Monday, November 29, 2004

WHAT HE CARRIES

Tucked in a pocket of my husband’s desert combat pants is a small brown rock that has the Chinese symbol for simplicity etched into it in black paint. He carried the rock with him every day last year when he was first deployed to Iraq and he has it with him all the time this year.

I gave him the rock years ago, long before we began our overseas adventure, when other events were complicating our lives. The symbol meant that despite the events swirling around us, the space between me and him was simple. When we drowned out the stress and business of our lives and reached that quiet place where only he and I exist, the complexities of life disappeared. When it comes down to just us, our vision is clear, our feelings are pure and our lives are simple.

Although our circumstances have changed, the symbolism of that rock hasn’t. And I find comfort in that as I get ready to leave for Iraq for another chapter in my life. He carries the physical object of the rock in his pocket and I will carry the symbol of it in my heart.

Monday, November 22, 2004

FOG OF WAR

I saw the movie Glory a few days ago. I never get tired of watching it. The film about the first black regiment in America's civil war always inspires me. Although there are moral quandaries presented, the men in the regiment, their leaders and their actions in battle are depicted as courageous, honorable and self sacrificing. They are the good guys and they are obviously in the right.

But war is never that black and white. Even when the good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined, the act of fighting itself is often muddy, ambiguous.

The most recently publicized reflection of this is the case of the journalist who recorded the Marine shooting a wounded insurgent in Falluja. Those who are angry at the journalist are upset because he caught it on tape for the world to see and supposedly, his patriotic duty was to hide what he saw. But soldiers face those moral dilemmas on a daily basis and they will face them in the future, whether the rest of the world learns about them or not. We want a sanitized picture of war in which our soldiers are clear heroes and can do no wrong. We want the gruesome visions of the dead and the morally questionable acts left in the shadows. But war is enacted by human beings so it is burdened by human fallacies, human emotions.

In Errol Morris' documentary The Fog of War, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara of the Vietnam era describes the lessons he has learned. He says, "What 'the fog of war' means is: war is so complex it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily. Wilson said: 'We won the war to end all wars.' I'm not so naive or simplistic to believe we can eliminate war. We're not going to change human nature anytime soon. It isn't that we aren't rational. We are rational. But reason has limits."

And reasons change. In some instances, you are a good guy one day and a bad guy the next, and vice versa. The Soviet Union was our ally in World War II and then our enemy for the next 50 years. Saddam was our friend in the 1980s; now he's not.

This is not to say that there are no moral absolutes. There are clear principles of right and wrong to which we must adhere. We have rules of engagement because even in the act of killing in war, we want to impose restrictions to show that we are not savages. But war is messy. Sometimes there is no right or wrong, or it's in between or it's both right and wrong. In such chaotic and frightening situations, how do you determine the right course of action? If you hesitate to define your enemy, you could risk your life and the lives of soldiers around you. If you react too quickly, you may take an innocent life. And often, you have only a second to make this decision. The situation sucks all around.

I feel badly for both the journalist and the Marine recorded in Falluja. They were both put in an impossible situation that they may now second guess, obsess over, turn around in their head for the rest of their lives. And they have learned a lifetime's lesson about the haziness of the fog of war.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

RED, WHITE AND BLUE

Living on a military base, I'm surrounded by symbolic images. There are countless American flags, with the stars and stripes now flapping in the cold November wind. And everywhere you turn, there are the ubiquitous yellow ribbons to symbolize the "support our troops" theme. There are yellow ribbons tied around tree trunks, yellow ribbon magnets on refrigerators or yellow ribbons on car windows. And there are variations of the yellow ribbon message, most notably the "half of my heart is in Iraq" slogan.

But I've never been into symbols. I love this country but I've never owned an American flag. I support my husband but I don't have any yellow ribbons on display. And part of my heart is in Iraq, but I don't choose to advertise it.

For me, the way I show my patriotism and my support for the troops is to learn everything I can about politics, domestic/foreign policy, history and other relevant topics that explain to me the events of the day. My way of being an American daughter and an army wife is to be as educated as possible about what is going on in our world. I want to understand why our president makes the kinds of decisions he makes, why others react to his decisions the way they do and what is the result of all of it. I've been reading about Iraq's history, from the Ottoman empire to British colonial rule to the forces that brought Saddam Hussein to power. I'm learning about Islam and the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. I'm trying to get my head around the various tribes of Iraq and how those ties shape the country. I even tried to teach myself Arabic, although without much success.

Of course, I appreciate what the symbols represent. But they are not enough for me. Because I am privileged to live in a free and democratic country, I feel I should not take it for granted so I need to constantly learn, question, debate, criticize. And to me, the most patriotic thing I can do is to be an informed citizen. That is my yellow ribbon.

Monday, November 15, 2004

IRAQ, HERE I COME

Yes, I know many of you will think I am crazy. But it is official. I will leave for Iraq at the beginning of December to work for a nonprofit organization. And no, I am not going in hopes of seeing my husband or wanting to be near him. I will not see him while I am working for this organization and it wouldn't matter to me if he was there or not. I have wanted to go to Iraq for some time to see for myself what is happening there and to do something tangible and concrete to help the Iraqi people. I've also thought about going to Afghanistan and Sudan, but it just so happened that the opening came up in Iraq and I went for it.

Of course, it is a bit unnerving to know that both of us will be there. Now he will worry about me, as I have about him. But we will have the rare chance as an army wife and soldier husband to relate to each other in this time of war. When he talks about the Iraqi desert, the smells, the heat, the sounds, I will not have to use my imagination to envision the scene. Often, whether it's intentional or not, the spouse is removed and separated from the soldier's deployment experience. The spouse's world essentially stayed the same while the soldier's universe has been turned upside down. Husbands come home and don't want to talk about the war, don't want to talk about what they've seen and done. They think the wives won't understand, won't be able to comprehend the moral ambiguities, the carnage, the sorrow.

Still, I know I won't be cracking the band of brothers. The bond formed by soldiers in war is a phenomenon that has largely excluded women, even in today's modern times. It is a secret society, these friendships formed amid the sounds of whizzing bullets and thunderous explosions. I know I will never be a part of it.

But, I'm guessing I will have my own harrowing tales, stories and experiences that will make me feel like an alien when I return home. Yet, I don't feel scared or nervous or conflicted. I'm excited to be doing something instead of sitting at home, feeling helpless as I watch the news. And perhaps that's where I still have hope. Even though, as I said in my last post, that I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, I'm still willing to go inside of it.


Saturday, November 13, 2004

LET FREEDOM RING

These are posts from two teenage sisters, Najma and HNK, who live in Mosul, Iraq:

Najma: S called her brother-in-law, and he told her that he is in the hospital and that his father has DIED...I can't describe how I felt, I was crying and shaking and the tears wouldn't go out... I just held Aya who's just lost a grandpa and made sure she won't cry and make things worse. The war is not over and I slept at the sound of bullets and explosions last night... Mom said that this war is the worst among all the others... I remember you telling me how Iraq is going to be and how we're going to be safer, and then start to be angry at everything!! I'm thinking of making a kind of STRIKE and not to blog till things get better and I start to feel better towards you. Everything happening in Falloja is breaking my heart and thinking that dad has no emergency plan if the same happened in Mosul but running away to Baghdad makes me only sadder..

HNK: if you didn't offer your help, tomorrow can be one of the best days in my life. But You help me ... you help every body in this word to destroy their own countries. But believe me it's time to help your self.....yesterday when I heard that boush won and the American soldiers will began to attack al_faluja, I began to cry and I couldn't stop, and my head ache me These days I have a big grief, every night I have a nightmare, my nightmare today was: our taxi driver who take us every day to school kidnapped me and najma, and took us to somewhere dark......

After reading these posts, I just cried. For the Iraqi people, for my husband, for soldiers who have died and soldiers who still have the burden of fighting. Such a tragic situation all around. I don't want to start the blame game; I'm just expressing how I see the current situation. And I don’t know when it is going to get better. What is the solution? Yes, the Iraqi people bear ultimate responsibility for their future, but they are not entirely controlling the show. Yes, we have to fight the insurgents but for every innocent civilian we kill, we are possibly creating more insurgents.

Life was terrible for the Iraqis under Saddam. But it is not good under us either. For whatever freedom Iraqis have now, however many schools we have built (by the way, only $1 billion of the $18 billion slated for reconstruction has been spent), the Iraqi people fear for their lives. I’m not sure of the utility to have the right to speak your mind when you are trying to dodge bullets and car bombs. And besides the military conflict, Iraq is now plagued by violent crimes as the security situation deteriorates.

Having lived in another war torn country, I know what a luxury our principles can seem. Before you can even begin to think about the lofty ideals of freedom and democracy, you have to have food on the table, a roof over your head and basic security so you can venture outdoors without fear of being killed. Until you have those basic needs met, freedom and democracy are meaningless. It is just the talk of well meaning, but naïve people who are better off than you.

Because of my husband’s involvement in Iraq, I feel an intimate connection to what is happening there, and even a responsibility. That is why I am mostly in despair when I think of what is unfolding. I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. All I see is darkness.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

VETERANS' DAY

So far, my husband’s company has been relatively lucky. Some guys have been wounded but they have not suffered major injuries or deaths. I can’t say the same for his sister companies, one of which has seen several guys killed in action in only a few months. Now the proximity of attacks is coming closer and I’m afraid it will just be a matter of time before the luck of my husband’s company runs out. My husband told me he feels like the danger is closing in on them.

When my husband’s unit lost its first soldier, the guys had been in Iraq for less than a month. Each time I heard of another casualty, I felt grief for the fallen soldier and his family, but relief that it wasn’t my husband. And then I felt guilty for feeling glad that it was another soldier who had been killed. Last fall, a soldier from my husband’s hometown was killed when his helicopter was shot down in Baghdad. The soldier had the same first name as my husband. When we attended the funeral and the priest kept mentioning the soldier’s first name, it was like previewing my husband’s funeral. Still, I could feel grateful, and guilty, that it was him and not my husband.

The U.S. military and Iraqi forces are on their way to taking back Falluja, but car bombs killed at least 17 people in Baghdad today and fighting continues in Mosul, which used to be a model of calm. And insurgents have kidnapped three relatives of Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

There have been accusations that the media and others are ignoring the good things happening in Iraq, but bad news is all I see and hear about from my husband. In this war, as in any conflict, your skill as a soldier will only take you so far. It only takes one moment of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But I’m still hoping against hope that my husband’s luck will hold until he comes home. And on this Veterans’ Day as we remember those who gave their life serving our country, I can only think of the soldiers who are still with us, fighting in a war thousands of miles away.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

VIETNAM VS. IRAQ

Vietnam has been brought up a lot in relation to the Iraq war. The specter of America’s first loss in conflict still haunts us decades later. The ghost of Vietnam was supposed to have been laid to rest in our stunning success in the first Persian Gulf War. But like the phoenix, Vietnam has risen again. Pundits wonder if we are becoming entrenched in a quagmire, as we had with Vietnam. Are we being bogged down in a guerrilla war with an elusive enemy and no exit strategy? Is history repeating itself?

But one way the Iraq war is different from Vietnam is the way our troops have been treated by those on the homefront. Many Vietnam vets did not receive the welcome they deserved. Some of those who were outraged over U.S. conduct in the war in Vietnam took their disgust out on returning troops. I have not seen that kind of behavior in the Iraq war. Yes, this war has brought out strong emotions from those who oppose it. Yes, there have been worldwide protests denouncing the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But from what I can tell, people have learned not to confuse the policy of the commander in chief with the troops he commands.

For this war, I have heard countless stories of random people going out of their way to help out returning soldiers. Last week, we had a meeting with our guys’ sergeant major, who was in town for R&R. He told us that while he and other soldiers were in transit at an airport, waiting for the next flight out, airline officials asked for passengers willing to give up their seat so the soldiers could get to their destination. Dozens volunteered. When the sergeant major landed at his next destination, the captain came on the intercom asking passengers to stay seated so the soldiers could gather their belongings and be off the plane before anybody else. An old man sitting next to the sergeant major told him if anyone got up, “I will kick their ass.” Guys who have gone on R&R tell my husband of strangers buying drinks for them. Earlier this year when I was flying home from a trip, a grandfatherly figure sitting next to me was making small talk. When he learned I lived on a military base, he asked me if my husband had served in Iraq. I told him he was there last year and was getting ready to leave again. He absorbed the information and a minute later he turned to me and said, “Please tell him thank you.” He then turned his head and didn’t say anything else for the remainder of the trip. But he had said all he needed to say.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

YOU'VE GOT MAIL

As we approach the halfway mark of the scheduled yearlong deployment, some of the guys will soon have to decide their next career move. With no foreseeable end to U.S. forces in Iraq, guys who are scheduled to get out of the army when they return from their deployment are wondering if the military will decide their future for them. Regardless of what they want, they could be forced to stay in under the military’s stop loss policy, which is implemented during wartime to ensure unit cohesion. Some of the guys assume they will face stop loss, so they are considering voluntarily reenlisting, which makes them eligible for bonuses and other benefits. The only problem is if they stay in the army, they may get deployed again to Iraq or Afghanistan. And that could be a dealbreaker for them and for their spouses.

Several months ago, we said our last goodbyes to our guys in front of the company barracks. After the last hugs and kisses were exchanged, the wives stood together in the parking lot while our husbands gathered the last of their gear to head over to the airfield. Everyone was crying. One of the wives hugged another and said, “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t,” as tears streamed down her face. Her son wailed behind her, screaming, “I don’t want my daddy to go.” It was an unbearable scene. And as some husbands contemplate their future, some of the wives wonder if they can endure another scene like that. Marriages are already strained and children are growing up without a father.

I don't know how couples held it together during the World Wars, the Korean War and Vietnam. In those conflicts, months and even years went by without any communication with your spouse. Letters were the means of communication and they took months to get to their destination. One woman I know told me she didn’t know if her husband was alive or dead in Vietnam until he showed up at her front door after the war ended. During this deployment, not many letters have been written because now we can talk to our husbands on the phone and some of the guys have cell phones. We can chat online, or send messages or pictures through email. We can see them on our webcams and through video teleconferencing sessions. And with 24 hour news, we know instantaneously what is happening in Iraq, sometimes before our husbands do.

At times, though, I’m not sure that the availability of this technology is a good thing. When you see live footage of the latest car bomb and you know your husband was in that area, your imagination begins spinning tales of “what ifs.” Or you are constantly searching the Internet for the latest news on your husband’s unit. Of course, I’m glad that if I choose to, I can easily find out what is going on in Iraq at any time of the day. But sometimes, perhaps ignorance is bliss.


Thursday, November 04, 2004

JUST US GIRLS

Sometimes I feel like I live in Wonder Woman’s hometown. For those who don’t know, cartoon character Wonder Woman came from an island inhabited by only women. Since our guys deployed, I live in a similar gender exclusive world. At any of our recent gatherings, all of the adults are women. There is no male point of view in our conversations, no male appetites to feed during dinner, no male thirsts for beer to quench. Besides seeing men while I’m out running errands or going out to eat, I don’t really have any interaction with the opposite sex. Everywhere you go around this military town, you constantly see mothers with children and no fathers or groups of women without men. Now that the holidays are coming up, the absence of our guys is felt even stronger.

Last week, my friend went to Walmart to schedule a family photo session and I tagged along. My friend sarcastically joked that there would be no men in the picture, as she has two daughters. The Walmart clerk told us they have taken a lot of pictures recently of families without fathers. She told us of one new mother with infant twins who burst out crying during the photo shoot. Another army wife was going to pose with her son and hold up a picture of her husband to take the place of his physical body. My friend talked her out of it.

Because we have been left to fend for ourselves, we wives have banded together in a pretty strong way. When my friend moved from one military housing unit to another, several army wives got together and helped her pack up. We looked pretty comical as five women lifted couches and carried mattresses. Even funnier was me driving the moving truck. But we got the job done.

Still, we envy the couples we see holding hands at the mall. And we envy the wives whose husbands we see mowing the lawn. Yes, we miss our husbands because we love them. But we also miss them for all the Man things they did around the house. For the past few days, I’ve tried to open a jar lid and failed each day. I will now ask my friends to help me. But the jar may remain unopened until my husband returns.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

CHAIN OF COMMAND

Last week I was scheduled to “see” my husband for the first time in several months during a video teleconferencing session. I arrived early and waited patiently, as the sessions were running late and another company’s time was running into the hour set aside for our group. But I figured I wouldn’t have to wait for too long because I was the second person scheduled for the session in our company. Yet, when my turn came, another wife’s name was called, then another. I was perplexed and a bit worried that my husband ended up not making it. Then the NCO (non-commissioned officer) overseeing the teleconferencing came out and told me that since my husband was an NCO, he was letting the lower-ranking guys go ahead of him. So I ended up waiting over an hour to talk to him. But I didn’t mind because I know those kinds of sacrifices are part of his job.

The NCO overseeing the video conferencing told me how he loved it when NCOs did that, thinking of their guys first. He told me, “You don’t eat until your guys eat, you don’t sleep until your guys sleep. You take care of your guys first before you take care of yourself.” He was beaming as he said this, so proud of that tradition. No matter what you think of this war, individual soldiers constantly display integrity, honor and a sense of duty that seems to be lost in our reality show-plagued world.

But I saw none of that “I got your back” attitude when the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal hit. On Oct. 21, a staff sergeant was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the abuse. He is the highest-ranking soldier charged to date. Six others in his military police unit and one person from military intelligence have also been charged. But what about those who were supposed to be leading this group of mostly specialists, which is just a rank higher than a private first class? This cannot be written off as the sadistic behavior of a few bad apples.

Still, no high-ranking military or civilian official has been held legally accountable for what happened at Abu Ghraib. The leaders of the men and women who were charged left their soldiers out to dry and they should be ashamed. Yes, long-term careers are on the line, but all military officers are taught that in addition to accomplishing their mission, the welfare of their soldiers is their main concern. Officers inspire loyalty and admiration when they look out for their men and women. That is why a soldier will follow an order from his team leader, squad leader and platoon leader, even if following that order means facing death. I would not want any of the generals, colonels and other high-ranking officers linked to Abu Ghraib leading my husband. They displayed conduct unbecoming of an officer.