Hideous monotony of death


In his last column published after his death, the famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, anticipating the end of World War II, wrote about being overwhelmed by the hideous monotony of death he had witnessed from North Africa to Okinawa. The bodies, he said, seemed stacked one on another over the years of slaughter.

I thought about this the other day as I read the daily accounts of more murder and mayhem in Iraq _ dozens dead in yet another mindless bombing of innocent civilians whose particular brand of the Islamic faith apparently was offensive to those who practice a different variety of the same religion, Sunni vs. Shiite. Please don’t ask me the difference. Like most non-Muslim Americans, I wouldn’t have a clue.

But then I had the same lack of understanding a few years ago when the Catholic and Protestant forces in Northern Ireland _ both presumably Christian _ were doing the same thing to one another. Finally, the "Troubles" there seemed to have waned, pushed along by a growing revulsion over the meaningless blood spilled in the streets of Belfast that even the most ardent supporters of either cause could no longer stomach. It has taken a long time, however, to reach even the current uneasy accommodation.

Whether or not a similar detente between the minority Sunnis and the majority Shiites could be hoped for anytime soon may depend on the strength of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which until recently had not faced the kind of sectarian violence that plagued the previous government. Al-Maliki had sought to stave off the high-fatality bombings through a combination of force and conciliation. But the success of that policy was placed in doubt recently by a truck bomb that exploded in a Shiite market, killing more than 60 people and injuring 100. Sunni insurgents were blamed.

How long it takes for the death and destruction to end also may depend on when the nation’s innocent citizens in both groups reach a point where they can no longer accept the carnage and begin to reject the insanity of the radicals of their faith. From the enthusiastic turnout of voters in the last election, one would surmise that an accommodation between the sects might come sooner than later. But the sectarian violence, according to the Brookings Institute and press accounts, has reached its highest point in the war.

Sectarian killings, according to reports, have averaged more than 1,000 a month in Baghdad since February. Much of the violence reportedly has been blamed on Shiite militia with ties to al-Maliki’s government.

All this, of course, does not bode well for the success of the American goal of democratization nor for building the government police and military forces to a point that large numbers of U.S. troops can be relieved. It seems clear that without a strong coalition presence there is no assurance that the current government could last. But it also seems obvious that without U.S. withdrawal, the insurgent violence, sectarian and otherwise, will continue indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden in one of his periodic diatribes calling for continuing worldwide mayhem unsurprisingly urges insurgents in Iraq to forego any participation in negotiations with the elected Baghdad government. Well, so much for al-Maliki’s controversial attempt to draw insurgents into talks by proposing amnesty to certain groups under certain conditions. But the troglodyte cave dweller bin Laden would have no part of that. Peace, after all, would end his tyranny. He ordered al Qaeda followers not to have dealings with the "crusaders and apostates." How much better the world would be if someone could just end the life of this godless monster.

So the daily reports of carnage are likely to continue monotonously, to quote Pyle, while mainly faceless fanatics claim the lives of more and more of their fellow Muslims, further stigmatizing their religion as one seemingly based in part at least on violence. Paradise to many appears to come with a truckload of explosives and the prospect of an afterlife of plenty. It would be easy to blame this on the American infidels, the "crusaders," if there were any indication that Americans had any religious motives, which there isn’t. So this is a flimsy excuse propounded by certain "holy" men in convincing poor susceptible children of the nobility of sacrificing their lives.

It would be irresponsible, I suppose, to suggest that the lives of American soldiers are too important to risk or corrupt under such circumstances. If those they were sent to help want to kill each other, maybe we should let them. How long before the monotonous horror of it all becomes too much for us.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)