If you watch HBO's "Last Letters Home" -- and you should -- keep an eye on a particular father of a slain soldier and listen hard. The other parents, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends and siblings are occasionally eloquent, always moving and always sad, but this one father is starkly different. He says nothing. His wife talks; he doesn't. The war in Iraq has taken his son and that, really, is all there is to say. Thousands of miles from Iraq, this father is what we call collateral damage.
I was reminded of "Johnny Got His Gun," Dalton Trumbo's 1939 novel about a World War I soldier who comes back horribly disfigured and mute. In the father's case, though, the muteness is unrelated to physical injury. Nothing was done to the body, but his silence testifies to a searing pain -- contained, bottled up, metastasizing, none of it leaking out, none of it shared -- a man, coping (not coping?) with the death of his best friend, his silliest dreams, his best memories, his life beyond the one granted him. His silence will break your heart.
During the Vietnam War, Trumbo's book was often cited as the ultimate antiwar novel or, depending on your politics, a clever and pernicious piece of antiwar propaganda. But all truth about war is anti. It is anti because it is horrible. It is anti because it is about waste. It is anti because it reveals loss and sadness and pain and injury and death. It is anti because time often turns the reason for the war ephemeral or downright silly -- out of frame, if life were a movie. Only one weight is placed on the scale. The truth about violent death obliterates the truth about everything else.
Second Lt. Leonard M. Cowherd was killed May 16, 2004. He was 22. He was also a West Point graduate, so if you are looking for some way to mitigate the tragedy, that could be it. He chose the military. Of course he did not want to be killed, but he was a college graduate and a smart guy, and he understood the risks. In this, he was like a police officer or a firefighter -- something like that. They, too, understand the risks. So when something happens -- a building catches fire or some killer is cornered -- we pay people to do the dangerous work that we won't do ourselves. Is this more or less what we did in Iraq?
Maybe. Certainly, those who favored the war -- who palpably wanted it -- must have thought so. They must have seen it as necessary, and it may have helped that most of them -- President Bush, Vice President Cheney and the rest -- had never been in combat themselves, although plenty of those who had were in total agreement. Maybe it helps, too, to believe that the dead go to heaven, and so the end as I see it is not the end as they see it. Still, there is something awfully cold and mean about sending young people to die for what amounts to a geopolitical theory about the Middle East. Sorry, send your own kid for that.
It helps above all to think of war as a grand cause and not just an unspeakable horror -- and to never get too close to the victims, in this case the parents or lovers or siblings of those who were killed. The film, which premieres today, Veterans Day, and will be available to most cable households, breaks that membrane. The loved ones read from some of the last letters home. None of them say a word about the war itself -- about whether they favor it or oppose it or have any position at all. They simply face the camera, hold a letter in their hands and conjure up a vanished life.
Some of the soldiers were very proud of what they were doing, some were intensely patriotic and one, somehow, had sensed his death just over the horizon. He wrote his goodbyes. But without mentioning a thing about politics, without a word about the virtue of the war itself, the cause -- what is it, exactly? -- diminishes, shrinks, and we are left staring at a man who cannot speak or will not speak and so we want to do the talking for him. We want to tell him why his son died, why it mattered so, and we cannot. His is the muteness of pain. Ours is the muteness of shame.