On a day, of which the tenth anniversary is fast approaching, I was standing on a roundabout watching a bunch of people I knew and a machine I was familiar with rip down a statute. It was a day seared into my memory as I was thoroughly convinced that I was in the midst of an iconic moment. In some ways that belief was correct. Only it was just not the type of icon I was thinking it would be.
Baghdad, Early, 2003
I wrote a book, and sold it based upon simply being present on that day in that locattion. I’ve been asked to give interviews (generally all around March or April of each year) not because I have anything particularly insightful to say about the invasion of Iraq, but merely because I was there. Present. Around. As the color of that day slowly desaturates in a process which only time understands and can justify, I have been reflecting not upon a machine, a chain, and a bronze statute. Instead, I’ve been reflecting upon something else.
At some point in the day, I and some friends were asked to give an interview. This was an exciting opportunity for the 26 year old version of the version of me currently typing this. It was exciting for two reasons in particular. First, I knew that there was a decent chance that word of the interview would float through the social networks of the time to my family. I thought someone somewhere will see this and let someone know and thereon until (hopefully) my family get some word that everything was OK. Second, I was excited about the interview because it was with ABC News. This was the outlet I used to watch as a growing child, a nightly voice, iconography, and color scheme that I knew well. I, along with some other friends, was going to be interviewed by Peter Jennings. And that dude’s a legend.
During the interview, I’m pretty sure that I really only had one line. Too nervous (and star struck perhaps) to say much else. But I did get in a line. Later my mother told me that while she recognized my face during the first part of the interview, she only really knew it was me when she saw the sarcasm drip from my mouth. The irony is that, for once in my life, I actually wasn’t trying to be sarcastic. Peter asked the group of three or four of us that were gathered on the balcony of the Palestine Hotel if we felt safer now that we were in Baghdad. It was, frankly, a stupid question to ask a group of Marines from an infantry battalion laden with weapons and youthful egos.
My friend Jack, who eventually became my co-author, gave the answer that you are supposed to give in such situations. He said that it did not matter, that our guard was up and we were fully prepared for anything that may come — whether that was a chicken dinner or a bunch of bullets — and that we were ready and capable of responding appropriately. During the days that followed, in the chaos that was the early days of post-invasion Baghdad, we would have to face both of those scenarios, and many more, sometimes at the same moment.
The war junky reporter on the ground pointed the mic at me, and (at least as I remember it) I simply asked one question: “Do you feel safer now that we are here?”
Twenty-Nine Palms, CA, Late, 2002
In the run up to the war I did not allow any part of my brain to engage in an intellectual discourse with any other part of my brain as to the rightness or wrongness of the job any idiot could see was coming for us. I had a job to do, and I was damn determined to be good at that job. Or at least, to try my best to be good at it. I was worried that if I allowed the self-felating ethical discourse to overtake and supplant my thinking that I would not be as fast, as precise, as on as I needed to be in order to actually accomplish the job that was coming for me. Perhaps, upon reflection from the perspective of ten years, that was the incorrect decision.
Perhaps it was the correct decision. Either way, it would not have mattered. I did not meet the religious pre-affiliation rules in order to actually be a conscientious objector and therefore it was going to be an offense that would lead me to a court martial if I did not do my best to accomplish my job. And when I’m brutally honest with myself, I was excited about it. I wanted to go. Because when you go into the Marines, especially into an infantry battalion, if you don’t go to war it is basically just masturbation.
During this time, before we deployed to Kuwait, my friend Faith forwarded an email detailing the time and location of upcoming anti-war demonstrations in New Orleans where she was living at the time. To my …@usmc.mil email address. When I first got the email I smiled. I was pleased that anti-war demonstrations were happening. In some ways it made it easier to accept my own, conscious, lack of any ethical discourse within myself. But to my work email address? I saw that it was just to a bunch of people, as many forwarded emails were in the times before facebook. So I didn’t really blame her. Yet, I did respond to the email. Although I don’t fully remember what I wrote, I think it was something along the lines of “Thanks for the email. I fully support your right to do that. Just don’t send any such emails to my work account!”
I do remember thinking at one point after I replied (in probably an overly cold way) that that was their job and I had my job and our jobs were different. Then I simply put it out of my mind and went about preparing what needed to be prepared.
Hargeisa, Somaliland, Early, 2013
My reply to Peter Jennings was not meant as sarcasm. My reply was meant honestly. Although my voice, combined with my love of sarcasm, led most to believe I meant it sarcastically. After the intensity of the now that was then has dissipated and we Americans are forced to live with the choices of the leaders we chose, and the knowledge that many Iraqis are also forced to live with the choices of the leaders they did not choose, I will ask it again. “Do you feel safer now that we are here?”
I will stop at this point and say one thing. If someone wants to put some faux comment on this post saying, “thank you for your service” I will delete it. I absolutely abhor those comments. They ring hollow to me and mean absolutely nothing. I did not really serve. I did a job. Sure those that entered the armed forces after 9/11 knew, in a way that I had no idea of when I signed on the line, or, at a minimum, they had some idea of, what they were getting into. Perhaps they “served” in the sense that word is often used. But I did not. I simply did a job. A job that I was contractually obliged to do. And, perhaps, wanted to do. But either way, it was a job.
Yet there’s another, more important, reason that I abhor that phrase.
Champaign, Illinois, Late, 1999
We had a tradition in our Naval Reserve Officer’s Training Corp (ROTC) group that on the last Thursday before anyone graduated they had an opportunity to take the floor. Most used it as a way to proffer vapid “advice” on matters of which they knew not or to provide idiotic thank yous to people they would never see again and perhaps neither liked nor respected. That all seemed quite stupid to my 23 year old self. When my turn came, after some of my best and greatest friends had their chance to say what they felt appropriate to say, I stood up and recited the following.
John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore His mama sure was proud of him! He stood straight and tall in his uniform and all His mama’s face broke out all in a grin
“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine You make me proud to know you hold a gun Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”
As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood: “That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know” She made well sure her neighbors understood
She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile As she showed them to the people from next door And she bragged about her son with his uniform and gun And these things you called a good old-fashioned war
Oh! Good old-fashioned war!
Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come They ceased to come for about ten months or more Then a letter finally came saying, “Go down and meet the train Your son’s a-coming home from the war”
She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around But she could not see her soldier son in sight But as all the people passed, she saw her son at last When she did she could hardly believe her eyes
Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off And he wore a metal brace around his waist He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know While she couldn’t even recognize his face!
Oh! Lord! Not even recognize his face
“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done How is it you come to be this way?” He tried his best to talk but his mouth could hardly move And the mother had to turn her face away
“Don’t you remember, Ma, when I went off to war You thought it was the best thing I could do? I was on the battleground, you were home . . . acting proud You wasn’t there standing in my shoes”
“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here? I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’ But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
Oh! Lord! Just like mine!
“And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink That I was just a puppet in a play And through the roar and smoke, this string is finally broke And a cannonball blew my eyes away”
As he turned away to walk, his Ma was still in shock At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand But as he turned to go, he called his mother close And he dropped his medals down into her hand
~ John Brown by Bob Dylan (lyrics available here).
Here I was, 23. Mere days from beginning The Basic School, which is where all Marine Officers begin their journey. Reciting the lyrics of a poet famously known for his anti-war positions to a bunch of people who were only months away from beginning their journeys in the military. But I had a point. A point I still believe deeply in. A point I never explained, as when I finished reciting the poetry that is Dylan’s song I simply walked out of the room (or just sat down, can’t remember exactly).
Fourteen years later, let me get to the point. If you are going to do this thing called the military. Called war. Know what the hell you are getting yourself into.
I did not mean don’t do war, and there is nothing within the song (even from my now quite adamant anti-war position) that is actually overtly anti-war. The real message of the song is that those that cheerlead for war without understanding the consequences of what they are saying do a great disservice to those that actually do go to war. Those that go to war, that enter the military, are forced to struggle with what this means to each. This thing we call war. Of course what it means, being an existential question, will differ from person to person. The point is not the answer arrived at by any individual, the point is that the individual took that journey. Dylan was not saying that those people who embark upon this journey and exit it with some conclusion are bad. He was not saying that war was bad or good, right or wrong, or any other other banal symbols lazy people use when they do not want to struggle with a difficult question. What Dylan was saying is that those who cheerlead from the sidelines but do not embark upon this journey themselves — with honesty and self-reflection — are more harming to society than those that hold the guns and fire the rounds.
Hargeisa, Somaliland, Early, 2013
And this is how I find most of the “thanks for your service”. So let me say it more clearly. Just because Fox News, whose editorial board learned from the heartbreaking stories of Vietnam veterans (who often had no choice whether to go and who often acted in the best way they knew in some crazy situations) returning home to be spat upon, tells people that it is somehow patriotic to thank veterans for their service does not mean that it actually is. Am I saying that it is bad to say that, or that others will not fully appreciate if one were to say the same phrase to them? Not in the slightest. But I am saying that, to me, the phrase is mostly a vapid self-justification more beneficial to the speaker than to the spoken.
“Do you feel safer now?” I meant it when I said it. And I mean it now. It is easy for us that feel the Iraq War was a shameful enterprise to embark upon to blame Bush and Cheney for entering a war unilaterally, without justification that has cost over 4,400 American lives, cost probably a hundred times that in Iraqi lives, brought innumerable wounds, severed innumerable families, and cost over $3T (money which would have solved world hunger twice over by many estimates). In my mind that is not the question. Sure Bush and Cheney were power hungry, manipulative, and greedy. You don’t become President of the United States by being humble. We Americans, we reward the greedy, hungry, manipulative people in business, in politics, in celebrity culture. We have done it for years and there is no abatement in sight. In fact the “American Dream” is simply a less egregious version of this. In other words, we have built it into our Nation’s DNA. While I have problems, big problems, with their legal justification for entering the war and I am wary that we have set a precedent within international law that does not progress us humans down the road of tolerance and dialogue, I don’t blame them any more than I blame America as a whole.
In the last few days I’ve seen an onslaught of mea culpas from media elite saying, why didn’t we do our job as the media? That’s fine. They should feel guilt as they committed gross malpractice. But there was plenty of commentary available, even in those days before social media (did the world exist before social media?), to those that wanted to find it. Hell, I knew it was around and I was actively trying to avoid it. So, if I’m honest with myself they certainly played their part, but I don’t blame them any more than I blame America as a whole.
What I meant when I asked Peter Jennings, and his many American viewers, that question is this. I am doing my job. A job that collectively, you citizens, you media, and you the leaders we all elected collectively, have sent me to do. My own personal views as to my safety is 100% beside the point. I am a Marine. My job is to stand between danger and Americans. I am trying my best to do this. But you, the American people must ask yourself, do YOU feel safer? I’ve done my part, my job. Did you do yours?
Who do I blame the most, if blame is to be apportioned at all? I blame the cheerleaders. All of them. From the bureaucracy to the media to the businessmen licking their chops at the chance to exploit defense budgets to the average citizens putting up yellow ribbons and in their hearts pleased that their son/daughter/brother/sister/friend was “doing their part.” I blame the cheerleaders for not learning from the demonstrators.
So the next time you simply take a politician at their word without a thoughtful examination of what you actually think on the matter, the next time you choose to rename “french fries” to “freedom fries” because the French polity had the gall to challenge their leaders and to demand a continuation of the, admittedly cold, peace. In these times, ask yourself: “Do I feel safer now?”
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