one), or even make the sign of the cross. I do none of those things. But I try to shut out the coffee shop din and force myself to read every word of each brutally brief death notice. I try to picture each casket arriving under cover of darkness in Dover, Md., where some sleep-deprived mortality clerk marks a checklist and dispatches this freight of once-living tissue to its final disposal.

One day last week, the names of the dead seemed especially representative of America's nightmare in Iraq. There were five GIs and three Marines, stacked alphabetically. They ranged in age and rank from an 18-year-old private, LeRon Wilson of Queens, N.Y., to a 44-year-old colonel, Jon M. Lockey of Fredericksburg, Va., with several noncoms in between. This was the day an American soldier was killed in Baghdad's supposedly impregnable Green Zone, and I wondered if this luckless soul was Col. Lockey, who -- said the Times -- was assigned to the apparent safety of Army headquarters.

As always, the list was dominated by kids (I've been calling America's war dead "kids" ever since Khe Sanh) from small towns: Homerville, Ga.; Luther, Okla.; Moscow, Me.; Monterey, Calif.; Coos Bay, Ore., and Fredericksburg. The two big-city exceptions were Wilson from Queens and Angel Ramirez, a Marine from Brooklyn.

I considered how paltry and opaque is this agate-print nod to our honored dead. We know not whether these lost warriors were brave or scared, or whether they joined out of economic desperation or cockeyed patriotism. No high-school transcripts, no rap sheets, no service records, no next of kin. We don't how many deployments they had endured, nor how long it might have been before they were rotated back to safety. We don't know if any of them had ever voted, except for Wilson, who was too young to have ever had the chance.

A little math tells me that these eight young men, in a nation where most people are now living into their upper 70s, died at an average age of just over 27 years. We're told that these young deaths -- deaths among the strongest, healthiest and ablest of Americans -- are justified by the 3,591 who died in the same war before them. If we abandon this war, we are assured, these "heroes" (called such although we know that soldiers rarely enjoy true heroic opportunities in any war) will have died in vain. It's a simple rule: We kill kids to validate the deaths of kids already dead.

We're told that we dare not admit that this ill-conceived cause is long lost. Why so? Does conceding failure -- thus saving the lives of countless still-breathing kids -- diminish these eight deaths? These kids died because they were faithful to their duty and -- above all -- true to their comrades in arms. They died among brothers and friends, but not one of them, as he breathed his last breath, had geopolitics on his mind or the name of George W. Bush on his lips.

In my daily chore of heeding "The Names of the Dead," I sometimes hear, in the back of my mind, faintly, the words of Linda, Willy Loman's widow, in "Death of a Salesman."His name was never in the paper," Linda says in the play's most-moving soliloquy. "He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."

In what crusade did Willy die? He sold objects so mundane that, in Arthur Miller's play, we never know what they were. He spent his last ounce of energy and surrendered his soul to a company which -- in the end -- forsook and disdained him. He barely held the affections of even his family. But a life, as Linda cried out in her husband's last moment, is an immense and fearsome thing. It can be lived for the noblest of causes or, more often, for no apparent cause at all. But, whatever its merits, it deserves to be lived in full. It deserves to be observed, when it's over, with gravity and awe.

Jeremy Allbaugh, Jason Dore, Gene Lamie, Jon Lockey, Sean Mitchell, Angel Ramirez, Steven Stacy and a teenage kid named LeRon Wilson need not have died for good reason or for bad. For us to honor them, it is enough that they died -- terribly young, bursting with vigor, and incomplete. The ultimate tribute to these eight would be to see that no others die in their names.

Fat chance. Since that day, as of this writing, the cause has claimed 11 more. The last name on the list, for the moment, is Robert Varga, 24, of Monroe City, Mo.

So, I sit there helpless, with my coffee, my Times and the names of the dead. But -- as best I can -- I pay attention.

David Benjamin, a novelist and journalist originally from Tomah, Wis., now divides his time between New York and Paris. His latest book is "The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked."


zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Nice pickup Snag.

There is no way that pulling out of Iraq can be called a failure, because success in Iraq was never defined; so how can you define failure?

Failure is allowing ANY number of Americans to die on the battlefield of a foreign country for ill-considered aggressive military actions of men who never saw combat.

Failure is allowing men who never saw combat to lie our way into attacking a country that posed no threat to America.

Failure is not removing these men from public life and preventing them from having the power to make life and death decisions for other people, ever again.

Failure is allowing greed- and power- hungry men to subvert and ignore the Constitution while distracting the People with bright colors and loud noises, and hiding the most egregiously criminal of their actions behind a wall of secrecy that Nixon only dreamed of.

We have already Failed.

Failed at the Iraq war because there is no way to win.

Failed at Democracy because we allowed people like George Bush and Dick Cheney to take over; so, so easily, and we did not rise up in righteous anger at the coup.

Failed at humanity because these men used legalistic perversions and popular movies to falsify the horrors of war and create a false enemy, then legalized torture and illegal internment, and we did not cry out in horror and rage.

We have already Failed; removing our troops from Iraq will do nothing.

Nothing, that is, except prevent any more of them from dying.

Now tell every family member of every soldier serving overseas just WHY, again, they can't come home?

Anonymous said...

What he said.

Adorable Girlfriend said...

Wow, Billy P. has his typing on today.

Ditto Jennifer.

Snag said...

Thank you Billy for your thoughtful comment.

What I can't resolve is our moral responsibility to prevent bloodshed caused in large part by our failed foreign policies. In Darfur, for example, horrific as it is, we don't have blood on our hands in the same way we do in Baghdad. I wish I knew which of all the failures available to us would be the least worst.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

Well, like the engineers say, when you're in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

It's a testament to the olympic levels of blindness and incompetence inherent in the neocons and Bush that their policy decisions have left us with no good choices, and almost nothing but abhorrent ones.

The first step towards ANYTHING is to stop pissing on Iraq. After that, we MAY have a chance to regroup, repair the military and our soldiers, and use them to help address horrors like Darfur.

But Bush and Cheney would rather just bomb somebody else with brown people and oil.

Remember: Cheney First.