To a Soldier in Iraq
Last fall my nephew Danny was sent into combat in Iraq . He is there now. A tall and gentle young man in the reserves, he has been accompanying Iraqi foot patrols in Fallujah and Mosul . A couple of weeks ago a mortar round blew a hole in his foot. He is recuperating at a base camp and soon will return to combat duty.
He and I are the only members of our family who have been to Iraq – me with a peace team and he with a war one. I feel close to Danny because of this shared destiny, though we are worlds apart. His letters are full of striking descriptions like this:
“We passed small shops with their metal shutters locked down, the shutters buckled and scorched with gaping holes of every size rent through them. The truck skittered and jumped around the ragged holes torn by mortars in the pavement. Buildings with black soot marks streaking up from windows where fires had burned uncontrolled, walls that looked like the surface of the moon pockmarked from countless bullets.”
I would like to write Danny a letter, but I can’t. I don’t want to undermine his belief that he is doing some good over there – a belief that helps to keep him sane. But if I could write him, I would write something like this:
I called your mother today to congratulate her on becoming a grandmother. So now you are an uncle! Your little niece stares up from her cradle somewhere far from where you stare up from your cot, your foot in its air bandage. I remember once you were just like her, the smell of angel all over you. Now you rest in Camp Cuervo , and the smell of war is all over you. Danny, what have your baby’s eyes seen? What has this world done to you? To all of us?
As I write it is the second anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq . Two years and two weeks ago Rabia and I left Baghdad , pulling out before the bombs dropped. I remember vividly the faces of our Iraqi friends as we said goodbye. Perhaps you have seen some of them.
I remember when I asked our friend Ahmed in Baghdad what would happen if the Americans invaded, he answered, “Look, if Americans or anyone comes to Iraq as friends, we will be friends. But if they come with guns, then Iraqis will fight them.”
Danny, why are you in Iraq ? Do you know? I can’t believe it’s for the reasons the politicians talk about. Your mother tells me you have the nature of a warrior – not the Rambo type but the kind of man who feels most real when he can be of help to others in an extreme and dangerous situation. The smell of cordite and the whiz of bullets, the intense awareness, as you wrote about in your first combat: “My nervous energy was almost palpable, neither scared nor excited, simply very aware.”
What is this awareness that is so charged for you? Is it the nearness of death that amps your feeling of being alive? Is it the opportunity to prove your worth? Feeling so alive because you did something brave to help somebody? You have an identity now—is that what you wanted? When you get home people will know you’re a combat vet. Nobody will mess with you. And privately we’ll worry that what you have witnessed and done over there is brooding inside you, saddening your gaze.
I imagine you think I judge you negatively for being an American soldier in Iraq . I don’t. Actually I think America , and the world, owes you an apology. We owe an apology to you and all the young men and women fighting there against each other, on both sides of the conflict. We failed you. Twenty or thirty years ago each of you, soldiers and insurgents alike, were as trusting and angelic as your sister’s baby. Now you hunt each other down in dusty alleys. And twenty years from now, will your little niece follow in your footsteps, her eyes like yours “scanning for danger” across the rooftops?
It doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t need to continue. The better world you want to create is crying out to be created everywhere you turn, but not down the muzzle of an M-16. Like the father, who himself was beaten as a child, lifting his hand against his own son and then stopping, we must stop trying to change the behavior of the world through violence. Yes, there are some circumstances when violence is the only course to stave off more violence, but those circumstances are already evidence of our failure to act soon enough and in a more enlightened way. I am certain that the community of nations could have either neutralized Saddam or gotten rid of him without having to devastate generations of men and women on both sides of this conflict.
I have been traveling in the Middle East and around the world for many years and have witnessed first-hand the decline of America ‘s reputation following the invasion of Iraq . Yes Arabs still offer us as individuals their hospitality, but they are deeply hurt and angered by our country’s policies and never waste an opportunity to tell us.
Imagine if we were spending the present war budget of four billion dollars per month on projects that would heal rather than destroy. Imagine the good will that would generate—like the aid we gave Muslim nations after the tsunami. Imagine if our government had given scholarships to five Iraqis to come to your furniture workshop back home in Massachusetts and learn from you your skills and your gentle way of relating and your love of the salt air blowing in from the sound?
There is a great work waiting for you, Danny, a conquest more challenging than all the wars that have ever been fought. A world is waiting to be built, one that truly cares for the children. This is a work that will take centuries and the sacrifices and creativity of countless Isaiahs. If you want to build character and a brave identity, here’s one for you: be a peacemaker. If you want to feel exquisitely alive, here’s a way: hold your baby niece in your arms. Or, in an alternate reality, hold in your arms the baby daughter of one of those Iraqi men who is out there waiting to kill you, only in this alternate reality he is standing next to you smiling at his new friend.
And if you want danger, there’s plenty of it. Join a peace team in Sri Lanka or Columbia or the Philippines that provides nonviolent protective accompaniment to people whose lives have been threatened. Monitor a cease-fire in Palestine . Bring supplies to earthquake victims. Be a firefighter. Teach at-risk kids in the inner city.
Take care of yourself, Danny. Don’t kill anyone if you can help it. And if you have to kill, ask the Universe for forgiveness. It’s a hard thing to carry. Being in a war doesn’t necessarily build character, in fact it can easily destroy it. I’ve heard some of the stories of Iraq War vets once they’ve come back—a lot of these kids are broken by what they’ve done or seen others do. You went over there to find your manhood—don’t lose it now. You’re a kind and brave man. Come back to us whole. We need you.Email This Post