Life Between The Commas


Times Herald-Record, NY
Oct 11 2006

On the day The Washington Post carried a story about how President
Bush had characterized the present difficult period in Iraq as "just a
comma," Matt Mendelsohn called me. He is a photographer who took the
pictures for a new book by his brother Daniel, "The Lost." It is an
attempt to find out what happened to six members of the Mendelsohn
family who perished in the Holocaust – the family of great-uncle
Shmiel Jager, "killed by the Nazis," of which almost nothing else was
known. There: You went right by it. Shmiel lived between the commas.

In between those commas, of course, is the life of a man. He was
scared and he was brave, he was proud and he was shamed, he headed a
family and ran a business and then hid from the Nazis until he, along
with four daughters and his wife, was betrayed and shot right on the
spot. Don’t think of the bullet as a period. It was, worse, a comma.

So Daniel Mendelsohn set out to expand the commas, to push them
open and let in a life. From what the reviewers say, he succeeded
brilliantly, so when someone says 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust
or if someone mentions Auschwitz, you can understand that it is not a
number that died, but a person who was murdered. I say that also about
Rwanda in 1994, or what happened to the Armenians in Turkey in 1915,
or what is happening in Darfur today.

Commas imprison us all. You see them in the headlines of obituaries:
Joseph Smith, accountant, 81; Mildred Jones, housewife, 87; Frank
Miller, longtime resident, dies. The brevity of it all, the compression
of a life into a clause, is appalling, yet an unalterable fact. This
is the way not just of newspapers, but of history, too.

You come across the mention of a war – the Crimean, the Civil, the
Vietnam, the Boer, the Algerian – and then, like a cemetery dangling
from two commas, comes a mention of the number of dead. They get the
same prominence – sometimes less – as the amount of ordnance used or
ships sunk or airplanes built.

Wars are fought with commas. They are essential. Here and there is
a world leader who does not care about human life, but most do. The
only way they can function is to plant commas around the misery they
cause, to subordinate the loss of life to a supposedly greater cause.

This is what Bush is doing. If he did not think he is on his way to
something grand, that he is doing immense good, then he could not
face what is between those two commas – almost 3,000 American lives
and immense suffering. He is not a man given to introspection. Still,
he could not live without the succor of cliches: breaking eggs to
make an omelet and all of that. In between his commas are all those
broken eggs. As yet, there is no omelet.

Not too long ago, I embraced the commas myself. I favored this idiotic
war because I thought that the deaths of some would improve – even
save – the lives of many. I likened the about-to-die soldiers to
firemen or cops, the people we summon to risk or lose their lives
in the common good. I had the common good in mind when I supported
the war and I did not expect much space between the commas. Now, the
space expands and expands, one comma marching away from the other. It
seems we will need room for all of Iraq.

When he was alive, I didn’t much care for Menachem Begin, the
hard-line Israeli prime minister. But when he retired after the 1982
war in Lebanon and showed his grief, my view of him changed. He was
despondent over all the lives wasted, and he went into seclusion. For
Begin, somehow, the commas evaporated and the immensity of his mistake
pitched him into a depression relieved only by death. Other world
leaders, in similar circumstances, join consulting firms. The bigger
their mistakes, it appears, the higher their fees.

Most of us yearn to escape our commas, to become something more than a
profession (longtime lawyer) or resident (Washington native), to make
our mark on the world. A president who has ineptly waged a foolish
war instead seeks the solace of commas. It is not so much where he
has deposited the wounded and dead, but where he hopes he can hide
from history. It can’t be done, though: George W. Bush comma – and
then his failure in Iraq. The comma is his epitaph.

Richard Cohen is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is
[email protected]

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