My mother used to tell me when I was very young a story about the last American to die on Nov. 11, 1918, at 10:59 in the morning. It was an urban folk tale of that era, doubtless, though indeed there was an American who was the last victim of the war. His death was pointless, that was the sentimental irony of the story. But so was the death of everyone else who died in that absurd, insane mass murder. The "Great Powers" of Europe stumbled into the war because of a toxic mix of arrogance and ignorance and couldn't find a way out of it. Nothing was settled, the war went into a recess to be renewed 20 years later with even more demonic fury.
I found myself pondering as I watched the heartbreaking Veterans Day ceremonies on television, what the government will tell the family -- parents, spouse, children -- of the last American to die in Iraq. Or the families of all the men and women who have died there. What was the point in their deaths? They fought bravely for their country. They did their duty. They will be missed. Their courage is an honor to their sacrifice. That should be enough and that's all there is.
They died defending American freedom? But American freedom was never at issue. They died to protect the country from weapons of mass destruction, to create a democracy in the midst of the Arab world, to win a victory that would enhance American credibility, to keep faith with those who had already died, to get rid of Saddam Hussein, because the president said it was the right thing to do, because Iraq was the central front in the war or terror?
Or should they be told the real truth? Their young person died because of the arrogance and the ignorance of the American government, because of mistakes and blunders, because some of our leaders thought the war was a good thing, because it would take pressure off of Israel, because of Arab oil.
What can we say to the additional survivors between now and the day the last American dies there, all those lives erased in a lost war our leaders could not end? Should we tell them what Henry Kissinger said of Vietnam casualties after President Nixon took office -- they died in the name of American credibility?
Every time I hear on the radio of new casualties or see bereaved families on television, or open newspapers with massed photos of those who have died, I want to scream "all these losses, all this suffering, all these shattered families were unnecessary." I sense from a great distance the pain and the grief.
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President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney killed them.
Most Americans agree that the war was mistaken in its inception and mismanaged in its execution. If some of that majority do not also feel the grief and the pain and the rage, the only reason is that they have hardened their hearts in the name of patriotism or party loyalty or the words of the bible. God have mercy on those with hard hearts.
The issue now is whether the new coalition of leaders can find the quickest, safest way out. We must hope and pray that they can, that the hubris that led the country into the war will not prevent us from getting out.
Will God punish the United States for all the deaths, both Iraqi and American? I don't believe that God works that way. However, our intervention in that chaotic, broken country will certainly have created hundreds, perhaps thousands of would-be martyrs who will seek vengeance. We will have brought it on ourselves.
God forgive us for the war, especially those who voted for it in 2004, and especially the pundits, the commentators, the editorial writers who supported the war until almost the last moment and are still willing to accept more casualties so this country and its president can escape with some dignity.
It's a shame there will be no war crimes trials.