SIX THOUSAND miles from Baghdad, in a holiday concert at a Baltimore high school, 132 teenage boys and girls sang the Te Deum and three other choral works that Mozart composed when he was 13. The chorus sang these complex pieces, all praising God's glory, in German-accented Latin. The whole time that I was listening and finding the performance remarkable and examining each of the young faces, I found myself wishing that not a single member of this chorus would ever be drafted and sent to Iraq - that the war would somehow be over by, say, 2008.
Imagine having such a thought at such a time.
Perhaps you have.
Tuesday, which turned out to be one of the bloodiest days for U.S. troops since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was in Piedigrotta, the wonderful Italian pastry shop on Central Avenue in Baltimore. The master baker, Antonio Iannacconne, once said without irony: "I do this job to live in peace." I watched him prepare his panettone, a yellow cake people traditionally give as holiday gifts, and I couldn't help but think of U.S. troops preparing for a meal when they died.
And just a few days before Christmas.
Our present enemy certainly knows when and where to strike with the greatest impact.
Going into the season of peace, it's hard, almost impossible, to think about anything but the bloody mess in Iraq.
Let's face it. For many Americans, this season is stressful and even depressing, and you can add another layer to that this week. Even the president has started to acknowledge that American withdrawal from Iraq isn't going to happen any time soon.
It looks like we're stuck, doesn't it?
This period of American history, from September 2001 to the present, has been breathtaking. The nation seemed to come together after 9/11, then divide over the Iraq war, and it looks like we'll be this way for a while. I haven't seen us so since Vietnam days. I have friends and relatives, big supporters of George Bush's presidency, who are extremely testy about the subject and keep trying to change the conversation. If you continue to talk about the war in any questioning, skeptical or anxious way, you're considered unpatriotic, so shut up and pass the turkey!
"This is a tough time for our nation," says Kweisi Mfume, the departing president of the NAACP, who had a meeting with President Bush on Tuesday at the White House. Mfume described Bush as "clearly distraught" over the loss of more American lives in Iraq.
"There is a sentiment in the nation that we need to ride this out," Mfume says. "But for how long? If it looks like we're going to get into this deeper, how long will people say, 'We need to ride this out'?"
The nation remains divided. People are skeptical. People are worried. People who remember Vietnam, and who are now the parents of teenagers and college students, still fear the revival of the draft.
Experts say the war could be long and extremely costly, and they express grave doubts about democracy happening in Iraq.
You hear experts speak of "the enemy," but does anyone know who the enemy is exactly? And what motivates this enemy besides hatred of the United States? And what cures that? More troops? More invasions?
From an Associated Press dispatch yesterday, after the attack on the U.S. military base: "There was little apparent sympathy for the dead Americans on the streets of Mosul, particularly among its large population of Sunni Arabs. ... Said Jamal Mahmoud, a trade union official: 'I prefer that American troops leave the country and go out of cities so that Iraq will be safer and we run its affairs. I wish that 2,000 U.S. soldiers were killed, not 20.'"
Did we really expect them to kiss our troops and greet them with flowers? Did we think that toppling a statue would get the troops home?
I am in that fairly large crowd of Americans who were opposed to the war and still resent that the Bush administration got us into it without a plan for getting us out. How many more days like Tuesday will there be? Do you think anyone in the White House or the Pentagon has a clue?
So we worry about families of reservists and families of those in the National Guard, and we worry about young men and young women, who only know this war from a distance of thousands of miles, being sucked into a larger, regional conflict that could go on for years.
We were told there was a connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. We were told there were weapons of mass destruction. Then we were told that what was needed in Iraq was democracy, and that's why we're there now. But is a nation broken into many religious and secular pieces, with no experience with democracy, going to become a democracy with leadership to our liking?
How long do you suppose that will take, and at what cost?
Big questions, all still smoldering, with the season of peace upon us.
"It's almost like you want to throw yourself into Christmas and the holidays and not look at it anymore," Mfume says. "But that's impossible."
Even when we pray, and especially when we pray.