This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the United States' invasion of Iraq, and I expect hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters in that now decimated country are mourning, remembering and looking to God for answers. As we are. As some of us are, at least. Washington has been oddly reserved on the subject. Not that it is unusual for our government to be evasive and shirk responsibility for its heinous mistakes, but in the case of a devastating war that characterized nearly half of my lifetime, I had hoped for a bit of humility from the powers that be.
Unfortunately the Iraq War isn't over. Not only is the Iraqi insurgency still going strong and wreaking havoc, but the American veterans returned home from duty are still dying, still suffering, still looking to God for answers. One man will die in the next few months, but unlike so many others his death will not go unnoted. Tomas Young has lived with paralysis for the last nine years after being struck by a sniper bullet on his fifth day of duty in Iraq. He was 24 years old, barely older than I am now. He started experiencing sharp abdominal pains about a year ago, ultimately had his colon removed to mitigate the pain, but found no deliverance from his agony. Thus he decided and recently announced he would be going off life support in late May or June of this year and join the hundreds of thousands of Americans and Iraqis lost to this war.
Before his departure, though, Young had one final message. His letter to former president George W. Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney is a harrowing reminder of the accountability we all have to our gods and guardians and, perhaps most importantly, to one another:
I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness. (Full letter published on Truthdig.com)
It is with a heavy heart that I question whether that day will come. Our narrow understanding of leadership places power, charisma and reserve at the fore, when what is lacking, and what we desperately need, are humility, integrity and real faith. I don't mean the kind of faith that repeats "God bless America" after every speech and imagines that for one instant "God" would love or bless any body over another. But rather show me a leader who has the kind of faith that recognizes love and mercy as the noblest of practices, and who has the courage to lay himself or herself down with open arms and ask for forgiveness.
As of now, I have not heard anyone come right out and call Tomas Young a martyr. But it has seemed to be on tip of more than one journalist's tongue. If a martyr is someone who suffers greatly and continuously, then the characterization is not only apt but inherent to Young's situation. If we define "martyr" more traditionally as one who voluntarily accepts pain and/or death for the sake of a principle, then opinions may vary as to whether the term applies. But that is beside the point. More relevant, and more tragic, is the fact that, at 22 years old when he first enlisted, Young couldn't possibly have voluntarily accepted the fate that awaited him. None of his colleagues in arms, for that matter, could have imagined what was in store for them because none of us knew for certain why we were invading Iraq, nor the horrors that would transpire. If we were a very pious people, then perhaps we would have protested and prevented the war at all costs, regardless of the details. Because there is nothing holy about war, after all. But we are human and flawed, and we will, hopefully, never forget our mistake.
Martyr or not, Tomas Young will die and leave behind the agony of the last nine years. Many other veterans will follow him, both from the Iraq war and from future wars we will undoubtedly witness. Many other civilians, too, will fall as casualties, and our global family will be poorer for the loss. As a person of faith, I mourn for all of them. I feel ashamed for the government I helped elect, which isn't brave enough to acknowledge its mistakes, even when those mistakes last nearly a decade and cost far too many lives. I believe we have a responsibility to one another, as we do to our faiths, to live in love, courage and reverence. I can only hope the leaders of the world will someday come to believe the same.