Our American flag squinted at odd angles in two photographs on the front page of the Saturday morning paper, but the gaze pictured on the stoic face of Spc. Wade A. Slack was straightforward and steadfast.

Square-jawed, eyes hard set, determined — he looked like a man with a purpose. And he was.

Slack had the almost innocent look of a fresh-faced Maine boy, although at 21 years old and pictured in Army fatigues it was clear that this was no boy but a Maine man.

Described by his father, Alan Slack, as a boy who “had been oriented for military service since 14,” he signed up for the Army while still a senior in high school. He wanted to serve his country, which he did, and May 6 in Jaghatu, Afghanistan, he died for his country while serving with the 707th Ordnance Battalion.

“He had burned several times to enlist. Tales of great movements shook the land. They might not be distinctly Homeric, but there seemed to be much glory in them. He had read of marches, sieges, conflicts, and he had longed to see it all. His busy mind had drawn for him large pictures extravagant in color, lurid with breathless deeds.” — Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

As the rain tapped a steady beat on the roof and steam rose from the first cup of coffee early Saturday, overcast skies, spectral at dawn, seemed to portend that it was better to be inside than out. Imperfect weather offered a perfect excuse to linger and read the paper.

Discursively, as your eyes dart around the page looking for an anchor, you’re struck by the contrasting images and photographs and headlines. There’s the story of a Maine soldier’s death in Afghanistan and below it one about the seven candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor of Maine.

The image of green Army fatigues and a young man’s face cool with the spray of youth flashes and crashes against the photo of the seven men well beyond youth but also wearing government attire of a sort — the dark suits of politicians, most wearing red ties. It’s the look that works best on television.

Wade Slack died as a result of wounds from enemy fire, living his ideals. The suit he wore to work weighed 80 pounds. As a specialist disarming bombs, he had a job described as one of the most difficult in the Army. The 2007 graduate of Waterville Senior High School must have truly felt as if the weight of the world rested on the shoulders that once applied themselves to restaurant work in his hometown.

The aspirants for governor have been speaking of ideals that matter to them too, even though the focus is less on the world and war and more on parochial state matters.

The American flag seems to be almost peeking over the shoulders of the men in both photographs — just barely visible, almost like eyes peering over a hedge.

“Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag which was near him. It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability. It was a goddess, radiant, that bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. It was a woman, red and white, hating and loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes. Because no harm could come to it he endowed it with power.” — Stephen Crane, “The Red Badge of Courage”

Certainly it is true for virtually every parent of every child that reading any story of a young person’s death brings tears to your eyes as you imagine the searing pain of loss and a life not fully lived.

And it was impossible on this Saturday morning not to stop and realize how looking at the flag can bring tears for many different reasons. Your mind races to the Fourth of July parades and to the first time you explained to your children why they doff their hats, salute, clutch their chests, when they see the flag.

Looking at the flag in the background of the photographs was a reminder not only of the constancy of its symbol for our government at all levels but also for the contradictions of what those symbols and ideals inspire.

Old men start wars. Young men fight them.

These candidates for governor did not start the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. The point here is only to say that the juxtaposition of stories and symbols and photographs on a newspaper page stirs reflection among all of us — or at least it should.

Spc. Slack is the 46th person with ties to Maine who has died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2001, according to a website devoted to tracking these tragedies. The complete list can be viewed at www.mainesecurity.com/IMO/IMO_Maine_Heros.htm.

Both wars have gone on so long — and current events open and close from our view so fast these days — that we sometimes lose sight of the fighting and the death until they hit home, as they did here last week. One night we are debating health care, bridges and roads, and education. The next morning the weight and responsibility of governing takes on a grim reality.

Stephen Crane’s novel about the American Civil War, “The Red Badge of Courage,” tells the story of 18-year-old Henry Fleming, who enlists against his mother’s wishes and says goodbye amid her tears.

He, like Spc. Slack, was inspired to serve from an early age. Unlike the Waterville hero, Henry Fleming returned in glory from his last battle.

We read the morning paper knowing that life is not fiction, even though the latter, when it is well-aimed, mirrors the former — and we do not cry when the ending is good. Well, sometimes we do.

A better front page will be the one with our flag, either in full bloom or peeking in the background at us, when the politicians end these wars and all the Spc. Slacks come home like Henry Fleming.

Richard L. Connor is CEO of MaineToday Media, owner of The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A newspaperman for 40 years, he has served on two Pulitzer Prize for Journalism nominating committees. He can be reached at:

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