This week the president will go on his second vacation in the last month. This month the Pentagon announced that 2600 American soldiers will never go on vacation again.
In the 30's, Dalton Trumbo wrote "Johnny Got His Gun," which was made into a film starring Timothy Bottoms, Donald Sutherland and Kathy (Lander) Fields, and directed by Trumbo himself. The intrinsic message was that it was not enough to be willing to die for your country. You had to be able to say that you would be willing to become a vegetable for your country. A living, thinking vegetable, maimed so incomprehensibly, that he would face the rest of his life, unable to even communicate with another human being. Some might gather that to be an antiwar message. If it is, it's only because it describes in disturbingly vivid detail the tragic price of war. It's perfectly fine to speak of the value of a particular war, but for a government to justify combat, they must also address in very public terms, the (in)conceivable cost.
This month we mourn the tragic loss of the 2600th US soldier to die in the Iraqi war. At the same time we begin the death march to 2700. So many of talk radio's Lords of Loud would choose to rationalize the 2600 killed as nominal when compared to the 55,000 killed in Vietnam. While to most, 2600 deaths are 2600 too many, to those who have not suffered personally, or dodged serving when they had the chance, 2600 deaths are also much too easy to cope with.
Still, one cannot swathe war into a "right" or "left" issue. It is not a question of whether invading Iraq was right or wrong. It's an issue that goes to the heart of war -- real war, and its real consequences. Within its reality is a means to how we can truly pay tribute to those who have fallen, how we can sincerely identify with those families who have lost -- and it is more than an outreach to the suffering. It's an exploration of one's own humanity.
Before you can honestly understand war's demands, it is incumbent to empathize with those who have already lost, and you cannot empathize with those who have suffered by reflecting on 2600 deaths. You empathize by contemplating a single death...
You have to see each of the 2600, not as a number but as a real person; someone who had a history, albeit a much too short one; someone who was once an infant in the arms of a mother or a father. A mother and a father once filled with joy... hope...dreams. You have to understand that the man or woman who died was once a child playing with friends, laughing, crying, absorbing an education...working on building tomorrows. You have to place yourself inside each one of those human numbers, entering a battlefield incredibly scared, breathing heavily, gulping fear, alive, but unaware that in moments you would die.
To comprehend a death in war, you have to acknowledge that every one of these fatalities began with a horrific split second when fiery hot metal tore apart human flesh. A moment that slowly drew life from its all too human target. Let's not forget that we're talking about a kid, too young to die, but dying just the same. With every death you must acknowledge there was fear, agony, panic, screams, freaked out buddies uncontrollably trembling over their wounded and soon to be dead comrade; youngsters trying to comfort another youngster, yet knowing that their best lying won't fool their bleeding brother.
Then there's the moment that the soldier passes from life to death. But you still can't walk away from this hideous nightmare, because the nightmare doesn't end there. For each death brings endless waves of tears, vivid nightmares, horrid news to be relayed to next of kin. Each death is soon followed by a ringing of a phone, carrying a death rattle of torturous news that will break, into a million pieces, the hearts of mothers, fathers, children, wives, husbands, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues...news that will never change no matter how hard they ask God to change it. And they will ask...over and over and over.
You cannot ignore the implication of the loss; the sudden baptism of another young widow or widower forced to raise children less one parent; mothers and fathers who will spend the rest of their life arguing with God that children should not die before a parent; siblings waking up every single day hoping that the previous day's incomprehensible pain was just a bad dream but faced with a day choking down the heartbreak, because this nightmare is much too real. And always, the disbelief that they will never see that person again.
Now here's the kicker. Each and every one of those 2600 times that you remind yourself of how hideous each casualty is, you have to think of that death as your own child's. Because 2600 times it was some parent's child who died.
You can believe this war is right, that George Bush is the greatest president we ever had, and every soldier died for a good reason. But before you can honestly say that, you have to make yourself go through each death as if it were your own baby's blood spilling.
Because, as Dalton Trumbo tried to tell us, if we continue this war, it could be.
Steve Young is author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" and the newly released, "15 Minutes" (HarperCollins).