It’s turning into an interesting Christmas season for those mothers, fathers, wives, sons and daughters who’ll get to lose a husband, a father, a son in the next few weeks (and of course years) as the American death tally in Iraq ho ho hoses it to 3,000 while our Lord and Savior president and decider decides not to decide what to decide next for Iraq until — maybe to please Jenna and the other one — “after the holidays,” as the phraseology of the corporate cruiser goes. As long as the Dow keeps breaking records, why worry? This is the man about whom Peggy Noonan, the Bush family publicist, once said that “eloquence is in his plainspokenness, in the fact that each word is a simple coin with a definite worth.” What, at this point, is moral bankruptcy worth? But this is the same man who once explained his style to Bob Woodward this way: “I’m the commander—see, I don’t need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don’t feel I owe anybody an explanation.” This is a man who values the worthlessness of his silence. Who makes the soldiers he never was die for it. And who still struts, with pride, “in his chesty way, with what seems a jarring peppiness” (Peggy Noonan’s words again, four years too late, like all the other rats bailing from the USS W.) So for the last few days he’s created his own little parade of generals and “experts” to give the appearance of receiving advice without needing to consent to more than what Laura Bush will suggest he should get Barbara and George Sr. for Christmas, no doubt to pacify them.
Meanwhile, what has happened on this presidential clock, as we near Christmas, if we were to take just a few of the latest 1,350-odd days—a span longer than America ’s involvement in World War II, and soon World War I, combined? Here’s what: On Tuesday, Army Sgt. Brent Dunkleberger was killed by a grenade fired at his Humvee as he patrolled in Mosul . He was 29. He was the father of four children, none of them older than 11. He was a firefighter back in his hometown of New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania, where, as Baby New Year 2000, he’d “played the role for the borough’s New Year’s Eve huckleberry drop at the Perry County Courthouse—complete with sash, cloth diaper and bottle of champagne” (as the Patriot-News described it on Thursday). It was shortly after that role that he announced he’d be joining the military.
On Monday, Marine Lance Cpl. Budd M. Cote was killed when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. He was 21. He’d just married his 19-year-old high school sweetheart back in Marana , Arizona . He’d been a Home Depot stocker before enlisting, but figured four years in the Marines would follow in the footsteps of his father, who’d served in Vietnam , and help him get a leg up on joining the sheriff’s department at the end of his tour. Two other Marines died in the same bombing, one of them 23, the other 25. Then there’s Marine Master Sgt. Brian P. McAnulty. When he was growing up in Vicksburg , Mississippi , he survived a car wreck that killed his best friend and soccer teammate. He was a passenger. It happened just before Christmas, when he was 18. That was twenty-one years ago. He died in a helicopter crash just after takeoff on Monday. He was a passenger in that one, too.
McAnulty exhibits an enormous smile in his picture, the kind of smile that announces lives and loves, although so far he seems to have had no life back in Vicksburg : no telephone number bearing his or his family’s name. Something will turn up, and his brief history will be recorded in a matter of inches in one newspaper or another, his memorial held, the waste of his life dulled by talk of service and heroism, or talk like this, by the president, after another helicopter crash with many lost lives in January 2005: “We mourn when our soldiers lose their lives. But our long-term objective is to spread freedom.” In case the rest of us didn’t know.
Those back-stories of young men’s lives are all distinct and all the same. They’re all individuals and yet all, without exception, human beings with lives rooted in the lives of others—families, friends, enemies, companies, communities. Provincial newspaper stories capture shreds of those lives but couldn’t possibly capture them in their totality, in the true effect of a lost life’s shock to a human ecosystem that quivers down to the uncomprehending eyebrow of a four-year-old inflicted on his father’s funeral, or that intrudes an emptiness sudden and total and astonishing on an eight or nine year old, whose pain isn’t yet mature enough to feel what will come with age: sorrow that doesn’t—unlike the fortune cookies’ predictions—heal with time, but only deepens. It’s those burdens that the newspaper stories cannot convey, that all the fraternal love and camaraderie of military units cannot possibly take on, that presidents, and this president in particular with his chesty way and jarring peppiness, this president who has yet to attend a single serviceman’s funeral, think grave words in speeches alone can carry. It is those burdens, magnified a thousand fold with every life lost as the president delays and prevaricates and poses for his subservient storytellers, that, gathered together in an indictment of their own, amount to a different kind of war crime that will never be prosecuted because they’re here, dispersed and diffuse all around us in small hearts and souls only solitude can grasp.
And the irony of all these lines here, these lines you’re reading now, is that they’re focused on an infinitesimally small, almost self-indulgent part of the tragedy. We write about the lives lost, the names, the high school sweethearts, the children left behind, because these are American lives. But what differentiates them from the lives being lost on the other side, the Iraqi side, if not the most puerile and ridiculous difference—a difference of geography, of culture, of nationality, differences that have nothing to do with the human loss, to say nothing of the humanity being lost. Here we are, mourning an American loss or two or three or four every day as if it were the limit of the unbearable. And yet two days ago, in a single bombing in Baghdad —one bomb, one explosion—seventy Iraqis lost their lives. The equivalent of a heavy month’s total losses for the American military. And that bombing was just one of several that day. And those bombings were just a few of the many means by which hundreds of Iraqis found their end that day. What newspapers are telling those stories? What encyclopedias of the dead will tabulate those losses, the effects on those human ecosystems? Who ever speaks of a shared humanity when an Arab dies anymore, the deaths—in Iraq, in Gaza or the West Bank, in Lebanon—being so routine, so disposably forgettable. (And none of this is nearly as bad as the disposability of African lives, which run in the millions.)
But President Bush wants to wait. He wants to delay. He wants to spend his holidays in peace. He wants us not to know what we’ve known all along. It isn’t indecision that’s keeping him from announcing his new strategy. It isn’t infighting among his staff, or figuring out how to navigate an opposition Congress. It is certainly not the possibility that he is incubating a Lincolnesque declaration. (He had his Lincolnesque moment, on the USS Abraham Lincoln, and look where that led us.) No. What we’ve known all along is what he’s been all along, in Iraq as elsewhere. Clueless. Pointless. And now we can safely add, heartless. His best strategy is to run out the clock on his term, to hand Iraq to the next president in the hope of making himself not be the president who lost Iraq, even as he’s been the only president, Saddam included, who managed to wreck Iraq. And the worst of it is to know that as reprehensive as the crimes committed in the name of “freedom” or “democracy” or “security” have been, they’re not nearly as horrific as the crimes being committed at the expense of Iraqis’ and Americans’ humanity, they’re not nearly as unpardonable as the crimes that will go unspoken except in grief’s inexplicable blooms, for years to come, from their little seed in that four-year-old’s eyebrow and that nine-year-old’s newborn emptiness. Here and in Iraq .