Thursday, March 09, 2006

Remembering Jehran Omran

By Fr. Dan O'Rourke

The Iraq War and Jehran Omran by Daniel O’Rourke 03-09-06 The American Friends recently brought a traveling exhibit to Erie, Pennsylvania on the human cost of the Iraq War. The exhibit displayed one hundred-eleven pairs of military boots in honor of the hundred and eleven Pennsylvania soldiers and marines killed in Iraq. The Quakers do not have a similar exhibit for New York State. Sadly, there are far too many pairs of empty boots to transport and display.

The boots were marked with the names, rank, age and hometowns of the dead. In a few instances where families objected, the shoes were unlabeled.

In a cluster at the center of the exhibit were three sets of boots from the City of Erie. One pair was marked for Donald Samuel Oaks, Jr. One of his boots held a bouquet of red roses his aunt had placed there together with a picture of the soldier as a mischievous five-year-old. Oaks was only twenty when he was killed in Iraq.

Yet another boot held a crumpled, hand-written note from a grieving father to his dead son. ”I will love you, Johnny, and will never forget you!.” That soldier was from Oil City. He was 21.

Incongruously, amid the blackened, heavy military boots were sneakers, sandals and children’s shoes. Each pair labeled with the name and age of a dead Iraqi citizen. What most touched me were four-year-old Jehan Omran’s tiny shoes. They were pink with Velcro straps. The kind I help my granddaughter with when she visits our home.

The hushed visitors at the exhibit lingered over the footwear like mourners at a funeral parlor. They moved reverently to the posters, which spelled out the growing financial cost of the war. At the time of this writing it is two hundred and forty-five billion, but even that seems insignificant in the light of all these needless deaths.

So far there have been 2,302 American military deaths in Iraq. We number them meticulously -- as we should. Yet General Tommy Franks has said brusquely of the Iraqi dead, “We don’t do body counts.” Some sources have estimated from 26,000 to 32,000 Iraqi civilian deaths. President Bush himself has cited that figure. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, however, in a now outdated report published in The Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal then estimated the Iraqi dead at 100,000.

Even that monstrous figure is just a statistic and doesn’t move me as much as Jehan Omran’s shoes with those Velcro straps. Too sentimental? Perhaps, but more realistic than a military spokesman with a chest full of service ribbons dismissing the Iraqi dead as “collateral damage.” Can the dead be dismissed that easily? Won’t they come back to haunt us? Haven’t they already?

Rosie Musacchio of Dunkirk crafted a sculpture, The Spirit Groaneth - A Response to the Grief of the Iraqi People. She’ll display and interpret her work at a gathering grieving the third anniversary of the Iraq War. This event, sponsored by the Dunkirk Fredonia Center for Peace and Justice and the Fredonia Students for Peace, will take place on Saturday, March 18 at 1:00 PM in Fredonia’s Barker commons.

But back to those empty boots and shoes. There has been much grief in this country about the mounting deaths from this damnable war. Understandably, much of it focuses on our own military dead. After all we knew these young men and women as family, friends and neighbors and we grieve them deeply and personally. But what of the Iraqi dead? Why do we minimize them? They too have loving families, friends and neighbors.

Aren’t we all one? Isn’t John Dunn’s famous line pertinent? “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Or as someone else has asked, doesn’t “our own pulse beat in every stranger’s throat?” Did our pulse beat in Jehan Omran’s throat before a piece of shrapnel silenced her laughter?

Of course it did. We are one. Iraqi deaths diminish us Americans just as our casualties diminish them. Listen to a few words from a Spanish song.

Somos el barco; somos el mar.
Yo navego en ti, tu navegas en mi.

We are the boat; we are the sea
I sail in you; you sail in me.

What these poets are saying is that we are all meshed, interwoven and braided together. Iraqi and American lives, whether we admit it or not, are interconnected. And I’m not speaking of the increasing reality of international economies and politics. “We are one” is the ancient insight of the mystics.

If we deny this, as much of our government and media continue to do, we can rationalize almost anything including killing, torture, and endless illegal detentions. This debasement and degradation of Iraqis has also debased and degraded us and our nation’s ideals. The sea in which we sail together has been polluted by our arrogant, self-centered militarism.

Where is the outrage at all this death? Where is it in the media? In the political opposition? From our pulpits? Oh I know, it’s there occasionally and selectively, but too often it’s timid and muted.

Americans and Iraqis are in the same boat, on the same sea. Our languages, dress and religions may differ, but we share a common humanity, a common earth and a common God.

Jehan Omran was my granddaughter too - and she was yours.

Daniel O’Rourke is a married Catholic priest, retired from the administration at State University College, Fredonia. A mediator for the Center for Resolution and Justice, he lives in Cassadaga. His column appears the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. Comments may be sent to

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