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Dana Parsons

Marine's death transcends tragedy

December 14, 2006|Dana Parsons

I was saying to a friend recently that any soldier's death in Iraq from this point on would be a particular tragedy. I also surmised that the commanding officers might well be extra cautious in assigning troops to dangerous missions.

It wasn't dressed up as insight. Just a layman's opinion that, with approval of the war turning so markedly downward, even those on the ground in Iraq might consciously pull up on the reins.

Today, even this far down the pike in Iraq and with the chorus of dissent louder each week, we don't need to debate the merits of the war or how it was conceived or how it's been waged to arrive at a conclusion about Marine Maj. Megan McClung.

I've just finished talking to her parents.

On Dec. 6, McClung died when the Humvee she was riding in hit a roadside bomb. She was 34 and a 1990 graduate of Mission Viejo High School. Two other Marines died with her.

By my thesis, theirs would be tragic deaths.

But I am in serious reassessment mode after reading comments in The Times from her parents, who live on Whidbey Island in Washington. "Please don't portray this as a tragedy," her mother, Re McClung, said. "It is for us, but Megan died doing what she believed in, and that's a great gift.... She believed in the mission there -- that the Iraqi people should have freedom."

For someone being called on the phone at a time of sorrow, there's an incredible eloquence and depth to those words.

Here's what I take from them: There are certain irreducible elements of a person's essence that can't be separated out and conveniently lent to arguments over politics and war.

One of the irreducible elements in McClung's life was her belief in the cause, her dedication to the mission. That's military talk that a lot of people don't understand, but it's a point of view that should be draped in honor. I'm not talking about medals or other trappings, but in the honor of being true to one's self.

In that sense, McClung's death can't possibly be seen as tragic. War room decisions made by people who don't do the fighting can have elements of tragic miscalculation and warrant recriminations, but at the level of the individual soldier, how dare we minimize his or her belief in risking their lives to help others?

I won't do it. I might wonder how the government could miscalculate virtually every aspect of the Iraq war, but I won't condemn a Marine who believed at her core that hers was a beneficent mission.

I phoned Mike and Re McClung late Wednesday to ask if they wanted to add anything. "I'm glad that made you rethink things," Re McClung says, referring to her earlier comments in the paper. "It makes me feel very good."

The McClungs, who moved from Mission Viejo last year, understand full well that the country is divided over the war. But they are reflecting these days on the larger issue of people committed to a cause and backing it up with deeds. "A lot of people go through life and they've got all kinds of regrets at the end," Re McClung says. "Things they wish they'd said, wish they'd been, wish they'd done. Megan lived life every day setting priorities and doing what she knew was right."

The McClungs believe their immediate sorrow will in time be eased by recalling their daughter's selfless desire to help the Iraqi people. "How much more nobly could she die?" Re McClung says. "If you have to lose a child or brother or sister or mother or father to death, how could you wish it to be any other way than doing what they believed in and loved the most when they died?"

In another context years ago, I wrote about a young Newport Beach woman's death at the hands of an angry mob in South Africa where, ironically, she'd worked to end apartheid. Some considered it a senseless death that someone so young and committed had been killed at the side of a road. I argued that it was more of a glorious death -- that she died for a cause she believed would make the world better.

Just as it was with Amy Biehl, so it is with Megan McClung.

A deep-seated belief that she was helping strangers. A willingness to put herself on the line, so that her actions would reflect those beliefs.

That's not my definition of tragedy.

Orange County columnist Dana Parsons appears occasionally in the Inland Empire edition. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons

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