In November of 2007, Vanity Fair published a nonfiction piece titled “A Death in the Family,” which tells the story of a young American lieutenant named Mark Daily and how his death in Iraq impacted his family, his community, and the author of the article.
This is my favorite work of journalism about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve found my eyes welling up each time I’ve read it. The prestigious school of journalism at New York University recently nominated this article as one of the top 80 works of journalism of the past decade.
If you have ten minutes to spare today, I highly recommend you read this article and give some thought to the brave Mark Daily and the guys like him now serving on our behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I’ve reprinted my favorite section of “A Death in the Family” below. It tells of the author’s first meeting with Mark’s family as well as the eventual memorial service for Mark which was held on the coastline of Oregon.
“At the first chance I got, I invited his family for lunch in California. We ended up spending the entire day together. As soon as they arrived, I knew I had been wrong to be so nervous. They looked too good to be true: like a poster for the American way. John Daily is an aerospace project manager, and his wife, Linda, is an audiologist. Their older daughter, Christine, eagerly awaiting her wedding, is a high-school biology teacher, and the younger sister, Nicole, is in high school. Their son Eric is a bright junior at Berkeley with a very winning and ironic grin. And there was Mark’s widow, an agonizingly beautiful girl named Snejana (‘Janet’) Hristova, the daughter of political refugees from Bulgaria. Her first name can mean ‘snowflake,’ and this was his name for her in the letters of fierce tenderness that he sent her from Iraq. These, with your permission, I will not share, except this:
One thing I have learned about myself since I’ve been out here is that everything I professed to you about what I want for the world and what I am willing to do to achieve it was true. …
My desire to “save the world” is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you.
If that is all she has left, I hope you will agree that it isn’t nothing.
On a drive to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and again shortly before shipping out from Fort Bliss, Texas, Mark had told his father that he had three wishes in the event of his death. He wanted bagpipes played at the service, and an Irish wake to follow it. And he wanted to be cremated, with the ashes strewn on the beach at Neskowin, Oregon, the setting for his happiest memories of boyhood vacations. The first two of these conditions had already been fulfilled. The Dailys rather overwhelmed me by asking if I would join them for the third one. So it was that in August I found myself on the dunes by an especially lovely and remote stretch of the Oregon coastline. The extended family was there, including both sets of grandparents, plus some college friends of Mark’s and his best comrade from the army, an impressive South Dakotan named Matt Gross. As the sun began to sink on a day that had been devoted to reminiscence and moderate drinking, we took up the tattered Stars and Stripes that had flown outside the family home since Mark’s deployment and walked to his favorite spot to plant it. Everyone was supposed to say something, but when John Daily took the first scoop from the urn and spread the ashes on the breeze, there was something so unutterably final in the gesture that tears seemed as natural as breathing and I wasn’t at all sure that I could go through with it. My idea had been to quote from the last scene of Macbeth, which is the only passage I know that can hope to rise to such an occasion. The tyrant and usurper has been killed, but Ross has to tell old Siward that his boy has perished in the struggle:
Your son, my lord, has paid a soldier’s debt;
He only lived but till he was a man;
The which no sooner had his prowess confirm’d
In the unshrinking station where he fought,
But like a man he died.
This being Shakespeare, the truly emotional and understated moment follows a beat or two later, when Ross adds:
Your cause of sorrow
Must not be measured by his worth, for then
It hath no end.
I became a trifle choked up after that, but everybody else also managed to speak, often reading poems of their own composition, and as the day ebbed in a blaze of glory over the ocean, I thought, Well, here we are to perform the last honors for a warrior and hero, and there are no hysterical ululations, no shrieks for revenge, no insults hurled at the enemy, no firing into the air or bogus hysterics. Instead, an honest, brave, modest family is doing its private best. I hope no fanatical fool could ever mistake this for weakness. It is, instead, a very particular kind of strength. If America can spontaneously produce young men like Mark, and occasions like this one, it has a real homeland security instead of a bureaucratic one. To borrow some words of George Orwell’s when he first saw revolutionary Barcelona, ‘I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.'”