The Meaning of One Thousand

We were participating in that most ancient of human rituals – communal mourning. Strangers sharing the lighting of candles and mingling of flames, our thoughts unified by a single theme: grief for the dead and longing for peace.

Like thousands of other Americans around the country, I was at a candlelight vigil Thursday evening to remember the more than 1,000 U.S. service members killed in Iraq and the tens of thousands of Iraqi dead. Coordinated by, Win Without War, Military Families Speak Out and other groups, the vigils took place in 900 cities and drew upwards of 40,000 people.

Nearly 250 people from neighborhoods around Lake Merritt, in Oakland, Calif., gathered at the colonnade on the edge of the lake to stand quietly, candles in hand. A few held placards reading "1,000 Dead," "Quagmire," or "No End In Sight." Some were still in work clothes; other came in exercise outfits. An organizer made a brief announcement at the start of the vigil and again halfway through, but other than that, there were no speeches, only whispering and then silence.

Passing drivers slowed to look and honk in support. Vigil participants stood with heads bowed over their candles or gazing out across the water as the silent moments ticked by. The dark silhouette of a bird flew overhead. A few early stars came out. The breeze blowing off the lake made some of the flames flicker and die. People shared butane lighters and relit their candles. A homeless man ambled by, calling out "John Kerry, John Kerry, y'all!"

I searched the expressions of my neighbors. Most people looked somber, meditative. What were we thinking about, during those 45 wordless minutes? What went on in our private, innermost thoughts?

Candlelight Vigil
A photo series by Derek Powazek

Photo by Derek Powazek,

Photo by Derek Powazek,

Photo by Derek Powazek,

Photo by Derek Powazek,

More Candlelight Vigil Photos »
I reflected on the number 1,000. We have been bracing for it all summer, just as last year, in Oakland, we awaited news of the 100th murder and the year before, San Francisco stood watch for the 1,000th jumper from the Golden Gate Bridge. Milestones seem to acquire a power of their own. We use them to shock ourselves into a heightened state of awareness, or to move us from complacency to action.

What is 1,000? It is an iconic number that gives the media a fresh prism through which to view the war. One thousand, said political scientist David Birdsell, "is a gripping number, a large number, a tragic number, and it will be a pivot to revisit Bush's reasons for fighting the war." The Houston Chronicle called it "a bloody threshold." Of course, 999 is just as bloody. And no sooner was the toll of 1,000 announced than it became obsolete, with more fatalities bringing the actual number to 1,006 by Friday morning.

The arithmetic serves its symbolic purpose; yet we tend to be far more moved by the story of a single individual than by the numbers. The Pentagon has not yet released the name of the soldier who had the grim honor of being the 1,000th to die in Iraq. All we know of him is that he was with the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood, Texas, and he died fighting in the streets of Baghdad. He has a name and a story, and we are all diminished by his death.

Why is a picture worth 1,000 words? Because an image can make the abstraction of death vanish. On Thursday, the New York Times published an extraordinary photo gallery of most of the Americans killed in Iraq. Given faces and names, the dead cease to be "military personnel" or "troops," and are restored to their rightful places as sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands and wives.

According to the Times, the youngest service member to die was 18-year-old Private Leslie Jackson of Richmond, VA., killed on May 20. She joined the Army at 17. In the words of her grieving mother, "she was a sweet child."

Nadia McCaffrey's son, Patrick, from Tracy, Calif., lost his life in Iraq three months ago. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that coping with his loss is "harder every day ... and frankly I don't think this is going to end until I die."

What is 1,000?

In Japan, 1,000 paper cranes has become a worldwide symbol of peace, demonstrating the power of a single person to create change. According to Japanese myth, the gods will grant the wish of one who folds 1,000 paper cranes.

There is a website called One Thousand Reasons, which categorizes (by issue, alphabetically or chronologically) 1,000 failures of the Bush presidency.

More than 1,000 days have passed since the World Trade Center towers fell. In essence, for each day since then, the president has sacrificed the life of an American service member. We are fed the detritus of 9/11, the fear and the paranoia, day after day, but in that battered memory there is no nourishment for our nation.

Standing by the lake, surrounded by my neighbors, I felt a sense of solidarity, but I felt something else too; the stirrings of deep anger. Americans and Iraqis are dying horrific deaths every day, and we who want peace are not doing enough.

Some Americans who are starting to get angry enough to do something are the military families. Brooke Campbell, whose 25-year-old brother, Ryan, was killed in Iraq in April, wrote in a lacerating letter to George W. Bush, "Not only did you cheat him of a long meaningful life, but you cheated him of a meaningful death."

Ruby Savage's grandson, Jeremiah, died in Fallujah on May 12. Here's what she thinks of 1,000: "I'm mad, just plain mad,'' she told her local paper, The Tennessean. ''We're ready for them all to come home, and not in a box, either. I don't know how much higher it will go. I can't tell, but it's senseless. It hurts."

When the 45 minutes were up, people quietly snuffed out their candles and turned to look at each other. Rueful smiles were offered, farewells exchanged, and slowly, the crowd dispersed, melting into the darkness.

As the significance of 1,000 fades, the death toll will cease to be front page news. One thousand means nothing – as in, it is a terrible thing to die for nothing. And 1,000 means everything – everything that is at stake.

One thousand candles, 1,000 coffins. More than 7,000 troops wounded. As for the 11,000 Iraqi dead and ten times that many injured, there aren't enough candles in this city to commemorate them. Our anguish at this appalling loss of life is the appropriate response. It should not be our only response.

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