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Mennonite Weekly Review

Judging War by Death's Tally


Death and its increase on the battlefield have become the most contentious measures of failure or success for the United States in recent years - pointed to by some as further evidence of war gone wrong, or dismissed by others who see no sacrifice as too great for the American cause. Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, varying perceptions of the U.S.-led war on terror have teetered on this quotient of lives lost - as if somewhere in the calculus of human destruction can be found sufficient cause for national shame, or sublime hope for the battles still to be fought. The occupation of Iraq has become especially death-riddled, so there certainly has been no shortage of this volatile fuel.

Nearly as troubling as these fatalities are Americans' responses to them, ranging from stoic disregard to disturbing displays of fist-pumping elation. Two recent cases in point:

* On June 15, it was announced that 2,500 American military personnel had died in Iraq - a total the Pentagon quickly discounted as misleading. It was as if the tally of the dead were merely an artifice of lifeless statistics. On the contrary, this terrible way-point is deeply meaningful. The march of death, for Americans and Iraqis alike, stands as testament not only to the immorality of this war but of war itself. In a war where flag-draped coffins being returned to the United States cannot be photographed, the effort to downplay their growing numbers increases with each tragic milestone attained.

* By contrast, on June 7, came the killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in an American bombing run near Baquba, Iraq. This incident was met with such resounding affirmation from U.S. leaders that questions automatically arose about its actual significance. To some, Zarqawi's death seemed a reassurance that the Iraqi insurgency is destructible after all, and that its leaders cannot hide from superior force. To others, especially some Iraqi civilians, Zarqawi's killing, while welcomed, was seen as another opportunity for the United States to try to justify its presence in their country. Meanwhile, in the streets of embattled cities such as Baghdad and Fallujah, people expressed fear that the daily crush of violence in Iraq would only escalate.

Intriguing, however, was the response of someone who Zarqawi's actions had impacted directly - Michael Berg, the father of slain U.S. businessman Nicholas Berg, who many believe was beheaded in 2004 by Zarqawi himself. Much to the surprise of at least one television interviewer, Berg spoke of neither justice nor joy at the news of

Zarqawi's death. Instead, he spoke of sorrow and mercy.

"I'm sorry whenever any human being dies," Berg told CNN on June 8. "Zarqawi is a human being. He has a family who are reacting just as my family reacted when Nick was killed, and I feel bad for that. I feel doubly bad, though, because . . . his death will re-ignite yet another wave of revenge, and revenge . . . can't end the cycle. As long as

people use violence to combat violence, we will always have violence."

A pacifist since his son's murder, Berg said during a 2005 visit to Bethel College that he wants to forgive all whom he believes contributed to his son's death, including President Bush.

<> Many Americans have begun to ask how much more slaughter and suffering this nation can continue to inflict on its enemies, and how many American lives must be sacrificed to pursue present policies. Instead of rejoicing at the deaths of those who have done evil, or regarding military casualties as meaningless numbers, Americans must come to terms with the grim reality that the war in Iraq is a mistake that will continue to fuel itself on its own inherent cycle of death.

Robert Rhodes is an editor at the Mennonite Weekly Review, based in Newton, Kansas.

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