Explaining Iraq, Ten Years Ago


Camp Parks, California. 2003.

I never went to Iraq.  (As it would happen, I got three tours in Afghanistan instead.)  As the prospect of war in Iraq loomed and the troop buildup in Kuwait went on, I was a Staff Sergeant in the Army Reserve, awaiting orders to come along with the rumors that had us deploying to Kuwait soon, sooner than we think.  The rumors abounded, but the orders never came.  Or at least not for me.

In early 2003, a handful of friends and colleagues from my Reserve unit were mobilized for the troop buildup in Kuwait.   My unit kept telling the rest of us that we would be next–that it was not a matter of if, but when.  We went through Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP) and, for the first time in my career, I filled out paperwork stating which of my family members would, among other matters, receive my remains.  My platoon sergeant kept telling us, “It’s about to get real.”

On March 19, 2003, I sat at home in Florida, watching along with the rest of America as “shock and awe” was broadcast as a sort of prime-time television spectacle, unable to turn away from the unprecedented aerial bombardment of Baghdad.   I wept.  I was one of only 22% of Americans who believed the war in Iraq was wrong.

But, that said, I had no idea what the war would become.  It became so much more than a simple moral binary or one politician’s policy.  It became the aggregate of the individual efforts–so many of them, nobly, to help innocent people, to work with Iraqi civilians and security forces to build a better future, and to help one another make it home alive–of many hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Coalition troops who deployed there between 2003 and the end of 2011.  It became the sacrifice of the 4,486 U.S. men and women who died in combat there.  It became the loss of possibly more than 160,000 Iraqi men, women, and children during nine years of war.  It became the struggle of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police, and government officials to lay a tenuous foundation for security and governance for post-Saddam Iraq, and that struggle yet continues.

In my early years of service, I became clear on one important point: America chooses its wars–the military doesn’t.  Everyone in the military swears an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and to obey the orders of the President and the officers appointed over us.  If we don’t like what our politicians are doing, we have the same recourse as every other U.S. citizen–we can vote.  Otherwise, we can choose either to step up and serve–or not.  As for me, I’ve always preferred to step up.

As I sat at home, waited on orders, finished my degree requirements, and tried to keep my cool about everything that was happening, I wrote.  My Reserve unit commander told us one drill to tell friends and family why it felt important to us to serve our country.  So that’s what I tried to do in sending a piece to Salon.  Here is the truncated version of what I sent them that they were kind enough to run online at http://www.salon.com/2003/03/27/homefront_thursday:

First Person

Notes from a reservist

The writer is a medical supply sergeant waiting to be called to the Middle East.

I finished my basic training course nine years ago. Since then, I have managed to complete both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree as a civilian. I am a student in the academic study of philosophy, religion, classical humanities and, most intensely, American literature and history. My mentors and colleagues have been writers and thinkers of exceptional capabilities — and many of them make a habit of “deconstructing” some of the things in which I find profound meaning.

One of my first faux pas as a graduate student was at an academic conference, during a session where professors and graduate students read papers analyzing the cultural effects of such films as Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”

One young man’s paper discussed how, despite the graphic realism of its combat scenes, the film still served as a narrative of heroism, and no doubt would serve as a recruitment tool for today’s military. This, he emphasized with a dismal tone of voice and dour expression, was not a good thing.

During the question and answer session, I addressed this young man and announced to a crowded room of listeners that, while I agreed that there was nothing beautiful or heroic about combat, there remained a real-life necessity for American citizens to prepare themselves to meet adversaries on the battlefield. Despite our best wishes and ideals, people across the globe have yet to dispense with warfare as a practical solution to conflicts, and I cannot agree that our nation should be the first to disarm. No doubt in our lifetime there will be a situation that calls upon our citizens to fight a bloody war, and my preference is that those citizens go voluntarily rather than as draftees. If Spielberg’s realism prompted a select few to step forward for that duty, then I find no trouble in that.

After I spoke, the room fell silent. The young man, still standing, swayed silently back and forth until the session moderator moved on by saying, “OK, thanks for your comment. Next question.”

I felt embarrassed after that session, grandstanding as I did about “real world” ideals that smell of banality to most academics. But that’s what basic training was about: getting us ready for the cruel necessities of, yes, the real world.

For me, the most memorable moment of basic training occurred when my platoon was on a break in a parking lot. Many of us were kneeling down or sitting on a curb to pass the 15 or so minutes in conversation, a welcome rest in the middle of another long day of training. The sun blazed down, and I had my uniform blouse off and my T-shirt sleeves pushed up to catch a few rays.

Along with our drill sergeants, my platoon had been assigned a West Point cadet as some sort of intern — a cadet no older than I was, but who commanded the same authority and potential to terrorize recruits as did the drill sergeants. There was one recruit in my platoon, a man named Obijayne, who was of particular interest to this cadet.

We all liked Obijayne. He was kind of quiet and easy to get along with; he got in his share of wisecracks but always had a word of encouragement ready for anyone, and had cool stories to tell us about being from Morocco. The cadet picked on him, we thought, because he was a few years older than us. Or maybe it was because he was Arab. We couldn’t tell what it was, and it didn’t matter to us anyway. Obijayne was just part of our team who kept getting singled out.

As we sat on break, a few of us realized that the cadet had pulled Obijayne away and into a field to do the grass drills we referred to as “front, back, go!” Obijayne jogged in place, dropped to the ground, rolled left, then right, and jumped up at each of the cadet’s commands, dripping with sweat and struggling to keep up.

“That fucking cadet,” one guy said. “I’m getting out there with him.”

And so all 54 of us, men and women alike, jumped up from our break and ran out to the field to “front, back, go!” with Obijayne for another 15 minutes, in the heat.

But that was then. Nowadays I stay glued to the news, hoping for the safety of the soldiers I know and the soldiers I don’t know. Just this past December, I attended a noncommissioned officer school, and many of my classmates are likely in the desert right now — a Ranger, two infantrymen, a tank commander, a decontamination specialist, a gunner, an MP, a land surveyor. I spent anywhere from 12 to 18 hours per day for 13 days in a classroom with these guys, conducting morning exercise, sharing three meals a day, studying together, and even playing a few hands of spades.

And as with Obijayne, I don’t want any of those guys out there under fire without me falling in right behind them.

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