these are the last words in a touching new york times online article by a soldier who fought in afghanistan, and had recently learned of the death of a comrade in battle. they are common words, and they clearly offer some comfort to loved ones in the face of the greatest of human losses. and maybe that justifies them.
but conceptually, outside of its immediate and personal helpfulness, i find the phrase disturbing. what does it mean to 'die in vain'? do we die in vain if our death isn't part of some presumed good cause? a dear young man who was a student where i teach died a couple of years ago of leukemia. as far as i know, he didn't contract the illness through participation in any righteous activity. does that mean he died in vain? he died tragically, as does anyone who doesn't live to old age.
but what about those who do die in old age? do they die in vain because they die of common illnesses and because they live as long as can be expected?
and how can the in-vainness [ i can hardly say 'vanity] of a death be proven? [is there a word encompassing the phrase 'not in vain'?]
my brother died in 1981 at the age of 33. he had lymphoma, and he had been in vietnam in an area sprayed with agent orange. he believed the two were connected, but of course there was no way to prove it. he was pleased that i spoke of his death at anti-war rallies. it helped him to feel his dying might be of use, might keep some other young man from going to the next war, or keep the government from using deadly poisons in the next war. maybe the fact that i could bring his experience to the antiwar movement made him die 'not in vain.' maybe that was true even if his cancer wasn't caused by agent orange, since it still functioned as an antiwar tool.
but how can we judge that? others strongly beleived the war was right; from that perspective, keith's death itself might not have been in vain, but my use of it to undermine the war might be seen to lessen the not-vainness of his death.
what about that soldier from today's war? his comrade clealry beleived he had died not-in-vain, because he had died in fighting a just and necessary war. to antiwar people, he perhaps died not-in-vain because his death illustrates what our government does to its own expendible citizens. as victim or hero, his life can be seen as not-in-vain; but the reasons are mutually exclusive.
if there is life after death, then presumably none of us dies in vain; we move from this realm to the next, as god meant us to. if there's nothing after, perhaps we all die in vain.
but to go beyond that, to attrbute vainness or nonvainness to a specific death or groups of death, seems to evade the one fact basic to death: we all die. i think in the long run, that whatever meanings attach to specific death, no death is either in vain or not in vain; it simply IS. there is larger space in defining one's life--heroic, cowardly, admirable, contemptible, or some combination of all of these. for me, that is the comfort, or such comfort as exists. but death? if it has a transcendent meaning, we'll maybe get to figure that out in the next life........or maybe not.