A Mother's View of Her Son's Iraq

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A month ago I wrote a dispatch, Incident on Haifa Street, considering news reports about a bloody set of encounters in downtown Baghdad, only a few hundred yards from the heavily fortified, American-occupied Green Zone. A day or two later, I visited the Tomdispatch mail box and found an e-mail that began, “hi tom, i am writing about your column i just read on haifa street. As of now i patrol that area ….” and it was signed: armygrunt. Armygrunt, who revealed his real name as we began to exchange messages, wanted to argue about the nature of Haifa Street and the views of this sixty year-old American civilian far from Iraq. I had irked him, but he was remarkably open to my curiosity about his situation and to dialogue (as so many people in this Internet world of ours turn out to be).

His e-mail provided me with a startling moment in this strange, half-miraculous world of the Web that links people together in such odd and unexpected ways. But armygrunt is only one of a number of people connected in the most intimate way to our war in Iraq — spouses of, in-laws of, parents of, girlfriends of American soldiers stationed there or the soldiers themselves — who have written in to praise or condemn, to clarify, challenge, work off a little steam, offer a window into a reality I might otherwise never have seen, or sometimes perhaps just hear themselves think. What almost all these e-communications have exhibited, though, is an urge to engage in some kind of dialogue and to explore. It’s been an intimate and sobering experience for me and of all these missives, the first, I believe, was from Teri Allison, now the mother of a soldier in Iraq. But let her tell the story her way. She writes:

“While wandering the web about a year ago, I stumbled upon a TomDispatch entitled The Time of Withdrawal, and agreed so completely with the sentiment that I felt compelled to write back. Tom posted several letters of response to the piece, including mine, at his site. Since then, we have kept in e-touch at regular (if occasionally lengthy) intervals. At one point last spring, after my son Nick had been in Iraq for a couple of months, Tom suggested that — if I felt the inclination to share — he would be interested in hearing how the situation personally affected me as a parent. ‘Well, maybe…,’ I replied, and then never followed through.

“Recently, an activist friend involved with a number of veteran’s groups asked me to be one of the speakers at a Veterans for Kerry event, the topic to be ‘the costs of war.’ I couldn’t go. I had volunteered to sit in hospital that day with a young man who had been severely wounded in Baghdad — so his mother could attend her eldest son’s wedding. But I offered to make a statement if he wished; and as I began working on it, I found the time and the mental place at long last to work on something for Tom as well.

“Naming one’s demons is hard work; and it has not been my experience that naming a demon necessarily exorcises it. Nevertheless, here is my attempt. Please keep in mind that I count myself very fortunate, and it is with no small amount of guilt and a good deal of hesitancy that I share my story….for my son is alive, and doing well, so far as I can tell. What do I have to ‘complain’ about? The same cannot be said for too many families, and for their sons and daughters…so many dead, so many horribly, horrendously maimed and wounded. This mother’s heart breaks at what must surely be their unbearable sense of grief and horror, and I hope they will forgive me for sharing my troubles, so small in comparison.”

It’s important that we listen carefully to the honest voices of those closest to our Iraq catastrophe. Here’s one not to be missed. ~ Tom

The Costs of War

A Mother’s View
By Teri Wills Allison

I am not a pacifist. I am a mother. By nature, the two are incompatible, for even a cottontail rabbit will fight to protect her young. Violent action may well be necessary in defense of one’s family or home (and that definition of home can easily be extended to community and beyond); but violence, no matter how warranted, always takes a heavy toll. And violence taken to the extreme — war — exacts the most extreme costs. A just war there may be, but there is no such thing as a good war. And the burdens of an unjust war are insufferable.

I know something about the costs of an unjust war, for my son, Nick — an infantryman in the U.S. Army — is fighting one in Iraq. I don’t speak for my son. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, for all I hear through the Mom Filter is: “I’m fine, Mom, don’t worry, I’m fine, everything is fine, fine, fine, we’re fine, just fine." But I can tell you what some of the costs are as I live and breathe them.

First, the minor stuff: my constant feelings of dread and despair; the sweeping rage that alternates with petrifying fear; the torrents of tears that accompany a maddening sense of helplessness and vulnerability. My son is involved in a deadly situation that should never have been. I feel like a mother lion in a cage, my grown cub in danger, and all I can do is throw myself furiously against the bars…impotent to protect him. My tolerance for bullshit is zero, and I’ve snapped off more heads in the last several months than in all my 48 years combined.

For the first time in my life, and with great amazement and sorrow, I feel what can only be described as hatred. It took me a long time to admit it, but there it is. I loathe the hubris, the callousness, and the lies of those in the Bush administration who led us into this war. Truth be told, I even loathe the fallible and very human purveyors of those lies. I feel no satisfaction in this admission, only sadness and recognition. And hope that — given time — I can do better. I never wanted to hate anyone.

Xanax helps a bit. At least it holds the debilitating panic attacks somewhat at bay, so I can fake it through one more day. A friend in the same situation relies on a six-pack of beer every night; another has drifted into a la-la land of denial. Nice.

Then there is the wedge that’s been driven between part of my extended family and me. They don’t see this war as one based on lies. They’ve become evangelical believers in a false faith, swallowing Bush’s fear mongering, his chicken-hawk posturing and strutting, and cheering his “bring ‘em on” attitude as a sign of strength and resoluteness. Perhaps life is just easier that way. These are the same people who have known my son since he was a baby, who have held him and loved him and played with him, who have bought him birthday presents and taken him fishing. I don’t know them anymore.

But enough of my whining. My son is alive and in one piece, unlike the 1,102 dead and 7,782 severely wounded American soldiers; which equals 8,884 blood soaked uniforms, and doesn’t even count the estimated 20,000 troops — not publicly reported by the Department of Defense — medivaced out of Iraq for “non-combat related injuries.” Every death, every injury burns like a knife in my gut, for these are all America’s sons and daughters. And I know I’m not immune to that knock on my door either.

And what of the Iraqi people? How many casualties have they suffered? How many tens of thousands dead and wounded? How many Iraqi mothers have wept, weep now, for their lost children? I fear we will never know, for though the Pentagon has begun — almost gleefully — counting Iraqi insurgent deaths, there is little chance of getting an accurate verification of civilian casualties. You know, “collateral damage.”

Yes, my son is alive and, as far as I know, well. I wish I could say the same for some of his friends.

One young man who was involved in heavy fighting during the invasion is now so debilitated by post-traumatic stress disorder that he routinely has flashbacks in which he smells burning flesh; he can’t close his eyes without seeing people’s heads squashed like frogs in the middle of the road, or dead and dying women and children, burned, bleeding and dismembered. Sometimes he hears the sounds of battle raging around him, and he has been hospitalized twice for suicidal tendencies. When he was home on leave, this 27-year-old man would crawl into his mother’s room at night and sob in her lap for hours. Instead of getting treatment for PTSD, he has just received a “less than honorable” discharge from the Army. The rest of his unit redeploys to Iraq in February.

Another friend of Nick’s was horrifically wounded when his Humvee stopped on an IED. He didn’t even have time to instinctively raise his arm and protect his face. Shrapnel ripped through his right eye, obliterating it to gooey shreds, and penetrated his brain. He has been in a coma since March. His mother spends every day with him in the hospital; his wife is devastated, and their 1-year-old daughter doesn’t know her daddy. But my son’s friend is a fighter and so is making steady, incremental progress toward consciousness. He has a long hard struggle ahead of him, one that he need never have faced — and his family has had to fight every step of the way to get him the treatment he needs. So much for supporting the troops.

I go visit him every week and it breaks my heart to see the burned faces, the missing limbs, the limps, the vacant stares one encounters in an acute-care military hospital. In front of the hospital there is a cannon, and every afternoon they blast that sucker off. You should see all the poor guys hit the pavement. Though many requests have been made to discontinue the practice for the sake of the returning wounded, the general in charge refuses. Boom.

Then there is Nick’s 24-year-old Kurdish friend, the college-educated son of teachers, multilingual and highly intelligent. He works as a translator for the U.S. Army for $600 a month and lives on base, where he is relatively safe. (Translators for private contractors, also living on base, make $7200 a month). He wants to travel to the States to continue his education, but no visas are now being issued from Iraq. Once the army is through with him, will they just send him back into the streets, a virtual dead man for having worked with the Americans? My son places a high premium on loyalty to family and friends, and he has been raised to walk his talk. This must be a harsh and embittering lesson on just how unprincipled the rest of the world can be. My heart aches for his Iraqi friend as well as for him.

A year ago in January, when Nick left for Iraq, I granted myself permission to be stark raving mad for the length of his deployment. By god, I’ve done a good job of it, without apology or excuse. And I dare say there are at least 139,999 other moms who have done the same — though taking troop rotations into consideration to maintain that magical number of 140,000 in the sand could put the number of crazed military moms as high as 300,000, maybe more. Right now, you might want to be careful about cutting in line in front of a middle-aged woman.

I know there are military moms who view the war in Iraq through different ideological lenses than mine. Sometimes I envy them. God, how much easier it must be to believe one’s son or daughter is fighting for a just and noble cause! But no matter how hard I scrutinize the invasion and occupation of Iraq, all I see are lies, corruption, and greed fueled by a powerful addiction to oil. Real soldiers get blown to tatters in their “Hummers,” so that well-heeled American suburbanites can play in theirs.

For my family and me, the costs of this war are real and not abstract. By day, I fight my demons of dreaded possibility, beat them back into the shadows, into the dark recesses of my mind. Every night, they hiss and whisper a vile prognosis of gloom and desolation. I order the voices into silence, but too often they laugh at and mock my commands.

I wonder if George Bush ever hears these voices.

And I wonder, too…just how much are we willing to pay for a gallon of gas?

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Teri Wills Allison, a massage therapist and a member of Military Families Speak Out, lives near Austin, Texas with her husband. She is the mother of two grown children, the oldest of whom is a soldier deployed to Iraq.

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