Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A FEW GOOD MEN

I recently saw some pictures of our guys in Iraq, posing with their sunglasses and rifles in hand. There they were riding in humvees or manning checkpoints. It was disconcerting to see the young ones, the single guys who I treated as little brothers. I’ll call them M, P and G. Whenever I hung out with them here, I was always struck by how young they seemed. In the photos in which they are wearing their desert combat uniform and cradling their weapon, they looked even younger. None of them are 21 yet but two of them are in Iraq now on their second deployment. It is illegal for them to drink alcohol in their homeland, but it is legal for them to kill and be killed in service to their country. Before they were deployed, two of them got in trouble for underage drinking and were busted down a rank.

M is the one with the inflated ego, but that can’t mask his insecurity and his overeagerness to be accepted by the older guys. He joined the army because he wanted adventure and liked the idea of being thought of as a hero. He was excited to go to Iraq because he had never deployed and he thought this was his chance to bring back macho tales of courage under fire that he could use to impress girls. P is shy and quiet in a way that makes the older soldiers want to take him under their wings. I asked him once why he joined the army and he said he didn’t know what to do after high school and decided to give this a try. He treated Iraq sort of like a homework assignment. He wasn’t happy about it but he had no choice so he was resigned to the task. G is perhaps the most mature out of them and has the easygoing nature of a cheerful little boy. Before he left, he told me he was more worried this time around because now, as a team leader, he was responsible for the lives of three guys. He still seemed to be a bit incredulous that at his young age, he was charged with such a solemn responsibility. He was eager to talk about his fears, perhaps because he knew with me, he didn’t have to inject any bravado into his concerns.

When I was their age, my life was about frat parties and studying for final exams. My biggest worries revolved around boys and summer internships. I was figuring out who I was and what I wanted out of life. At that age, I couldn’t imagine facing my own mortality or the possibility of taking another’s life.

I don’t know at what age you are deemed mature enough to see men, women and children die. How old do you have to be to handle the stench of burning flesh, or the sight of pools of blood? How did our nation decide that 18 was the appropriate time for men and women to go into battle? This is not to say that M, P and G cannot handle their mission; I know they can handle it. Still, it somehow doesn’t seem right that they are in Iraq, exposed to the ugliness of war. But that has always been the reality of conflict, whether it’s child soldiers in Liberia or 16-year-old boys lying about their age to fight Hitler. Their stories are all the same; they are all about lost innocence.