Honoring our own

Posted: Apr 09, 2003 12:00 AM

With Saddam's death not yet confirmed (as this column goes to print), where is Meinhardt Raabe when we need him? Mr. Raabe played the part of the Munchkin coroner in "The Wizard of Oz" <buy movie>, who, after observing the Wicked Witch of the East under Dorothy's house, famously sang: "As coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her, And she's not only merely dead, she's really most sincerely dead." We need a statement like that for Saddam. But if, as was reported Monday night, Saddam et fils were vaporized into dust, I suppose we may never be able to prove them dead at all. Which brings us to the trickiest decision of the war now facing the president: Whether, when and how to declare victory. When I mentioned to a White House staffer a few days ago that I was looking forward to the victory parade down Constitution Avenue (as we had in 1991 after the first Persian Gulf War), he scrunched his nose, telling me that would offend the Arab world. I hope that is not the considered and final opinion of the Administration.

I don't want to offend the Arab world, and I understand why our soldiers were instructed not to display the American Flag on Iraqi soil and recognize the larger international political objectives for which the war fighting was merely the predicate. I can be as sophisticated, analytical, knowingly skeptical and as aware of the great dangers and challenges facing us in the Middle East as the next Washington commentator. But this is a human moment -- and we need to act like humans, not just calculating analysts. Something magnificent has been accomplished by the courage and skill of our military people. We need to make vivid and memorialize something beyond individual impressions and opinions. This is a moment of collective reality that should be described and understood. Importantly, there should be an act of catharsis: a purification that brings about spiritual renewal.

But, it seems as if the rolling start to the war will be mirrored by a rolling end -- the birth of a new government emerging, blade-by-blade, from the decaying corpse of the old. I suspect there may be genius in this plan. The absence of apparent historic discontinuities minimizes the psychological opportunities for resistance. Iraqis just keep going to bed and getting up as, seamlessly, democracy emerges. It is the obliteration of history -- even as we are making history. Brilliant. Bizarre. Disconcerting.

A victory parade here in America well may be counterproductive to our policy objectives in the Middle East. But I don't want our honored dead to be consigned to the memory hole. I can't look at the newspaper pictures of those young Marines and soldiers who sacrificed their lives that my family and I might live. They look like my teenage boys and their friends. How can these warriors -- both the living and the fallen -- be so young, so brave and so able? How can we not stop to honor them? Shakespeare wrote of how the English heroes about to go to battle against the French at Agincourt should be remembered: "And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhood cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

War is a sordid business, made necessary by human imperfection. We ask our finest citizens to go forth and soil themselves in the killing of other humans for our nation's sake. We ask these young men and women to perform a profoundly personal act -- to be the agency of death and destruction. We owe them a profoundly personal moment of public honor -- even if they say they just want to go home. (One of the great open wounds of our country is the feeling of many of our Vietnam vets, who were not honored on their return.) And we -- the non-warriors -- need that moment, too. This is neither jingoism, nor triumphalism. It is not even, particularly, joy of victory -- although victory was necessary and is gratifying. Rather, it is a quiet pride in these remarkable young men and women who have grown up in our communities.

It would seem that the Greatest Generation's genes skipped a generation, and have blossomed anew in their grandchildren. We must catch and preserve this perishable, noble moment. We mean to offend no one, but we mean to honor our own.