http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2007/11/hitchens200711?printable=true¤tPage=all A Death in the Family Having volunteered for Iraq, Mark Daily was killed in January by an I.E.D. Dismayed to learn that his pro-war articles helped persuade Daily to enlist, the author measures his words against a family's grief and a young man's sacrifice. by Christopher Hitchens November 2007 I was having an oppressively normal morning a few months ago, flicking through the banality of quotidian e-mail traffic, when I idly clicked on a message from a friend headed "Seen This?" The attached item turned out to be a very well-written story by Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described the death, in Mosul, Iraq, of a young soldier from Irvine, California, named Mark Jennings Daily, and the unusual degree of emotion that his community was undergoing as a consequence. The emotion derived from a very moving statement that the boy had left behind, stating his reasons for having become a volunteer and bravely facing the prospect that his words might have to be read posthumously. In a way, the story was almost too perfect: this handsome lad had been born on the Fourth of July, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a U.C.L.A. honors graduate, and during his college days had fairly decided reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on, and actually printed the story out, and was turning a page when I saw the following: "Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him " I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.? Over-dramatizing myself a bit in the angst of the moment, I found I was thinking of William Butler Yeats, who was chilled to discover that the Irish rebels of 1916 had gone to their deaths quoting his play Cathleen ni Houlihan. He tried to cope with the disturbing idea in his poem "Man and the Echo": Did that play of mine send out Certain men the English shot? Could my spoken words have checked That whereby a house lay wrecked? Abruptly dismissing any comparison between myself and one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, I feverishly clicked on all the links from the article and found myself on Lieutenant Daily's MySpace site, where his statement "Why I Joined" was posted. The site also immediately kicked into a skirling noise of Irish revolutionary pugnacity: a song from the Dropkick Murphys album Warrior's Code. And there, at the top of the page, was a link to a passage from one of my articles, in which I poured scorn on those who were neutral about the battle for Iraq I don't remember ever feeling, in every allowable sense of the word, quite so hollow. I writhed around in my chair for a bit and decided that I ought to call Ms. Watanabe, who could not have been nicer. She anticipated the question I was too tongue-tied to ask: Would the Daily familythose whose "house lay wrecked"be contactable? "They'd actually like to hear from you." She kindly gave me the e-mail address and the home number. I don't intend to make a parade of my own feelings here, but I expect you will believe me when I tell you that I e-mailed first. For one thing, I didn't want to choose a bad time to ring. For another, and as I wrote to his parents, I was quite prepared for them to resent me. So let me introduce you to one of the most generous and decent families in the United States, and allow me to tell you something of their experience. Second Lieutenant Mark Daily flanked by his wife, Janet, and his parents, Linda and John, at Fort Bliss, in Texas, October 30, 2006. In the midst of their own grief, to begin with, they took the trouble to try to make me feel better. I wasn't to worry about any "guilt or responsibility": their son had signed up with his eyes wide open and had "assured us that if he knew the possible outcome might be this, he would still go rather than have the option of living to age 50 and never having served his country. Trust us when we tell you that he was quite convincing and persuasive on this point, so that by the end of the conversation we were practically packing his bags and waving him off." This made me relax fractionally, but then they went on to write: "Prior to his deployment he told us he was going to try to contact you from Iraq. He had the idea of being a correspondent from the front-lines through you, and wanted to get your opinion about his journalistic potential. He told us that he had tried to contact you from either Kuwait or Iraq. He thought maybe his e-mail had not reached you " That was a gash in my hide all right: I think of all the junk e-mail I read every day, and then reflect that his precious one never got to me. Lieutenant Daily crossed from Kuwait to Iraq in November 2006, where he would be deployed with the "C," or "Comanche," Company of the Second Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry RegimentGeneral Custer's old outfitin Mosul. On the 15th of January last, he was on patrol and noticed that the Humvee in front of him was not properly "up-armored" against I.E.D.'s. He insisted on changing places and taking a lead position in his own Humvee, and was shortly afterward hit by an enormous buried mine that packed a charge of some 1,500 pounds of high explosive. Yes, that's right. He, and the three other American soldiers and Iraqi interpreter who perished with him, went to war with the army we had. It's some consolation to John and Linda Daily, and to Mark's brother and two sisters, and to his widow (who had been married to him for just 18 months) to know that he couldn't have felt anything. Yet what, and how, should we feel? People are not on their oath when speaking of the dead, but I have now talked to a good number of those who knew Mark Daily or were related to him, and it's clear that the country lost an exceptional young citizen, whom I shall always wish I had had the chance to meet. He seems to have passed every test of young manhood, and to have been admired and loved and respected by old and young, male and female, family and friends. He could have had any career path he liked (and won a George C. Marshall Award that led to an offer to teach at West Point). Why are we robbed of his contribution? As we got to know one another better, I sent the Daily family a moving statement made by the mother of Michael Kelly, my good friend and the editor-at-large of The Atlantic Monthly, who was killed near the Baghdad airport while embedded during the invasion of 2003. Marguerite Kelly was highly stoic about her son's death, but I now think I committed an error of taste in showing this to the Dailys, who very gently responded that Michael had lived long enough to write books, have a career, become a father, and in general make his mark, while their son didn't live long enough to enjoy any of these opportunities. If you have tears, prepare to shed them now In his brilliant book What Is History?, Professor E. H. Carr asked about ultimate causation. Take the case of a man who drinks a bit too much, gets behind the wheel of a car with defective brakes, drives it round a blind corner, and hits another man, who is crossing the road to buy cigarettes. Who is the one responsible? The man who had one drink too many, the lax inspector of brakes, the local authorities who didn't straighten out a dangerous bend, or the smoker who chose to dash across the road to satisfy his bad habit? So, was Mark Daily killed by the Ba'thist and bin Ladenist riffraff who place bombs where they will do the most harm? Or by the Rumsfeld doctrine, which sent American soldiers to Iraq in insufficient numbers and with inadequate equipment? Or by the Bush administration, which thought Iraq would be easily pacified? Or by the previous Bush administration, which left Saddam Hussein in power in 1991 and fatally postponed the time of reckoning? These grand, overarching questions cannot obscure, at least for me, the plain fact that Mark Daily felt himself to be morally committed. I discovered this in his life story and in his surviving writings. Again, not to romanticize him overmuch, but this is the boy who would not let others be bullied in school, who stuck up for his younger siblings, who was briefly a vegetarian and Green Party member because he couldn't stand cruelty to animals or to the environment, a student who loudly defended Native American rights and who challenged a MySpace neo-Nazi in an online debate in which the swastika-displaying antagonist finally admitted that he needed to rethink things. If I give the impression of a slight nerd here I do an injustice. Everything that Mark wrote was imbued with a great spirit of humor and tough-mindedness. Here's an excerpt from his "Why I Joined" statement: Anyone who knew me before I joined knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience then consider me the exception (though there are countless like me). Consider that there are 19 year old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics. And here's something from one of his last letters home: I was having a conversation with a Kurdish man in the city of Dahok (by myself and completely safe) discussing whether or not the insurgents could be viewed as "freedom fighters" or "misguided anti-capitalists." Shaking his head as I attempted to articulate what can only be described as pathetic apologetics, he cut me off and said "the difference between insurgents and American soldiers is that they get paid to take lifeto murder, and you get paid to save lives." He looked at me in such a way that made me feel like he was looking through me, into all the moral insecurity that living in a free nation will instill in you. He "oversimplified" the issue, or at least that is what college professors would accuse him of doing. In his other e-mails and letters home, which the Daily family very kindly showed me, he asked for extra "care packages" to share with local Iraqis, and said, "I'm not sure if Irvine has a sister-city, but I am going to personally contact the mayor and ask him to extend his hand to Dahok, which has been more than hospitable to this native-son." (I was wrenched yet again to discover that he had got this touching idea from an old article of mine, which had made a proposal for city-twinning that went nowhere.) In the last analysis, it was quite clear, Mark had made up his mind that the United States was a force for good in the world, and that it had a duty to the freedom of others. A video clip of which he was very proud has him being "crowned" by a circle of smiling Iraqi officers. I have a photograph of him, standing bareheaded and contentedly smoking a cigar, on a rooftop in Mosul. He doesn't look like an occupier at all. He looks like a staunch friend and defender. On the photograph is written "We carry a new world in our hearts." Two weeks before he was killed in action, last January, Mark Daily relaxed on the rooftop of Combat Operating Base "Resolve," in Mosul. In his last handwritten letter home, posted on the last day of 2006, Mark modestly told his father that he'd been chosen to lead a combat platoon after a grenade attack had killed one of its soldiers and left its leader too shaken to carry on. He had apparently sounded steady enough on the radio on earlier missions for him to be given a leadership position after only a short time "in country." As he put it: "I am now happily doing what I was trained to do, and am fulfilling an obligation that has swelled inside me for years. I am deep in my element and I am euphoric." He had no doubts at all about the value of his mission, and was the sort of natural soldier who makes the difference in any war. At the first chance I got, I invited his family for lunch in California. We ended up spending the entire day together. As soon as they arrived, I knew I had been wrong to be so nervous. They looked too good to be true: like a poster for the American way. John Daily is an aerospace project manager, and his wife, Linda, is an audiologist. Their older daughter, Christine, eagerly awaiting her wedding, is a high-school biology teacher, and the younger sister, Nicole, is in high school. Their son Eric is a bright junior at Berkeley with a very winning and ironic grin. And there was Mark's widow, an agonizingly beautiful girl named Snejana ("Janet") Hristova, the daughter of political refugees from Bulgaria. Her first name can mean "snowflake," and this was his name for her in the letters of fierce tenderness that he sent her from Iraq. These, with your permission, I will not share, except this: One thing I have learned about myself since I've been out here is that everything I professed to you about what I want for the world and what I am willing to do to achieve it was true. My desire to "save the world" is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you. If that is all she has left, I hope you will agree that it isn't nothing. I had already guessed that this was no gung-ho Orange County Republican clan. It was pretty clear that they could have done without the war, and would have been happier if their son had not gone anywhere near Iraq. (Mr. Daily told me that as a young man he had wondered about going to Canada if the Vietnam draft ever caught up with him.) But they had been amazed by the warmth of their neighbors' response, and by the solidarity of his former brothers-in-arms1,600 people had turned out for Mark's memorial service in Irvine. A sergeant's wife had written a letter to Linda and posted it on Janet's MySpace site on Mother's Day, to tell her that her husband had been in the vehicle with which Mark had insisted on changing places. She had seven children who would have lost their father if it had gone the other way, and she felt both awfully guilty and humbly grateful that her husband had been spared by Mark's heroism. Imagine yourself in that position, if you can, and you will perhaps get a hint of the world in which the Dailys now live: a world that alternates very sharply and steeply between grief and pride. On a drive to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and again shortly before shipping out from Fort Bliss, Texas, Mark had told his father that he had three wishes in the event of his death. He wanted bagpipes played at the service, and an Irish wake to follow it. And he wanted to be cremated, with the ashes strewn on the beach at Neskowin, Oregon, the setting for his happiest memories of boyhood vacations. The first two of these conditions had already been fulfilled. The Dailys rather overwhelmed me by asking if I would join them for the third one. So it was that in August I found myself on the dunes by an especially lovely and remote stretch of the Oregon coastline. The extended family was there, including both sets of grandparents, plus some college friends of Mark's and his best comrade from the army, an impressive South Dakotan named Matt Gross. As the sun began to sink on a day that had been devoted to reminiscence and moderate drinking, we took up the tattered Stars and Stripes that had flown outside the family home since Mark's deployment and walked to his favorite spot to plant it. Everyone was supposed to say something, but when John Daily took the first scoop from the urn and spread the ashes on the breeze, there was something so unutterably final in the gesture that tears seemed as natural as breathing and I wasn't at all sure that I could go through with it. My idea had been to quote from the last scene of Macbeth, which is the only passage I know that can hope to rise to such an occasion. The tyrant and usurper has been killed, but Ross has to tell old Siward that his boy has perished in the struggle: Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier's debt; He only lived but till he was a man; The which no sooner had his prowess confirm'd In the unshrinking station where he fought, But like a man he died. This being Shakespeare, the truly emotional and understated moment follows a beat or two later, when Ross adds: Your cause of sorrow Must not be measured by his worth, for then It hath no end. I became a trifle choked up after that, but everybody else also managed to speak, often reading poems of their own composition, and as the day ebbed in a blaze of glory over the ocean, I thought, Well, here we are to perform the last honors for a warrior and hero, and there are no hysterical ululations, no shrieks for revenge, no insults hurled at the enemy, no firing into the air or bogus hysterics. Instead, an honest, brave, modest family is doing its private best. I hope no fanatical fool could ever mistake this for weakness. It is, instead, a very particular kind of strength. If America can spontaneously produce young men like Mark, and occasions like this one, it has a real homeland security instead of a bureaucratic one. To borrow some words of George Orwell's when he first saw revolutionary Barcelona, "I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for." I mention Orwell for a reason, because Mark Daily wasn't yet finished with sending me messages from beyond the grave. He took a pile of books with him to Iraq, which included Thomas Paine's The Crisis; War and Peace; Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (well, nobody's perfect); Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time; John McCain's Why Courage Matters; and George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984. And a family friend of the Dailys', noticing my own book on Orwell on their shelf, had told them that his own father, Harry David Milton, was "the American" mentioned in Homage to Catalonia, who had rushed to Orwell's side after he had been shot in the throat by a Fascist sniper. This seemed to verge on the eerie. Orwell thought that the Spanish Civil War was a just war, but he also came to understand that it was a dirty war, where a decent cause was hijacked by goons and thugs, and where betrayal and squalor negated the courage and sacrifice of those who fought on principle. As one who used to advocate strongly for the liberation of Iraq (perhaps more strongly than I knew), I have grown coarsened and sickened by the degeneration of the struggle: by the sordid news of corruption and brutality (Mark Daily told his father how dismayed he was by the failure of leadership at Abu Ghraib) and by the paltry politicians in Washington and Baghdad who squabble for precedence while lifeblood is spent and spilled by young people whose boots they are not fit to clean. It upsets and angers me more than I can safely say, when I reread Mark's letters and poems and see thatas of course he wouldhe was magically able to find the noble element in all this, and take more comfort and inspiration from a few plain sentences uttered by a Kurdish man than from all the vapid speeches ever given. Orwell had the same experience when encountering a young volunteer in Barcelona, and realizing with a mixture of sadness and shock that for this kid all the tired old slogans about liberty and justice were actually real. He cursed his own cynicism and disillusionment when he wrote: For the fly-blown words that make me spew Still in his ears were holy, And he was born knowing what I had learned Out of books and slowly. However, after a few more verses about the lying and cruelty and stupidity that accompany war, he was still able to do justice to the young man: But the thing I saw in your face No power can disinherit: No bomb that ever burst Shatters the crystal spirit. May it be so, then, and may death be not proud to have taken Mark Daily, whom I never knew but whom you now know, andI hopemiss.