Friday, May 30, 2008

Memorial Day

"A tragic situation exists precisely when virtue does not triumph but when it is still felt that man is nobler than the forces which destroy him." [George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant," 1950]

I still like Memorial Day on May 30. I love the last-Monday-of-May work holiday and unofficial start-of-summer cookout. But it's not Memorial Day. I prefer to keep both of them and keep them apart.

These are people to remember. They are the honorable dead of a new war. Not all of them are soldiers, but the new war sweeps up more than soldiers in its causes. And all believed in something. They believed in it enough to get up and do something about it, at peril of their lives. Whether it was themselves, their comrades, duty, their mission, their nation, the people of the world, the people of Iraq, the people of America -- or even peace. They went to the war to do something about it.

I believe none of them wanted to die. Probably until the moment the darkness whelmed them they were trying to live, to somehow make it. But all had been close enough to Fate by then to know her faceless, pitiless stare. There came a time to choose -- it came many times for some of them -- and they chose the brave thing over the easy one.

April 2, 1978–May 7, 2004

Nick Berg is the young contractor from my hometown in Pennsylvania who went to Iraq to do good and was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamist terror-thugs. His sorrowing father said Bush and Rumsfeld killed his son. Yet this father, who is of the age of the '60s youth movement, taught his son to think and to make his own choices. And the son grew up to see a world that could be made better, even by Americans. Among those who sent the family condolences when Berg died were Kenyan tribesmen young Berg had helped improve their village.

He went to Iraq with the same vision: to bring democracy and a good life to people who knew little of either. He supported the war, for humanitarian reasons. In the Vietnam War, the old held that American power was a force for good and believed in the spread of freedom as a patriotic virtue. Their children spit bile at the administration. In this war, so often, the natural order was reversed.

July 4, 1983-Jan. 15, 2007

The night before he shipped out to Iraq, Mark Daily tapped out on a laptop computer a short essay on why he had volunteered for the Army. With the touch of a button, he uploaded it to his MySpace site. Three months later, on Jan. 15, he died with three comrades when a roadside bomb demolished their vehicle near Mosul.

Volunteer armies at all times are a mix of people and motivations. But perhaps no army in modern times has had more collective ideals and ethics than the U.S. military. Daily, a cherished child from a privileged neighborhood in California, exemplified all this. He was a thoughtful, liberal (in the true, noble sense of that abused word), secular college student, a registered Democrat and a vegetarian.

Yet he grappled with his conscience and joined the U.S. Army for the sake of the humanitarian purposes it attempts to accomplish. Sept. 11 didn't change him overnight. But instead of kicking in to knee-jerk patriotism or "no blood for oil" opposition, he kept reading, and he kept thinking, and he decided ...

I joined the fight because it occurred to me that many modern day 'humanists' who claim to possess a genuine concern for human beings throughout the world are in fact quite content to allow their fellow 'global citizens' to suffer under the most hideous state apparatuses and conditions. Their excuses used to be my excuses.

... Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception.

... (C)onsider what peace vigils against genocide have accomplished lately. Consider that there are 19-year-old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics.

... Don't forget that human beings have a responsibility to one another and that Americans have a responsibility to the oppressed.

And so on. Since his death, Daily's little essay has become a well of inspiration to people who never met him. His family has been flooded with letters, mailed from the White House and from mobile home parks.

John Daily, Mark's father, praised his son at the memorial service in his honor for "choosing the difficult right over the easy wrong." He also has said, as any father would, "I'd give it all back a thousandfold just to hug him one more time."

The media followed the blogs to the story. LA Times told it, though it relegated it to the local section in print and hid it behind the subscription wall online.

Ultimately, his family says, Daily came to believe that his lifelong altruistic impulses and passions for the underdog had to extend to Iraqis crushed under decades of oppression. It was time to stop simply talking about human rights and actually do something to help secure them.

And he decided that joining the Army was the best way to do that.

... Daily had read historian Stephen Ambrose's writings on World War II and the generation of soldiers who fought for freedom from the forces of fascism. If not Iraq, Daily thought, he wanted to help save those being slaughtered in Sudan.

In the fall of 2003, he entered the UCLA ROTC program. ... Lt. Col. Shawn Buck, who headed the UCLA military science department at the time, said Daily was a deep thinker and natural leader who persuaded many cadets to stick with the program. "Once he made the decision to join, he jumped in with both feet and gave it everything he had," Buck said.

In a 2005 videotape of his officers' commissioning ceremony, Daily told the crowd that the U.S. Army is one of the few militaries in the world that teach not only tactics but also ethics. "I genuinely believe the United States Army is a force of good in this world," he said.

He was not blind to military transgressions and fumed to his father that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib was a failure of leadership. But that was exactly why he needed to get over there, he said. He was going to make sure that his men upheld Army values of integrity and honor.

Christopher Hitchens attended Daily's funeral and wrote a magnificent, painful piece about it.

I thought, Well, here we are to perform the last honors for a warrior and hero, and there are no hysterical ululations, no shrieks for revenge, no insults hurled at the enemy, no firing into the air or bogus hysterics. Instead, an honest, brave, modest family is doing its private best. I hope no fanatical fool could ever mistake this for weakness. It is, instead, a very particular kind of strength. If America can spontaneously produce young men like Mark, and occasions like this one, it has a real homeland security instead of a bureaucratic one. To borrow some words of George Orwell's when he first saw revolutionary Barcelona, "I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for."

died March 9, 2004, age 33

Here is the AP's story:

Lawyer Fern Holland went to Iraq to help the nation's women: She investigated human-rights violations, set up conferences and assisted in writing the women's rights section of the new constitution.

"If I die, know that I'm doing precisely what I want to be doing," Holland wrote in an e-mail to a friend on Jan. 21.

Holland was one of three civilians killed Tuesday after several gunmen posing as Iraqi police officers stopped her vehicle at a makeshift checkpoint near the town of Hillah, about 35 miles south of Baghdad. ...

Holland's family believes she was targeted by assassins because of her work, which included opening women's centers around Iraq.

"She believed in freedom. She believed that every man and woman born should enjoy the right of freedom," her sister Vi Holland said. ...

Holland, a 1996 graduate of the University of Tulsa College of Law, worked at two law firms in Tulsa before joining the Peace Corps and traveling to Namibia.

She returned to the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but did not stay long.

Tulsa attorney Stephen Rodolf, who kept in touch with Holland through e-mail, said she seemed to be aware of growing threats to her safety.

"We stand out, and those who dislike us know precisely when we come to town," she wrote to him.

Her job required her to travel almost every day on highways where snipers and roadside bombs lurked. And yet, she asked to travel with an unarmed escort because she felt the high security around her was a barrier to her work, he said.

"She was an extraordinary person who honestly wanted to help people," Rodolf said. "Anybody who knew her would tell you that."

That's the best of this country. No conflict whatsoever between serving in the Peace Corps and helping to rebuild Iraq. People on both sides of the U.S. political equation should wake up to that one. It's the same good work.

According to some reports, she was the first U.S. civilian working for the U.S. occupation authority to be killed in Iraq.

April 5, 1981–Sept. 29, 2006

Monsoor was born to a Christian Arab/American former Marine father and an American mother. The Wikipedia entry on him paints a picture of a typical active American boy:

Afflicted with asthma as a child, Monsoor strengthened his lungs by racing his siblings in the family's swimming pool. Monsoor attended Garden Grove High School in Garden Grove, California. He played tight-end on the school's football team and graduated in 1999. His hobbies included snowboarding, body-boarding, spearfishing, motorcycle riding, and driving his Chevrolet Corvette.

He joined the Navy and made it to be a SEAL. His platoon was sent to Ramadi in 2006 and assigned to train and mentor Iraqi troops.

As a communicator and machine-gunner on patrols, Monsoor carried 100 pounds of gear in temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees. He took a lead position to protect the platoon from frontal assault. The team was involved in frequent engagements with insurgent fighters. Over the first five months of the deployment, the team reportedly killed 84 insurgents.

During an engagement on May 9, 2006, Monsoor ran into a street while under continuous insurgent gunfire to rescue an injured comrade. Monsoor was awarded the Silver Star for this action. He was also awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.

The Medal of Honor citation tells the story of his death:

In the early morning, insurgents prepared to execute a coordinated attack by reconnoitering the area around the element’s position. Element snipers thwarted the enemy’s initial attempt by eliminating two insurgents. The enemy continued to assault the element, engaging them with a rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire. As enemy activity increased, Petty Officer Monsoor took position with his machine gun between two teammates on an outcropping of the roof. While the SEALs vigilantly watched for enemy activity, an insurgent threw a hand grenade from an unseen location, which bounced off Petty Officer Monsoor’s chest and landed in front of him. Although only he could have escaped the blast, Petty Officer Monsoor chose instead to protect his teammates. Instantly and without regard for his own safety, he threw himself onto the grenade to absorb the force of the explosion with his body, saving the lives of his two teammates. By his undaunted courage, fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of certain death, Petty Officer Monsoor gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

April 7, 1979–Nov. 15, 2004

KIA in the second Battle of Fallujah. Bing West tells his story in "No True Glory," his masterful account of that fight.

"He saved half my fire team," said Cpl. Brannon Dyer, 27, of Blairsville, Ga.

"It's stuff you hear about in boot camp, about World War II and Tarawa Marines who won the Medal of Honor," said Lance Cpl. Rob Rogers, 22, of Tallahassee, Fla.

Here's a newspaper account:

Peralta, 25, as platoon scout, wasn't even assigned to the assault team that entered the insurgent safe house in northern Fallujah, Marines said. Despite an assignment that would have allowed him to avoid such dangerous duty, he regularly asked squad leaders if he could join their assault teams, they said.

One of the first Marines to enter the house, Peralta was wounded in the face by rifle fire from a room near the entry door, said Lance Cpl. Adam Morrison, 20, of Tacoma, who was in the house when Peralta was first wounded.

Moments later, an insurgent rolled a fragmentation grenade into the area where a wounded Peralta and the other Marines were seeking cover.

As Morrison and another Marine scrambled to escape the blast, pounding against a locked door, Peralta grabbed the grenade and cradled it into his body, Morrison said. While one Marine was badly wounded by shrapnel from the blast, the Marines said they believe more lives would have been lost if not for Peralta's selfless act.

... Rogers and others remembered Peralta as a squared-away Marine, so meticulous about uniform standards that he sent his camouflage uniform to be pressed while training in Kuwait before entering Iraq.

But mostly they remembered acts of selflessness: offering career advice, giving a buddy a ride home from the bar, teaching salsa dance steps in the barracks.

Peralta, a native of Mexico, joined the Marine Corps the day after he got his green card. He took the oath of citizenship in his Marine Corps fatigues. On the wall of his room in his parents' house were three documents: the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and his boot camp diploma.

Before he left for Fallujah, he wrote his 14-year-old brother, “Be proud of me bro ... and be proud of being an American.”

Dec. 31, 1976–April 16, 2005

A California hippiechick anti-war activist and human-rights crusader, she died in an insurgent attack in Iraq in 2005 while working on her campaign to help innocent victims of the war. Ruzicka had invested her adult life into coaxing people to see through the term "collateral damage." To her, it didn't so much matter who started the fight, it didn't so much matter how the hurt happened: she saw people, real people, with names and faces and families. And they've been wounded through no fault of their own, and we should help them.

Her young life took some time to reach that level of practical idealism. But that she reached it by 28 -- when many so-called progressives in their 70s still don't get it -- was a testimony to the woman and her virtues.

She was well down the Rachel Corrie path. Then, gradually, something happened. She realized she really wanted to help people. And she realized what mattered was connecting people who needed help with those who had the ability to give it. Ruzicka changed her tactics. Instead of bellyaching about the corporate media, she went to Afghanistan and befriended journalists in the foreign correspondent pool and lobbied them with a mix of charm and persistence to tell the stories of the civilians she was meeting. More importantly, she began connecting the civilian casualty survivors with U.S. military and government officials who had the cash in-country that could help.

"She had the ability to connect with the victims and to talk with the U.S. military and be acceptable and authentic to both," a co-worker said. "I think that was because she was concerned with the victims. It wasn't about the morality of the war, or the politics."

Here's how "Rolling Stone" described her awakening:

Through her experiences in Afghanistan, Ruzicka's politics, and views toward the war, had changed. Once a dedicated peace activist, she'd decided that war was terrible but in some cases inevitable, even justified. It was a conscious split between her and her mentors at Global Exchange, and her embrace of the people Medea Benjamin calls "the realists" signified a major shift not just in Ruzicka's political philosophy but in her life as well. For about the past ten years, Benjamin had been both a mentor and a mother to Ruzicka. But now, the two clashed on their views regarding the upcoming war with Iraq, something that became more apparent when Ruzicka joined Benjamin on a fact-finding tour in Baghdad just prior to the war. "She was working with people in D.C. who were saying the war is going to happen, let's help the people who will be hurt," says Benjamin. "I thought it was a mistake to think like that before civilians were even killed." Medea urged Ruzicka to return to the activist fold and come back to San Francisco to "join us with all her energy and all her incredible enthusiasm to do whatever we could to stop the war."

She had the chance to be strident. Instead, she chose to invest herself in actually helping. Her father, Clifford, a civil engineer, put it like this:

"She had some rebel in her. She didn't like the status quo and wanted to change injustices where she found them. But she learned that she could be more effective by working with the U.S. She wowed the people in Washington and spurred them to do more."

"She brought a spot of light to a very dim setting," said one friend. "She had this frenetic, youthful energy that made her just unstoppable." She came across as an innocent in some of the darkest, dirtiest places on earth.

But she strode in there deliberately, with her blonde, simple American demeanor, assured that there was no place else on earth she could do so much good and be true to herself.

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be

"The Nation's" eulogy noted the words of one of Ruzicka's myriad friends, author Peter Bergen:

"One really interesting thing is that Marla was very opposed to the Iraq war before it began, but once the war started I never heard her express any opinion about the war itself. Once the war started she just wanted to help people who were hurt, not engage in a debate about the merits of the war. Beneath her Californian happy-go-luck demeanor Marla was a very hardheaded realist about what needed to be done. The war happened. People were hurt. She wanted to help them. And an example of her realistic approach is how she worked in Afghanistan and Iraq compensating the families who died. Marla had no patience for people who demonstrated against the war, and did nothing else."

Sept. 24, 1969–April 4, 2003

U.S. Army Sgt. First Class, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

A few days after he died, I did a wire service search for every variation of the name "Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith." The search would cover everything published in the last three or four days by most of the big media services. I got only one hit. It's an incidental mention in a column of short takes that also includes news about pandas at the National Zoo. [I did get a hit on another Sgt. Smith, but it wasn't the same one. This one was a gay Marine, prominently featured in a big story about how the military is hungry for recruits but turning away homosexuals.]

Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith was invisible in the gatekeeper media. Fortunately, the alternate media remembered him.

Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy near Baghdad International Airport, Baghdad, Iraq on 4 April 2003. On that day, Sergeant First Class Smith was engaged in the construction of a prisoner of war holding area when his Task Force was violently attacked by a company-sized enemy force. Realizing the vulnerability of over 100 fellow soldiers, Sergeant First Class Smith quickly organized a hasty defense consisting of two platoons of soldiers, one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and three armored personnel carriers.

As the fight developed, Sergeant First Class Smith braved hostile enemy fire to personally engage the enemy with hand grenades and anti-tank weapons, and organized the evacuation of three wounded soldiers from an armored personnel carrier struck by a rocket propelled grenade and a 60mm mortar round. Fearing the enemy would overrun their defenses, Sergeant First Class Smith moved under withering enemy fire to man a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a damaged armored personnel carrier. In total disregard for his own life, he maintained his exposed position in order to engage the attacking enemy force. During this action, he was mortally wounded.

His courageous actions helped defeat the enemy attack, and resulted in as many as 50 enemy soldiers killed, while allowing the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers. Sergeant First Class Smith’s extraordinary heroism and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Third Infantry Division “Rock of the Marne,” and the United States Army.

At some point before the battle, Smith had written, but not sent, an email to his parents. In it, he wrote, "there are two ways to come home, stepping off the plane and being carried off the plane... it doesn't matter how I come home, because I am prepared to give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home."

Dec. 31, 1955–Aug. 2, 2005

Killed in Iraq for telling the truth.

He was one of the people who on Sept. 11 decided to change a world where that could happen into a world were it couldn't.

His Reuters obituary describes him as "an art critic inspired to write about war after watching from the roof of his New York apartment as the World Trade Center towers fell."

He did it his way. He took his skills to Iraq, and he set up base in Basra. He wrote online, at his excellent blog, In the Red Zone, he wrote a much-praised book by that name, and he freelanced his prose for big media.

It was the last that got him killed.

His death came four days after publication in the New York Times of an opinion piece he wrote critical of the rise of Shi'ite Islamist fundamentalism in the southern city of Basra, Iraq's second city and the subject of his next book.

Those closer to the story than Reuters make the connection more explicit. The Times of London tells it like this:

There is speculation that Mr Vincent, who received death threats, was murdered in an attempt to silence him. Four days before his death he had written an opinion piece in The New York Times in which he said that the police force in the British-controlled city had been infiltrated by Shia Muslim extremist militias, who were responsible for carrying out hundreds of murders of prominent Sunni Muslims.

He criticised the British, whose 8,000 troops in the area are responsible for security in Basra, for turning a blind eye to abuses of power by Shia extremists. The whole city was "increasingly coming under the control of Shia religious groups, from the relatively mainstream ... to the bellicose followers of the rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr".

In his final blog, he wrote: "The British stand above the growing turmoil, refusing to challenge the Islamists’ claim on the hearts and minds of police officers."

How cruel, then, that, as the Times reports, Vincent "and his female translator were kidnapped as they left a currency exchange shop, within sight of a British military checkpoint." The translator, Nour Al Khal, was shot four times but survived.

In light of what has been happenning in Basra this spring, Vincent's last full post, dated July 26, 2005, on his blog, is prophecy.

Reader_iam, while writing here, called attention to a Nick Gillespie piece in "Reason" just after Vincent's murder.

Journalism is a profession covered in self-congratulatory myths the way a barnyard is covered in stinking horseshit. It's easy to slip into routinized obituaries, especially about good people who die—are murdered—in the ugliest of circumstances by the ugliest of people. The impulse is to acknowledge the victims' sacrifices and their talents, invoke the righteousness of their lives and your anger, bow your head, wipe away the tear forming in your eye, and then get on with your day. That's a noble gesture—and a necessary one. It allows us to process grief, and if we didn't do that, we'd all be puddles of tears all the time.

But when I think about the murder of Steven Vincent—when I think about those last grim hours he spent in captivity, waiting for the inevitable bullet to his body or the blade to his throat—it's hard to wipe away the tear. His death gives us reason to linger at the gravesite and puzzle over many things. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to know Steven, however briefly and however barely—and, more important, to have published some of his material. He was that rarest of a breed in a profession that supposedly reveres shoe-leather reporting and a dogged pursuit of the truth, no matter where it leads. Unlike most of us, he used reporting to challenge his own beliefs rather than set them in concrete.

[emphasis added by R_ia]

It is worth noting that Vincent's wounded translator and companion had been trying to get to America. I'm pleased to be able to say, she made it.

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