In today's Los Angeles Times weekly magazine, West, senior writer, Mark Arax, writes about a central valley family who lost a son, a Marine, in Iraq. The feelings of the family, especially the father, about the war and his son's death is played by Arax against the background, as he paints it, of central valley support for the war (and Israel--a subtheme) and the growing "fear" that divides congregations (symbolizing larger communities).
Arax, a liberal who has apparently come to oppose the war, mines the family's grief for nuggets of wisdom that he can use to argue that the war and by implication the deaths accompanying it are pointless. Arax sees entry to the war as the result of lying and political manipulation. The administration's arguments for the war and the military's glorification of slain soldiers has become so much propaganda. He is disillusioned. Gnawing at the soul of the grieving father is the sorrow that his son might have died for nothing. As in Gray's Elegy, for Arax, the peace that comes to the valley is only the peace of the grave.
Arax's theme is ancient: a soldier's death in war is pointless if the campaign is ill-advised or the war is lost or the path to war was mined with politician's lies. Values of honor to country, loyalty to comrades, and sacrifice for an abstract ideal are worthless when the reality is a decent young man or woman cut down in the prime of youth, all their promise chopped up like meat in the spreading shrapnel of the RPG or the ragged blast of the IED.
We might feel the soldier's death is pointless, when in the well of our grief, we cannot imagine walking through another day without the person now taken from us. But eventually the grief will ebb. Eventually we will be able to see that it was not pointless.
So many deaths in everyday life are pointless. The news of them comes as shock, a phone call usually, from someone crying on the other end of the connection or struggling to retain sufficient composure to relay news that he or she knows will devastate its recepient. These pointless deaths haunt us for years. We wonder how lives would have turned out, how many enjoyable adventures we would have had, what children and grandchildren would bring laughter to our lives, what accomplishments would be admired, what small victories would have been gained against the slow decay that presses against us all.
Death in a car accident, when you are just a freshman at UCSD, is pointless. Death at 42 from skin cancer is pointless. Death at 34 from pulmonary cancer, when you and your husband have just decided to have a baby, is pointless. Death at 62 from the rupture of the blood vessels in your spine is pointless. The crushing death of a child when chasing a ball into the street is pointless. Death at 47 from blood clots in the lungs is pointless. The horrifying suffering of Princess Diana on the floor of her car in a tunnel in Paris is pointless. The suffering of a West Virginia woman who slices off her leg when cutting brush with a small chain saw and bleeds to death, while trying to crawl to help, is pointless. The deaths of numberless murder victims, of children and young women tortured or executed by sociopathic killers, the details of which are so horrifying that we cannot bear to describe them for we would faint from empathy for the suffering inflicted, are pointless.
The only point to death is a point you make yourself. You make your death have meaning by giving your life meaning. You give your life meaning by choosing a project to accomplish, or by accepting as your own a project given to you by others or by God. That's it; but that's everything. The young marines who have died in Iraq did not die pointless deaths or meaningless deaths. Overwhelming journalistic testimony and so often their own words point to their high sense of mission, of loyalty to comrades, and choice of destiny.
The deaths of the young Marines who are the subject of Arax's story, as also the deaths of the other men and women soldiers who are fighting in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere for their country, are not pointless. Rather, their deaths by their meaningfulness, obtained through personal decision and dedication, ask us a question. What is the point of our lives? What shall be the point of our deaths?