Four Gatherings

The sun had just set on New Year’s day when Adrienne and I decided we needed to take some candles and go downtown. The news had earlier reported that the 3,000th American had died in Iraq on Saturday, 30 December. We knew there had been a frequent, if not daily, vigil from 5-5:30 p.m. in front of the Unitarian Church, at the top of Church Street, near the federal building, ever since – when? The Iraq invasion build-up in 2002? The Afghanistan invasion? We couldn’t remember. We didn’t know if anyone would be out there New Year’s night, but we thought we needed to go. We couldn’t stand beginning the year with passivity.

This was the same churchyard where 400 people gathered for a vigil on the Sunday before the Iraq invasion began in March 2003. We knew then the war could not be prevented, but we gathered to express our opposition.

When Adrienne and I arrived New Year’s night, just at five, people were gathering from every direction, but there were not 400 of us, there were 15. We lit our candles in silence and stood in a line. A few people held signs. The evening air was unseasonably warm. What was left of Saturday’s snowfall had been reduced to dirty slush in the gutter. Standing in silence gave us time to contemplate oil wars and global warming.

About 20 of us had stood on the same spot in September 2004, when the U.S. death toll in Iraq reached 1,000. A Democratic politician, running for governor that year, drove past in a car covered with his campaign’s logo. He waved as he passed. A few people called out, “Join us!” but he kept driving. He lost the election.

Cars passed; some honked horns in support. Passersby at the top of the pedestrian shopping area that is Church Street stopped to look at the vigilers. People still celebrating the new year grew quiet as they noticed us. A few snapped photos with their cell phones.

The Washington Post reported that December 2006 was the deadliest month for Americans in Iraq in over two years, with 111 killed. The Post said the recent deaths are still mostly due to improvised explosive devices, but death by sniper fire is becoming more common.

Over 22,000 Americans have been wounded in Iraq since the invasion almost four years ago. The official death toll from the attacks of September 11, 2001 is 2,996, so December 2006 means we have lost more military personnel in Iraq than we did citizens that day, to say nothing of the 357 Americans who have died in Afghanistan.

In October of 2005, some 60 or 70 Burlingtonians gathered in City Hall Park to commemorate the deaths of 2,000 Americans in Iraq. There were pictures of the vigil in the newspaper the next day; it seemed like Americans had had enough and were turning against the war. No news photographers showed up on New Year’s. The country had long since turned against the war; defiance was turning to despair.

America was 539 days into our occupation of Iraq when we passed the 1,000-death milestone, another 414 days passed before we reached 2,000. Four hundred seventy-nine days after that, we arrived at 30 December 2006 and the 3,000th death, for an average of 1,000 Americans dead every 477.5 days.

It seems cruel to play such number games when the numbers involved are people’s lives and grief spreads exponentially from each death. One man keeping vigil on New Year’s held a sign that read “655,000.” It’s an average of the estimates of Iraqis who have died as a result of the invasion, occupation and civil war since March 2003. He said the high end of the estimates ranges around 880,000.

The Church Street vigil lasted 30 minutes. I wondered if I could count to 3,000 in that window of time – counting to 100 every minute for 30 minutes straight. I decided I could, but that it would be better to concentrate on other things – to send positive thoughts to the families of the dead and those – military and civilian – in Iraq, to pray for peace. Then I thought of my heart. Perhaps, in my half-hour vigil, my heart would beat once for each lost soldier. Then I remembered the average heart beats 72 times a minute, 720 times in 10 minutes, 2,160 times in a half hour.

Literally and figuratively, our hearts cannot keep up.

© Mark Floegel, 2007

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