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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Monday, October 01, 2007

Armed and Aggressive

Not long ago CheneyBush said that he envisioned an American presence in Iraq something like South Korea. That sets up a decades-long, maybe endless, time table for our involvement in Iraq. This shouldn’t be surprising. The Neo-Cons have made no secret of their ambitions for American hegemony. We continue to maintain forces in Germany and Japan more than 60 years after their surrender. Of course, our “occupation” ended long ago and our forces have other missions these days (projection of American military force in Europe and Asia). We never actually “occupied” South Korea since our war their was fought against the invading North Koreans, whose lands we could not hold after our initial success rolling back their forces all the way to the Chinese border. Given the military threat from the north in the years since the truce was established, the South Koreans no doubt appreciated American protection if not the repressive military regimes that flourished under that protection. The Germans and Japanese may not have appreciated American occupation but they had acknowledged defeat by the Allies and did not resist. In none of these situations were determined locals trying to kill us.

Intervention and forward deployment are longstanding traits of American policy which at times has also supported favored local parties as proxies for direct American involvement in other countries. So the idea that the US will stay in Iraq for a long, long time is well established in most Americans’ minds. After all, don’t we have world-wide interests and responsibilities? Didn’t a former secretary of state call America, the “indispensable nation”? But I don’t believe that most Americans expected to fight in Iraq for years. You may recall in 2003, the projections were that it would all be over by Christmas, that only a small, residual force would be required. At least, that was the public story. Most Americans paid little attention to post war Iraq. Neither did most of the war planners. They simply assumed that thankful Iraqis and their new government would handle internal and economic affairs (in cooperation with American interests, of course) while that residual US force withdrew to massive, secure bases that would create a long-term American military presence in the Middle East.

It hasn’t worked out as planned, to say the least. The casualties and costs have far exceeded Americans’ tolerance. That was clear in November 2006. Americans do not want a long-term, costly war. (We much prefer short, cheap ones, preferably from the air.) If Congress weren’t so horribly gerrymandered, I don’t doubt that the Democrats would have achieved substantially more House seats. Whether a larger majority would have given the Democrats a spine is still an open question. Perhaps a larger Democratic majority would wake up the few remaining sentient Republicans and create a veto-proof majority in Congress. That would require a level of knowledge and thought I don’t think exists in America these days.

What I find disturbing is that many Democrats, either in Congress or running for president, support a continued American military presence in Iraq. All of the alternatives offered by Democratic leaders in Congress leave American forces in Iraq. The Washington Post reports that the leading Democratic presidential candidates are likely to keep American forces in Iraq for most of their first term, if elected. Regardless of what Americans want, the war will continue. If ever there was a perversion of public will in American history, this is it.

America in 2007 is not capable of a reasoned debate on the war and occupation. Every attempt to question the war and its aims is derided as treason, isolationism, hatred for “The Troops” and support for terrorism.” “Victory” and “success” are the only options. And it will all be determined by America because...because.... Reason escapes me Why is America making decisions that are fundamentally the right of the local populace? Because America is a democracy? Because we are need their resources? Because we have all the weapons? I stumble here. Perhaps if I didn’t think so much, I would recognize my country’s unique and redemptive place in this world. But I continue to ask why I, as an American, should determine the fate of an Iraqi or an Iranian, or a Burmese or anyone else for that matter. And I damn sure as hell don’t want to kill any of them. I want them to make their own decisions and find ways to live in peace and prosperity with their neighbors.

That doesn’t make me an isolationist. America may not have the right to determine another nation’s fate but we can be concerned about other nations, their citizens and their circumstances. We can condemn violations of human, economic and political rights when they occur and work with other nations to promote open, transparent and democratic economic and political systems. America’s size, wealth and technology has much to offer the world but what I see mostly is corporate self-interest wrapped in the language of concern and assistance. As the richest nation in the world (I think the US still holds that distinction, although a few more years of war and debt may change that), America has an obligation to share its good fortune with the world community. Not by handouts or concessions but through a system of open, fair and non-exploitive commerce and diplomacy. We don’t need to be killing people so that we can continue to live a privileged lifestyle. That is not a sustainable basis for a just society or long term peace.

Two hundred thirty-one years ago, a group of men refined Enlightenment thought about the rights of man into the simple but evocative phrase “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. In recognizing these as unalienable rights endowed by creation, the founders established the touchstone of human freedom: to live, chose and enjoy the rewards of one’s pursuits. War and military operations violate all of those unalienable rights. Short of another person threatening my own life, liberty or pursuit of happiness, I can think of no reason to justify violating that person’s rights. I expect the same of my country.

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