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Punctuated by Life and Death

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 10, 2006

On the day that The Post carried a story about how President Bush had characterized the present difficult period in Iraq as "just a comma," Matt Mendelsohn called me. He is a photographer who took the pictures for a new book by his brother Daniel, "The Lost." It is an attempt to find out what happened to six members of the Mendelsohn family who perished in the Holocaust -- the family of great-uncle Shmiel Jager, "killed by the Nazis," of which almost nothing else was known. There: You went right by it. Shmiel lived between the commas.

In between those commas, of course, is the life of a man. He was scared and he was brave, he was proud and he was shamed, he headed a family and ran a business and then hid from the Nazis until he, along with four daughters and his wife, was betrayed and shot right on the spot. Don't think of the bullet as a period. It was, worse, a comma.

So Daniel Mendelsohn set out to expand the commas, to push them open and let in a life. From what the reviewers say, he succeeded brilliantly, so when someone says that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust or if someone mentions Auschwitz, you can understand that it is not a number that died but a person who was murdered. I say that also about Rwanda in 1994, or what happened to the Armenians in Turkey in 1915, or what is happening in Darfur today.

Commas imprison us all. You see them in the headlines of obituaries: Joseph Smith, accountant, 81; Mildred Jones, housewife, 87; Frank Miller, longtime resident, dies. The brevity of it all, the compression of a life into a clause, is appalling, yet an unalterable fact. This is the way not just of newspapers but of history, too. You come across the mention of a war -- the Crimean, the Civil, the Vietnam, the Boer, the Algerian -- and then, like a cemetery dangling from two commas, comes a mention of the number of dead. They get the same prominence -- sometimes less -- as the amount of ordnance used or ships sunk or airplanes built.

Wars are fought with commas. They are essential. Here and there is a world leader who does not care about human life, but most do. The only way they can function is to plant commas around the misery they cause, to subordinate the loss of life to a supposedly greater cause. This is what Bush is doing. If he did not think he is on his way to something grand, that he is doing immense good, then he could not face what is between those two commas -- almost 3,000 American lives and immense suffering. He is not a man given to introspection. Still, he could not live without the succor of cliches: breaking eggs to make an omelet and all of that. In between his commas are all those broken eggs. As yet, there is no omelet.

Not too long ago, I embraced the commas myself. I favored this idiotic war because I thought that the deaths of some would improve -- even save -- the lives of many. I likened the about-to-die soldiers to firemen or cops, the people we summon to risk or lose their lives for the common good. I had the common good in mind when I supported the war, and I did not expect much space between the commas. Now, the space expands and expands, one comma marching away from the other. It seems we will need room for all of Iraq.

When he was alive, I didn't much care for Menachem Begin, the hard-line Israeli prime minister. But when he retired after the 1982 war in Lebanon and showed his grief, my view of him changed. He was despondent over all the lives wasted, and he went into seclusion. For Begin, somehow, the commas evaporated and the immensity of his mistake pitched him into a depression relieved only by death. Other world leaders, in similar circumstances, join consulting firms. The bigger their mistakes, it appears, the higher their fees.

Most of us yearn to escape our commas, to become something more than a profession (longtime lawyer) or resident (Washington native), to make our mark on the world. A president who has ineptly waged a foolish war instead seeks the solace of commas. It is not so much where he has deposited the wounded and dead but where he hopes he can hide from history. It can't be done, though: George W. Bush comma -- and then his failure in Iraq. The comma is his epitaph.

cohenr@washpost.com


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