A Young Man's Death in Iraq

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I’m too old for the typical website with lots of posted back-and-forth commentary. So the Tomdispatch e-mail box is — and often I regret this — normally my own private adventure. I’m regularly amazed by the letters that come in, many encouraging, some stunningly thoughtful (often with striking turns of phrase), and every now and then ones that are startlingly abusive. E-notes and e-letters arrive from all over the world — this is surely the glory of the Internet — and all over this country; often from small towns or out of the way spots that I would never have a chance to visit on my own; often representing points of view that I might never run across face to face. They always remind me of how much real human beings cross the boundaries and categories we would prefer them to be enclosed in. I’m regularly slightly awed and often moved. It’s an experience, and I do my best, however briefly and inadequately, to answer most of them. (To those of you I haven’t answered, my apologies because your messages are greatly appreciated and the intent is there.)

Sometimes though, a letter arrives that I feel the urge to share with Tomdispatch readers. That happened recently. I had posted an article by Nick Turse about on-line military recruitment techniques (basically Pentagon cyberstalking of teens) and Chris Christensen, an airline pilot and veteran of the Vietnam War living in a small town in Texas, wrote in to thank Nick for his “very thorough piece on military recruiting practices and problems” as well as to discuss the death in Iraq of the son of a friend. I asked him if I might post his letter and he was quite willing. Letters like his matter — another that I posted was from Teri Allison, also from Texas (The Costs of War), whose son, unlike the boy Christensen knew well, did make it back.

In his letter, Christensen speaks of how video games influenced his friend’s son and I was reminded of this passage from the letter Sgt. Kevin Benderman, recently jailed for 15 months by the military, wrote to explain why he was refusing a second deployment to Iraq:

“I was in charge of a group of soldiers that were in their late teens through their early twenties and I had to constantly tell them to keep their heads down because they thought that the war was like the video games that they played back at the barracks. War is not like that at all and until you have the misfortune to engage in it for yourself you cannot begin to understand how insane it all is. There are no restart buttons on reality and that is why I cannot figure out why now we are pursuing such a policy in this day and age. War should be relegated to the shelves of history, as was human sacrifice.”

But I was also reminded of the degree to which journalism — especially the TV talking-heads variety — sometimes has the sterile feel of a video game in which points ping back and forth without anything of great human import ever seeming to be at stake. On the other hand, letters like Christensen’s are sobering. They remind me how much is indeed at stake. I think they keep me honest. They remind me as well — not that I should need it, being in a New York/Texas marriage — that all the comfortably split red-state/blue-state descriptions of this country can’t begin to capture its complexity, the complexity of red-state/blue-state families and red-state/blue-state selves.

The Iraq war is daily more horrific, for Iraqis and Americans. And that is finally being felt here. Something is slowly changing in this country. Another reader sent me a small piece from his local weekly, the Mount Desert Islander, describing a Fourth of July parade in Bar Harbor, Maine. I hung onto it doggedly, not quite knowing why. Now I do. Here’s part of the description:

“It ran through the crowd, a spontaneous, rolling wave of solidarity more than two miles long. In total it lasted for more than an hour. While Fourth of July parade entries with a decidedly political bent are nothing new in Bar Harbor, the reaction Monday to a group protesting the loss of life in Iraq was different. In the past, peace activists usually were greeted with stony silence. As they marched Monday, carrying banners adorned with scores of small American flags and the names of more than 1,400 Americans who have died in combat, several dozen protesters were instead greeted by a wave of applause from crowds of spectators on both sides of the street. It followed the group for most of the route… Politicians in Washington D.C. don’t need expensive opinion polls to see how deep the erosion of public support for the war in Iraq has gone. All they needed to do Monday was to watch events unfold on the streets of a small town in Maine on the Fourth of July.”

Maine or Texas, that passage caught something of the sobering spirit of this moment, as does Chris Christensen in his letter. ~ Tom

A Young Man’s Death: What Have We Come To?

Tom,

In our small town of Columbus, Texas (pop.3900), we buried one of our local sons on his 19th birthday. He was killed in action in Iraq. He was a friend of my two oldest sons and his father a friend of mine.

There is not a lot for a young man to do in our town, and most leave for college, jobs… etc. Christopher came to see me at his father’s request prior to enlisting last summer. I am an Air Force vet from Southeast Asia. I talked blue in the face to try to get Christopher to go with me to an Air Force or Navy recruiter. In fact, I told him in no uncertain terms that the Army would put a gun in his hand and send him out to be a target. No soap.

His head was already filled with a lot of crud from the recruiter about being a scout, riding a 4-wheeler ATV around — big fun! (Christopher was an Eagle Scout.) He had an acquaintance who had been doing that (not in Iraq), and I got the sense that this acquaintance was giving him the hard sell too. I wonder if the Army has a referral bonus system. Do you know?

Christopher also had this inexplicable desire to “go shoot some u2018Raqis.” Some latent desire maybe from too much video gaming. I heard that in the weeks before his death, he was involved in a brief fire-fight and froze in terror. No doubt reality caught up to him at the speed of a 7.62. Too bad his recruiter or buddy had not told him about the fear he would experience when he realized someone wanted to really hurt him or kill him.

When I learned of Christopher’s death, I was sitting at a PC in a hotel lounge in Manhattan. (I’m an airline pilot and was on a layover in New York.) I broke down and cried. There were lots of others around and I’m sure they were wondering… but none asked. I found I was crying not so much for the senseless loss of a young life, or even the grief our friends would bear. As I thought about it, I was crying for our country. What have we come to?

As I mentioned, there is not much for a young man to do in small towns like ours after high school. Christopher had mentioned to me when we talked last, before his enlistment, about riding that 4-wheeler ATV around as an Army scout and having a good time. His recruiter had him hooked. He also mentioned going to shoot some “‘Raqis.”

This is my sadness. Our children are being weaned on hatred and violence in this country. It starts with television, gets reinforced and is refined with violent video games (one, in particular, produced and distributed by the U.S. Army), and finally the infection spreads through violent team sports in high school. Football in the South is the battlefield training ground for the next generation of cannon fodder. Kids are told to go out there and “hurt ‘em, tear ‘em up, kill ‘em.” It is ingrained.

(Careful now, don’t get me confused with the liberal left. I own guns and support the right. There is a huge difference between defense of home and property and exporting violence to other countries.)

As I travel in other countries I see no parallel. There are of course team sports, but violence and undercurrents of hatred that lurk within are, as much as I can tell, not there.

Christopher didn’t know it, but as a small town southerner he was being trained for his death since early childhood.

Our little town votes mostly Democrat on local elections, but typically Republican in presidential races. Discussion or debate about policy in public is seldom heard and somewhat discouraged. What a shame. Most people around here take a passing interest in national or foreign policy for a week or two prior to an election, then just turn back to football, or whatever is covered on the sports page that day.

The notion of death or dismemberment at the hands of an enemy is so foreign as to be incomprehensible to most American youth. Our media does such a precise job of keeping images and details of such things out of the public eye. Not so for many foreign presses. Our schools would never consider teaching children about anything so morbid or unpleasant.

The thought that a boy like Christopher would so lightly desire to kill some people he knew nothing about is very distressing to me. On the one hand, Christopher was a pretty gentle and easy-going kid. If someone said to him, “Hey let’s go shoot some kids from Sealy,” a rival school, he would obviously have said, “You’re crazy — get lost!” But Iraqis, why it’s open season.

He only saw the differences. He had somehow developed enough hatred to override his sense of right and wrong, and any teaching of love of fellow man. He went to the Southern Baptist Church here, and I know it was taught to him. On the other hand, the president of the Southern Baptist convention declared this a “just war”. A little hypocrisy there and probably confusing for Christopher. We left that Church, by the way.

I know of a few men and women who knew Christopher, who have been supporting the occupation, and are beginning to change their minds. His death is the second our rural county has experienced in the last few months. It is beginning to change some attitudes here — but too late I’m afraid.

I hope that we learn sooner than we did in Vietnam that we can’t successfully force our ideals on another society unwilling to adopt them or defend them for themselves.

There just aren’t enough Christophers to go around.

~ Chris Christensen

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.

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