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Alive Day Memories

If I could share a conversation with James Gandolfini, best known as Tony Soprano, I would thank him profusely.

Watching his Alive Day Memories last night on HBO, I shed tears about the war in Iraq for the first time. It’s hard for me to translate a news story – “today, 15 Americans were killed when a bomb exploded” – into reality. I think it’s a defense or denial mechanism on my part, as I sit safely reading the newspaper in my living room or a neighborhood cafe.

But Gandolfini shows us footage of what an exploding IED really looks like, and that changed my image of that acronym from a vague concept into a reality. I viewed that explosion – gathered from insurgent video – and wondered how anyone could live through it.

Soldiers do live through it, but they are much worse for wear. In last night’s show, one soldier told the story of how he was driving along, and then saw a bomb go off in front of him. When he opened his eyes, he went to wipe blood off his face and realized he was missing the tip of his finger. He thought, “okay, that’s not so bad, I can live with that.” Then he looked down and realized he was missing his left hand. And he looked down again and realized both his legs were gone. Sitting on a bare, black stage, the one-time gymnastics champion tells his story and then shows Gandolfini his scarred stumps.

When Gandolfini asks him about celebrating his “Alive Day” – the day that a soldier could have died but didn’t – the young man said: “Why would I want to celebrate the worst day of my life every year?”

To me, that’s the real cost of this war. Well, that and the $450 billion we’ve spent on it thus far. (For the liberal take on war-spending, go here.) I haven’t previously seen this war presented so personally. That doesn’t mean that similar films aren’t out there. I was describing Alive Day Memories to a friend and he said he had watched Baghdad ER, also on HBO, two years ago.  PBS’ News Hour scrolls the name of the dead at the end of every episode, which is moving but not graphic. And ABC’s Bob Woodruff has gone a long way to publicize the kinds of injuries that soldiers are suffering in Iraq, although he has almost totally – and miraculously – recovered from his own head injury, also caused by an IED. The soldiers Gandolfini presents have not been so lucky.

“If I have children, I will never be able to hold them with both arms,” says one officer who lost her shoulder and arm in the war and now worries she won’t be loved. “I wanted to be a soldier, I wanted to lead soldiers into combat. But I was naïve going in to this.”

Meanwhile, even as I write this, Gen. Petraeus is giving Congress his assessment of how the war is going. We’ve been in Iraq for four and a half years. Saddam Hussein is gone – retrieved from his hidey hole and hung and decapitated in horrifying style — but civil strife rules the country now. Even President Bush, who hasn’t wavered in his belief that waging war in Iraq is the right thing to do, agrees that very little political progress has been made in Iraq.

Smarter minds than mine are considering whether we should remain in this war, but I hope when they do, they seriously consider whether what we’re accomplishing there is worth ruining the lives of so many young American men and women. Would they send their children to Iraq to fight? Is the cause worth it? What is actually the cause? And how do we bring this war to a conclusion? Can we even do that without leaving the country in far worse shape than when we arrived?

Gandolfini always made us think as gangster, sociopath and father Tony Soprano. But I would argue that he’s made us think more – and about something much more urgent and real — with Alive Day Memories.