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For what?

And so the debate rages on about Iraq. Bob Woodward's book, "State of Denial," rocks Washington and the cable news networks are humming with its revelations, all hammering home the point that Iraq is slipping away, the country dropping into an abyss of sectarian and insurgent violence that with every passing day seems unstoppable. As well, the rationale for this preemptive war has gone from clear-eyed and resolute &

we must unseat a dictator who is in possession of WMDs &

to Vietnam redux. Other than the president, few are prepared to insist that this venture is anything other than a fiasco (to name another book). And few are prepared to step forward and say he or she knows the way out, other than declaring victory and then simply leaving.

However, as the members of Congress, past presidents, retired generals, Secretaries of Defense and State and countless pundits opine on the failure of leadership regarding not only the decision to invade but the postwar plan for peace, there is another group of Americans that often come to mind. They would be the families of the more than 2,700 troops who have given their lives in service to country and to the leadership that took them to war.

What must the mothers and fathers feel when they hear the best and brightest (or so we were led to believe), at the zenith of government, state unequivocally that this war is a tragic mistake?

To have lost a son or daughter, to never again see him or her walk through the front door, or sit lazily at the kitchen table passing the afternoon, or pick up a phone and simply hear that unforgettable voice say hi, is beyond grief. It is a loss so grievous as to be unimaginable, a canyon of sorrow.

The words W.H. Auden come to mind: "The stars are not wanted now; put out every one. Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods; For nothing now can ever come to any good."

But there's more: to have lost a child in a war that is now deemed as senseless, as folly, would be unbearable. And yet that must be exactly what the hundreds and thousands of family members of the fallen hear every day as the wave of blame and regret is beginning to crest.

What to say to the mother of that young troop, who shouldered a pack and the responsibility of service and walked out the door, eager to do what was asked, only to be killed months later on a wretched street by a bomb planted by nameless fighters. To what end? we ask. What meaning can those left behind give to that soldier's sacrifice? Certainly duty and honor; but what else? Was it for naught? How to answer the father of that soldier who stands in his living room and staring at the fireplace mantle, or at a small table standing alone against the wall, covered with photographs of a young person, in uniform, smiling the smile of youth, of optimism, embracing a future that stretches endlessly in all directions. There are small mementos, a recent letter, a frayed patch, a photo of a band of brothers and sisters, arms around each other, their camaraderie palatable, a small votive candle burns and never goes out.

What must those who lost a loved one be feeling? How can they find their own very personal and closely held justification as all justifications are ever so painfully stripped away?

Or the families of those wounded who have sat for hours, for interminable days, at bedsides praying for the restoration of that much loved son or daughter, knowing all the while that that person, so filled with life and vitality, may be lost, may never be whole again. It is a journey that no one wants to take, mixed with sorrow and anger and remnants, still, of joy that the most beloved child was not lost. What must that mother, bent forward like a thin reed, sitting vigil in the dark of night, be thinking as those who should have known acknowledge now that they didn't. How to reconcile the sacrifice, the loss, with the mounting revelations?

We are told we are at war. But if that be the case, for most of us, life has changed very little, if at all. But for those few this burden has been theirs to bear, the sacrifice theirs to make. For them life has changed a great deal. As a nation what are we to say to them when they ask, For what?