Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ten Years Later, a Look Back At War and Religion

I've written before about my time in the military, specifically about my experiences dealing with the very religious environment while I served.  I didn't go into any great detail about my feelings on the war in Iraq, but now I will.  Ten years ago today, I crossed the border from Kuwait to Iraq.  Some days it has felt as if I never came back.

I was scheduled to go on a second CAX (Combined Arms eXercise) in 29 Palms, California; we all knew in the Fall of 2002 that it wasn't going to happen.  We all knew we were going to Iraq.

9/11 had occurred at the end of my first CAX.  We (the 2D Radio Bn detachment) were one of the last units left in the middle of that miserable hell one hour northeast of Palm Springs, CA.  We slept in, turning on the radio around 8am Pacific to hear news that we had been attacked.  The towers were already down.  We knew that we were going to war.  I wasn't involved in that war.  Friends of mine were.  That was a war that I could at least accept the reasons for.  Not much more than a year later I knew I was going to be sent to a war that had no acceptable reasons.

I had never sought the council of a chaplain before.  I had had no reason to.  I'm not religious.  I had messed around with some non-Abrahamic religions while I was in, but faith was always lacking. The problem is, in the military you have two options: you can see a chaplain, or you can see the wizard.  The wizard is a psychologist or psychiatrist.  Seeing the wizard carries a stigma, and a potentially career ending one if, like me, you have a top secret clearance.  Seeing the chaplain does not carry such a stigma.  So I went to see the Man.  I explained my concerns, that there was no link between 9/11 and Iraq, and that it didn't seem legal. I was told, "We just have to trust that God is working through the President."

"I don't believe in God," I say.

Blank stare and silence. I leave.

After forty days dealing with exploding toilets, boredom, and 3,500 other Marines and sailors miserable from the smallpox vaccine aboard the USS Saipan, I finally landed via LCU on a beach in Kuwait on February 18th, 2003. Trucked north in a sandstorm, I arrived in a tent city.  I occupied my time cleaning the baby powder-fine sand from my weapon, reacting to gas drills, and taking cover from yet another sandstorm.  It was amazing to me, years later watching "Jarhead", how little things had changed in the twelve years between  Swofford's experience and mine.

On the 19th of March we convoyed to the berm.  We sat for hours in our unarmored HMMWV, sandbags beneath our feet.  We received warning order after warning order.  Nobody seemed to know what was actually going on.  In the wee hours of the night(or was it morning?) we received the order to move out.  I switched on my CD player.  "Rammstein" by the band of the same name.  I had no idea how apropos it was.  It was a long and winding path through the debris of that former war.  The Iraqi armor fought among the burned-out hulls of the vehicles left by their fathers in an attempt to slow us down.  For naught.

Jalibah Airfield.  Patriots firing.

Villages and towns.  Nasiriyah.

We were told that a deal had been made.  The Iraqi commanders were going to have their troops lay down arms and go home.  That's not at all what happened.  Regulars and Fedayeen Saddam swarmed all over the city.  They knew our technology gave us an advantage at night, so they attacked at dusk. Friendly fire resulted in casualties in the dozens.  2/8 Marines and LAR attacking each other, with Fedayeen in the middle.  "Blue on blue!" was yelled out, and a cease fire given.  It wouldn't be the last.  The next day I saw the aftermath of a Marine Amtrac  hit by an Air Force A-10.  I still don't understand why the Air Force is allowed to use a ground support aircraft.

It was hard to stand on the banks of the Euphrates and not see my place in the long procession of history.   I was yet another soldier, in yet another army, that had marched out of the dawn to conquer Mesopotamia.  It was a feeling of both completeness and total loss.

I remember quite distinctly moving into a neighborhood in An Nasiriyah. The grunts had swept the area moments before us, pushing the inhabitants out.  When my team moved into the house that we were to stay in for a few days , I saw the dead goslings.  The goose was still alive, honking at at us that we weren't supposed to be there, while her children lay dead around the courtyard; crushed by boots moments before our arrival.  We searched the house, finding wads of worthless Iraqi dinari and replacing them with American dollars out of pity.  We stayed there several days, and had meetings with the local leaders.  After two days or so, during one of these meetings, one of the Iraqis said, "We have been talking these days, and now I sit with you, and I forget that you are Americans."  It was a moment that changed my life.  It solidified my view of humanity as a whole.  I saw that circumstance was trivial, and mutual experience was resounding.  These Iraqis had forgotten not only that they were Arabs and Iraqis, but Muslims as well.  Just so, we had forgotten our role as Americans and invaders.  On that day I was called brother in a language I did not understand.  It was on that day that I gained my humanity.  It was on that day that I truly became an atheist.  No god described by anyone has been able to explain that moment of connectivity I felt.  Not with the Iraqis, nor the goose lamenting her goslings.  Call this an appeal to emotion if you want, but remember this, in my time serving in an unjust war, in a foreign land, I connected with people I had never met as one human to another. There was no shared faith, but a shared understanding of sorrow and strife, and of the joys we discussed as we drank our tea and ate our bread.  It was the daily struggle that we all make as denizens of this planet that allowed us to see each other for what we really are...companions swirling about each other in the endless game that we can only hope will end with all of us as winners.

As I continued through my time in Iraq, I saw the greetings for the liberators turn to the scorn for the conquerors.  This, along with my experiences in Latin America fighting another war of evasive morals, led to a fundamental change in my outlook on how we have built our societies.  It has led me to carry a banner, not of my own making, but made by the tireless cries of the oppressed.

"No Gods.  No Masters."