Since I came Canada two years ago I have time to watch the evening news. Living here at the border between Minnesota and Northwestern Ontario I can get the big four US channels (FOX, NBC, ABC, CBS) through our aging antenna, in addition to a French, an Ontario (TVO), and a Christian channel. Every evening the US news leads with the number of Iraqis killed in a car bomb or other roadside tactics. This litany with accompanying pictures replaces the Viet Nam era body count reports of enemy killed..
An estimated 100,000,000 people have been killed (Yes, that is 100 million) due to war in the 20th century. The continuing body counts from Iraq remind us that despite our best efforts, things have not yet made a turn for the better in this century. Every one of these casualties has a family whose memory is sustained through the generations. Sometimes that memory gets stuck in permanent anger and the imagination of revenge. For others the memory is heroic, noble and the stuff of pride.
The Viet Nam government estimates that 4,000,000 Vietnamese died due to war between 1954 to 1975 when the war ended with people grasping at helicopters on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon. 3,000,000 Vietnamese were adversely affected by the defoliant, Agent Orange. The 58,000 US war deaths pale beside these numbers until one walks the streets of American cities and meets the living casualties among the homeless veterans who lost hope decades ago because they could not rid themselves of terrible memories.
The families of soldier – fighters always dread the arrival of crisply uniformed military people at their home because it inevitably brings news of a death. I witnessed this first hand in an urban slum in Saigon, Viet Nam in 1966. One day on my way to a friends house I saw three soldiers. With a crowd of local residents I watched them pass me and then stop to knock at a squatter house door. When the door opened there was a moment of silence. Then neighbors and I heard the wails and screams of family members who had just learned of the death of a soldier – son. A neighbor ran to hold the stricken mother. The rest of us stood frozen in confused silence for what seemed like hours compressed into moments. I didn’t hear the story of that dead soldier but the sounds of that day have never stopped rattling somewhere in my brain.
I sometimes wonder what might 100,000,000 sounds of the angel of death woven together and at one time signal for our earth, the explosion of an asteroid slamming into the earth creating a tidal wave of destruction where whole species would disappear and the earth blanketed for decades with smoke and dust and destruction? How would the living cry? Would people live to cry?
By the time I reached Iraq in 2003 my emotions were prepared for events such as this, wailing, screaming, uncontrolled anguish at the seeming finality of death. Local Shia people near Hilla, a city of half a million, 62 miles southeast of Baghdad invited our group to join a vigil of remembrance for Shia who had died in a 1990 uprising when they thought US Forces would come to their rescue after the First Gulf War. With local dignitaries we went to the killing field where hundreds of unmarked graves had recently been unearthed and families came to try to identify lost ones and express a tiny bit of pent up grief that began 13 years earlier. At each grave site there was a shoe, perhaps some hair, an article of clothing or a bone. Our little group of three joined community leaders who worked to channel frozen memories laced with anger, and broken promises, into a new day where imaginations could live again. Ironically, Ezekiel the Hebrew Prophet of the dry bones is supposedly entombed nearby. Moments of prayer and vigil in places like this reach far beyond the boundaries of religion and nation to that place where the sacred blood of life joins all of us in unity.
When I visited Hilla four years ago none of us expected that events in Iraq would sink into an interminable daily explosion and litany of death counts of mostly civilians. One study in the British medical journal, The Lancet (http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/10/11/iraq.deaths/) reports that 655,000 Iraqis or more than 500 people a day have been killed since 2003 due to the war. President Bush called the report not credible. Every one of these victims hoped for meaning in life and death.
In Iraq where the language of Allah or God is everywhere, the hope for something beyond history helps. In Viet Nam traditionalists believe the spirit of the departed one hovers and requires care and attention for years. The conversation with destiny in both of these places is occasionally joined by Christian minorities some of whom remember the hard journey through violence toward the nonviolence of their founder, Jesus. The language of martyrdom weaves its way through this conversation of death. In both Iraq and Viet Nam, these outposts of pain and survival, the living strain to find meaning for a new century where the violence within is tamed and the culture outside is decorated with a treaty to cease all hostilities among the nations And some imagine a day when soldiers in crisp suits will not need to visit their homes.
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