Today they announced the four-thousandth death since the beginning of the Iraq war. Four soldiers were killed by an I.E.D. The government tells us it’s just a number. “It’s not a lottery. Each and every death is a tragedy.” They are right.
I’ve known bright young men and women who’ve put on the uniform and crossed the ocean. Most young officers are commissioned through the Reserve Officer Training Corp. Very few actually enjoy the Hollywood romance and prestige of West Point. These young officers graduate from college with bachelor degrees in history, psychology, criminal justice, art, or literature. They hold a ceremony in one of the large conference rooms in the student union, or sometimes just in the classroom of the Military & Naval Science building. Family and friends come. They raise their right hand and recite the oath and a single gold bar is pinned on their green dress uniform.
Sometimes a new lieutenant has time before they are shipped off to officer training, so they help around the Military Science office. They usually work for the recruiting officer, helping enroll young freshmen into the program. They are called “Goldbars.”
The first Goldbar who worked in the office after I became the secretary there was Brett, a nice young man, with blond hair and blue eyes. A year or so later we got the word that his Humvee had been hit by an I.E.D. Some of his unit were killed, but he survived. He was airlifted to Germany and then the a VA hospital in Texas. His wounds had to be kept open and surgically cleaned. His legs were pinned back together with metal screws and nails. We went to see him when he was back at his parents’ house in Lincoln, still in a wheel chair. I’ve never seen wounds like that. A few months later, he came to visit us at the office. I was so happy to see him mobile, even hobbling around on crutches. He wasn’t shy. When the cadets he had known stopped into the office, he pushed himself up out of the chair and twisted to show the massive scars on his legs, pealed up his shirt to show the skin grafts on his ribs. I ached for him.
Brett was lucky. About a year after that, after I had left the Military Science department, they called to say Kevin had been killed. Kevin had been a senior the year I began. He was the Cadet Battalion Commander. He was kind, with a square jaw and an easy smile and the tight jeans of a country boy. He would sit in the office and chat. His family lost him.
Others went and came back. The sergeants who worked as instructors, the officers too, and the cadets cum lieutenants. Some are still over there, in Iraq or Afghanistan. I wonder at the purpose of it all and hope, perhaps in vain, that some good has come from it. I know so many of the men and women in uniform believed with all their hearts that they were (and still are) doing some good, no matter what those still at home believe.
How can we weight what has been and what is against the lives that might have been lost had our nation done nothing? Diplomacy would not have stopped the Taliban. I wonder what other paths we might have pursued with Iraq. Those bridges have been crossed, and I am left with no answers, like so many other people. How can we weigh American lives against Iraqi lives, now that the prospect of pulling out is before us? How can we pledge to want an end to violence if pulling out means more violence, just not for us?
How can we measure four-thousand?