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Month of May Once was Merry, but not this Year
Published on Friday, May 7, 2004 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Month of May Once was Merry, but not this Year
by Susan Lenfestey
 

Last week everyone sighed with relief as April, that famously cruel month, eased off the calendar to be replaced by gentle May.

By now we all know the grisly toll of April: 136 Americans dead, including the four civilian workers gruesomely beaten and dismembered by exultant Iraqi youths, 900 U.S. troops wounded, and 1,361 Iraqis killed, many in Fallujah, where the dead were buried in soccer fields because U.S. forces had sealed off the city.

April had its surreal moments as well -- what Maureen Dowd called the re-Baathification of the de-Baathification of Iraq -- when American commanders chose one of Saddam's loyal top generals to lead the reconstituted Iraqi army to take over control of Fallujah. They un-chose him a few days later under a tsunami of local protest.

Even my sleepwalking fellow Americans rubbed their eyes and saw too many people dying for a mission going backward.

It would be lovely to erase the losses of April with the flip of the calendar, but the images that greeted us on the first days of May were even worse. The now-widely published photos of American men and women in uniform, gloating over piles of naked Iraqi men, some sexually compromised, others with electrical wires attached to their bodies, have shattered any goodwill that the vast majority of our troops have struggled to achieve.

President Bush expressed his outrage and Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell went into damage control overdrive, while Donald Rumsfeld refused to apologize or appear before the Armed Services Committee, a decision he later reversed under a barrage of bipartisan fury.

As secretary of defense -- and mastermind of our whole underplanned Operation Iraqi Hell -- Rumsfeld should fall on his sword and resign. If he won't, President Bush should fire him. It might mitigate some of the damage that this repugnant scandal has added to our nation's already tarnished world image. In the merry month of May, as we once knew it, we gathered clutches of pansies or even dandelions to leave on an old lady's doorstep. We wove garlands of violets and lazed around in soft, sweet grass. We smelled lilacs and loam, and hints of summer in the milk of newly pastured cows.

We honored all mothers, danced in ribboned innocence around May poles, reveled in rebirth and spring, and solemnly closed the month by honoring our war dead.

On Memorial Day we woke to the sound of a million muffled drumbeats as veterans and scouts tuned up for the parade to the village green, where sturdy uniformed women would place a waxy wreath at the war memorial and portly men in white spats would fire their rifles. The names of the dead would be read, one by one, and an honor scout would offer a quavering taps.

But somehow I think this May is going to be different. Our war dead now come home in anonymity, unwelcome evidence of an ill-advised invasion gone very wrong. Photographs of their final journey are banned and reading their names on television is deemed by some to be partisan. No parades, no ceremonies, only the broken hearts of children and lovers and mothers in this month meant to be theirs.

Last year President Bush teetered ever-closer to the Orwellian edge when he proclaimed that May Day would now be known forever as Loyalty Day. This year, as commander in chief overseeing the worst American war carnage since Vietnam, he probably has his eye on Memorial Day. Patriots' Day, perhaps? But if we've lost May Day to Loyalty Day we still have it as the international distress call, taken from the French (uh-oh, that loyalty thing) m'aidez, or help me. There are other official calls for help, but "Mayday," repeated three times, is reserved for when the entire ship is in dire trouble and going down.

Some days when our president's relentless jauntiness in the face of catastrophe is too much, I go out to my little sliver of a garden and try to reconnect to the hopeful promise of May. But the tulips I dug into the hard ground last fall grew to an unexpected height and their blood-red heads have pierced right through my white bleeding hearts. This year it seems the graphic images are everywhere and I whisper, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday."

Susan Lenfestey (soolen@aol.com) is a Minneapolis writer.

© Copyright 2004 Star Tribune

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