Everybody Has a Name

Article excerpt

MY CONGREGATION PUTS UP THE NUMBERS OF THE IRAQ WAR DEAD ON our front sign and our web site. We update them weekly. They include the Iraqi dead and the American dead. Often there is a bit of controversy about our numbers. They are either too big or too small. We aren't completely sure that our numbers or our fact checkers are right. We get the numbers from two sources: U.S. military dead and wounded are taken from the "U.S. Casualties in Iraq" page of the antiwar.com website and reflect the official U.S. military announcement of casualties; Iraqi civilian deaths are found at iraqbodycount.org-this is the more controversial listing, as estimates vary not by 10's and 100's, but by 1000's and 100,000's. A man whose name we do know-Peter Gaitens-does this work for us.

As of June 3, 2008, our front sign holds the following numbers: U.S. soldiers killed-4087; U.S. soldiers wounded-30,333; Iraqi civilians dead-91,889. (Ed: The most recent count before we went to press appears in an image of the church website, www.judson.org, on the next page).

We can't list all the names because there are too many, so we just list the numbers. Last week our web site added another nameless number, that of Christian Cotner. He is the 40th military member with ties to our state, Connecticut, who has died in Iraq and Afghanistan since U.S. operations began in those countries in 2003 and 2002, respectively. Two civilians from the state have also died. He graduated from high school in Waterbury and was a member of the First Congregational Church there.

I knew Christian Cotner as a child. He attended the same UCC and Unitarian summer camp as my children did, year after year, a magical place called Star Island, seven miles out to sea from Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Year after year, he batted in the kid's softball game, slid down the slide that faced the ocean, fought to ring the bell for dinner, cross-dressed on Thursday nights when all the girls became guys and the guys became girls. I know it's unusual for a Christian youth camp. But you should see the pictures: they are quite splendid.

Christian is now dead. He is not a number to me. He is the first person to have died in this war whose name and past I know. Week after week, those numbers on the front of the church have been lifeless to me in more ways than one. They didn't have slides or baseball bats. They didn't have stories you could tell about them. Maybe, their lifelessness implied, the war wasn't really happening and if it was, it was just a little thing. …