Friday, December 28, 2007

 

War and Ambivalence

Lawrence Kaplan offers some first person perspective on the US military’s sense of ownership of the war Iraq, in an essay published at Slate.

Kaplan “served” in Iraq as a (presumably fact-based) war correspondent for The New Republic (TNR) from 2004-2006, according to the biographical blurb on the bottom of the Slate piece. What a refreshing change from previous attempts by anyone associated with TNR to capture the essence of the Iraq War experience.

I make mention of Kaplan’s prior association, only to acknowledge his former employment, and mark the extreme contrast between other recent TNR efforts, and what Kaplan report here.

Kaplan relates his encounters with the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team (BCT): first in 2004, then again in 2005, 2006, and now in 2007. The soldiers Kaplan’s come to know live and breathe Iraq, whether in country or home.

To provide vivid example, Kaplan captures the experience of a 2nd BCT non-commissioned officer (NCO):

Sgt. Donald Thompson, a lanky 28-year-old from Florida, has served in Iraq every year since 2003. Nor, in this all-volunteer and largely self-contained force, does this make him all that unusual. During a foot patrol of a nearby orchard, Thompson stepped on a pressure-plate mine, and his left leg was nearly sheared off. After five months of recuperation in a burn ward, he volunteered to return to Iraq. There was, he suggested, a sort of gravitational pull at work. "I've been here when people were cheering us, when they're blowing us up," Thompson said. "I live this place."

My Iraqi experience as a Military Intelligence Battalion First Sergeant in no way compares to the experiences of SGT Thompson, or probably anyone of the 2nd BCT. They were and are combat soldiers, most on second, third, or even fourth deployments. I had one as a mobilized National Guardsman, largely forward operating base (FOB) bound, but I relate to living Iraq, even in small ways, even today.

And I can strongly identify with something else Kaplan notes about how many of us who’ve served our country in Iraq feel about our efforts in Iraq:

Neatly summarizing a narrative that has emerged from the ranks, the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks noted, "We in the military did what we were asked to do, but the politicians betrayed us, the media undercut us and the American people lack the patience to see it through."

Kaplan relates the assessment of another 2nd BCT NCO, and contrasts what he suggests might be “an exhausted army,” and one that still has victory on our minds:

Sitting on a bunk in Bravo Company's outpost, Staff Sgt. Corey Hollister noted the irony that, even as the debate in America remained bizarrely unaffected by the reality around him, "It's really military personnel and their families who don't want [the Army] to leave Iraq."

How could this be? An exhausted army is one thing. A defeated army is something else altogether. Anything but defeated, the 10th Mountain Division's Second Brigade Combat Team was officially welcomed home in a ceremony at Fort Drum, N.Y., the day before Thanksgiving. Bravo Company, too, was there. Whether they were truly home—that wasn't so clear.

I’m thinking Kaplan is using that “whether they were truly home” as an attempt at ambivalence.

All of us who have served in Iraq carry the burdens of that effort, internally or externally. Some paid the ultimate price. Many, and their families, made extreme sacrifices, or carry wounds both visible and invisible, acknowledged or ignored. Many of us too, feel an obligation to carry the message of the importance of victory, of keeping faith with our mission until relieved or the mission is well and fully accomplished.

All of us carry a piece of Iraq with us, whether for or against the war before, during, or after our service in Iraq. Regardless of any personal dimension or impression, I believe there’s a few things we can agree on in the aggregate.

Our military is far from defeated in Iraq. The surge has been a resounding success on every military level, and many political levels as well, domestically in the US and in the fledging Iraqi democracy. Units need to regroup, retool, especially Guard and Reserve forces, and there are strong indications that we need a larger military, better designed for the current operational tempo, and with the flexibility to maintain security, fight terrorism, and respond to new and emerging threats.

I remember working with an editor who thought one of my pieces -- eventually unpublished, despite our efforts – as “ambivalent.” As it turned out, the concluding line in that piece was:

Home can’t ever feel like Iraq, thank God, but home doesn’t feel like home anymore, either.

No doubt that editor would have appreciated the ambivalence in Kaplan’s conclusion.

I worked recently with a different editor, who began our collaboration to get a piece of mine suitable for publishing with the admonition, “I hate ambivalence.”

I think that might have had something to do with that piece eventually appearing in print. As much as we might appreciate ambivalence in any artistic effort, ambivalence in matters involving national security might not make for very good decision-making.

Because no matter what else Iraq was for myself or other veterans, I still think it an effort in which we need to succeed.

(Via Michael Goldfarb at WorldWide Standard)

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