About a year ago I was scuffling around in the dirt out at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona, looking for a grave.
Eventually I found it.
It was one of the newer graves there, but already others had been dug. The ranks of fallen soldiers, some of recent wars and some of long ago, were marching toward the setting sun, new rows of graves, endlessly.
The grave I sought was that of Michael J. Williams, a lance corporal in the Marine Corps. He was killed March 23, 2003, near Nasiriyah, Iraq. At the time he was one of four Arizona residents who had died in the Iraq war.
After I found Williams’ grave I sent a photographer to take a picture of it. The picture appeared in our paper last May 25. We keep our papers here for a year. After May 25, 2004, we won’t have any copies of it. All the pictures of Michael Williams’ grave will have gone in the trash.
Unless we were very close to them, we don’t remember our dead very long. Even the war dead. Their names go up on memorials and they’re stored in various accounts of the battles and such, but after a while they become just names. "The remembrance of them," as Solomon wrote, "has been forgotten."
So Michael Williams lies moldering now while Pat Tillman gets all the ink. Tillman’s name will linger longer than that of Michael Williams because he was famous. He actually became more famous for leaving the NFL than for joining it, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see his posthumous fame extend to the renaming of buildings and stadiums in his honor. No buildings have been renamed for Michael Williams. All he has is a plaque in the dirt.
Only history can decide whether the politicians who put Tillman and Williams and Lori Piestewa and all the others in harm’s way have spent their precious lives wisely. History has a way of rendering many wars pointless after time. Even wars that aren’t pointless can be fought stupidly, squandering lives. The jury is still out as to whether Mr. Bush will look more like Mr. Lincoln or Mr. Johnson when all is said and done.
That doesn’t negate the fact that humans often demonstrate an amazing capacity for self-sacrifice for what they believe. In the end, Tillman sacrificed far more than money.
Others gave up even more. The chance to ever see your kids again — that’s what Elijah Wong lost when he died this year in Iraq. His family in Mesa was reticent but after a few weeks his sister came from New York City — where this whole horrible mess started — to speak in public with unforgettable dignity about the big brother she had lost.
One wonders when all this will end. Not just this war, but all of them. Not just shocks like the loss of Tillman, but all these tears. One wonders when we will see the end of all these graves, marching ever toward the setting sun.