I served in the Army during Bush I v. Iraq. It was a different war, then. Despite serving in the air assault infantry, no one in my brigade saw any real action. As far as I know, every unit in my division, the 101st Airborne, spent its days as my platoon did: running battle drills and playing spades, waiting for an order to invade Iraq that never came.
A few days prior to the Jan. 15 deadline (for complete Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait), my platoon was in the Sauds’ Arabia guarding a pile of granite or some other such high-priority military target. We knew the deadline approached, and were clueless as to our leader’s planned response. It wasn’t difficult to envision scenarios with bullets and bombs headed in our direction.
One evening, during a meal break from guarding a post, I took a seat on a wall of sandbags next to my buddy Steve. Steve and I had been roommates back at Ft. Campbell and we did what we could to look out for one another. He was a good ol’ West Virginian, redneck through-and-through. Under different circumstances, such as back home and in college in western NY, I probably wouldn’t have said two words to him. I was as much Yankee as he was not-Yankee. But serving in the military can do things to a soul, many of them insufficiently reflected upon at the time. Stereotypes meet reality; prejudices are faced with personalities.
Steve and I were night and day in terms of music, clothes, interests, backgrounds, etc. But we agreed on some things. We agreed that Sgt. So-and-so was a butthead, and we agreed that a Saturday afternoon spent beside the water with a 12-pack was a pretty fine idea. Sometimes, that’s enough. And occasionally, despite all the differences, those few and seemingly trivial similarities become a conduit for the deeper revelations; for the stuff you don’t see coming.
Such as that evening on the sandbags.
“Dan,” Steve said to me, breaking a comfortable silence, “I didn’t tell my mom I love her before we left.”
Whoa. How in the heck do you respond to that? “Yeah, you probably should’ve done that” seemed a bit insensitive. I just gave him an understanding nod, as men are prone to do. I knew that if I were to make it home and he didn’t, I would make sure his mother knew he said that. It’s not the kind of message anyone wants to deliver, but you know that in that worst-case scenario you are the bridge between your buddy and his last earthly communication to his mother.
All this on a sandbag eating vacuum-sealed corned beef hash. Didn’t see it coming.
Today’s soldiers are facing hardships and horrors that I never had to experience. But there are aspects of the soldier’s experience in war which transcend time and place, culture and language. There are men and women in Iraq right now who are repeating things said during Iraq I and WWI; said by Alexander’s troops and by the legionnaires of Rome; etc., etc., etc.
Right now, some 19-year-old just like Steve is telling his buddy that he should have told his parents he loved them. Or he should have been kinder to his wife. Or closer to God. Or something. And he means to rectify that mistake, if only he can make it through the bombings and surprise attacks.
But he might not. And I have to ask: is this boy’s life worth it?
Was his life worth risking to remove Saddam from power and to remove WMDs that turned out not to exist? If you answer in the affirmative, well, fortunately that kid made it through.
But what are you supporting now? Democracy in Iraq? Democracy in Iraq?!? Do me a favor turn off the television and navigate away from the media-giant web sites. Learn a little about the history of that region and its people. Our government is trying to sell ice cubes to an Eskimo, and it is not a very good salesman.
And Mr. and Mrs. America, I believe you already know that. Polls are showing a steady increase in the percentage of Americans who favor a complete withdrawal from Iraq.
But I think that you’ve known for longer than that, haven’t you? You heard that election day voting stations were being guarded by razor wire, bunkers, and soldiers with guns. You knew that the threat of force was necessary to hold these “free” elections. And you knew that your leaders and the media were telling you that this was a day of great progress.
And you scratched your heads and asked for some clarification, but your leaders and media missed the question and went right on talking about other things.
You should have cleared your throat, said “Excuse me,” and asked again.
The question is that important. Why are soldiers required for free, democratic elections? Why are the lives of Iraqi politicians in jeopardy? Why do the majority of Iraqis prefer to risk the consequences of US withdrawal over continued US presence?
We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do…
Some people, however, are well aware of the facts, and argue that Iraq isn’t ready yet. But it will be. Just you wait and see. They openly speak of a generational process. Let’s throw some numbers out, just for fun. Imagine that you knew now that the process would take another 40 years, another $1.5 trillion, and another 100,00 spent American youth. Would it be worth it, to bring democracy to Iraq?
Oh, I know…I’m not seeing the whole picture. Democracy will sprout in Iraq and sprawl across the region until there is a McDonald’s on every corner. I already told you go learn a bit about the history of the region. It’s not going to happen; at least not in any timeframe suitable for the initiatives of an American president.
So why does anyone still want our boys and girls there? Why will some of them never come home alive? For what?
Let Steve come home. He has something important to tell his mother.
June 24, 2005
Dan Stoffel [send him mail] writes from Western NY and served in the 101st Airborne Infantry in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He blogs at ThoughtMisdemeanors.blogspot.com and BandanaRunner.blogspot.com.