Saturday, December 03, 2005

Dark Christmas

The holiday season always creates mixed feelings for me. I enjoy the festivities, hearing from old friends, gathering with others to celebrate. I am not a Christian so Christ’s birth is only one of a number of traditions that I recognize in my celebrations along with Hannukah and the Winter Solstice. The idea of rebirth at the darkest time of year offers a sense of hope and comfort.

But the season is forever associated in my mind with Vietnam. I flew to Vietnam in mid-December 1970, a newly minted Light Weapons Infantryman headed into combat. I was able to spend Thanksgiving with family and friends but that was hardly a celebration, more like going through the motions. I had orders for Vietnam. The only certainty in my future was that I would be spending the next year, if I was lucky enough to live that long, in southeast Asia.

The journey to Vietnam was surreal. A redeye flight to San Francisco. The cavernous loneliness of the Oakland Army Terminal barracks. Envy at the sight of newly returned Vietnam Veterans. Stomach churning fear. Whatever cheer Christmas 1970 might bring to others, it would not be part of my life that year, assuming I even lived that long. Each step along the way seemed to take me farther and farther into a black hole of despair.

The flight from Oakland to Vietnam was mostly in the dark. We left California late on the afternoon of December 14, 1970. By the time we reached Anchorage, Alaska to refuel, the sun was setting, not to be seen again until it rose again in Vietnam on the morning of December 16. In between was the Long Night, alone in a plane full of people.

Actual combat would not come for a few weeks after my arrival. I and other infantrymen were temporarily assigned to guard duty at the replacement center. It was nice in that my days in Vietnam were counting down without being in combat but I could not receive mail and felt lonelier than I had ever felt before. Christmas Day was bleak, shared with fellow GI’s eating a standard mess hall Christmas dinner. New Year’s Eve was punctuated with flares, tracer rounds and other ordnance fired to welcome 1971. I hoped and prayed that I would live to see 1972.

I did live to see 1972. And I saw it at the exact same place,a veteran, waiting to return home. What a difference! Somehow, I lucked my way through a year’s tour of duty, survived five months in combat and spent the rest of the year in a relatively safe job as company clerk in the rear. I was SO fucking happy, as happy as I had been depressed one year earlier. I WAS GOING HOME! The shit was over. I was alive and whole, able to begin life again.

So every year about this time, I remember my fear and loneliness those many years ago. The memory connects me to all who have gone to war, before and since. So many had it so much worse than me: those who did not return and those who returned different in body and spirit. I was lucky, so very, very lucky. I pray that the many who have followed me into war were equally fortunate and that the family and friends of the not so lucky find solace in memories of their loved ones.

Maybe that’s why John McCutcheon’s 1984 song, “Christmas In the Trenches” speaks to me so viscerally. The song describes the spontaneous truce between front line British and German soldiers during Christmas 1914. It captures the sadness of the soldiers’ lot and their attempts to maintain at least some remnant of their humanity in awful circumstances. My Christmas passage into war was only one of many, neither the first nor the last. Just mine.

The final verse of says it all:

My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell
Each Christmas come since World War I I've learned its lessons well
That the ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we're the same.

postscript 1

Alfred Anderson, the last known survivor of the 1914 Christmas truce died on November 21, 2005 at age 109. More on the truce can be found here.

postscript 2

I wrote this back in the day when I did not know how to post videos.  Go here to see McCutcheon sing the song.  If you came her from that post, you already heard.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


A while back I wrote that Iraq’s future would be determined by mid January 2006, 90 days after October’s constitutional referendum. My timeline may not be precise–it could take a bit longer–but I still think that it’s reasonably correct. Sunnis will know after a new government is formed if they will have any role in Iraq’s future and whether or not to continue their armed insurgency against the government that emerges from the new parliament.

One ominous portent appeared recently. Abdul Aziz Hakim, leader of Iraq’s largest Shi’ite party and the likely power broker in the new parliament, told The Washington Post that the US is too weak and cautious in ridding Iraq of terrorists. Hakim wants more freedom for Iraqi forces to aggressively take on the Sunni insurgents. Some key quotes:

"The more freedom given to Iraqis, the more chance for further progress there would be, particularly in fighting terror, Hakim said. [One of Iraq's] "biggest problems is the mistaken or wrong policies practiced by the Americans"... [snip]

During much of the interview, Hakim was critical of U.S. policies toward Iraq, though he acknowledged that U.S. forces must remain in the country as a "guest" of the Iraqi government while it builds its security forces. The Americans are guilty of "major interference, and preventing the forces of the Interior or Defense ministries from carrying out tasks they are capable of doing, and also in the way they are dealing with the terrorists," Hakim charged....[snip]

Hakim gave few details of what getting tough would entail, other than making clear it would require more weapons, with more firepower, than the United States is currently supplying....[snip]

The issue points to a key difference between U.S. officials and some of Iraq's conservative Shiite leaders about what it will take to end the insurgency. Even the top U.S. generals say the ultimate solution is a political one, bringing minority Sunnis into a democracy that without them stands to be dominated permanently by the Shiite majority. But the leaders of many Shiite religious parties, reflecting their years in exile and their bitterness over the killing of relatives and supporters during Hussein's dictatorship, say the endgame is a military one....

The endgame indeed. Hakim and his allies are ready to take on the Sunnis in a showdown for Iraq. So far the Shi’as have done very well. They have a well organized and feared military organization which now dominates the Ministry of the Interior and internal security forces. Hakim will likely control the largest block of a majority Shi’ite parliament and will be in a position to create the regional Shi’a federation that he advocates. But even with these advantages, Hakim remains unsure that the Sunnis will not, as they have done several times before, take control of the national government. All that is needed is more weaponry and firepower for Hakim and his allies to exact their payback against their former oppressors. In the meantime, the Shia’s can rely on their control of the Interior Ministry and “death squads” for that purpose.

America’s choices are pretty limited. US forces can remain in Iraq, attempting to prevent a civil war and serving as surrogate targets for all factions while America and the world wait to see if Shia’s and Sunnis have the wisdom to live peacefully and cooperatively together after decades of oppression. To the extent that BushCheney had a plan for post-invasion Iraq, that has been it. But the lofty goal of political reconciliation is an elusive one, hostage to the variables of individual personality and culture. Now into its third year, the plan has demonstrated its ability to meet targets and milestones but not the goal of a stable Iraq.

Another option is to withdraw American occupation forces and let the Iraqis come to their own settlement. This is the bloodbath/civil war option. Right now, the outcome would be in doubt. The Sunnis have demonstrated their capability as fighters and could best the government forces at this point. That’s why Hakim believes the Sunnis should be ruthlessly repressed, the sooner the better. If the US won’t do it, he will, using American weapons and support. Currently Iraq is experiencing a low level civil war under the occupation. Removing the occupation forces will allow the forces to fight it out. At a minimum, a bloodletting; more likely a bloodbath. Not a good option.

A third option is to reduce the ground forces and provide close air support to the government. That would relieve America’s suffering; our GI’s and Marines would no longer be at risk (or at less risk) but aerial bombing would do little to relieve the carnage and destruction suffered by Iraqis. An analysis of almost 25,000 civilian deaths in Iraq during the first two years of the war shows that 90 percent of the 9,200 civilians killed by American forces were the result of aerial bombing. (You have do the math.)

The only long term solution is political reconciliation among Iraqis that leaves all groups confident in their personal, religious and ethnic security, something that is increasingly unlikely as the occupation draws out. That’s why it needs to end, the sooner the better. America’s disaffection with the Iraq war finally seems to be pushing BushCheney in that direction. I have no confidence that he will show any more wisdom and foresight in resolving this mess than he demonstrated getting America into it, but I welcome the change in direction.

It’s a start.