A Time to Remember Our Own Mortality

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The Boston Globe

A Time to Remember Our Own Mortality

THIS OCTOBER has been a month of reckoning for Americans. A long-simmering anguish about the war in Iraq has come suddenly to a boil. One sees this in the readiness of Democratic politicians, finally, to challenge President Bush and the Republicans on the issue. Only weeks after the White House launched a strategy to emphasize GOP toughness on the war, in contrast to Democratic softness, expectations for a Democratic triumph in the elections are running high. Such a victory, with resulting changes in one or both legislative majorities, would empower Congress to challenge the administration on its disastrous war policy -- a challenge that will surely come if that policy is proven to have been the key electoral issue.

Meanwhile, in Iraq itself, American casualties are soaring this month, possibly heading for a record. The intensification of insurgent violence is drawing comparisons with the decisive Tet Offensive in Vietnam. US commanders are making rare admissions of failure. President Bush has affirmed the project of a bipartisan review commission, chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton. Their recommendation is expected to be anything but ``stay the course." Bellwether pundits who supported the war denounce it now as if their early cheerleading never happened. And reliable surveys have been published this month putting the number of Iraqi dead in the many hundreds of thousands -- a stunning confirmation of worst fears about the consequences of the US aggression.

We may look back on these weeks as the time when the tide began to turn on the war in Iraq. That the reversal comes in October is what is so striking. October was repeatedly the month of reckoning during the Vietnam War. The nascent peace movement took its first hold on the national imagination with something called ``Vietnam Day" at the University of California at Berkeley in October 1965, and October demonstrations became a regular feature of anti war organizing after that. In 1967, October saw the march on the Pentagon, chronicled in Norman Mailer's `` The Armies of the Night." In 1969, October was defined by the Peace Moratorium, simultaneous demonstrations in numerous cities across the nation, involving millions of protesters.

Once college campuses became the home ground of anti war activity, October continued to be the month of peace. University schedules were part of what made this so, with students and professors readily able to mobilize in the middle of the semester, after courses were launched and before the pressures of finals. But electoral cycles, peaking on that first Tuesday in November, were also factors in making October the time of acute public debate. Demonstrations and moral confrontations could and did occur throughout the calendar year, especially in the spring, but the distractions of holidays and exigencies of weather helped to keep October paramount as the time of public wrestling with war.

Was something else at work? Is something else at work today? Look around. October is the month of Earth's mortality. The beautiful hues of autumn define the dying of the year. Perhaps a subliminal pressure works on human consciousness, since we are the creatures, alone, who know of death. It is impossible to look at the orange screen of leaves and think only of color. In October, a feeling for the end of things imposes itself on normalcy. Foliage flags the passage of time, a rude interruption of the dominant assumption that life goes on forever. And once we are snatched back into that awareness, perceptions change. Suddenly, things we have been blind to show themselves for what they are. Life is too brief to waste it. And what is more wasteful than war?

When we humans are in touch with the common fate that awaits us all, the bond among us becomes unbreakable. Not only that each one of us will die, but also that each one knows it. That knowledge, once claimed, is the source of our inevitable compassion, and is the ground of the communion that is our species' natural condition. War, therefore, is not the normal state, but the aberration. On that bond of common fate and common knowledge rests every hope for peace.

The ``realists" keep telling us to abandon this dream, and to accommodate the tragedies that history requires. But such accommodation presumes that those tragedies are not individual human persons -- each one a life just like our own, each one a life snuffed out too soon. War requires that we forget the meaning of mortality, but in October our beleaguered home itself invites us to remember.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll is a Boston Globe columnist and Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University. He is the author, among other works, of House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and, most recently, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age.


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