This past September, I returned to my home duty station from Iraq. I was greeted rather graciously by home unit when I returned there, and by my family when I returned to visit my home town. Was there a ticker-tape parade, or even a letter from some of the fine folks who claim to “support our troops”, whether by supporting our mission, calling for us to come home, or by putting a yellow magnetic ribbons on their SUVs? No, and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have wanted any of that. When I returned home, all I wanted was to see and be with my family, because that reunion was not, to my mind, guaranteed, and it was, ultimately, the most important thing in the world to me when I was ducking and covering during rocket attacks on our base. Political considerations took a back seat, and I certainly didn’t want to hear a bunch of insincere praise from people who don’t know or care to know who I am underneath the uniform.
But now that the moment has passed and I’ve returned to my duty section and started the process of leaving that all behind me, certain things have crept up, and I’m not sure what to make of them.
I’ve read the story about former Lance Corporal James Blake Miller, better known in the press as the “Marlboro Marine”. He’s been kicked out of the Marines for having PTSD, is jobless, and divorced. He survived the Iraq War, but he’s still given up the life that he had. He lobbied several congressmen on behalf of the National Mental Health Association, but none had any interest in taking up his cause or, in at least one case, even seeing him. They politely shuffled him along and presumably went on to meet with more “important” lobbyists (and we all know what makes someone “important” in Washington, right?)
I read of the homeless vets, how one in every four homeless persons is a vet, and that Iraq War veterans are finding themselves on the street more quickly than Vietnam veterans. I should have been outraged, but instead I simply thought, “maybe that’s where I’ll end up.” I can’t make any sense of these thoughts, but in the past week or so I’ve had a strong urge to simply drop out of society, to just quit. What would be the loss? My frequent moves while I’ve been in the military have kept me perpetually single, so I have no family obligations. Once my term of service is up, I’ll have no further military obligations. What do I do with my life then? I’ve given thought to going into journalism, but that’s driven by a desire to affect change and make the world a better place. I still have that desire, but I’m no longer certain that I have the ability. For all the writing I do, it seems that nobody with the power to act on my words listens to them, and I honestly have a much better track record of “being right” in recent years than the majority of the power brokers in Washington.
I can no longer abide being a mere symbol in some politician’s crusade. “Support or Troops”, as though we‘re a baseball team. “I Support the Troops and My President”, as though the two go hand in hand. “Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home Alive”, as though clever framing amounts to anything but kudos from your fellow peace activists. Every day that passes, more of my brothers and sisters in arms are dying, and every day more of us are asking why. We have not, to date, received anything but platitudes from the people who support the war or excuses from the people who oppose it. “If I would have known then what I know now…” Known what, Senator? That war is hell, and that every battle plan goes out the window the moment the first shot is fired? People have been saying these things for centuries, millennia. These are not new lessons, but perhaps your study of history is limited to the lessons applicable to your ascent to power. To the millions who marched in the streets trying to tell you then what you know now, you turned a deaf ear.
To those who still support our mission? I’ll give you credit for staying true to your convictions, but to what end are we fighting? Can I get a straight answer from you just once? Not just a platitude espousing the virtues of freedom being on the march when freedom in Iraq seems to be synonymous with large explosions, gunfire, and flag-draped caskets rolling in front of me? To borrow a phrase, what the hell are we fighting for? Nobody really seems to know, any more -- even the people who insist that we have to keep fighting.
I’m not talking about politicians, pundits, bloggers, or callers on talk radio. I’m talking about my fellow service members, my fellow Iraq War veterans. Many of us are (were) not quite clear on what we’re doing there, and we’ve more or less resigned ourselves to the notion that it’s out of our hands. The powers that be in Washington are going to do what they’re going to do, and it’s going to have little to do with anything we do, for good or for ill. But is that as it should be?
I question whether you, who would ask for my vote (and my money) based on promises you’ve no obligation to keep, really feel as though you are accountable to us for the decisions you either have made or will make in the future. If I, in the course of my duties in Iraq, made a mistake that cost someone his life, I would rightly have to be accountable for that. You, who made a mistake that cost literally thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis their lives, ask for a promotion. Do you feel that you have at least a moral obligation to stop and listen to what I have to say for a few seconds before you turn around and hit me up for cash? The answer seems to be no, based on the response I’ve received trying to contact various Presidential candidates.
But I am here, and I’m not going to go away. My ranks are swelling, and soon we will be legion. You have only yourselves to thank for that.
What of you, who opposed it? Congratulations, you were on the popular side of this discussion before it was cool. Of late though, I am decreasingly impressed with your prognostic skills. You were only as right as the bloggers and protestors and hippy demonstrators with an internet connection and the attention span to figure out that something didn’t quite add up. Really, in between patting yourself on the back for how right you were, take a moment to ask yourself if you’re aware that there were a whole swath of people in the streets who were just as right, but who’ve never had a microphone put in front of their faces or had the opportunity to have an actual conversation with one of the people asking to be elevated to the highest office of the land. And to have your primary qualification simply be that you were as smart as the rest of us? It leaves much to be desired, congressman.
To what end do I extend my efforts when the people with the true power to change the world only listen to the people who pay for their political campaigns? Perhaps I hope that, like a dog barking in the night, I’ll start a chain reaction of other dogs barking, until so many of us are making so much noise that you can no longer sleep and are compelled to open your window and yell at us to shut up. And at that moment, we will jump in your window, pee on your carpet, eat your food, and tear your house apart. You’ll wonder, stupidly, what just happened and why all these dogs are in your house, but it will no longer matter.
It will be our house.