May 28, 2007
If you don’t have a family member fighting in the armed services, who do you know who has someone they love in harm’s way, or in harm’s way in a city where violence is too common?
My grandson Eli was nineteen when, on July 5, 2004, one of his best friends (someone whose life he had twice saved when surfing) fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a tree. Eli was killed instantly. Suddenly a life that showed great promise ended. The driver, a young man with whom Eli had attended a 24-hour three-day music event, didn’t recognize his impaired ability to drive and was slightly injured. But he will carry the guilt of his mistake all his life. And there is a huge hole in the fabric of Eli’s family and friends that will be with us all our lives.
Memorial Day, when we honor fallen service men and women, is an appropriate day to tell you about Eli. You see, before his death, I would feel sad when hearing of the numbers of American’s killed and maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I could maintain my distance from the statistics. After all, this is one of the first wars we’ve fought in which far too few of us have been asked to make any significant, personal sacrifice. Unless a family member is facing the daily danger of being in the middle of a civil war, Iran and Afghanistan are strangely disconnected from our lives. We may talk about the conflict, but it’s happening to someone else.
That is why the casualties didn’t hit me quite as hard as they have since Eli’s death. It isn’t that I wasn’t aware that families deeply miss those who do not return. It’s just that I could keep that awareness from touching my heart. Numbers were just numbers when there was no face to go with them.
Today I have a face: Eli’s. Now when I see the pictures of the fallen soldiers silently commemorated every Friday in “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” I cannot watch without crying. I see Eli’s face. He wasn’t a soldier, but I know the pain of a life cut short. The numbers take on real, personal significance.
I feel this way not only when I hear about Americans killed, but also when I learn of the high numbers of Iraqis and Afghanis killed and maimed. I am particularly distressed because they are often killed by inter-tribal and sectarian violence. A life for a life. When will the cycle end? I cannot fathom how humans can have so little regard for other human life that they kill without, apparently, any remorse for the families torn apart. Every time I see a picture of a dead civilian, I immediately think of the people whose lives will be dramatically altered by that death.
We have lost our moral compass when we ignore the intrinsic connection of one human to another. We have focused so much on our own pain that we don’t see the pain in the eyes of the other person.
The men and women in the armed services have been asked to do a very difficult job in an area of the world where complex disagreements won’t be solved by singing camp songs across barbed wire borders. And whether or not we got into this conflict on shaky grounds, we are there. But if we stay, let’s make certain we have a good reason to ask our soldiers to remain in harm’s way or to kill, in our name, a person who is loved by someone. To do otherwise asks too great a price on both the person killed and on the surviving loved ones both here and abroad.
I hope that the story of Eli helps you remember that everyone killed — in the streets of a war-torn country, through negligent driving, in the course of a robbery, in defending gang territory — is missed by someone. If you can commit yourself to seeing the intrinsic value in everyone, even when you don’t understand them, even when you think they might be an “enemy,” Eli’s death will have contributed to something positive.
If we keep firmly in mind that every man, woman, and child in this world is precious and has only one life to live, we may be less likely to rush into war the next time it seems like a good idea. And if you don’t feel any particular connection with the people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I suggest that when you see pictures of these men and women you don’t know that you substitute in your mind’s eye the face of someone near you, someone you would miss they were asked to sacrifice themselves for you.
EVERYONE KILLED IS MISSED BY SOMEONE
When you see a man or woman wearing a service uniform, do you think about how difficult it might be for them to be placed in a position where they could be asked to kill someone in your name?
When you see a picture of a fallen soldier or civilian who has been killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, what would you say to the family they leave behind?
When is it necessary to fight a war where lives and families, as well as property and irreplaceable historical buildings and objects, will be destroyed?
If you believe the death of every person who is killed leaves a hole in the fabric not only of a family but of a community, what can you do, personally, to help heal the quilt of humanity that has become frayed and torn?