Who got served? Four soldiers’ stories

1. My dear friend’s brother is 43; he’s in a happily rewarding second marriage and his kids are 5, 3, and newborn. Despite this brand-new sprouting family, though, he strongly feels his primary duty is to serve in the war, so he’s decided to enlist. His particular assignment, which is slated to last a year and a half, is a top secret mission, so his family can’t have any contact with him while he’s gone. His wife is quite upset about his choice and fought him on it for months, but she couldn’t change his mind. He knows his duty, he says, and it’s to his country. He ships out for Kuwait next month.

2. The local paper recently did a feature on an L.A. married couple, both in the military. The wife got deployed to Iraq, so the husband requested to be deployed with her to help her cope with . . . what, you ask? The dangers of a soldier’s life? The moral anxiety of accidentally killing civilians? The uncertainty of whether your government is even supporting you? Surviving the heat and the bugs and the crazy anxiety and the sheer terror of possibly being about to be killed every minute? No . . . to help her cope with missing their five daughters back home. The story was all about how the kids (who range in age from about 16 to three-year-old twins) are managing on their own—trying to finish high school while caring for two toddlers, for example—since their dad opted to “serve his country” instead of them.

3. I heard a radio interview with one soldier—I later realized it was 2006 Congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth–who lost both her legs and the use of one arm in an ambush of her helicopter. She’d been learning to live as an amputee with a lot of help from her husband, but the husband was being shipped out now and she’d be left home alone with her devastating handicaps. Her response to his deployment: “We’re luckier than most families because we already know what that’s like. I know how lonely it can be for the one at home—that’s really the harder job. The shoe is on the other foot now.” Um, that’s because you don’t have a foot anymore. Don’t you see any problem with what your family’s being asked to give? Of course I can’t help being impressed by your commitment to your country, and maybe staying home with no legs really is a harder job than going to Iraq with two, but how on earth can you not be outraged? Who’s gonna help him learn to manage simple tasks when he comes back as an amputee, if he comes back at all? Don’t they cut couples like this any slack? Hasn’t this family sacrificed enough to the war effort yet?

4. I’m on the bus from SFO to the Mission, and the young guy across the aisle from me, who’s a little drunk, begins toasting everyone in the bus (me and one other woman) and trying to get to know us. He’s a sweet kid, really friendly, not too cool to talk to the two mom-aged ladies across the aisle. Through his high spirits and loquaciousness we learn that the reason for his trip here is to see his parents one last time before shipping off to Iraq—he’s just enlisted, and he’s really super excited, and he’s leaving Monday!

I’m appalled, but try not to let it show as he shows me the little book of Marine guidelines he’s nervously studying. “So,” I begin, trying to seem all casual, “you enlisted? Just recently? You WANT to go to Iraq?” Keep in mind that it’s early 2007, not, say, October of 2001. The war has—how to put it delicately?–a slightly different reputation and feel to it by this point, a little history behind it. He cheerfully tells me all his reasons, convincing himself if not me:

“It’ll be great–it sucks, though, cause now that I’m in the military I’m gonna lose all my hair.” Yeah, and maybe your limbs too, I can’t help thinking.

“Also, I can get a nice car when I come home!” And I’m thinking, With hand controlled pedals.

“It’s okay—I’m already 22, so I’ve got a lot more life experience than the other guys, who’ll only be like 17 and 18. I’ve already had a chance to live my life and experience things, so I’m ready to go.” 22! Sure, at that point you’re so near death it doesn’t matter, so why not go down fighting instead of wasting away in a rest home till you’re, like, 24? My throat started closing when he offered this rationale and I thought of all the things that have happened to me since I was 22, all the life there is left to live without nightmares and shrapnel and an inability to communicate with anyone after you come home. If you come home.

“It’ll be cool, too, because now I can be buried in the veterans’ cemetery like my grandfather.” Yeah, I think, next year. This kid is so eager, so willing to do what he feels is a good thing, “the right thing” even, and here I am, trying to be encouraging, but chilled to my core by what I see as nothing less than insanity.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I want to “support the troops” because I feel like they’re getting screwed over by our government, but how do you pity them when they’re so willing to paint on their own bullseyes? And is duty to your country bigger than duty to the family in your home, especially when the kids are little? Perhaps there’s a sense that “serving” your country makes you responsible to a greater cause than your own selfish personal needs, but when parents come home crazy or limbless or don’t come home at all and their kids are left to cope, or when promising future adult citizens end up too physically and psychologically broken to live meaningfully, how does that strengthen our society, or the global community? Is it unpatriotic of me to want to know, exactly whom does that serve?

10 responses to “Who got served? Four soldiers’ stories”

  1. Jeremy Zitter says:

    This post raises some really interesting questions for me, not least of which is–how should one prioritize loyalties? It’s rather disturbing, really, that we’ve been conditioned to just accept the patriotic myth that loyalty to one’s country trumps all other loyalties, including loyalty to those closest to us. There seems to be a rather blurry line here between selfishness and selflessness here…

  2. cynthia says:

    I happen to agree with Jeremy and feel that their is a very blurry line here. I think that we have done our part here and conceentrate on our country. I think our loved ones should be the most important in our lives. I believe in supporting our troops. I just think things have gotten out of hand.

  3. Scotty says:

    …I want to “support the troops” because I feel like they’re getting screwed over by our government, but how do you pity them when they’re so willing to paint on their own bullseyes?

    Maybe this extreme condition of false consciousness should make one feel more pitty?

    Never having served in the military, I know little to nothing about the mentality of boot camp, barracks life, mess hall meals, or warfare, but my understanding is that since the advent of “civilized” warfare, soldiers are hyped up on the idea that their sacrifices are glorious, selfless, honorable etc. Again, I don’t presume to speak from experience, but what I understand is that the friendship bond amongst soldiers is what really keeps the lemmings marching toward the abyss.

    I had an interesting conversation with my political science mentor, who is a scholar in classical politics. He agreed with me that homoeroticism was not accidentally a component of the Athenian and Spartan military cultures – if you love your comrades you will be much less likely to turn tail and run when spears start flying.

    It is my belief that this is why so much of the military brass is so resistant to bringing women into combat. I think for many, it’s a place where unimaginable acts of love can occur. Maybe that’s warfare’s greatest irony.

  4. Dave says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond to this. On the one hand, the story in #2 is kinda fucked up. You have a duty to country, duty to spouse, and duty to children, and from the details you give it doesn’t sound like the husband is properly balancing the three.

    On the other hand, stories 1 and 3 are fairly straightforwardly about people who feel a strong sense of duty to country and believe they should fulfill that duty by serving in the military in Iraq. Now, I don’t feel that much duty to my country, and I don’t think serving in Iraq would be the best way for me to fulfill whatever duty I may have to my country. And on some level, believing that one should go fight in Iraq might be wrongheaded. But is it blameworthy for these people to join up and then enter combat when called upon? It their sense of duty itself what’s wrongheaded, or their expression of it? Are people like me, who never had to even consider serving in the military, in a position to judge?

    Story #4 brings out the tension I see in the post. The kid is stupid, definitely. In six months he’ll be 100 years older and have no room for the bouncy bravado that you pick up on very well. But you’re “appalled”? At what? That our government offers stupid kids a package of benefits that looks good and can be a way out of poverty, then sends them to be maimed or killed? That the government sends them to Iraq to be maimed or killed — in other words, that this particular war is unjust? Or are you appalled that this kid is stupid enough to sign up? This last is definitely present in the post. But I’ve seen 22-year-old kids make plenty of stupid decisions. I made some doozies myself at that age. It’s just that the set of viable options available to me didn’t include (thank God) joining the military during an unjust, interminable war. Is this some virtue of mine, that I was in a position to pay for college and go on from there without joining up? Beyond being stupid, what has this kid done wrong? It doesn’t seem fair to blame him for simply having a different set of choices available to him when he was 22 than you or I did.

  5. Scotty says:

    Ironically, the U.S., in vilifying the Iraqi army in this and the previous war, has cried foul (and rightfully so) at the strategy of using “human shields,” or placing armaments in or around civilian housing, schools, hospitals etc. However, the supports of this war have used a similar tactic: hiding behind “the troops” in order to perpetuate the war. As I’ve taken aim at politicians and the war in general, I’ve found myself inadvertently striking this symbolic target. It is important to step back and refocus. Soldiers are the people who suffer the scars of war when it’s waged in a distant land. And sadly, these are people who, in many cases are the most vulnerable in our society.

    This post makes me so deeply sad.

  6. Literacy says:

    Needless to say, I have been anxious about the way this post would be perceived, so I want to respond, especially to Dave’s comments: I was concerned that it would come across as though I was mocking the soldiers I write about here. That was not my intent at all. Although I do feel frustration towards the first two examples in particular, I still sort of admire their commitment to what they feel is right even though I don’t think it’s “right” (whatever that means). In the case of Tammy Duckworth, her patriotism actually baffles me. I feel outraged for her, at the system that deems that she hasn’t given enough yet and now has to get along without her husband when her willingness to give so much is what made her as needy as she is, yet they keep taking from her. And my feelings about the young guy in #4 were not that I thought he’s stupid–just so incredibly misguided that it ripped me up to hear him try to psych himself up for the certain monstrosities ahead. Why am I appalled? For the first two reasons you articulate, specifically. Not the third. I don’t think he’s doing something “wrong,” morally or however you want to put it–I just feel enraged that he could get sold such a bill of goods that even this late in the game he still thinks it’s a great idea to go to Iraq. He told me that his sister had agreed to let a recruiter come to the house but the recruiter ended up convincing him instead. What kind of propaganda must they be spouting to make anyone–even someone with what privileged people like us must see as the fewest possible options–think this sounds reasonable? And, on a bigger picture, too big to tackle, why are so many people in the situation where this IS the best option and why can’t we as a country offer something better?

    No, I don’t blame him OR Tammy Duckworth. I just feel heartsick that these stories exist and that these choices seem to make sense to someone somewhere. Not to me.

  7. Dave says:

    NY Times blog item on Army recruitment.

  8. ruben mancillas says:

    The idea of a “volunteer” army is one I would want to question. I remember reading that Private Lynch claimed to want to become a schoolteacher but that the Army was a better option for a poor young person in West Virginia. Sure, she made a choice but if we gut funding for community colleges, to offer only one obvious example, then what exactly are the range of choices for our potential soldiers?

    On the other hand, I admit to feeling a real disconnect to what I want to define as military thinking. It is (too) easy for me in my comfortable liberal way to offer that I support the troops even while I think some of their decisions misguided. It’s part of that who to blame/what’s the matter with Kansas thinking in that this is the very demographic that votes to gut their economic opportunities in favor of some vague identification with “values” or the pro-military propaganda of the Republicans.

    I remember hearing a Iraq war veteran interviewed saying how he is disgusted with those who say that they support the troops but not the mission. He explained that as a soldier he considered himself part of the mission so if you were against the mission you were against him. I was suprised at my outrage as I shouted at the TV, “OK, screw you then, if that’s the way you want it I’m against the mission and you.” I initially blamed his twisted logic but clearly there was something else going on there on my end.

    Thanks for this thought provoking post.

  9. lisa t. says:

    I come from a family of veterans– dad: vietnam; step-dad: korea AND vietnam; grandpa: WWII. When my step-brother decided to enlist (in 1990, the “desert storm” era) and then was sent to Kuwait, my mom went outside and tied a gigantic yellow ribbon around the birch tree in the front yard.

    My step-brother and I were born in the same year and have grown up together. During his deployment (I was a college sophomore with a well-worn pair of birkenstocks and some long, colorful skirts), we wrote back and forth constantly. I clearly remember a line from one of his letters: I can’t believe that I might have to shoot at a guy who maybe I would have gotten to know as a pal in a different situation. He described “t-rats,” and cleaning his weapon, and the strange quiet of the desert when they were out on patrol. I’m not sure if it’s despite or because of his service, but my brother is vehemently against the war in Iraq.

    Anyway, although I don’t personally have the sense of “loyalty to country” that many of the comments discuss (and which Literacy tries to deconstruct), I understand it. It’s in my blood. Maybe that’s what the four stories have in common– a type of heritage that includes life- and family-sacrificing dedication to the USA, no matter how irrational it appears…

  10. Marleyfan says:

    What a strong post!