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An Embedded Prayer

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The outrage and grief push against the edge of language: "A visitor to the village and to three graveyards within its limits on Aug. 31 counted 42 freshly dug graves," writes New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall. "Thirteen of the graves were so small they could hold only children."

Here's my standard for presidential fiber: Give me a candidate who can imagine his or her own child in one of those graves.

George Bush's lack of introspection -- oh, that smirk, symbolizing for eight years now the country I live in -- is a national joke. Yet he allegedly speaks to and for the "faith community," as though faith equals the mindless mouthing of prescribed platitudes. What Bush's toxic reign has taught us is that a president with no inner dimension is a danger almost beyond calculation, considering the destructive power he commands, to his own people and to the world (and the world, of course, well knows this).

Do we know yet that we must move, as a nation, to a new dimension of discourse and understanding, not just politically but in all ways? Do we know yet that there is no security in militarized fear? I would wish, at least, for a president, and a media, who understand this and have the courage (the faith) to stand up to the institutional interests that thrive on such fear.

Without this, we have . . . the war on terror.

I don't know if we can vote it out, but by God I insist that it not remain unexamined: distant background noise we no longer notice even when it generates headlines and mild controversy.

Thus, amid the confetti of the presidential race, a U.S. air strike on the Afghan village of Azizabad, on Aug. 22, which may have killed as many as 90 civilians and as few as zero Taliban. It is the latest cause for outrage in Afghanistan -- from the president of the country to the humblest villager -- against the American occupiers, who have such surpassing indifference to the lives of Afghanis.

The controversy is over how many Afghan civilians actually died in the assault, with the U.S. military insisting the figure was five to seven, along with three dozen or so bad guys, which apparently is an acceptable ratio to the average, unreflective American. Independent observers, including a U.N. investigating team and, seemingly, Times reporter Gall, dispute the military's numbers and cite evidence supporting claims of far larger civilian carnage, along with lack of evidence that the air strike had any tactical justification at all.

To my mind, the controversy -- a discussion of which occupies about half of Gall's 2,600-word story in the Times, which ran on Sept. 7 -- while not without a certain significance in terms of mopping up every last detail of the truth, also serves as a helluva red herring.

"At the battle scene, shell craters dotted the courtyards and shrapnel had gouged holes in the walls," Gall writes. "Rooms had collapsed and mud bricks and torn clothing lay in uneven mounds where people had been digging. In two places blood was splattered on a ceiling and a wall. An old woman pushed forward with a cauldron full of jagged metal bomb fragments. . . .

"The smell of bodies lingered in one compound, causing villagers to start digging with spades. They found the body of a baby, caked in dust, in the corner of a bombed-out room."

I find myself in awe of the determination a journalist has to have simply to convey the war on terror to American readers as it appears outside the managed version (bury the dead, cover your ass) of U.S. military press releases. And much as I admire such reporting -- how much easier to remain embedded within the official context -- I find myself trembling with incredulity as I read it.

The core of this story isn't the controversy: How many children, precisely, did we kill this time around? This is a story of the unspeakable immensity of death. It's the 9/11 story still unfolding, and the only way to tell it is to embed a prayer, a wail of parental grief, deep within the words. Let the controversy come later, after we've joined the villagers, and the world, in mourning.

And the story is also much more than this, of course, since we've been killing civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq for most of the Bush presidency. In July, we bombed another Afghan wedding:

"Oh my God!" (the groom) was now sobbing uncontrollably. " I saw my bride and my family members; I saw the pieces of their bodies scattered all over the place." So writes Iqbal Sapand for Information Clearinghouse, about a July 6 incident in Nangarhar in which 52 people died (45 of them women and children).

This is how we feed the endless war, the one that's been raging for about 6,000 years now. I believe it is the American destiny to end it.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.