12/20/2010 11:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011


By Nicolaus Mills

These days you have you have to be a person of accomplishment to get your obituary featured in the New York Times or any major paper. Otherwise you are relegated to that long list of unimportant dead who get a thumbnail sketch in tiny print on the page opposite the important dead.
I thought of this difference in how we rate the dead while reading novelist Joyce Carol Oates's recent "A Widow's Story," her moving New Yorker account of the last week in the life of her husband, Raymond Smith. In its combination of emotional restraint and loving tenderness, Oates's "A Widow's Story" reminded me of Joan Didion's 2005 memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," an account of the fatal heart attack suffered by her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne.
In "A Widow's Story" Oates offers up a picture of the life she shared with Raymond Smith, who was born in 1930 and who married Oates in 1961, when he was 31 and she was 23. The agony Oates experiences as her husband gets worse and worse after initially being diagnosed with pneumonia provides a window into their long, rich marriage. Thanks to his wife's brilliant prose, the impact of Smith's death is one that even those of us who never knew him can appreciate.
This holiday season such appreciation will not, however, be the case for 99 percent of the American troops who die in Afghanistan. They will get a few moments of silent tribute at the end of various television news shows as their pictures are flashed across the screen, but there will be nothing more, except possible mention in their hometown papers.
War memorial architects in England and America have struggled with this death-in-combat problem for years. In his innovative 1932 Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, the great British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens dealt with this issue by creating a monument at Thiepval, France, in which the names of the 73, 357 men whose bodies were never identified in this epic World War I battle are carved into the memorial's walls.
In America Maya Lin followed Lutyens's example a half-century later, creating in 1982 a V-shaped, black-granite memorial on the Mall in Washington in which the names of the more than 58,000 American who died during the Vietnam War are listed. Two decades later in his 2004 World War II Memorial on the central axis of the Mall, Friedrich St. Florian extended the Lutyens-Lin example with a symbolic field of 4.000 gold-plated stars, roughly one for every 100 American World War II dead.
These are good precedents, but the example they offer still falls short of providing our current war dead with the kind of treatment they would get if they were notables or had a spouse who was a talented writer. Perhaps there is no perfect solution to this dilemma? But there are alternatives. At the very least we might regard every American who falls in battle as a notable.
Were that the case, our major papers would have a reason for assigning a reporter to treat each battle death in Afghanistan as "obit-worthy." For family and friends, there would be value in such coverage. They would have the consolation of knowing their loved one was seen as somebody whose full life mattered to the entire nation. As for the rest of us, there would be a reminder of the price being paid by a relative few for a war that often doesn't even make headlines.

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of Their Last Battle: The Fight for the National World War II Memorial.