Pope Benedict and several news commentators have made much of the example of Pope John Paul II's death. A man we watched go through the agonizing process of dying over what seemed to me to be several years. All of us have had family members who have experienced similar deaths. It's not pleasant to watch, but it is part of life.
I grew up in a era immediately following the era of James Dean. The motto: "live fast and die young" was still in vogue to a certain extent during the years I attended high school. A few classmates in my high school and some surrounding schools followed Dean's example - ending up in twisted metal coffins along the highway. I never considered this an appropriate way to check out, but there were some who were quite invigorated by the speculation of how fast the '57 Chevy was going before it kissed the oak tree. Not me.
A cousin of mine was on the Sheriff's Department and did quite a bit of forensic work. His notebook and briefcase was a collection of notes and photographs of people who come to the end of their life in very undignified ways. One of the saddest examples was a man found in a flophouse motel sitting in his underwear with a single small caliber wound in his forehead because of a self-inflicted gunshot. Another gruesome photograph in the collection were the photographs of a torso found in a shed. No hands, arms, feet, or head were ever found. What a horrid way to go!
Which brings me to ways of dying that personally give me chills. The mortification of being eaten by a wild creature such as a bear, alligator, or shark is not a way I wish to be remembered. Think of the obituary:
Last Friday while cleaning his pond, Michael Thomson was attacked and –with the exception of his right foot - fully consumed by a 16-foot alligator. . . In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be given in Mike's memory to the National Wildlife Federation…
My nephew, Nicholas Thomson who lives in Brisbane, Australia went through the traumatizing experience of witnessing one of his mates being literally gulped by a Great White shark off the northeast coast while the group he was with was scuba diving. Horrifying!
I spent several years in the military and come from a family with a strong military heritage. As a young man, I listened to the tales of my grandfather who told of things that happened in the Mexican Punitive Expedition led by General John "Blackjack" Pershing and later gave a recounting of the deaths of comrades in sundry battles during World War I. An uncle who saw combat during World War II also told stories of fallen comrades. In all of these stories, there was a strong element of stoic heroism by the fallen.
As a people, we do not like to think of our young people dying in war. We like to think of our young ones getting good educations, having fabulous careers, bearing children, retiring, and not dying before we do.
The body count in Iraq is growing and no evidence of victory is in sight. In my list of close friends, I mention the Photographer; see Winds of Change in the Land of the Big Easy
. The Photographer has a theory that there is a magic number when the body count in Iraq will become relevant to the American people. Neither he nor I believe the magic number has been reached yet, but we both agree it is not far away. So far, to many Americans, the deaths of over 1900+ soldiers has been nothing more than a brief distraction from their evening meal. Again, to paraphrase comments of The Photographer, 'many people have bought into the abstract piece of propaganda that "It's better to fight them over there than to fight them over here." Propaganda aside, my concern, however, is the demoralizing manner of these brave soldier's deaths.
It is the lack of dignity in how these young men and women die that bothers me. We think of soldiers dying in combat in a process of bringing destruction to their enemies. This has been the case of most of our nation's wars – except this one. The enemy in Iraq has taken that process away from us i.e. Johnny didn't die exchanging fire with the enemy – he was blown up by a roadside bomb or IED
. Johnny did not have any heroic input into the process – he was merely riding in a truck...
The above comments might not make any sense to most people, but how you die – particularly in a war is important.
Our enemy realizes this and has dealt us the indignity of having to collect scattered bits and pieces of our young people and ship them home in body bags.
The indignity of how our soldiers are dying and of course, the magic number will eventually end this war – long before any political goals are achieved…