Saturday, November 26, 2005

"We Need To Get The Fuck Out Of There."

Disclaimer: I don't know how much of the following is true, embellished, and/or false; I'm just telling you what the man told me.

I met a soldier in the US Army on his way to Iraq today.

I sat down next to him on the plane home after spending Thanksgiving with my extended family. I was carrying a duffel bag with the logo of the university I work for, and he asked me if I was going back to school. I replied that I was in the process of applying to grad school, and griped lightly about the nagging vicissitudes of transcript-ordering , recommendation-securing, GRE-taking, and so forth. Then he told me he'd been in Iraq for four months last year, and was headed to Ft. Bragg to await redeployment on a 15-month tour.

"Johnny" (not his real name) was a 20-year-old Special Forces paratrooper and sharpshooter who showed a surprising (not to mention admirable) equanimity in discussing the mortal dangers that threatened him. He called Iraq an "amazing country" and said some provinces, mostly in the south, were incredibly beautiful. He said the natives frequently welcomed his platoon with hugs when it arrived in their villages, and that young boys around the age of 4 were effective sources of intelligence. Johnny's swarthy complexion even allowed him to grow a beard and blend in so well as an Iraqi that someone once publicly mistook him for a relative (he had to sedate the guy and pour alcohol on his unconscious body to stay incognito).

When I asked how he thought the war was going, he minced no words: "We need to get the fuck out of there."

* * *

Johnny, a working-class kid from the East Coast, joined the army at 17 to provide "a better life" for himself and his family. He expressed disappointment and resignation that the Army had broken its promise to him to keep his deployments to 3 1/2 months at a time. He also gave me a bit of inside information, which I have no way of verifying: apparently Bush has already signed some kind of order to the effect of keeping troops in Iraq through 2008 (remember, this is only an unsubstantiated rumor). But despite these disappointments, Johnny was very obviously coping with the psychological burden of war much better than many of his compatriots. He spoke of a fellow soldier who was so afraid to leave the base that his unit began to leave him behind because"he was a danger to himself [and others]." This guy's behavior got so out of hand that he was eventually shipped back to the States for psychiatric assistance.

Johnny told of sniping insurgents with the help of a spotter, and faking the salaat to infiltrate mosques that sheltered terrorists. He spoke of many close calls, including one in which shrapnel from an IED tore the flesh along the bottom of his right arm, leaving a jagged scar. Divorcing himself from his emotions is essential for survival, he said, though even he couldn't suppress the grief he felt at seeing one of his companions fall. He told me he didn't enjoy killing people, and would not voluntarily return for combat duty once his contract expired, but when his survival means killing others, he doesn't hesitate.

I told Johnny I could never take orders in the Army or face live combat. He replied that as a college graduate, they'd probably make me something like a lieutenant, so I'd be the one giving the orders. I have enough trouble just approaching women to ask for dates, I said, so how could I lead a group of soldiers into battle without wetting myself? He then told me about how his faith gives him strength, and that he believes God is watching over him in the line of duty. And although I'm agnostic, I said, "Times like these make me really hope there is someone up there watching over us all."

The mood lightened a bit when we got into the quality of the Army's women, some of whom Johnny called "nice girls." We agreed that a strong intellect is absolutely indispensable when evaluating any potential significant other. But he didn't seem upset at all when he told me his girlfriend broke up with him upon his return home for Thanksgiving. He has prudently decided to wait until he comes home permanently to pursue another relationship.

The plane ride was a short one, and I didn't get to ask him all the questions I wanted to. Toward the end, another passenger joined the conversation and steered it toward military technology, which wasn't nearly as interesting to me. As Johnny walked off the plane ahead of me, I called his name and said: "Even though I disagree with the war, I still think you're a hero. Good luck, and I hope you come back safely." After shaking hands, he thanked me for the kind words, smiled, and walked away.

* * *

My chat with Johnny started me thinking about the true meaning of the phrase "support the troops." Some conservatives evidently think it means keeping the US military in Iraq indefinitely. They say you can't support the troops without supporting the war, and that the growing domestic calls for a pullback are hurting morale. But I don't think I injured Johnny's morale when I told him what I thought of the war. If he's any indication, I'd say that the prospect of being redeployed over and over again with no end in sight is what's damaging troop morale more than anything else. Johnny wants to go to college to become a mechanical engineer, and if he survives, he'll get that chance--if. He doesn't expect to see significant troop reductions anytime soon, so he has wisely focused his energies on surviving from one day to the next.

I told him that I want him to live, and to get that degree, and to start moving up the economic ladder. That's what "supporting the troops" means to me. It's got very little to do with politics, partisanship, or whether the war is winnable or not--I just want them to return safe and whole. Now as I said, it just so happens that I thought invading Iraq was a bad idea from the start. But since we're there, it seems to me that any tenable conception of "supporting the troops" would have to include serious and dedicated thought about how to get them home as soon as possible. "Staying the course" is not a plan; it's an insult. Plenty of fine young men and women like Johnny are risking their lives every day for a gamble that came up snake-eyes, and the administration's galling lack of postwar planning angers me all the more for it.

I don't know whether we "have" to win in Iraq to keep America safe, or whether "winning" (whatever that means) will guarantee our safety. All I know is, we owe it to Johnny and his fellow troops, if indeed we truly support them, to get behind some kind of plan to bring them home in short order so that they may reap the well-deserved benefits of military service.