FREE Download of "Shock and Awe" from the album Giants (2005, Scuffletown Records)
Yesterday I had a nice conversation with Mike, an Iraq War veteran. He gave me an estimate on a roof replacement for our rent house. I noticed the Wounded Veteran bumper sticker on his Dodge Ram and--noting the anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War--I asked him about it. He was a sniper in Iraq with Special Forces out of Fort Campbell. He signed up on his 18th birthday and found himself in Baghdad at the height of the surge in 2007. He was wounded but went back again in 2010, only to be wounded again. Two tours, two purple hearts. "Commendations," he said with a wry grin, "for being both blown up and shot."
I have such deep admiration for warriors like Mike, courageous men and women who have seen and experienced more before the age of 20 than I will in my entire lifetime. As respectfully as I could, I asked him what he thought about the war, whether the politics of it ever entered the war zone. "Sure," he offered, "you can't help but think about it when you're over there, whether or not you're just out for revenge for the president's Daddy, pissing billions of dollars out the ying-yang and runnin' up debt. A lot of us were wondering about that. But you can't let it take you over mentally because you have a job to do." I wanted to ask him if he thought the war was a mistake, but I didn't feel it was my place to ask such a thing. How would you phrase a question like that anyway? "So, Mike, do you feel that you and your buddies sacrificed your bodies, minds, spirits, and--in 4,488 cases--lives, for absolutely nothing?"
The other day I heard a pundit on NPR say that no soldier ever dies for nothing. Soldiers don't get to choose their wars, he said. They die serving their country. That ultimate sacrifice, that valor, supersedes any political debate about whether the war they fight in is just or not. That is a noble thought, perhaps designed to bring comfort to families of fallen soldiers. But just because they die with honor does not mean they do not die senselessly. And if you carry his argument out further, then every war is ultimately justified, every war is sanctioned. It becomes a case of "my country, right or wrong." I can say with a good degree of certainty what soldiers died for in World War II. Ask the same question about Iraq and it gets muddy. I'd say they died because of the reckless, wrong headed, cowboy mentality of the civilian leadership that put them in harm's way. An administration filled with hypocrites who used privilege to evade their own generation's war in Vietnam.
It is hard to believe that exactly 10 years ago Baghdad blazed with the deadly American pyrotechnical show our fearless leaders called Shock and Awe. It turned out to be the opening act for a drunk headliner, a spectacular exhibition of raw power followed by a series of indelible images marking our decline. We expected roses at the curtain call. Instead it was well aimed loafers thrown by broken, angry people. I can only look back at this decade with profound sadness. I can find nothing positive in our adventure in Iraq. The greatest shame about this anniversary is that it didn't have to happen. Arguably the worst strategic error in American history, Iraq was a war of choice not of necessity.
As each weak justification for preemptive war fell on it's face, another was trotted out for public consumption. Even the removal of Saddam Hussein--often listed as the one successful outcome of the conflict--seems questionable now given the current power vacuum and a nuclear bent Iran. A majority of Americans now deem the Iraq War to be a mistake (http://www.gallup.com/poll/161399/10th-anniversary-iraq-war-mistake.aspx). History will see it as more than a mistake; it was an epic catastrophe with far reaching and long lasting consequences. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, there is no doubt that the war defined a generation and forever changed the face of America both at home and abroad.
As Mike handed me the estimate for the roof, I shook his hand and expressed my appreciation for his service to the country. I thanked him as well for the candid conversation. I was again struck by his youth and resilience. I felt small, even guilty in a way. At 18, I was backpacking across Europe. Mike's rite of passage was provided by Uncle Sam and involved learning how to kill people. In this scene, I was miscast in the role of Older Wiser Man. I should have read for the part of Man Who Doesn't Know Jack Shit.
I asked him how he felt when he returned from the war for the last time. His eyes searched the distant sky. He said, "after I got home I'd hear someone complain about trivial things. After doing what I did and seeing what I saw, I'd think to myself: they have absolutely no idea." Perhaps he sensed my thoughts, or maybe he saw the Obama sticker on my car. He smiled wide and leaned in: "My life now, what I do? It is what it is. But I miss my friends in the military. I'd do it all again in a heartbeat."