An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
- William Butler Yeats
Sijan's fianc ee and relatives visited my family's home shortly after the Medal of Honor Ceremony to attend an Air Force Academy dedication memorializing his life and death.
Joy and sadness mingled. Pictures, stories and varied talk of a handsome, square jawed young man emblazoned my six-year-old mind with an image that still inspires uneasy awe. There is a strange chemistry that surrounds the mourning of a hero. The country gains a mythic figure while the family suffers an intimate loss; but most troubling is the extinction of an individual life.
I am now ten years older than Sijan was when he died. I grew up occasionally imagining what his life was, what it would have been and how it ended. But his life, his reasons for fighting and the moment of his death are gone and unknowable. The honors, ceremonies and eulogies commemorating the fallen soldier are for the living & ndash; they do nothing for the dead.
What does it mean to honor the sacrifice of the dead? Four thousand and thirteen dead as of today. They all volunteered. I knew none of them.
My share in this sacrifice is entirely abstract. Outrage, disgust and guilt are not sacrifice. There is no real world fact of my existence that demands a suffering over this war. It requires a deliberate act, something like prayer or meditation, to even approach the idea of how some are suffering. I can choose to suffer in sympathy & ndash; and this is not suffering. Maybe we have found what all nations secretly dream of & ndash; the spoils of victory without the pain of war.
Each of our 4,013 Iraqi War Dead held private beliefs, joys and dreads & ndash; all different, all gone and forever unknowable. In dying for us, in dying for our country, in dying for adventure, in dying for democracy, in dying for Iraq, in dying for peace or in dying for their fellow soldiers ndash; their deaths are individual. The majority of Americans carry no burden in this war; we are a country capable of only imagining the lives of our individual soldiers. But they are only when they cease to exist. & It is the frail mystery of the individual life that needs greater honoring.
- Citizen Voices blogger Chris McConnell is a bookseller, freelance writer, & former & high school & English teacher & and odd jobber who lives in La Jolla.