What Has Happened to Us?

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My twenty years in the military seem like a distant memory now, even though it was only three and a half years ago that I left the Pentagon.

My mental scrapbook is filled with bits and pieces of the things we officers all knew to be true, things we all understood, things only we knew how to decipher. Like believing we were indeed on the leading edge of something special, something "American," something permanently useful and singularly sacrificial. We cultivated a secret and shared awareness of esoteric writings, like deployment orders, speeches of the great leaders, annual officer evaluations and glowing award citations.

Lest I sound too Straussian, we never imagined ourselves as an elite. In fact, the military tends to imagine itself common, regular, populist, patriotic. We officers enthusiastically lean toward the middle-of-the-road as we look to our next promotion, our next position of responsibility, our next wink and nod of supervisory approval. We are nothing if not political, as Stan Goff recently explained with an IED of an essay that smashed those threadbare yet cherished Pentagon fantasies of duty, honor, country.

Fred Reed recently pegged my old crowd more than fairly. With the sage assessments of Goff and Reed ringing true, it would seem I could no longer be surprised. It would seem that I couldn’t be any more embarrassed, any more shamed, any more infuriated. After all, once we recognize a king’s guard, a Praetorian force, or the standing army of an empire, we have our main course. The rest is small talk and idle chatter.

Then I happened upon the Summer 2006 edition of the VMI Alumni Review. In it was a feature article by Major Mitch H. Fridley, USAR, Class of 1989.

Last spring, the Ring Figure Committee Chairman for the Class of 2008 sent a bar of metal to Major Fridley, who was then serving in the Force Management Section, Ops Directorate, Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, Baghdad, 5 August 2005 to 15 July 2006, Operation Iraq Freedom.

One chortles at the number of curiosities here, and any of them — the eternal nature of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the idea of force being actually managed in Iraq, the multi-nationalness-lessness of this particular President’s war, the crisp timetables of six-month service for officers in the Green Zone but not for the White House at the top nor the enlisted stop-lossed grunts at the bottom — any of these topics might be entertaining, and even funny. But I’m writing about none of these today.

The bar of metal was to have been taken by Major Fridley "out on a mission" and returned to VMI where the Class of 2008 leadership intended to "…melt down the metal and add it to their class rings to symbolize the sacrifice and service of the VMI cadets and alumni serving in the armed forces…" in the Middle East.

Major Fridley did this favor for the class of 2008, and he wrote a long letter describing his tour in Iraq, and the mission in which he christened the metal bar. He also shared with the cadets (and everyone who receives the VMI Alumni Review) the award citation for the Bronze Star Medal he received for his six months on staff in the Green Zone.

Incidentally, the Bronze Star Medal was established late in World War II as a morale booster for infantrymen who led "miserable lives of extreme discomfort."

In Major Fridley’s letter, he described the mission of the metal bar.

Americans own the roads. Our four HMMWVs in tight single file formation speed through the city streets at 50 mph, sirens blaring and gunners up on the turrets waving traffic out of the way. The locals pull off the road. If they don’t pull over, they risk getting shot….If we run into a traffic jam, we immediately jump the curb and "swim upstream" into oncoming traffic to get around the jam. We executed this maneuver a half a dozen times on this day. …Everyone is intense, scanning the roads for potential suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) and snipers. Even without being attacked, in the 110 degree heat and constant high level of alert, we are worn out after a day on the road.

Major Fridley goes on to describe the process of having a picture of him and the bar of metal taken with a group of Iraqi Police and Facilities Protective Service Academy officers. Already echoing earlier American imperial adventures in language and tone, Major Fridley gives an American nod to Rudyard Kipling, noting that while he was unable to explain the significance of the picture, in the end "Iraqis love picture taking and they were happy to join in."

This profundity was immediately followed by an "Editor’s Note" saying that "Unfortunately, the resulting photo could not be included with this article." Given that the irrational, the ahistorical, and the bizarre have become the new normal, the editors could well have added "the world wonders why" to the end of the Editor’s note. But of course, we don’t wonder. It is understood around the world, even in Virginia, that Iraqis helping the Americans "liberate" their country and "give" them democracy mustn’t be publicly identified lest they be slaughtered as traitors without delay, along with their extended families.

The simple and honest description of our routine occupational behavior, innocently juxtaposed with the interesting factoid that our little brown brothers in Baghdad "love picture taking" was enough to turn my stomach. What have we become?

I can’t answer that question. All I know for sure is that according to the Bronze Star Medal citation, outstanding performance has occurred, some things were successfully orchestrated, others were executed to achieve outstanding success, and Major Fridley’s actions are in keeping in the finest traditions of military service and reflect distinct credit upon himself, the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, and the United States Army.

Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send her mail], a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for MilitaryWeek.com, hosted the call-in radio show American Forum, and blogs occasionally for Huffingtonpost.com and Liberty and Power. Archives of her American Forum radio program can be accessed here and here. To receive automatic announcements of new articles, click here. This article originally appeared on MilitaryWeek.com.

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