Garbage collector, septic tank cleaner, janitor – the most necessary jobs are often the least glamorous. Some jobs, however, are not only unglamorous; they are completely unnecessary. Marine Colonel Steve Beck has the most unnecessary job in the world. He is a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer. He is the one who comes knocking with a message that no military family wants to hear.
Colonel Beck’s story is told in a just-released book by journalist Jim Sheeler. Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives (Penguin Press, 2008) is a continuation of Sheeler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News series written about his experiences in following Beck over the course of a year on his visits to the families of fallen Marines. Sheeler was recently interviewed about his book on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Beck learned each dead Marine’s name and nickname. He embraced their grieving mothers. He attended the funerals. He shed his own tears when he returned to his family. All after unintentionally serving as the death angel. According to Beck, the families always know why he pays them a visit: "The curtains pull away. They come to the door. And they know. They always know."
This is a sad and depressing book. Not just because of the pain it records that was experienced by the wives, parents, and children of dead Marines, but because their pain was so unnecessary.
There is absolutely no reason why Steve Beck or anyone else in the military should have to notify the next of kin of a dead soldier that their loved one was killed fighting in Iraq. No American soldier had any business setting foot in Iraq, harming an Iraqi, dropping bombs on Iraq, or supporting in any way the troops that invaded Iraq. There is absolutely no reason why the United States had to invade and destroy Iraq. Not to retaliate for 9/11, not to find weapons of mass destruction, not to defend the United States, not to protect our freedoms, not to fight terrorism, not to destroy al-Qaeda, not to overthrow Saddam Hussein, not to bring democracy to Iraq, not to secure access to oil, not to protect Israel. And since there is absolutely no reason why the United States had to invade and destroy Iraq, there is absolutely no reason why any American soldiers had to die. And since there is absolutely no reason why any American soldier had to die, there is absolutely no reason why Colonel Beck had to deliver the most terrible news the family of someone in the military ever had to hear.
Even worse is the terrible truth that no soldier who died in Iraq died an honorable death and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. They died in vain. They died for a lie. They died while instigating, perpetrating, participating in, or otherwise being a part of war crimes, mass murder, and genocide.
Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives
Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State