Two thousand American soldiers, Sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen have now given their lives fighting in Iraq – whether that number encompasses only combat deaths or deaths by mischance or accident is immaterial: They went there to fight for their country and as a result of that service they died. Now we mourn them.
There’s a power in round numbers, a kind of symbolism. Certain people have been waiting for this inevitable death. It is the initiating death that sets their plans in motion. His life was his alone, but his death they have claimed for themselves. He had a life. He has become a name. And more than that, he has now become a symbol.
And even though I am aware of the power of symbols, I find all of this somehow intrusive, unseemly and inappropriate, this branding together of a man and a number. It smacks a little too much of that old murderer Stalin, who famously exclaimed, “One man’s death is a tragedy, one million a statistic,” because it tries somehow to reach a dialectic synthesis between the man and the number and in doing so immorally overreaches the form. Because it now becomes important to be certain of to whom the actual 2000th death belonged, hinting as though perhaps his sacrifice was more important than whoever died 1999th , or whoever might die tomorrow. When what we all really want to know is when is it all going to end? Who will be last?
I’m just about dead solid certain that whenever it is the last American dies in Iraq, Time magazine will do a special edition all about him, and his life, and his death – Although I am loth to draw comparisons between this conflict and Vietnam, the media is not, and I still remember reading the story of the last soldier to die there when I was just a child. I looked at his young face and tried to imagine what his life was like, and how he died and what on earth did all of it mean. It was powerful, and so I think they will probably do this again when the time comes, because as journalists are wont to do these days, they will think that rather than reporting the news, they are writing the first draft of history. It is so important to be first.
And speaking of the media, did you note the headline of that first WaPo link: “Military has lost 2000 in Iraq.” The military did. I thought perhaps the country did too, but it seems: No.
Whoever that last soldier is, he too will become a symbol, the “everyman” stand-in for each of those who went before. The question then will be, “What have we accomplished with all of this killing, and all of this dying?” For such a great expenditure in blood and treasure, what will we have bought?
The answer might be, “We have brought freedom and democracy to a place that never dared to dream of it. We have brought fear into the hearts of those who would use ideology or religion or mere terror to enslave the minds and brutalize the bodies of their countrymen. We have demonstrated that we will fight and sacrifice and if need be die to protect our own freedoms. We have earned the right to be called the heirs of our fathers, and their fathers before them. We have passed down to our children a safer world, or at least as safe a world as we can fashion. We have done our duty the best way we could.”
That might be true, but it is not necessarily so. All this can end up having been in vain, a foolish misadventure, the harbinger of inevitable decline. The sands of Iraq could end up being the beginning of the end of American exceptionalism, the end of our cultural embrace of a quasi-mystical national faith in the destiny of the nation and what we might offer to the world when we are ruled by our better angels. We would diminish.
All of this lies in trembling consequence, and it is no stretch to believe that there are those here at home as well as many abroad that would welcome our decline. It is no stretch to believe that some of those even pursue that decline as a goal. And only some of those who do so are explicitly our enemies.
I only pray the answer will not end up being, “Having bravely attempted a foolish thing, we left 25 million people to suffer naked under the medieval tortures of 10,000 brutes because we could not bear the cost, or never stopped to even reckon it, leaving things behind us very much worse than before we came.”
I hope that will not be the case. Because if it were true, then those lives would not merely have been sacrificed, but rudely wasted. But neither is it true that we can somehow force their sacrifices into some frame of nobility merely by a dogged and sullen determination to keep killing and dying. There must be a goal in sight, and it must turn not merely on helping a poor benighted group of foreigners, but also contribute to our own security.
I think there is a goal in sight. And I think achieving that goal will make us more secure. But I have to ask myself, of what value are my thoughts against their deaths?
In the face of the mounting losses of the flower of our youth, I asked of myself recently what it would take to dislodge me from my support of seeing this through to a successful conclusion – a democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors and itself, a beacon of freedom in a dark part of the world, an ally in the continuing war on transnational, militant Islamist terrorism. And when thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that it isn’t about a number. You cannot say, “100 was an acceptable sacrifice to lay upon the altar of freedom, but 2000 is too many.” They each of them offered themselves in service to us, and a free man’s death is his alone; you cannot seize it from him to fashion for your use, and neither will their numbers admit to any symbolic rounding.
No. What would shake me from supporting the effort in Iraq would only be two things: The certainty that victory conditions are unachievable, or the knowledge that we no longer have the will to win. In the aftermath of ten million people twice risking their very lives for the privilege to wave empurpled fingers in the air, in the knowledge that the Iraqi security forces continue to gain effectiveness even as they continue to sacrifice for the own country at a rate far higher even than our own, I am not yet persuaded that the former is true. And as for the latter? Well, that depends upon our elected leadership, accountable the public opinion of you, yourself and I. Such are the glories of democratic rule, and such, when combined with the power to act, are its responsibilities.
These men and women, all two thousand of them: They are not a number. And they are emphatically none of them a symbol. They were of us and from us, each of them unique, each of them a window on the universe, now shuttered. They gave all they had, and all they ever would have because they believed in us. Those who fought most closely with them, and have seen their sacrifices close at hand, believe in the rightness of what it is that they are doing, the cause for which they gave their lives.
I think we should too.