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A Loss Of Innocence
by Michele Christopher
Welcome to the newest FTTW feature - The Editorial Column. FTTW has, for the most part, been free of politics, current events and the like. That all changes with this new column. Every Friday, we will feature a guest editorial. A weekly soap box, if you will. We start off today with an editorial from one of our writers, Pat.
The following content does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors of Faster Than The World.
This past summer a man I have known for 34 years came back from a tour in Iraq. He was 50 when he shipped out, 51 when he came home. I'd like to say that he came back in one piece, and physically he did, but he lost an essential something when he was over there. He lost his innocence.
You see, my friend was born and raised here in Vermont. We were both the tail end of the hippie generations. We grew up in the whitest state in the Union, so we were never really exposed to racial prejudice - it was real easy to be liberal, there was no reality to test our philosophies and assumptions against. We believed in the innate goodness of humans.
Over the years we both got knocked around a bit. I moved out of state a couple of times, and got exposed to a lot of things I'd never encountered here at home - I stayed a liberal, but a more informed one. He stayed - got married, had some kids, joined the National Guard first to help make ends meet and then later to help pay for nursing school. He's a registered nurse, works with the local home health agency, going to the homes of the elderly and disabled. He's a funny, caring, loving man.
Then "they" sent him to war.
He came to see me a month or so after he was back. We talked for a little while about what it was like over there. He talked about the constant 24/7 drone from the base generators - he said everyone comes back with hearing loss, not to mention how noise like that can make the sanest guy a wee tad crazy. He talked about how terrified our soldiers are, when they go out on patrol, because there's no way to tell the bad guys from the civilians, no way to tell if someone approaching you is a threat or not, no way of knowing if the next bump in the road is the trigger for an IED. He looked horrified when he told me that woman and children really are used as human shields and cannon fodder. His eyes are haunted. He'd learned to hate.
I saw his wife a week or so later. We cried together for the man who came home from this war, stripped of his innocence.
He stopped in again on Thanksgiving. He's back at work now, and seems a bit more "here", but his eyes are still haunted.
I've seen that look before. I was it in my father's eyes, when he finally deemed I was old enough to have the photos in his war album explained. He had pictures of buildings in Manila, where the Japanese had herded Philippine civilians, told them the building was rigged with explosives, and then shot them as they tried to leap from the windows. These stark, black and white photographs of public buildings, partially collapsed from the explosives that were finally set off, riddled with bullet holes, brought that same look to my father's eyes.
Thinking about them this evening, I realized that the greatest difference between the wars fought by U.S. soldiers before 1940 and the ones fought after is that before 1940, all our enemies were European or European colonies. Until the Pacific Theater of WWII, our armed forces never faced an enemy from a truly foreign culture. Since then, we have faced nothing but that... and we haven't learned.
We haven't learned that all our expectations are based on a very Euro-centric philosophical and ethical system. We haven't learned that before we set foot into one of these wars, we really, really need to know and understand the culture of our enemy. In Somalia, to show someone the bottom of your foot is a deadly insult. Our soldiers used to fly over the city with their feet hanging out of the helicopter - until one was shot down and the soldiers in it mutilated. In Iraq, a hand held up palm facing outward means "hello", not "stop". Our soldiers at checkpoints haven't been briefed on the correct gestures for that culture to stop a car - so pregnant women die.
We haven't learned that we need to understand the history of a region before we go in and disassemble the current government, or we won't be prepared for what happens when the existing order is erased. Prior to the Russians and then the Taliban, regional warlords ran Afghanistan, and opium poppies were the biggest cash crop. After getting only half the job done before getting diverted by Iraq, why are we surprised that it has reverted to warlords and heroin production? In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's regime enforced religious tolerance and stifled sectarianism. After the American invasion, the first people to get out of Iraq were the Iraqi Christians, because both Sunnis and Shiites were after them. Sunnis and Shiites have been at each other's throats since they buried Mohammed; why did we not anticipate the civil war?
We haven't learned from our mistakes, so yes, we are doomed to repeat them.
So we will send more of our men and women, boys and girls, into places and situations they are not prepared for; and we will get back body bags, cripples and forever haunted eyes.
The Editorial Page is open to anyone. If you would like to submit an editorial for future publication, please write us a fttw.submit@gmail. com (att: editorial column).
The thing about service in Iraq is that it generally comes down to a daily exercise in sustained drudgery. The seige mentality is so high there that I never personally felt as if I accomplished anything at all. A good number of people have anticipated the civil war and watched it approach in slow motion. The resolution is equally obvious and unfolding slomo -- in a few years the Sunnis will be effectively annihilated, tho more by diaspora than mass slaughter hopefully. Souther Iraq will be a puppet state of Iran. Northern Iraq, which we'll stubbornly refuse to call "Kurdistan" officially, will be in our pocket. That power balance will last for decades at the very least. Just some opinions in the spirit of editorializing...
Posted by: Kory | December 22, 2006 8:11 AM
I'd like to take this oportunity to say that I really appreciate what this site does for bringing people with different viewpoints together.
We've got everyone left to right but we don't get in each other's way or disrespect each other's viewpoints. I understand more about "the other side" than I did before. Thanks guys.
Posted by: Dan | December 22, 2006 10:25 AM
but this site wouyldn't be what it was without you guys
so thank you all for being a part of it
Posted by: turtle | December 22, 2006 10:44 AM
Kory, thank you. I think you're right about what will ultimately happen - I think a "united" Iraq is impossible. I do appreciate you adding to the dialogue - and you have my thanks for your service over there - glad you made it back. And to the FTTW editorial staff: thank you for the opportunity to launch this column. It was an honor.
Posted by: Pat | December 22, 2006 10:09 PM
I think it may have been possible to have a united Iraq, if we hadn't made such a continuous series of awful blunders. Obviously, it would have required a vastly more delicate and sophisticated approach than the one our political leaders took, but there was a window of opportunity following the initial war (when the level of violence was very low) that we woefully squandered. Being several years down the road, having screwed things up so royally, it's hard to envision a good outcome from where we now stand.
It is true that failing to learn from past mistakes dooms us to repeat them.
Posted by: miker | December 24, 2006 1:08 PM