Back in Episode 27, we attended the wake for Chester Lewis, a young man killed while on patrol in Iraq. But sometimes it takes more than a wake or a funeral for one to feel at peace with another’s death. Sometimes it’s an issue of justice.
The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 29.1: The Reception Room For Heaven
by Steven C. Day
William Allen White once famously wrote, “Peace without justice is tyranny.” If that’s true, then what should we make of democracy without justice?
Justice was a topic very much on my mind this sad wintry evening at The Last Chance Democracy Café. John Lewis had just left, marking the end of our wake for his son, Chester, killed three months earlier while on patrol in Iraq. John’s departure, in truth, came as something of a relief to the rest of us in the lounge. It had been a rough evening. Gut wrenching, really. But now that was over, and soon we would be returning to the comfort of our own routines.
It’s one of the less attractive, but perhaps most essential, aspects of human nature that our capacity to mourn deeply for those outside of our own immediate circle is generally subject to a strict statute of limitations. If it were otherwise, the accumulated grief of the world would eventually drag us down. So, even as I sat there at the large round table, with Zach and the wise men, feeling enormous sorrow over Chester’s death, I knew the next morning would bring a new agenda. And that far too soon, I would move on to other things. And although I would certainly still think of Chester, and worry about his parents, inevitably, those thoughts were bound to become fewer and fewer as the days went by. It isn’t that I’m unfeeling.
I’m a person. That’s what people do.
But on this evening there in the café, I wasn’t quite ready yet to let go of Chester. Neither, it turned out, was Zack, who also had justice on his mind.
* * *
The lounge had remained almost completely silent since John left. This was less out of respect, I think, than out of weariness. What’s left to say, was my thought; I suspect the others felt the same way. Had the silence continued for another few minutes, the lounge would probably have emptied out. But Zach wasn’t ready for that to happen.
“Why did Chester have to die, Horace?” he asked in a strained voice.
Horace shook his head slowly. “Why does anyone have to . . .”
Zach cut him off. “No, I don’t mean it that way.” Zach’s voice was uncharacteristically strident. “I’m not asking why people in general have to die . . . or even why Chester in particular had to die, as opposed to another soldier. Why did any of the 1,400 plus Americans . . . And how many Iraqis?”
“One study says over 100,000,” offered Tom.
“Why did any of them have to die?”
I felt a twinge of sympathy for Horace, who, being the closest thing we have to a philosopher king, was the one expected to answer. I didn’t see how he could do it. How do you tell a college kid, still full of idealism, that sometimes people, good people like Chester, die for no better reason than because other people decide to spend their lives recklessly. How do you tell a young man that?
Horace stroked his chin, then leaned forward, speaking directly to Zach. “You already know the answer, don’t you?”
Zach stared intently at his beer. “Yeah, I guess I do.”
“Well, then say it.”
“The lies. He died because of the lies, right?”
“Go on,” said Horace.
“You know . . . the lies about weapons of mass destruction and the supposed connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.”
Zach seemed surprised that Horace wanted more, but obliged, by next mentioning Bush’s anger over the alleged Iraqi plot to kill his father as one of the factors that may have contributed in bringing about the war and, with it, Chester’s death.
Zach mentioned the oil.
Zach shrugged. I guess he didn’t know what Horace was digging for.
I’ll confess, I didn’t either.
* * *
Chester Lewis’ suffering, as horrendous as it was, at least ended, once and for all, approximately 15 minutes after the IED, “Improvised Explosive Device,” exploded. John and Elaine, his parents, didn’t get that “break.” Three months have passed since Chester’s death, and the much vaunted healing powers of time still elude them.
John and Elaine have gone about grieving in markedly different ways. John, trying to be the strong one, went back to work at his insurance agency just five days after receiving the news. Elaine, giving herself permission to fall completely apart, did so. Since the funeral she’s only rarely left the house, even skipping tonight’s wake here at the café. It was just too painful for her. Most casual observers believe that John is adjusting well to the loss, while Elaine isn’t.
They’re half right.
The truth is, as John reluctantly admitted before leaving the café, he hasn’t slept much since Chester’s death; his nights are consumed by the thought of those last 15 minutes, his dreams haunted by the recurring image of Chester, his body horribly mutilated, crying out for help, or even just for simple human comfort, and John, a half a world away, unable to provide it.
* * *
This is how Horace responded to Zach’s litany of causes for the war, and, therefore, of Chester’s death. “All those things played a part. Oil was certainly a big part of the motivation for the war. So was Bush’s personal grudge against Saddam Hussein. And the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and bogus al Qaeda connections were the lies they used to sell it. No doubt about that. But none of that is what actually started the war. What started the War in Iraq was a theory.”
“A theory . . .?” Zach sounded incredulous.
“Hear me out.” Horace held up his hand for Zach to stop, a mannerism he often employs when he wants someone to slow down and listen, instead of jumping to a conclusion. “You remember us talking about the neoconservatives before, right?”
“Sure . . . a little.”
“I’ll recap. Neoconservatives are a group of foreign policy experts . . . or let’s say, would-be foreign policy experts, mostly former liberals, who for a number of years have advocated a more aggressive use of America’s military power. In the case of Iraq, they came up with the theory that if the United States were to invade that victory could be achieved at very little cost. They also believed American troops would be welcomed as heroes by ordinary Iraqis . . .”
“They sure got that one wrong,” said Zach.
“They got everything wrong.” Horace shook his head, his expression falling somewhere along the spectrum between sadness and contempt. “They also contended that once the invasion was successfully completed . . . In other words, after the ‘cakewalk,’ as they called it, was over, we would then be able to build a successful and prosperous democracy in Iraq. And they said we could even do it on the cheap, by using Iraq’s oil revenues to fund everything.”
“Strike two,” said Zach.
“Oh, believe me, they’re up to about strike 700 now. But, as their theory went, once this new democratic Iraqi paradise was born, it would act as a beacon to the rest of the people of the Middle East to throw off their dictatorships. And soon, with a little nudge from America . . . a few more wars of liberation here, a couple covert operations there, and a new democratic Middle East would be born.”
“What a load of crap,” Winston jumped in.
“And on the basis of this,” Horace continued, his voice growing angrier, “a totally unproven theory, they sent some of America’s finest young people, Chester included, to die in Iraq. God, what arrogance!”
Horace paused to sip his beer, attempting, I’m sure, to calm himself. Then he concluded his thought.
“Why did Chester have to die, you ask? He died for a theory, that’s what, a fucking dead between the ears theory!”
* * *
Elaine Lewis is a preschool special education teacher — a damn fine one, from what I hear. One of her students during the last two school years has been an autistic boy, named Jacob. At the time he was placed in Elaine’s class, Jacob was very low functioning, barely verbal, either unable or unwilling to participate in group activities and falling further and further behind on the developmental charts.
Then a minor miracle happened, the kind that keep special education teachers coming back to class despite rotten pay, increasing class sizes and declining resources. Something clicked between Elaine and Jacob. And with remarkable speed, Jacob started to blossom. He became much more verbal. He started playing with the other children, and his assessments, while still far from age appropriate, began shooting up. To his parents, possibilities for his future, basic things most of us take for granted for our kids, like the possibly he might be able to hold a job and live somewhat independently some day, suddenly came into play.
But then Chester was killed and Elaine, devastated, took an immediate leave of absence.
Autistic kids thrive on routine and familiarity and recoil against disruption and sudden change. Having Elaine, one of the three most important people in his life, suddenly disappear, without any opportunity to prepare him before hand, was too much for Jacob. He started regressing. Soon it was almost as though the last year and a half had never happened, as he crawled back inside himself. His mother called Elaine, asking if she could just drop by the school to see him; the child psychologist thought it might help. Elaine promised to try.
Three times now she’s started out for the school, but turned back. John told us she was planning to try again the next day. I’m betting she made it.
Jacob’s name will never appear on any list of the casualties from the Iraq War. But he’s a victim of that conflict just as surely as Chester, John and Elaine are, and so are thousands upon thousands of other people who suffer, each in their own way, far removed from the television cameras.
* * *
“So, do you think there will ever be any kind of justice for what’s happened to kids like Chester in Iraq?” Zach asked Horace. There was a plaintive quality to his voice.
For a few moments, Horace tapped the table top with his long callused fingers; calluses earned through decades of loading and unloading heavy hauls. He seemed distracted. “Tom, why don’t you take this one?” he said quietly.
I didn’t make much of it at the time, but later it would occur to me that this was the first time Horace had ever declined to personally answer a question from Zach.
“I guess that depends on what you mean by justice,” Tom began slowly. “If you’re asking whether Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest will ever be forced to answer for their conduct in a court of law, either here or before some international body, no, that’s not going to happen. No chance.”
Winston jumped in, “Hell, I’d settle for a little political justice . . . an ounce or two of democratic accountability.”
Grunts of agreement echoed from several points in the lounge.
“I know,” said Tom soberly, “in some ways the sense of injustice is the hardest part. Bush tells one lie after another in order to drag us into a war where thousands of people die unnecessarily and hundreds of billions of dollars . . . money desperately needed for other things, is thrown away. Then once he gets his war, his little boat to play with in the bathtub, he blunders every step of the way in carrying it out . . .”
“Like not sending in enough troops to control the country after the invasion, even though our own generals had warned him that more would be needed,” said Marvin, speaking up for the first time from his usual perch at the bar.
“And failing to plan ahead to prevent all the looting that happened after Baghdad fell,” I threw in.
Winston huffed, “Hell, they didn’t plan ahead for anything in Iraq . . . anything, that is, other than what floral arrangements they’d create from all the flowers the Iraqis would be throwing at our troops.”
“They deliberately antagonized the rest of the world, making it certain that no nation, other than Britain, would offer us any real help during the occupation,” said Zach.
“And then, of course, there’s that small matter of allowing . . . no, encouraging the use of torture,” growled Winston.
Then something happened that had never happened before. Horace exploded.
* * *
Three-year-old Israa never knew that it was a shell fired from a M249 SAW, which found its way into her home three blocks from where Chester Lewis lay dying. She also never knew that the other soldiers in Chester’s convoy, having been panicked by the explosion of the IED, opened fire randomly. And even if she had known, it wouldn’t have meant much to her. She was still too young to understand that in war one doesn’t have to be a target to be a victim.
Israa understood simpler things — things like the absolute terror she felt at the frequent sound of gunfire and explosions. It had been that way since that night, back when she was only a year-and-a-half old, when the explosions seemed to go on forever, one after another after another, often shaking her house to the point she thought it would collapse.
She never knew, and now never will know, that people she had never met, and now never will meet, had given the explosions a name: They called them “Shock and Awe.” And she never knew, and now never will know, that far away, in a very different sort of a world, people had gathered around their television sets, some eating popcorn and other snacks, watching the bombs explode, saying things like, “Wow,” “Look at that one” and “Did you see that one,” almost like they were watching a fireworks display.
* * *
Horace slammed his fist on the table and shouted, “Enough! That’s enough, God damn it! Just shut up, okay?! Just shut the fuck up!”
Molly, passing by on her way to deliver a round of drinks, dropped her platter, sending it crashing to the floor. She just stood there, her month wide open, looking stunned. Everyone looked stunned. Horace is the one who talks the rest of us down from the ledges. He’s our rock, the ultimate father figure at a table full of father figures.
And there he was ranting like a wild man.
“I just don’t want to talk about it anymore!” He was still shouting. “I don’t want to spend another hour retreading, one more time, everything these morons have done wrong in Iraq . . .”
“It would take a hell of a lot longer than an hour,” quipped Winston.
Just why Winston thought this was a good time for a quip, is a bit of a mystery. He was mistaken.
“God damn it, do you think this is some kind of a joke?!” roared Horace. “You think it’s funny? People are dying, God damn it! They’re dying for nothing! For God damn nothing! Just like my son Lester died in Vietnam, for nothing! This time it’s Chester’s turn! Tomorrow it will be someone else’s son or daughter! But, hey, who gives a shit, Right?! It’s mostly just poor and middle class kids, right?! Kids like Chester, the nobody kid of two nobody parents! So who cares?! I mean, that’s why they call them cannon fodder, right?! So if you think it’s something to laugh about, Winston, well, as far as I’m concerned you can go straight to . . .”
Then, as suddenly as the outburst started, it stopped. Breaking off in mid-sentence, Horace buried his head in his hands.
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 [email protected]
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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