Friday, October 05, 2007

Why Soldiers in Iraq Believe in Their Mission

A small item in the Washington Post about the Blackwater shooting in Iraq revealed one of the small accomplishments American forces have achieved in that country.
Members of a U.S. unit working with Iraqi police were present in the area at the time of the shootings. U.S. soldiers also helped ferry victims to hospitals.

In that moment Americans and Iraqis were simply human beings, reaching out to help other human beings. No ideology. No religion. Just people doing what they can in a desperate moment. This event is only one of the many interactions between Americans and Iraqis. When our forces connect with Iraqis in ways that improve life in that country, soldiers establish a bond of friendship and hope across national boundaries. THAT is what creates morale and pride of accomplishment.

When American troops talk about the purpose of their mission in Iraq, pride in their efforts to assist Iraqis in building a new society ranks almost as high as protecting America. Even the soldiers and veterans who oppose the war speak with some sense of personal satisfaction in the small things they can achieve one on one with Iraqis even as they recognize the futility of the larger mission.

I can’t speak for today’s soldiers and veterans but I can tell what I know from my own service as a GI in a futile war. My one great lesson for sanity was to find and hold on to the good in life. Otherwise, the madness and insanity of the war would overwhelm me. Good in combat is relative but it’s there. I found goodness in the beauty of the land, letters from home, books and a few close friends in my platoon. Each night I rejoiced in staying alive for another day. Each morning meant another night survived. As long as I could retreat into those thoughts, I could somehow tolerate the everyday reality of boredom, fear and exhaustion.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that soldiers in Iraq do something similar to keep their sanity. At the personal level, Americans in Iraq can see firsthand the strength and endurance of the Iraqi people who live every day with fear and uncertainty, who somehow manage to create some “normality” in the midst of chaos. (Americans also see venality, corruption and hatred but that’s another story.) I think that assisting these brave Iraqis is one of “the good” things that a soldier finds to balance the violence of war. After all, war is simply legalized brutality and lethal force and our soldiers are the instruments of that brutality and force. Some justification is necessary to justify those actions. Otherwise, it’s just murder and mayhem. Helping Iraqis build a democratic nation is one justification. Defending America from attack is another.

That neither goal is really the aim of American policy in Iraq (can you say “oil”?) is not the concern of the soldiers. They are doing what they are told, using the skills and expertise they have developed, as directed by their commanders. Whether the soldiers believe CheneyBush’s ever-changing rationales for the war or not, they can see results with their own eyes when they help individuals. They make a personal connection that transcends violence and brutality. Maybe I’m projecting here but when I hear American soldiers (I’m talking about junior enlisted and officers) speak of accomplishment, I think most of that comes from their personal satisfaction working with individual Iraqis and communities. Knowing you saved a life or helped a family can go a long way to counterbalance war’s horror.

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