Friday, November 12, 2004

More Than Just a Number--or a Photo

Bob Herbert's column doesn't make for easy reading:

Specialist Michelle Witmer of New Berlin, Wis., survived for nearly 10 more slowly moving months in Iraq, until she was cut down by enemy fire in Baghdad last April 9. She was 20 when she died.

The e-mail was read on camera by her dad in an extremely moving documentary, "Last Letters Home," which was jointly produced by The New York Times and HBO. It premiered on HBO last night.

In the hourlong program, grieving relatives read aloud from letters, cards and e-mail sent by troops who died in Iraq, and comment on the ways they've been affected by the loss of their loved ones. The program is not about pro-war or anti-war sentiments, or grand geopolitical visions. It just gives us a glimpse of the searing personal toll that is inevitable in war. I imagine it would be difficult for anyone to see it and not take the war more seriously. Anything that imposes such unmitigated agony should give us pause...

A theme that runs through the documentary is the overwhelming sense of dread that grips relatives when their doors are knocked upon by soldiers or marines in dress uniforms.

"It was the lightest tap on my door that I've ever heard in my life," said Paula Zasadny, the mother of Specialist Holly McGeogh, a 19-year-old who was killed by a bomb in Kirkuk.

"I opened the door and I seen the man in the dress greens and I knew. I immediately knew. But I thought that if, as long as I didn't let him in, he couldn't tell me. And then it - none of that would've happened. So he kept saying, 'Ma'am, I need to come in.' And I kept telling him, 'I'm sorry, but you can't come in.'

As much as possible, the reality of war is kept at a distance from the American people, which is a shame. My own belief is that the pain of war should be much more widely shared. That would help guard us against wars that are unnecessary, and ensure a more collective effort in those that are inevitable...

Melissa Givens was told by a chaplain that her husband, Pfc. Jesse Givens, who was 34, had drowned when his tank fell into the Euphrates River. Distraught, she insisted that the chaplain was lying. But she said that was O.K., because she would never tell anyone that he had lied. She said he could walk away and she would just forget about the whole thing.

Private Givens died on May 1, 2003, the day that President Bush, on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, declared that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

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