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Jewish Journal

And who shall die

by Rob Eshman

September 21, 2006 | 8:00 pm

I'd like to suggest a small addition to your synagogue's High Holiday services this year, as if they're not long enough.
 
Sometime before the recitation of the mourner's kaddish, or perhaps just before the Torah is returned to the ark, pull out any Sunday Los Angeles Times, and turn to the obituary section.
 
Then have your rabbi read the names listed under Military Deaths. If you can spare another minute or two, select one of the extended obituaries the L.A. Times compiles on Californians who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
 
Each Sunday, the Times runs the Department of Defense's list of that week's American military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. The paper accompanies those with fully reported stories on any Californian killed. For the past few months, I've been reading these articles religiously.
 
For example:
 
Army Sgt. Andres J. Contreras, of Bell, killed in his HumVee by a roadside bomb. By age 11, Contreras was taking care of his five younger brothers. At 23, he leaves behind a 4-year-old daughter, Grace.
 
Army Sgt. Thomas B. Turner Jr., 31, of Cottonwood, on his second stint in Iraq, killed when his Bradley fighting vehicle ran over a roadside bomb in Muqdadiya, north of Baghdad. Turner loved ranching and motorcycles. He and his wife, Jennifer, had a 21-month-old son, Ethan, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Cantrell.
 
"My sister had to explain to my niece that Daddy is sleeping and he won't wake up," Jennifer's sister, Meredith Coghlan, told the Times.
 
"Does this mean he won't e-mail me back?" Sarah asked.
 
Sgt. Jeffrey S. Brown, 25, of Trinity Center, was a 6-foot-1, 220-pound high school fullback known for his easy laugh and ready smile. He was on his third tour of duty when his helicopter crashed into a lake in Al Anbar province. Brown's last words, according to his father, were "Fifteen feet to water!"
 
Brown's father, a Vietnam veteran, was angry that the Army extended his son's service through the stop-loss program, the so-called "backdoor draft."
 
"My kid should not be dead," Ed Brown told the Times, "because he did live up to his contract, and the Army did not live up to theirs."
 
I spend every Sunday morning with these names and faces, over coffee, in the comfort of my home. They haunt me, in no small part because of the numbers of dead they represent. On the same page the Times also publishes the Defense Department's ongoing tally of the American war dead. As of last week: In and around Iraq: 2,676.
 
In and around Afghanistan: 277.
 
Other locations: 56.
 
That's a lot of heart-wrenching stories that I'll never read, that no one will ever read.
 
Our words lead to actions, our actions have consequences -- we are accountable for what we say and do to one another, and to God. That is the enduring message of the High Holidays; it's the ethical foundation of our faith. And it's why the Jewish default emotion is, of course, guilt.
 
In the days when the Temple stood, the High Priest made a confession on behalf of himself and his household. Today, the Hineni prayer and the Avodah service recreate the gravity of the priestly confession.
 
"Please do not hold [the congregation] to blame for my sins," the cantor chants, "and do not find them guilty of my iniquities, for I am a careless and willful sinner."
 
These litanies provide moments of grave public accountability, when our leaders accept the moral weight of their own transgressions.
 
I'm no rabbi or leader; I'm a guy who writes a column. My own early endorsement of the war was lukewarm and conditional, very Tom Friedman-, David Remnick-esque, but it was approval.
 
"The soldiers who are fighting this war have our absolute support," I wrote just as the shooting started. "Our support for the war they are engaged in is, however, conditional -- not on the actions of our soldiers, but on the decisions of their commander-in-chief."
 
I believed in the danger of Saddam Hussein; I believed his demise would help turn the tide against Mideast despotism; I believed -- in retrospect, how could I? -- that the intelligence community that got Sept. 11 so wrong had Iraq right. So instead of writing, "No!" in as many persuasive ways as I humanly could, I offered a weak, lawyerly, "Well, OK."
 
I don't fantasize for an instant that my half-of-one-thumb-up was all President George W. Bush needed to launch the second Iraq War. But if my conviction convinced one reader, I'm sorry. I apologize.
 
And I apologize to the families of the dead. To the sons and daughters of the fallen. To the extent that those of us who should have known better didn't try to stop this war before it started, to the extent we trusted men and women who were undeserving of our trust, we bear the guilt of these untimely deaths.
 
True, the final chapter is not written on this war. Wait, some will say, od tireh, you shall see how good it will yet be.
 
No. What will be good will be for our leaders to stop adding to the obituaries; to confess their wrongdoings, their hubris, their misjudgments; to atone for wasting good lives in a bad war.
 
Atonement, the prophet Ezekiel said, brings, "a new heart and a new spirit." This administration has two years left to redeem itself for the lives it has squandered in fault and in folly. May all of us join with a new heart and a new spirit to help it, or force it, to do so.
 
Shana Tova.
 
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