Evil of War Brings Unending Pain
By: Andrew Greeley
Thursday, March 10th, 2006
A clergyperson often encounters paralyzing grief. Death is a savage blow to a family, especially to the closest relative
of the victim -- spouse, parent, child, sibling, usually in that order.
Joan Didion, in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, describes her grief after the death of her husband, John
Gregory Dunne, with searing honesty. She depicts the denial, the anger, the guilt, the refusal to let go, the paralyzing
vortex of emotions that is often triggered by a single memory, the "magical thinking" that somehow he is going to come
back. At the end of the book she suggests that maybe she will shortly pass beyond grief to mourning, a state of
sadness but not paralysis. You miss the lost love and always will, but you will get on with your life.
Some people are unable to make that leap definitively. They cannot let go because that would be a betrayal of the lost
love. The mixture of guilt and anger and magical thinking continue indefinitely. They cannot accept the harshness of
Jesus on the subject: "Let the dead bury their dead." A firm religious belief that death does not end life is not much
help -- the raw emotional pain exists at a level of the soul deeper than intellectual conviction and maybe deeper than
faith. No one can rightly judge those who are trapped in a miasma of grief. The most another person can do is listen,
or maybe only be present.
Every time I see a picture of an American killed in Iraq, I wince. I think of the agony that the death will cause,
shattering, rending, paralyzing pain, and the stress and the strain it will introduce into family relationships. I wonder if
the family will ever be free from this suffering.
In most cases, it probably will; mourning will replace grief, more or less. In some families, the trauma will be too much,
the guilt and anger and magical thinking will persist and blaming will increase -- purgatory now, self-created purgatory.
The rationalization that he (or she) died defending American freedom, given bravely to the privacy-violating TV
journalist, sounds hollow and will seem more hollow as the years go on.
And what of the Iraqi lives, the men and women and children killed so casually by their own kind and even by
Americans? On a day when 50 Iraqis are killed, but no Americans, we tend to breathe a sigh of relief. Iraqi grief is not
the same as American grief. The Muslim "rag heads" have brought the disaster on themselves. Besides, their noisy
lamentations are not in good taste. Yet if we believe in American religion we must mourn with them too as best we can.
Why 2,200 Americans dead? The reasons keep changing -- Iraqis were probably involved in the Sept. 11 attack, they
possessed huge stores of weapons of mass destruction, we had to get rid of Saddam Hussein, we have to keep our
promises to the Iraqi people, we must keep faith with those Americans who have already died. We must establish
democracy in the Middle East.
Some Americans still believe these arguments. Many do not. You cannot fool all the people all the time.
The real reasons for the war are too harsh to be fully accepted. The vice president wanted to tighten up on civil
liberties. The secretary of defense wanted to wage a new kind of war. The neoconservative memo writers wanted to
take pressure off of Israel. "Our president" wanted to reap the glory of being a wartime president. The majority of
Congress wanted to be seen as patriotic Americans. Many, perhaps most, Americans wanted revenge for the World
Trade Center attack. Many, perhaps most, Americans believed that the war in Iraq was part of the "war on terrorism."
The only consolation the grief-stricken families can fall back on is that their lost love died doing his or her duty. This is
certainly the truth, and it is certainly an admirable way to die. Some of the families already want to know why a death at
the hands of a roadside bomber or a suicide bomber was a necessary duty. One can only pray that God brings peace
to them. As for those who caused the war, how can they sleep at night?
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