Paul Greenberg

Strange the bits of conversation you'll overhear in passing. Especially as you grow older and hearing begins to fade. This one came from a lady talking about a book she'd read about the war in Iraq. She liked it an awful lot. Stayed up reading it till the early hours of the morning. Then I thought I heard her say, "Seventeen lost in one day. It was the worst loss in American history."

Surely I misheard. But the comment kept running through my mind as I left the bookstore and got out into the fresh air and the hard, cleansing rain that day. I kept shaking my head slowly, half in amazement, half in dismay, but what she'd said wouldn't wash away. The worst loss in American history?

So much for the first day on the Normandy beaches. And the Battle of the Bulge. Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I tried to dredge up others further back: Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. All the way back to Gettysburg and Cold Harbor, where the casualties on both sides were American.

And the sunken road at Fredericksburg, which sent me to a Civil War memoir: "I never realized before what war was. I never before felt so horribly since I was born. To see men dashed to pieces by shot and torn into shreds by shells during the heat and crash of battle is bad enough God knows, but to walk alone amongst (the) slaughtered brave in the 'still small hours' of the night . . . God grant I may never have to repeat my last night's experience."

That was Col. Samuel Zook of Winfield Hancock's 2nd Corps writing home after walking amidst the carnage left by one of the many futile charges that day against the Confederates' impregnable position. The Rebs fired at will, crouched behind the stone wall that ran along the old road. And still the Yankees kept coming. Till they stopped. And only death was left.

Every one of those 17 troopers lost that one terrible day in Iraq will leave a gaping wound in their family, in their unit, in what Edmund Burke called the little platoon of society to which each of us belongs. But to think of their loss as unique, as the "worst loss in American history," is to shrink that history, and lose touch with the terrible sweep of the past.

Row after row with strict impunity/The headstones yield their names to the element,/The wind whirs without recollection . . . - Allen Tate, "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

The ahistorical think of peace as the normal state of man, rather than a prize won for a precious time by war. In amnesiac America, war is assumed to be the unnatural aberration, an interruption of the normal course of things, rather than a state as old as man himself. Every loss - indeed, every war - becomes "the worst in American history."

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.