Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Honoring the Dead, Conveniently

As Americans turn against the war in Iraq, the deaths of our young people there are getting harder to bear. At one Army base, Fort Lewis in Washington, the Commander has decided to honor the fallen, instead of with services for each soldier, a collective memorial once a month.

“If I lost my husband at the beginning of the month, what do you do, wait until the end of the month?” asks the wife of one soldier in Iraq. “I don’t know if it’s more convenient for them, or what, but that’s insane.”

From the Gettysburg Address on, Americans have been torn between gratitude and grief for the young men, and now women as well, sent to die for such abstractions as freedom and honor. But until the past half century, those words had weight and meaning.

Now on Memorial Day, when the President says “patriots from every corner of our Nation have taken up arms to uphold the ideals that make our country a beacon of hope and freedom for the entire world,” how many of us believe that?

Vietnam changed everything. In a movie 20 years ago, “Gardens of Stone,” about old soldiers who tend graves at Arlington National Cemetery, one of them says, "In this war, there is no front. It's not even a war. There's nothing to win and no way to win it."

Now Iraq makes that seem an understatement. But even in the most senseless and brutal of wars, dying is the same solemn reality it has always been. Politicians can debate whether our young men and women are giving up their lives “in vain,” but those deaths can’t be “disremembered.”

The Ft. Lewis Commander will probably feel too much pressure to go on with his wholesale remembrances once a month, and so he should. If we are to stop the deaths and prevent more in the future, we can’t conveniently avoid grieving over them one at a time.

“Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead,” Susan Sontag wrote. “Heartlessness and amnesia go together.”

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