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Reverence and Awe

Our first military obituaries come in.

By 3.27.03

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America received a sudden and intensive course in reading about death after September 11th. The New York Times's Portraits of Grief, one of the few decent things the paper has done in a long while, printed obituaries of the victims each day that ran for nearly a year. Some people in New York vowed to read them all; most of us read a good many.

It's not clear how the Times will treat the death of American soldiers, or whether the paper's editorialists consider them less worthy of mourning than the unsuspecting victims of September 11th. But The New York Sun began running capsule obituaries for the fallen troops this week. The Sun deserves credit for doing this so promptly, and also for including the obituaries as part of its opinion section, under a heading whose stark language evokes an earlier time: "America's War Dead."

The Sun's Op-Ed pages are an oasis for dehydrated New York conservatives. But even its columnists cannot compete on the same page with heroic lives laid bare in few words. The overall effect is a reminder that the members of the chattering classes -- even those whose chatter is worth hearing -- owe their existence to the men on the lines.

The first thing you notice about the obituaries themselves is the ages of the dead. In Wednesday's edition of the Sun, they were as follows: 22, 26, 26, 31, 27, 21. They are a reminder that war is still fought, and always will be fought, by the young. A reader who thinks about such things might feel a rush of humility similar to that of the Sun's editors. What was I doing at that age? he might ask himself. And he might shudder: Nothing very important, certainly nothing dangerous.

He didn't need to. Others were doing it for him, and are still doing it.

Others:

Like Lance Corporal David Fribley, 26, who was inspired to join the Marines after September 11th. Fribley was killed in an ambush -- one of many fake Iraqi surrenders -- on March 23rd along with eight of his fellow Marines in An Nasiriyah. His brother Garry, in commenting on his death, had a cautionary message: "We're so intent on being nice guys, and they [Iraqi soldiers] are not going to abide by anything. I just hope Bush takes the gloves off." Let's all hope.

Or Corporal Jose A. Garibay, 21, who died in the same ambush. Before he was deployed, he made a tape for his uncle, saying: "I'm being called to represent my country. I don't know if I will return, and I want you to know that I love you and how much I appreciate the support and love you have given me over the years."

Or Sergeant Michael E. Bitz, 31, another victim of the ambush. His mother characterized him as a "daredevil" who had bounced from job to job before joining the Marines at her suggestion. "If it looked dangerous, he wanted to try it," she said. "He loved the service. He found direction and purpose in his life."

Or Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez, 22, an infantry rifleman who died from enemy fire in Umm Qasr on March 21st, one of the first American casualties. He had come to America from Guatemala at age 15 with dreams of becoming an architect. He had been informally adopted by a family in Lomita, California, and his last note to his foster mother spoke of the sand in his tent and ended with the request to "Please pray for all of us."

Many Americans are praying for our soldiers. Others who aren't disposed to prayer are hoping hard.

Those in the antiwar movement, however, whose fanaticism precludes humility, continue with their self-righteous exhibitions. Thursday in Manhattan, they lay in the streets and blocked traffic with what they called a "die-in." The protesters, who enjoy accusing others of moral blindness, are unwilling to see the obscenity of their own actions -- covering themselves in fake blood and playing at death while soldiers overseas are doing the real thing. Nor do they care that the dissension they spread is dangerous to the lives of those soldiers. Their colossal selfishness stands in harsh contrast to the selflessness of the troops. As Bill Kristol has remarked, this is a moment when we recognize there are Two Americas: a portion of our country, of indeterminate number, does not honor the sacrifices of our armed forces. These people will not come within a mile of a soldier's obituary, to say nothing of a mortar shell.

The American campaign against Iraq had been dubbed Shock and Awe, that dangerously overconfident prediction of quick victory that has not come to pass. However long the war now takes, it is clear that the Iraqis are not shocked or awed. It's hard to be shocked when your opponent gives a year's notice and continues to announce what he is going to do next.

If there is Shock and Awe to this war, it is the awe of reverence that many Americans feel for the heroism and sacrifice of our soldiers, for lives given freely for others. As a military chaplain said recently, the men and women in our armed forces are simply the best of America. Their lives and their deaths should be honored by all Americans who possess even a shred of decency.

As of Thursday, the Sun had temporarily run out of soldiers to memorialize, as official U.S. combat fatalities remain low. But soon enough, there will be more obituaries on the paper's Op-Ed pages. They cry out to be read.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.