A coffin team, a firing party and a bugler will assemble along the rolling hillside of Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday to bury John Hart, who was 20 when killed in Iraq several days ago.
Private First Class Hart was a fine-looking young man, proud and smiling, serving with the Army's 1st Battalion when he became one of more than 115 to die in combat since President Bush stood last spring on the deck of an aircraft carrier behind a huge banner with the words “Mission Accomplished” written on it and told the nation that the big fighting was over.
Hart's body comes back to a country where nearly every element of our culture – TV, magazines, newspapers – pays more attention to Elizabeth Smart and Scott Peterson than to the truly noble among us who have lost their lives in a war that remains largely unexplained.
Now, months after the battle began and Baghdad fell, it is pretty obvious why we went into Iraq and knocked Saddam Hussein from power: Because we wanted to and we could.
Sure, the guy was evil, a walking weapon of mass destruction all by himself. And, no doubt, the United States is responsible for an awful lot of positive things going on in Iraq that we rarely hear or read about.
But you'd have to be kind of a dope or a big-time President Bush suckup to believe that Saddam posed such an imminent threat to our security that if we hadn't taken him off the count in April, his Republican Guard soldiers would have been attacking East Hampton by June.
No, our brave young soldiers went to war because the old men in the Pentagon thought it would be easier to accomplish a quick victory there than it would be to wage a long, hard and much more complex battle against Osama Bin Laden.
It's as if Washington picked a fight it figured could be won because the bigger bout resembled going after the fog. It's like this: Someone comes into your house and kills your entire family, and the murderer leaving both clues and a calling card. The police respond and tell the survivors every effort will be made to bring the killers to justice. But when they can't catch those criminals, they go after a bully down the block who makes the neighborhood constantly miserable with constant threats and an occasional act of arson. And they expect the arrest of a local nuisance will placate people who buried brothers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives. Get Saddam instead of Osama. It's easier.
Maybe the President and those around him, those who apparently leaned on inadequate intelligence reports to begin a war of choice rather than necessity, figured we have such a short national attention span that the cheering heard last spring would erase the tears shed since September 11, 2001. It seems they were wrong.
The war is with us every day. It's in the papers and it's right there in the heart of those American families who have loved ones overseas, as well as with every citizen who might wonder what, exactly, the country's plan is.
The only exit strategy on the horizon is one involving individuals like Hart, dead well before his time. He represents the best America has to offer, and he is gone at age 20.
He will be buried in a shrine called Arlington, a beautiful pocket of land located across the river from the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam wall. He'll rest with thousands of others who gave their lives for this wonderful country where too many simply forget about soldiers just like him.
The headstones that will surround young Hart's final resting place are pages from our history, from the Civil War to Baghdad, with all the bloody stops in between. And in all the places where the brave fell in battle, America had arrived to liberate rather than occupy.
Now, with winter coming and a season of campaigning underway, it feels as if growing numbers are growing increasingly uneasy with what is taking place in Iraq. And even more uncomfortable with the lack of explanation or purpose coming from a White House where dissent is viewed as unpatriotic or partisan.
But politics has no place in Arlington. And the dead don't argue over tactics, strategy or pronouncements that a mission has been accomplished when it obviously has not. They lie together beneath neat and endless rows of white marble markers that tell the world the most important duty any President has – obligation, actually – is to do everything possible to save people just like Hart from dying in vain on a misguided mission designed by ambition rather than necessity. A mission that ends in a cemetery filled only with the sounds of sobbing and a bugler playing taps.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard