March 25, 2008
(an essay in the Hartford Courant)

WASHINGTON — The people laugh and call to
one another. They smile into cameras. They make a
mark on mental checklists. Lincoln. Jefferson.
WWII. Vietnam Wall. Check.
It's been hours since the news came from Iraq.
Another milestone in the mathematics of war had
come on Easter, the 4,000th U.S. loss. People saw
it in the headlines or on television.
But it is not here yet, not on the patchy grass lawn
between the spire of the Washington Monument
and the somber steps of Lincoln's tribute, where
we mark the conscience of our conflicts.
There is room here to eulogize the 4,000 and the
more that may follow. But what would the
permanent memory be of the Americans who have
died in Iraq? If the country builds an expression of
stone and steel for its losses in Iraq, how will it
reach out to the millions who will stop to look?
Will it speak sorrows, like the Vietnam Wall, an
unhealing wound in the earth? Will it present
names in cold precision, names that mark pain by
the letter, mourning that can be captured by the
cellphone cameras of the curious?
Will it have forms and faces, like the ghostly patrol
of the Korean conflict, sculpted giants stalking
across the terrain? Will school kids dash across
their path, hardly seeing the silent specters?
Will it have majesty, glories of war set in the kind
of stone masses that mark the World War II
memorial? Will it belie the filth and pain of the
fight, washing itself in a cool fountain like a clean
Maybe it'll have a Humvee, says Robert Smith,
volunteering at one of the booths on the National
Mall that sells military emblems and patches
within home-run distance of the memorials.
Maybe, he suggests, a soldier in battle dress talking
to an Iraqi child who just lost his family. "I don't
know," he says.
But he adds, "For each and every war, there
deserves to be a memorial here."
His booth already sells the accessories of Iraq
military service. But, he said, nobody has been
talking about the 4,000 mark today. There, so close
to memorials for 36,000 or 58,000 or 405,000, it
doesn't seem like a large number, but Smith said, "If
you would ask a mother of a son who got killed,
that would be one too many."
There is room for a memorial among the cherry
blossoms, just emerging in the chilled first days of
spring. Under the flowered limbs, people crisscross
the lawns on their Monday tours. They stop at
these memorials for the wars of the 20th century.
At the Korean War memorial, they find a solitary
wreath. It's from the South Korean ambassador,
Lee Tae Sik. The banner across it says, "The gift of
freedom cannot be repaid, only remembered."
Nearby, a young man in uniform is standing in the
World War II memorial, looking up at the tall
stones. He reads the words about the victory over
German forces in Europe, the victory over his own
He is 1st Lt. Karsten Mertens, a German military
officer on a university trip.
He will be thinking of the 4,000 when he moves
next to the fields of white stones at Arlington
National Cemetery, where many of them lie. "It's a
very hard number," he says. "No one loves peace
more than a soldier does."
When he looks at this memorial, he sees a
patriotism he envies. He would be proud to have
such a grand thing in Germany, he says. He doesn't
seem to resent its celebration of his country's great
defeat. That's history. Our people are friends now,
he says, even if we don't agree on the fight in Iraq.
In three generations more, will the Iraqi ambassador
lay a wreath on that war's memorial? Will an Iraqi
soldier stand, looking, feeling only friendship?
Barbara Parks is in from Las Vegas with her family.
Her father was in World War II, was wounded and
survived. He's not one of the 405,000 lost to that
war, represented here by a wall of gold stars. She
thinks that today's war dead, those who weren't as
lucky as her father, deserve their own piece of the
National Mall.
"It's the least we could do for them."