"No young man believes he shall ever die,” said William Hazlitt, the 19th-century British essayist. That shrewd observation is contradicted in times of war. A 22-year-old machine gunner with a French battalion in Korea in the 1950’s wrote to his father: “In our time, when you look around for the faces of the dead, they are all 20 years old. Young death is no longer an aristocracy.” Nor is it today when more than 1,000 young men and women in the U.S. military forces have already been killed in the Iraq war and when that number grows every week.
Psychologists are fond of a classic simile that compares the course of every life to the trajectory of an arrow shot into the air. Once launched, it mounts ever higher and then levels off, until its arc declines and its flight ends. For those killed in Iraq, however, the flights ended with violent and untimely abruptness.
Fifty-two percent of the first thousand killed were between 18 and 24. Thirteen percent were African-Americans, 12 percent were Latinos and 75 percent were non-Latino whites. Forty-seven percent were married, and many of these had children. None of these men and women had been drafted or press-ganged. They had freely enlisted in the military services or had joined the reserves or the National Guard.
It must not be forgotten that other nations in the coalition waging war in Iraq have also been counting their dead, and it is estimated that more than 15,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed so far. Each of those who have died must be mourned and commended to the divine mercy. All the same, it is allowed for Americans to focus particularly on their own dead.
Certain reflections, however, are dimwitted. Some observers, for example, think of themselves as hard-headed realists. They minimize the cost of the war, taking refuge in statistics. They point out that previous wars have been far more deadly: 140,414 battle deaths in the Civil War; 53,402 in World War I; 291,577 in World War II; 33,746 in Korea; and 47,355 in Vietnam. And after all, they add, there are about 42,000 deaths in motor vehicle accidents each year in the United States. But these figures are irrelevant to the families fractured by death.
In earlier wars, young men believed themselves to be fighting to defend great ideals—to preserve the union, to rescue Belgian children from the Kaiser, to save European culture from Nazism and to defend the nation from attack.
Many of those killed in Iraq were also motivated by noble and generous purposes. They aimed to protect their nation from weapons of mass destruction, retaliate for alleged involvement in 9/11, free Iraqis from tyranny and help them put together a workable democracy. But these troops now appear to have been trapped in a misbegotten war, in which these noble goals proved to be mirages presented by leaders who were either ignorant or deceptive.
The bodies of those slain in service to our country deserve to be borne home in a humane and reverent spirit. The military’s regular practice has been to send two military personnel, sometimes accompanied by a chaplain, to bring the immeasurably sorrowful news to families. It cannot be said, however, that the politicians of either party have given the bereaved much comfort.
President Bush has said in some of his campaign speeches that the war casualties break his heart. Nevertheless, he and the leading people in his administration are rightly criticized for failing to pay tribute to the dead by some adequate word or gesture. No one expects from these defenders of war even the palest equivalent of a Gettysburg Address, but surely the president could have traveled from time to time to meet the coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base, as have other presidents in other times of war.
But Christian reflection on the deaths in Iraq must go beyond the disputes about the war to an altogether higher plane. It professes hope in resurrection and life after death. The church speaks tenderly and confidently in the Re-quiem Mass: “Those whom the certainty of dying saddens may be consoled by the promise of future immortality.” Only faith grasps this promise, which alone makes ultimately bearable the deaths in Iraq and all other deaths.