We’ve shared a lot of laughs here at The Last Chance Democracy Café. And we’ll share more in the future. But there are some things that just can’t be made funny.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 27: He Died For Nothing
by Steven C. Day
One thing about being almost 50-years-old, is that death is less of a stranger than it once was. When I was younger, I knew people who died, of course, but it was a trickle back then, with the drops generally separated by the space of years. No more. By this time in life, no year goes by without the passing of at least a few contemporaries, not necessarily people you knew well, but people you did know, or at least knew of in some personal sense.
Middle-aged death often comes suddenly — frequently from a massive heart attack. On Tuesday, Ron’s in the lunchroom, joking, flirting, going on and on about that fishing trip. Wednesday, there’s an empty desk.
Sometimes you go to the funeral. Sometimes you don’t. It can be a tough call. You tell yourself, Yeah, I knew Ron, but not all that well. Besides, the place will be packed. No one will care if I’m there. If you do go, you spend less time than you think you should thinking about the deceased, and more time than you think you should thinking about you. You try to resist — forcing yourself to think about his family, God, how awful for Pam and the kids. But soon your consciousness takes you elsewhere, He was only two years older than I . . . Only two years! I really need to get that annual physical scheduled. Cut down on fatty foods. Maybe buy an exercise bike . . .
As the minister drones on, “We are gathered here today . . . dearly departed . . . ashes to ashes . . . a good family man . . . in the care of God now . . .” you find yourself doing the arithmetic: You count the years gone. You count the likely years ahead. It’s an ugly cipher. You want to tear up the paper, jiggle the figures a little. Restart the clock.
Knowing this isn’t possible, you look for meaning in death — his death, your death. But you can’t find much to put your arms around.
There are, of course, heroic deaths, suffered in service of great ends that can reaffirm our faith in humanity. Like Shannon Wright, a teacher killed on March 24, 1998, while shielding a student with her own body, during a shooting rampage at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
But most deaths are more like Ron’s.
Ron didn’t die well. He didn’t die poorly. He just died.
And when someone dies young, for no particular purpose, and in pursuit of no particular cause, it’s natural that we should ask ourselves, why so great a sacrifice was required. Why did he die? And what did he die for?
And the answer that comes back is, at once, both obvious and crushing:
Nothing. He died for nothing.
And then it strikes you. A pointless and empty death isn’t an aberration: It’s part of the natural order of things.
We book a lot of wakes at The Last Chance Democracy Café. Well, not exactly book. They just sort of happen. It’s become something of a tradition. Any time an old time Democratic politico, or other prominent liberal, kicks the bucket, people start gathering in the lounge at the café. No invitation required. Three, sometimes four, generations of liberal thinkers together under one roof, celebrating a life well spent. Sometimes it’s a sad affair, like when Paul Wellstone was killed. Sometimes it’s almost joyous, as, for example, when Cal Carson, an 84-year-old former state senator, a man who spent his life fighting for worker’s rights, died in his sleep six months ago.
But it was a very different sort of wake we hosted last night.
Chester Lewis was 20-years-old when death rushed in, rudely, and without so much as an introduction. His Humvee was part of a convoy patrolling North of Baghdad. Being part of the army we had, as opposed to the one we wish we had, as Donald Rumsfeld so elegantly put it, the Humvee lacked armor. This meant that when the IED, “Improvised Explosive Device,” went off, it sliced through the vehicle like an ax through Velveeta. Chester didn’t die instantly. His buddies reported that the screaming lasted for at least 15 minutes.
That was three months ago. His parents, John and Elaine, both occasional patrons of the café, dropped out of sight after the funeral. Then a week ago, John called: He wanted to book a wake for Chester; asked if I’d let the gang know. He said he had some things he needed to say, and he wanted to say them here first.
John Lewis is a stocky, balding man, with a largish, friendly face that reminds you just a little of John Goodman. A life insurance salesman by profession, he routinely sports the toothy-good-for-business-smile that’s almost as big a part of that industry’s stock in trade as the “you could die tomorrow” speech.
He wasn’t smiling last night. He wasn’t crying either. He just looked wrung out.
“Thanks for coming,” he said, his voice surprisingly strong — though forced. He was sitting at the large round table with the wise men and Zach, an untouched rum and coke sitting in front of him. At least 60 other people were in the lounge, most there for the wake.
“We wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” muttered Horace. Several others grunted in agreement.
John stared at his drink for a few moments, seemingly preparing himself.
“I’m sure Steve told you,” he said at last, “I have some things I want to say . . . No, some things I need to say . . .”
Tom, misjudging that John had reached a pause, rushed in, “We’re here to listen . . .”
But John pushed on. ” . . . and some people aren’t going to like it . . . what I have to say. Some may even get mad. But I have to say it.”
“Say what you have to say,” said Horace.
The lounge was excruciatingly quiet. Even the hum from the traffic outside seemed muted, as though offering up its own moment of silence.
“The thing is . . . after we learned about Chester, I kept looking for some sort of redemption. Something to give his death meaning. Some way that I could say that the sacrifice meant something. That he didn’t die in vain. I just couldn’t face the possibility it had all just been a waste. It was just too much . . . My whole life was gone. His mother fell completely apart. She quit her job . . . she still spends all day looking through old pictures and sobbing. That’s why she’s not here. There’s no way she could have handled it. I don’t know if she’ll ever get it together again. If we’ll ever have a life again . . .”
Men go to war for different reasons: Patriotic fever, quest for glory, thirst for revenge, hatred for the enemy and, perhaps most commonly, conscripts who simply have no choice.
Chester Lewis went to war because he wanted to teach high school English and Literature. A voracious reader, who loved the classics, he thought he had what it took to pass that love on to a new generation. But a child of the middle class, he had nothing close to the kind of dough needed for college in an era of exploding tuition costs. He saw the advertisements, “Join up and earn money for college.” He did, with the Army Reserves.
Six months later he was in Iraq. And seven months after that he came home in a body bag. John and Elaine received a letter from Donald Rumsfeld, expressing his sympathy and thanking them for their son’s service. The letter wasn’t actually signed. The signature was stamped on, with all the personal touch of a credit card solicitation.
John was sipping his drink now — using it as a crutch, I think. Not to dull the pain, but to buy a few moments to maintain his composure. John isn’t the sort of man who’s comfortable crying in public. Even at the funeral, no tears, not one.
“You know I was against the war,” he said after a long pause, looking straight at Horace. The two men had a common bond now, one none of the rest of us could be part of, thank God, or even fully understand. Both had lost sons to combat in wars that should never have been fought. Vietnam and Iraq — it’s hard to know how far to take the comparison: Historical analogies are dicey, since every era and every war is unique. But there is one thing these two wars unarguably have in common: Wasted blood.
“Yes, I remember you opposed the war,” responded Horace, his voice as soft as cotton candy.
“Right . . . I just could never see how we could justify attacking a country that hadn’t done anything to us. I felt that way even before we found out about all the lies. But then . . .”
Horace nodded in agreement.
” . . . we found out it had all been a fraud. I still can’t believe it. The President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, even Colin Powell, all of them, every God damned one of them, looked us straight in the eyes and lied! Lied about going to war, about killing thousands of people, as though it was no bigger deal then shaving a few strokes off a golf score.”
“And then we reelected the son of a bitch,” said Tom, his voice showing more bitterness than usual. “As though it didn’t matter a bit.”
John took a slow sip of his drink, then put the glass down. He said, “Well, at least it makes me feel a little better knowing that, for whatever difference it made, I did at least try to take a stand against the war before it started. I didn’t let my son go down without a fight. I even went to a few protest rallies, something I would never have imagined myself doing a few years ago.”
“I know. I saw you at one,” said Horace.
John smiled for the first time all evening. “Yeah, I remember. You got yourself arrested . . . along with those two,” he gestured toward Tom and Winston. “I saw them leading you off in handcuffs after the sit in.”
Horace smiled back, “That’s right. You should consider your reputation. You’re consorting with known criminals here.”
“No.” John’s face grew serious again. “I’m consorting with known patriots.”
Chester’s best buddy in Iraq, Mat Brinkly, was sitting to his left in the Humvee when the IED exploded to Chester’s right. Those extra few feet saved Mat’s life, but not his right leg. The surgeon was forced to perform an above the knee amputation. There were other injuries, as well, of course. Unfortunately, as the blast from the IED passed through Chester, it carried hundreds of bits of his flesh with it, embedding them deep inside Mat’s body, leading to months of painful infections — a common problem among soldiers injured in roadside blasts and suicide bombings in Iraq.
During the panic that followed the explosion that killed Chester and maimed Mat, other soldiers in the convoy opened fire randomly at the surrounding buildings. One shell, fired from a M249 SAW, found its way into a home three blocks away, where three-year-old Israa was playing on the floor with a Barbie doll. She died instantly. The doll was one of the thousands sent to Iraq by Girl Scout troops back in America.
John had finally finished his rum and coke, and, without prompting, Molly appeared with another, but he waved her off. “I didn’t come here to get drunk,” he said, thanking her for the thought.
Actually, no one was drinking very much, not even Winston. It just didn’t seem respectful.
“There’s one thing I want to be absolutely clear on,” said John, his face taking on an even more serious posture. “My son died a hero. He died fighting for this country, bravely and with personal honor. And that makes him a hero . . .” His voice trailed off, and for the first time he seemed close to tears.
“Hear. Hear,” said Winston. It wasn’t a cheer. More like a quiet affirmation.
“Damn straight,” agreed Tom.
At least two dozen other voices pitched in with more of the same, a wave of sound rippling out from the large round table and into the rest of the lounge.
“But the thing I’ve finally been forced to accept is the fact he died as a hero . . . and damn it, I’m his father, he did die as a hero . . .”
“No question,” said Horace, in a firm voice. “None at all. No one doubts that. No one. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“. . . Thanks. But the thing I’ve had to face up to . . . and God knows it’s been hard, is that just because he died a hero doesn’t mean his death wasn’t in vain. Heroism isn’t an end in itself. It’s something that sometimes happens along the road to pursuing some other end. And the decision to pursue that other end may be wise . . .”
“Or it may also be foolish,” Horace ended the sentence.
“Exactly. You can waste a hero’s life as easily as anybody else’s.”
John paused. I could tell that he didn’t want to say what came next.
Tom offered him an out, “It’s okay, we already understand . . .”
John cut him off, “No. This is something I have to say. Something America needs to hear. My son . . . my only son, died for nothing. Absolutely nothing. No good whatsoever will come from his death. Only heartache. When they started this war, they as good as took his life, crumpled it up like a piece of paper and threw it in the trash. They killed him for nothing. They killed the grandchildren I’ll never know for nothing. They killed all the knowledge he would have passed on as a teacher for nothing. They killed all the little kindnesses he would have given to others, and all those he would have received in return for nothing. They killed the loves of his life he would have known for nothing. They killed the pride I would have felt as I watched him grow and contribute for nothing. Nothing!
“And you know why they did it? ” He was half shouting now. “You know why? I’ll tell you why! They did it because they thought they were so smart! They thought they were soooo fucking smart! That’s why!”
It would be hard to say which emotion was stronger at Israa’s funeral — agony or anger. The grief on her mother’s face was crushing, reflecting a magnitude of loss surely unimaginable to anyone who’s never lost a young child, let alone lost one in this way. The expressions on the faces of her husband and oldest son were different: Visible grief had been exiled, replaced by a toxic mixture of hatred and rage, primed and ready to explode.
That night, father and son, together with three of the child’s adult uncles, entered into a solemn covenant. She would be avenged. American blood would flow.
Horace had a pained look. I think he wanted badly to help John, to do something to ease his pain, at least a little, but he didn’t know anything to do. None of us knew anything to do.
The best Horace could come up with was to tell John there was no reason he needed to say anything more — no reason to put himself through any more pain.
But just as he had done when Winston had tried the same thing, John waved Horace off. “No, you’re wrong,” he said sharply. “I have to keep talking . . . it has to be said again and again, until everyone sees the truth.” His voice was agitated, almost panicked. “Don’t you understand? That’s the only way the killing will ever stop. You remember how in Vietnam . . . by the time Nixon was elected in 1968, how everybody with even a lick of sense already knew the war was a lost cause?”
“Yeah, I remember,” said Horace, who, of course, lost his own son to that war. Horace’s voice was becoming a little unsteady. “Of course, I remember,” he said.
“I know you do, and I’m sorry to bring it up . . .”
” . . . but we’d already lost more than 30,000 American lives by that time. And neither Nixon, nor Lyndon Johnson before him, had the guts to look the American people in the eyes and say ‘we were wrong. We threw away all of those precious young lives in a losing effort. And we also killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, with nothing to show for it. We’re sorry, but as things worked out, they all died for nothing.’ They couldn’t do it. They wouldn’t do it. So, instead, in a doomed effort to salvage some sort of meaning from all that death, we wasted another 20,000 American lives, and hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese lives . . . more than a million total during the war, in Nixon’s hopeless “Vietnamization” effort.
“Don’t you see?” continued John, almost pleading now. “The same thing’s happening again. Iraq’s a lost cause. And every day, more and more experts . . . outside the Bush administration, of course, are admitting it. Maybe it didn’t have to be that way. Maybe if the arrogant bastards had listened to the generals and put enough troops there up front, it could have been different. I don’t claim to know. But none of that matters anymore. The fact is we blew it. The fact is the vast majority of Iraqis want us out. The fact is the insurgency is growing stronger every day . . .”
“The bombing in the mess hall in Mosul certainly proves that,” said Tom in an angry voice. “We can’t even protect our troops from a suicide bomber in a mess hall on one of our own bases.”
John continued, “But we keep hearing the same things. We have to stay the course, they say. We have to make sure the 1300 plus soldiers we’ve lost so far didn’t die in vain, they say. So we keep sending more soldiers to die. And we keep extending the tours of those already over there. Well, I say enough is enough . . .” John slammed his fist on the table. “God damn it, enough already. Chester is dead and nothing’s going to bring him back and nothing’s going to make it right. And all I want now is for the killing to stop. He died for nothing, all right? I accept it. It’s over. But please, please . . . just don’t kill any more people in a vain attempt to pretend it isn’t so. Chester deserves better than that . . . So do I. And most importantly, so do the troops still over there today.”
Then John stood and walked from the table.
He still wasn’t crying, though — one of the few people in the lounge who wasn’t.
Zach looked shell-shocked.
Horace gave him a pat on the back and said, “I know this is hard. But it’s also good. Political theory, of the type we’re always talking about here at The Last Chance Democracy Café, has its place. But sometimes . . . at least if you really want to understand, you also have to experience issues at the human level. Even if that’s not always fun.”
Zach said that he understood. “But it’s just so unfair,” he added grimly. “It sounds like Chester and I were a lot alike . . . The only difference that matters, really, is that his folks didn’t have the money to help him through college. Mine did. So here I sit, happy and healthy, my whole life ahead of me . . .”
“Yeah, but he’s dead.”
“You’re right. It isn’t fair. But you weren’t the one who did it.”
“I know, it’s just . . .”
“Good. You need to know that. It would be stupid to beat yourself up . . .”
“But still, it’s just so unjust.”
Horace was stroking his short salt and pepper hair. “Of course, it’s unjust,” he said in a thoughtful tone. “Death is unjust. Two beautiful young women graduate from high school. One gets married, has children, gets a good job, retires and dies at 87. The other gets breast cancer two years after graduation and dies an awful death. Do you think the one who lived . . . the lucky one, was somehow more virtuous, more deserving than the one that died?”
“Of course not.
“Good, because some people actually think that way . . . And then there’s Martin Luther King, Jr., a great man, killed at age 39. Lester Maddox, the racist Governor of Georgia, lived to be 87. Hell, I don’t even have to ask you about this one . . . of course that wasn’t just. Death has nothing to do with justice.”
“Are you saying that war is no different?”
Horace frowned. “No, of course not. I’m saying nothing of the sort. War’s completely different. In war, the injustice of death isn’t something fate does to us. It’s something we do to ourselves, and in the process, we make the injustice a thousand-times worse. That’s why you shouldn’t start wars unnecessarily. That’s why you shouldn’t start a war just because a bunch of big-brained neoconservatives think they’re smart enough to remake the world . . .”
“But that’s what happened, right?
“It is. And it’s a sin.”
Zach thought for a few seconds, then said, “No, it’s a crime. And Chester is dead because of it.”
When John eventually returned to the table, the conversation became lighter, more nostalgic. He told us stories about Chester. About how, when he was only five-years-old, he embarrassed his mother, by asking an obese stranger at a restaurant if he was Santa Claus. And about how much Chester loved to read, and how he liked to retell the stories again and again to the rest of the family. And how with every retelling, the story would change a little — gradually becoming less the author’s story, and more Chester’s. How he always looked after his baby sister. And about how much he dreamed of being a teacher.
Just before John left, he passed some pictures of Chester around the lounge — a blond haired kid, with big blue eyes, a rugged chin and the look of intelligence about him. He looked like a young man you would like to know.
Zach asked if he could keep one of the pictures.
This clearly surprised John. “Sure, son,” he said. “But why . . . I mean, why do you want it?”
“Well, I feel like I sort of know him now,” said Zach, “and I want to remember.”
And John started to cry.
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at scday(AT)buzzflash.com.
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001