Issue Date: April 29, 2005
'A soldier in the nonviolent army'
Through anger and pain, father of son killed in Iraq works for peace
By PATRICK ONEILL
The Passion story came a few hours early to this Army town in March. While Christians prepared for the Holy Week story of Jesus suffering and death, the family members of the dead took center stage to share their losses and grief at a rally in Rowan Park marking the second anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.
On a grassy hillside, Michael Berg, in a turtleneck and knit cap, carrying a backpack, patiently stood for an interview. The Berg familys story has come to symbolize the horror and brutality of this war that has split the nation.
Last May, Bergs youngest child, Nick, 26, who was working as a contractor in Iraq, was kidnapped and beheaded by a resistance group opposed to the U.S. occupation. In a gruesome video, Bergs beheading was shown to the world. The masked executioners claim on the tape that Berg was killed in retaliation for the abuses of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.
In a speech at the March 20 rally, Berg, who almost always seemed on the verge of tears, said: Its too late for my son, Nick, and its too late for me, but its not too late for you. ... Become a soldier in the nonviolent army and work for change.
Bergs wrenching grief was broadcast around the world as he publicly grieved his sons murder, while steadfastly refusing to allow the Bush administration to exploit the tragedy to promote the war.
Their intention is to shake our will, Bush had said in reaction to Bergs death. We will complete our mission.
In response, Michael Berg said: Nick died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.
More than 10 months later, Berg, a retired schoolteacher, has traveled around the world on a mission to oppose the war that claimed his sons life.
Berg, a secular Jew who lives in West Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, initially tried to honor the wishes of his family members who asked him not to speak out after Nicks death. But with dozens of media crews staking out his house in the days following Nicks death, Berg said he felt compelled to respond.
My family begged me not to say anything, Berg said. They all felt as I did about the war. They were all against the war, but they all begged me not to go out and not to talk to the media, and for a day or two I tried not to talk, but it was churning up and boiling up inside of me, and finally one day I was riding home from the YMCA on my bicycle and I stopped in front of them and started talking and essentially I havent stopped since then.
It was just something that had to come out of me. It was like a huge pain inside of me. Although it boiled up and festered up many, many times again, and it still does, it was an immediate relief there. The rest of my family was just the opposite. When the media would approach them they would draw back.
Berg said he is still angry that some of the media crossed the line, even shining spotlights into the Berg house at night to try to get pictures of the family. With unseasonably hot weather last May, the house windows were open in the days following Nicks death, and Berg said the noise and fumes of media vans generators disturbed the familys sleep.
Berg said he had to struggle to balance his familys anger and pain over Nicks death with what he saw as a responsibility to speak out against the war. He realized this was bigger than just my family and there was an opportunity to show the people of the world the horror of war. I never cared that people saw me at moments of emotional breakdown. I would have cared more if they hadnt seen me that way because people needed to see how much it hurts.
Berg said he couldnt watch television or read a newspaper because he had been told about the images of his son in those last moments of his life.
For the first two months we didnt have the television on in the house, and we didnt read a newspaper because of my sons picture in that awful orange jump suit. We couldnt look at it.
Berg said he never heard from Bush following Nicks death, but John Kerry called me.
While he supports the arrest of the men who killed his son, Berg said he also wants some U.S. officials held accountable.
I do very much blame, specifically, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales for my sons death, because aside from destabilizing the country so that the people they say killed my son could come in, they also thought up, researched the legal references for and gave the OK for the atrocities that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison. And the videotape of my sons death says that they killed him in retaliation for those atrocities.
So I blame them, and I still blame them and I feel that even though I forgive, I have the right to blame them. I dont wish them any physical ill. I dont wish them any harm, psychological or otherwise. I do wish them to be disenfranchised of their power. I would like to see them be tried as war criminals, so I do seek justice and I think that is perfectly compatible with forgiveness.
In the wake of his sons death, Berg took a course on forgiveness at Immaculata University (see story below).
Berg said, My initial motivation for taking this course was that I didnt seem to have the anger and the hatred toward the men that killed my son that a lot of other people did. Part of that is because I dont really know who killed my son. I dont really know if [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi exists or if hes just somebody made up by the government or if hes someone that the government killed years ago and they still use his name to blame for things. And I never saw their faces, and I cant even say most of their names, so they werent very real to me; theyre not people I see on the street or even on TV every day.
Berg said he gave up Jewish religious practice at age 16, and that he had to translate a lot of the language of God he has heard into terms that I could accept. He does not believe in life after death. Nick is with me in my heart, and in my head and he always will be, but I dont think Nick is anyplace else other than in a coffin in a cemetery, he said. Sure, I would like to believe in God, but I dont. Belief is something that either you have or you dont have.
Berg said he envies those who hold religious beliefs. I wish I did.
In North Carolina, Berg was hosted by David Potorti, cofounder of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Potortis brother, Jim, died in the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Berg said he also knows many people from the group Military Families Speak Out who have suffered the loss of loved ones.
All the people that are here are my support group, Berg said. They are a special group of people. All of those people know the loss that I know. That is something thats helpful. I cant explain it, but its helpful. Its a club that Im an unwilling member of.
Patrick ONeill is a freelance religion journalist living in Garner, N.C.
National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2005
|Copyright © The
National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd.,
Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL: 816-531-0538 FAX: 1-816-968-2280 Send comments about this Web site to: email@example.com