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Mike Barnicle Headshot

Pennsylvania, and the Anonymous Few Dying Half a World Away

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PHILADELPHIA - I spent a morning last week looking for Francis Xavier Kane on his anniversary even though I knew he was gone, lost all those years ago, exactly 40, when he was killed April 21, 1968 a few miles west of a lethal place called Quang Tri City in a country called Vietnam. He was a proud member of the Marine Corps, 18 years old, one of 646 dead from Philadelphia, when he lost his life in another war ignited by a lie.

Kane grew up in the Torresdale neighborhood, one small section of a sprawling city where many still identify themselves by the Catholic parish their families attended before education, income, social mobility, resentment or apprehension finally pushed them to the suburbs. He went to Father Judge High school. That school -- Father Judge -- had 27 graduates killed in Vietnam, the highest number of casualties suffered by any private or parochial school in the land. Ironically, it is just a few miles from Edison High in North Philly which lost more pupils than any other public high: 66 of them swallowed by a catastrophe that tore the American soul as it floundered toward a flawed finish, each day of each long year claiming more names now stenciled on a crying wall in Washington.

I was thinking of Francis Kane, wondering if his parents, his three brothers and three sisters, his friends, called him Francis? Or Frannie? Was he an altar boy? Did he ever have a girlfriend? Did he like the Eagles? The Phillies? I wondered what he'd have done with his life had he survived? What he'd think about Obama and Clinton and an election where the cost of gas and health care is, predictably and understandably, a bigger issue than the price of war?

Philadelphia is a town where even the sidewalks seem to sweat. It's a place of hard work and ethnic elbowing, a mix of urban stew where homicide bubbles within blocks of places where art and civility flourish and prosper.

The other night at the Sheetmetal Workers Hall here, Congressman Bob Brady, boss of the city's Democratic Committee, stood on a stage surrounded by 14 American flags and introduced a slew of candidates for local office. The issues were clear: judgeships, streetlights, playgrounds, patronage and public safety.

"These are our people that's local, "Brady shouted, pointing to the candidates on stage with him. "All our priorities is local. The primary thing is a family squabble, a brother-sister thing that we're all familiar with but we'll all be together after it's over."

There were maybe 300 people packed into the place because both Clinton and Obama were coming, making separate appearances. There were a dozen TV cameras on a riser at the rear of the hall. There were two open bars, a ton of free food and a group cholesterol count that probably equaled the GNP of Sweden as everyone ate and drank with both hands waiting for the main event.

Senator Clinton arrived first. She appeared tired and spoke quickly, like a substitute teacher afraid of losing the class' attention. She mentioned Iraq briefly, choosing to concentrate on the domestic items that trouble the majority of American families -- because the majority have been spared the constant weight of worrying about a son or daughter fighting in Iraq.

She spoke for ten minutes and left to nice applause. A half hour later, Obama entered and the crowd exploded in wild cheering. He spoke for half an hour, the war a footnote that rarely causes a coffee shop conversation. This, despite the fact that the most important act any president commits is to send our country to war and this president did exactly that and broke the Army while doing it.

But there have been only 201 casualties so far in all of Pennsylvania and merely 15 from Philadelphia. The heartache then is minimal and confined to those families who have kin in the volunteer Army or were assigned to a National Guard unit called for duty that turned out to be a lot more dangerous than filling sand bags along flood ravaged rivers.

Clinton, of course, would rather talk about Monica Lewinsky than her participation in the obscenity that is Iraq, a civil war, a religious war where we are locked in for many months unless we want to watch tribal genocide, a humanitarian disaster, on TV each evening if we depart too soon, too abruptly. But she voted for it because she wanted to and because she had a pollster -- a pollster! -- managing her campaign and combat was merely fodder for triangulation: her national security chops, her toughness, her inevitability. Too few of these dreary, predictable politicians who live in the world's most insecure town - Washington D.C., a large stage built on a sound bite - ever pause to think about what might happen to young men like Francis Xavier Kane.

"I did not know him, " the head of Father Judge High, Father Joe Campellone said. "And to answer your question, have we lost any graduates in Iraq?, thank God, no we have not although we have had quite a few graduates serve there so far."

The school -- Father Judge -- is a three story, tan brick building located at a curve in the road on Solly Avenue across from an athletic field and a series of low, flat-roofed apartment buildings. In front of the school there is a monument to the 27 killed in Vietnam with small American flags planted in a V in the thin, spring grass.

Francis X. Kane. KIA. Sunday, 4-21-1968. His mother, Catherine O'Neill Kane, passed away in January 2002. There was no answer at the door of the home where the Kanes once lived, where young Francis grew up, wanting to be a Marine, only to get his wish and die half a world away while politicians and generals hid the truth about a disaster that changed America forever.

So I spent the day looking for him, wondering about him and thinking about a few others as well; about Gennaro Pellegrini Jr, 31 years old, Francis Straub, 24, John Kulik, 35 and Nathaniel Detample who was only 19 -- all from a National Guard unit out of Philadelphia -- when they died together on the same day -- August 9, 2005 -- killed when a mine exploded in Bayji, Iraq.

Now, maybe you think you did not know any of these brave boys. Maybe you never thought about Francis Kane or any of the others whose days end in the dust of places like Baghdad or Fallujah. But the truth is we do know them. We just don't see them until it is too late and their names and faces are in the local paper, casualties of a war rarely mentioned by public people and fought only by the anonymous few.