If Love Could Have Saved Him He Would Not Have Died

07/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Paul Fussell's classic meditation on World War One, The Great War and Modern Memory, he tells of how the British Government convened the great writers of that age to come up with words to give solace to the relatives of the hundreds of thousands killed amid the carnage of the Western Front.

They did.

On tombstones in British cemeteries all over France and Belgium you can find:

"'If love could have saved him he would not have died"

A friend of mine, Terry Barnich, was killed recently in Iraq. At a gathering of his relatives and friends there were tables set up that outlined a particularly interesting life. One table covered with photos and honors from his selfless service in Iraq, another with letters, signed photographs, and documents from his public service with the Thompson Administration, and finally one from the family: a collection that caught your heart, any heart. A computer screen with a loop of family photos: the baby, the little boy, the teenager, young college student, aspiring lawyer. Family photos capturing the delirious happiness of summer baseball, Christmas after Christmas, birthdays, and 1960s America.

Love didn't save him. Love, alas, couldn't. Perhaps, it can't.

Love can grant immortality though. And, Terry lived again that night, and lives as I write this, in memory, and as an example, and as a life to be emulated if we had but half of his ability or courage.

If you didn't know him know this: Terry was a handsome, athletic, adventurous, former chief counsel to a governor, former head of the Illinois Commerce Commission, lately having run a gubernatorial campaign, successful business man, a wonderful human being. Despite leading such a life, or because of it, he decided to volunteer, to toss it all aside, for the greater good. He made a decision to engage personally in one of the most controversial, dangerous, and critical issues of the day.

Terry volunteered to serve his country. He went to Iraq. Not as a soldier, but as part of the State Department, to help Iraq become a successful democracy.

That kind of life.

I saw him last at the annual Winston and Strawn Christmas Party. Always held at the Drake, always crowded with pundits and politicians, movers and shakers, judges, prosecutors, and former Thompson-ites. The mix of personalities and the sotto voce conversations create one of those Chicago events that should be part of a novel or screenplay.

I forced my way through the crowd to catch up on the past year. We talked mostly about his experiences in Iraq. Another friend of mine was the United Nations representative in Baghdad. Terry knew and liked him.

We talked and it was clear that he felt strongly that he was doing good. He was part of an enormous effort to make a country a democracy. He was contemptuous of the media template that colored most opinions of the war, and, concerned that those opinions would harm the attempt to build a peace following such a bitter, bloody, internecine conflict. He was passionate about Iraq but at the same time serene. As if the dust and dirt and danger and frustrations of the attempt to do the big things that he worked on in Iraq had created such satisfaction that he literally glowed with a sense of accomplishment and realization that one man can make a difference.

I almost felt like he wanted to shake me and the entire room and say, what are you all worried about? A recession? IRAs losing value? Keeping the car another year or two because of budgets? It's all piffle.

We're America. We can do this. We can do anything if we decide to do. Go to the moon, defeat Nazism, defeat communism, defeat terrorism, put an African-American in the White House, have two consecutive female Secretaries of State...we live in a great time, a time of great challenges and accomplishment. I made a decision to get involved...if I did, you can too.

To make a difference, you have to decide to make a difference, he said to me.

He was that kind of guy.

After the gathering last week, after meeting his family and talking to mutual acquaintances, exchanging stories and sharing our disbelief at his death, I walked out into a beautiful Chicago evening. Hundreds of people on the streets, none knowing or caring about the life we had just celebrated. American flags flying here and there, the Wrigley Building as improbable as ever, caught in golden sunlight, the Trib Tower in its gothic magnificence, and Terry Barnich gone.

But, not then, and not now, forgotten.