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A Week in the Life

by Darryl Spencer

April 7,2008

In my family we discussed social and political matters at the dinner table. I studied political science in college, and at a graduate level at Georgetown U., aiming to becoming a diplomat. After three years in Washington, I responded to a1963 invitation JFK had extended on the White House lawn and joined the Peace Corps. No direct ancestor has been in the military since the 18th century.

I began the week of March 17th with foreboding. By Monday one subject preoccupied me – the one I had to write about. Not the recession, Bear Sterns, March Madness, Midwest floods, primaries and delegate counts, sexual practices of governors, expulsion of a NC politician, or prices of gasoline or wheat or milk. It was war. Our war in Iraq.

As usual, I took my concerns to my college classes with Socratic questioning. Tuesday, I asked if any students knew what anniversary would be observed the next day. The lone response: “9/11?” (Arithmetic, they don’t know either.)

Also on Tuesday, Sen. Obama gave a “historic” speech some are calling “the defining speech” in this millennium on race. I was in classes that day so didn’t hear the speech or the evening’s news.

Wednesday—anniversary day: I had no classes.

By Thursday, we neared another marker – the 4,000th American combatant’s death in Iraq. In my first class that day, a speech class, I said I wanted to open with a video of Sen. Obama’s speech – which I hadn’t yet heard. A student said impatiently, “Why are we listening to this speech?” We had short introductory speeches scheduled, and a student asked to give his speech immediately in order to catch a plane home for a family emergency. As he was leaving, I Googled Sen. Obama’s speech and found that it was 23 minutes long. We stuck to our own speech schedule.

Friday: no classes. I fetched the The Charlotte Observer from the driveway and read it in bed. The usual news (as it is) from merely disheartening to very disturbing. I felt like reading so retrieved my book from the night before, Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons, his “autobiography” of his famous British family of authors. In Chapter V, his uncle Alec in 1917 survives Passchendaele, “the muddiest and bloodiest battle in military history,” but in early 1918 (exactly 90 years before I was reading about it) becomes MIA in France. His father receives a letter from Alec’s company commander saying Alec is presumed dead.

Waugh’s family history is written with such detail that I felt – and I was by Friday in a mood to feel – Alec’s death as a personal loss. The narration was so involving that I closed the book and found myself…crying…for lost, 19-year-old Alec Waugh; first softly, then harder, as the week’s accumulated pressures – intimations of war and death – bubbled up. 4,000 Americans and who knows how many Iraqis? 165,000? Two million? And no end in sight. My dog heard my sobs and came to lick my tears. Who, I wondered, is the “predatory animal”?

In September 1917, Alec had published a poem on the horrors of death in war, with graphic descriptions of bodies rotting on battlefields, at first titled “Carrion”; his father pressured him to change it to “Cannon-fodder” (!). The poem, in Chapter V, is more grisly than any more famous work by Brooke, Owen or Sassoon. My own family has known no war losses since our Revolution, in which North Carolina ancestors fought with Nathaniel Greene. During the Civil War, a N.C. relative, Billy Benton, became a conscientious objector when the CSA attempted to conscript him. My grandmother said she could never understand why some family members were ashamed of him. She thought, she told me during the Vietnam War, “No war America has fought has been unavoidable or necessary.” She was unknowingly agreeing with William Appleton Williams, whose The Tragedy of American Diplomacy I read at Georgetown. He raised eyebrows by claiming that every American war (beginning with the Revolution) had been fought for economic reasons.

Friday evening, cataloguing stamp collections for sale, I found WW2-era “Win the War” 3-cent stamps: on a field of imperial purple, surrounded by stars, a bellicose-looking, stylized, V-shaped eagle clutches the fasces…. Why isn’t there an Iraq war stamp?

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