Veterans: Harsh Reality and the Surreal

By: Rowan Wolf of Uncommon Thought Journal

I recommend an article from today’s NY Times by C.J. Chivers – Marines Get the News From an Iraqi Host: Rumsfeld’s Out. ‘Who’s Rumsfeld?’. Political struggling and maneuverings at home have changed the political landscape. Hopefully in a manner that will be positive for U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Hopefully for the people of those nations. Hopefully for the world. However the article points to a stark contrast of perceptions.

From the article:

Hashim al-Menti smiled wanly at the marine sergeant beside him on his couch. The sergeant had appeared in the darkness on Wednesday night, knocking on the door of Mr. Menti’s home.

When Mr. Menti answered, a squad of infantrymen swiftly moved in, making him an involuntary host.

Since then marines had been on his roof with rifles, watching roads where insurgents often planted bombs.

Mr. Menti had passed the time watching television. Now he had news. He spoke in broken English. “Rumsfeld is gone,” he told the sergeant, Michael A. McKinnon.

“Democracy,” he added, and made a thumbs-up sign. “Good.”

The marines had been on a continuous foot patrol for several days, hunting for insurgents. They were lost in the hard and isolating rhythms of infantry life.

They knew nothing of the week’s news.

Now they were being told by an Iraqi whose house they occupied that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, one of the principal architects of the policies that had them here, had resigned. “Rumsfeld is gone?” the sergeant asked. “Really?”

Mr. Menti nodded. “This is better for Iraq,” he said. “Iraqi people say thank you.”

The sergeant went upstairs to tell his marines, just as he had informed them the day before that the Republican Party had lost control of the House of Representatives and that Congress was in the midst of sweeping change. Mr. Menti had told them that, too.

“Rumsfeld’s out,” he said to five marines sprawled with rifles on the cold floor.

Lance Cpl. James L. Davis Jr. looked up from his cigarette. “Who’s Rumsfeld?” he asked.


Yesterday, another soldier from Oregon died He was Spc. Douglas Desjardins (Surprenant) of Scio, and he was killed when his tank ran over an explosive. I watched the brief interview with his grief stricken mother on the local news. She said that Douglas loved the Army and was totally committed to his mission.

I have heard similar responses from grieving parents over and over again. Maybe the news sorts out those who have something different to say. I also have a number of students in my classes who have returned – sometimes only briefly – from Iraq and Afghanistan. From discussions with these students, and my guess most active duty personnel, current affairs are not at the top of the list. Sitting back and thinking about the political situation at home where the decisions affect everything about their lives are made, is also probably not on the top of their minds either. Other issues occupy their time, such as being under constant threat.

The response of “Who’s Rumsfeld?” is not at all surprising, but it is telling. Desjardins (Surprenant), served his country, but what mission was he totally committed to? Did he know that mission more clearly than those of us at home who have yet to receive any concise answer beyond “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here”?

Imagine how Hashim al-Menti must have felt in the face of such a response. Might he feel a serious disconnect and have huge concerns when the people who are there to “liberate” him? Here is a man who is “hosting” U.S. troops in his house. The placement of those troops on his roof making him and his family direct targets for anyone attacking those troops. He is intimately interested in the U.S. politicians who place those troops on his roof, but those who are on the roof do not share those interests.

I do not think this is unique to the current “war.” The reality troops face is following orders. Reflection under fire is neither encouraged nor fruitful. In fact, it is perhaps best not to think too much about what one is doing or has done. One is locked in a never ending string of moments. Hurry up and wait, in an endless now. Does commitment to “the mission” have space in that “now?” Perhaps for some it does. Does “loving what your doing” have a place in that “now?” Perhaps it does. However, the real struggle for those who have served under fire once the fighting is over seems to be dreams of fear and blood and death that happened in that “now,” but had no space in it.

Today is Veteran’s Day. A day when the people of the United States honor those who have served our country under arms. It would be nice if while acknowledging their bravery and sacrifice, we acknowledge the truth of the transformation of their lives. Perhaps that is the true sacrifice that the troops make – their essential selves. The sacrifice of the path that lives might have gone. The sacrifice of carrying those memories for a lifetime. By not acknowledging and honoring this part of “service to the country” we allow generation after generation to “bravely serve” without question.

Do we need those who step forward (or who were drug forward) to serve in the armed forces? Unfortunately, yes; though I dream of a world where that is not necessary. Since we need them to serve, we should acknowledge and support the full nature of that service. Otherwise, the largest struggles of many become private struggles, and expressing them a tarnish on their “bravery and commitment.”

The story by Chivers also points to another harsh reality. While our troops are locked in the moment, it is our responsibility of to ensure that the decision makers are making good decisions; that the cause in which they offer their lives is one of which they can be proud and can commit to. They depend on us to watch their backs – not just cheer them on. They depend on us to raise the questions, engage in the reflection, struggle with the broader issues. They also depend on us once they are home, to recognize the reality of their experience – not the myth of it. If we are going to treat our veterans as heroes, we must have the kindness of also acknowledging that they are human beings – not teflon coated images which shine and to which nothing sticks.

Perhaps I know too many Vets who struggle with the demons of their service to this country and not enough who seem to have come through “unscathed” by the realities of war.

Veterans, I thank you for your service, and I acknowledge that for many – if not all of you – that service did not end when you took off your uniforms. You continue to struggle with the experiences you had, and you fight on as civilians to ensure the accountability of our leaders and our citizens. You are indeed brave, and you are indeed heroes – living heroes who laugh and cry, yell and sing, write poetry and rant, march and stomp, have moments of rage and periods of intense clarity. For all of those things, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Published in: on 11/10/2006 at 2:48 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. As a veteran, I thank you for understanding in many ways, things that others cannot.
    Semper Fidelis

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