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Whirlwind on a Dying Town
Iraq Invades Montana

Iraq piles on the ruins of the Great Plains

Eight years ago I was driving through eastern Montana one evening when I stopped in Glasgow, barely a town some 55 miles south of the Canadian border. In a diner on Glasgow’s Main Street, a stack of newsletters, dated from the same day, announced a lecture and slide show for that evening entitled, “Eastern Montana: Paradise or Purgatory?” to be delivered at the local high school library by Don Baker, a Montana historian.

The library was full as Baker showed his slides and commented in what became a predictable pattern: First the black and white or yellowing slides of bustling towns, large, smiling group shots outside school houses or businesses, main streets of the 1920s and 1930s dusty with action. Then, the color slides of the same towns or school buildings or businesses — shuttered, dead, in ruins in town after town: Mona. Plevna. Mildred. Carlyle. And on Baker went.

Melstone: “What was one time a community of 1,200 is a community of 200 today,” held together by one last oil field at the north end of town. Emory: “It was a town that didn’t last very long. The soil here is very rocky, very shallow, and it’s windswept. This is all that remains, a school that became a community hall.” Ismay: “This became a town of about 1,200 people. It had two of everything. Two banks, two mercantiles. The editor of Ismay’s newspaper, then called the Yellowstone Evening Journal, stated that on Saturday night the streets of Ismay were busier than Chicago ’s. It became quite a town.”

What a name, too — the fusion of Isabel and May, daughters of the president of the Milwaukee Road railroad that was nailing its tiles through the Montana prairie in 1908. That’s how it was in the Plains back then: The landscape’s future could be inscribed on a whim, but not quite conquered. Eight years ago, Ismay was a town of 21, its cemetery census outnumbering the living by more than 10-to-1. Ismay tried to grasp at glory one last time in the early 1990s when it renamed itself Joe for the duration of each NFL season, so it could be known as Joe , Montana , after the famous San Francisco 49er quarterback. The stint got the town’s residents an invitation to David Letterman and articles in all three national newspapers. But even that burst of fame died and dust devils again became the only whirlwinds to occupy the town.

That, and the unexpected, the undeserved.

Last week I read a blurb in the paper about the death of Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, 26, in Iraq , a member of the 82 nd Airborne who was to be heading home to his wife and five-month-old daughter soon. Just another death, maybe: We pretend to mourn for those soldiers sacrificing for who the hell knows what anymore in Iraq, but in reality the mourning is abstract to nonexistent for most. Those ceremonious pretensions of supporting troops are what enable the feeding of cannon fodder with a clean conscience, however unconscionable the war.

But Gray was from Ismay. His immediate family lives in North Carolina . His parents, grandparents, a brother and a sister are all either in Ismay or nearby Miles City . For dying communities like Ismay, the lives of native sons and daughters all over the world are all they have left. Take that away, and you get a sense of the shock wave a death like Gray’s has on those communities, and the devastation it leaves behind long after the press reports move on to the next pointless soldier’s death elsewhere.

Gray wasn’t a nameless soldier, of course. None of them is, and Gray even less so: His father, Richard, wasn’t repeating rote pride when he said that, for all of his son’s desire to be in the 82 nd Airborne since he was 5, “he wasn’t any mindless robot.” Gray was one of the seven active-duty soldier-authors of a New York Times oped on Aug. 19, “The War As We Saw It,” that demolished recent claims politicians, academics parachuting into Baghdad and Washington commentators were making of any progress in Iraq. (One other of the seven writers, Omar Mora, was also killed with Gray, in an apparent truck roll-over that killed five other American soldiers and two Iraqis.)

Gray’s and his colleagues’ criticism of the war can’t be countered by those who claim that higher brass or the president know better. Not at this point. Not anymore. Grunts know what others either don’t or refuse to see. Nor can Gray’s death be chalked up to some worthy sacrifice. He served with honor. His country betrayed him. And now a five-month-old girl grows up half-orphaned while a community in eastern Montana mourns pointless loss on top of fated ruin.

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