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October 4, 2009
Ed gets the names of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan off the Internet, and brings a fresh list in every Sunday. It stays in the chapel all week, so morning and evening prayer officiants have it at hand. May they rest in peace and rise in glory, we always say at the end, a glory that erases the terror of their last moments in our world. Amen to that, we all say. My heart sinks each time the list is read. There was a spike in the numbers for a few weeks recently, up to 15 and 20 from a usual average of 6 or 8. But even one is too many.

And that's just our dead. Other countries lose their young men and women in the armed services, too. Civilians pay with their lives for walking across a street or entering a building. It's getting better, some say. No, it isn't, others answer. My heart sinks further. These are people's children we're talking about. People's parents and brothers and sisters. These are people's husbands and wives. We have one chance to walk for a while under the sun, and these dead have had their one chance stolen from them.

On a day like today, when the sun is bright and the sky impossibly blue, when the leaves have begun their yearly beauty pageant, I wonder at my own good fortune. I have had decades in which to enjoy all this beauty. I have had a chance to know love. I have seen children and grandchildren. I have had a chance to make mistakes and learn from them. Right place, right time, I guess. I think of those denied what I have had. They no more deserved their fate than I have deserved my good luck.

Earn this! a dying captain tells the young soldier for whose life he has sacrificed his own in "Saving Private Ryan." Earn it.

Earn it? How? We can never repay such a gift. You can't pay anyone back for the gift of life --not God, not your parents, not someone who saves your life with his own. You can't pay back. You have to pay forward. Tell me I've been a good man, Ryan begs his wife fifty years later, fifty years in which he lived and loved and laughed and worked and did all the thing people do, while the mortal remains of the men to whom he owed those years lay silent beneath their rows of white crosses on the Normandy coast. You can't pay back a death. All you can do is pay forward a life. And it will not be symmetrical, no eye for eye or tooth for tooth, no balanced scale trembling in the hand of a blindfolded woman. Ours is not a symmetrical world.

Is the Afghan War winnable? Has any Afghan War ever been? I ask myself, and feel the same sinking heart I feel when I pray the names of the fallen. Is any war? "Winnable" maybe, but not paid for, not balanced, not like a scale is balanced. The most just war is still monumentally unjust, overflowing with outrage and monstrously unfair. Nobody can earn his way out of its suffering. And nobody who is spared ever knows the reason why.


Here is the final scene from "Saving Private Ryan."

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