On Tuesday, May 18th, we reached a grim milestone in Afghanistan: 1,000 American deaths. The death count started slowly and we didn’t really pay much notice as we were distracted by our larger presence and the higher death count in Iraq. But there it was, steadily growing for nine years. As we have increased our presence with yet another surge, the pace has increased and suddenly here we are a milestone, a marker, a checkpoint.
It’s an impressive number, but not too large that it overwhelms us. It’s not a million, or one hundred thousand, or even ten thousand. those numbers are too large allow us to see the individual trees for the forest. Or the individual people in the crowd. One thousand people would fit comfortably in a single section of a single deck in a modern sports stadium. Or comfortably fill the floor seats in an arena at a political convention.
From a distance we can see the crowd, but if we want to, if we chose to, we can we can focus in and see each individual. If we can see an individual, we can imagine who he or she is. Maybe the soldier comes from a poor rural area in West Virginia or a desperate ghetto in New York City or Los Angeles and volunteered for service as a way to pay for an education. Or maybe they come from a family and a patriotic community in upstate New York where military service is a common value and tradition. For each, it’s a unique set of circumstances and desires that inspires him or her to volunteer. These include a desire for personal achievement, a desire to provide a better life for their families, a desire to serve and protect their communities and their nation.
For each of the one thousand, we can imagine a broken family. Maybe there is a younger sister who adored older brother who once made her angry by teasing her when she was a little girl and once again with his smothering overprotection when she became a teenager. We can imagine her crying all night long on the day her brother shipped out.
Imagine the soldier had a mother who, for all of his life, had only one identity, one role that mattered: mother. She raised him right. She picked him up when he fell, she cradled him when he cried, she disciplined him when he needed it. She had an abiding faith in the goodness of God and she did all she could to instill this faith in her son, so that for all his life his conscience would guide him and protect him. When he went off to war, she prayed to God every morning and every night for his safe return. And when he was killed by an I.E.D on his way back to base camp after a surviving hazardous patrol, she wondered why God had abandoned her. Maybe in time she can put the broken shards of her faith back together and make peace with the universe, but the certainty of that happening is by no means assured. Who are we to judge if she cannot?
His father has no outlet for his grief. It is his duty to comfort his grieving wife and sobbing daughter, but their pain (like his own) is beyond his reach.
All those who knew him are left with an impenetrable void that will be with them for the rest of their lives. While this void will never be filled, his memory is always with them. They remember him forever as he was: young, optimistic, looking to the future with the aura of invincibility only the young and innocent can possess. He never ages. An ethereal spirit, he becomes an idealized and why shouldn’t that happen? What in his young life could he possibly had done to deserve his senseless fate? He is silent and passes no judgment, but in moments of moral ambiguity the people he left behind think of him and wonder what he would think about the choices they make. He becomes their conscience.
May the politicians and generals who presume to lead, and to all of us who grant them our permission to lead, devote at least some small part of our conscience to the forever young.
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