U.S. soldiers mired in Iraq strive for survival, not heroism

November 26, 2006|By Gordon Livingston

Though most commentators have interpreted the 2006 elections results to be a repudiation of our failed policy in Iraq, the administration clings to the fantasy that the war can be "won" in the sense of creating a secure, self-sustaining democracy in that country that will allow us to leave. John McCain thinks more troops are necessary, and according to one report the president is prepared to send in an extra 20,000 soldiers in "a last big push" to achieve such a "victory."

In February 2003, just before the invasion, I wrote a tribute to the astronauts who had recently died when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated. I talked about the limits of technology, the law of unintended consequences and the contrast between the constructive goals the astronauts had sought and the war in Iraq that we were about to launch. I closed the piece as follows: "Those of our sons and daughters who are about to die pursuing a process of unimaginable destruction are equally brave, well-motivated, and infinitely precious. Do we really want to ask this of them?"

We did ask this of them, and for 3 1/2 years we have watched more than 2,800 of them die while 46,000 more have been wounded in pursuit of shifting goals that no longer seem achievable to most Americans.

Our persistence in this bloody quagmire is reminiscent of my generation's experiment in nation building, Vietnam. There are many similarities, but to mention just one: Long after it became evident to most Americans that prospects for victory in Vietnam were nil, we persisted. Of the 58,000 troops killed in the war, 33,000 died after the Tet Offensive in January 1968, which vividly demonstrated that U.S. government predictions about the imminent demise of the Viet Cong had been, shall we say, exaggerated. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided then to withdraw from public life, but the killing and dying went on until we finally left in 1973. Now President Bush visits, exchanges toasts with Vietnamese leaders, and is photographed beneath a bust of Ho Chi Minh.

One lesson we as a nation apparently did learn from our Vietnam debacle was that it was unfair to blame or ignore our soldiers, many of them draftees, who returned home - often with visible or buried scars - to little formal honor or recognition. And so, like good Americans, we have now swung to the other extreme, lionizing our young veterans and reassuring ourselves and them that they have performed a heroic and indispensable service to their country. On Oprah's program a couple weeks ago, New York Times columnist Frank Rich was flogging his latest book about Iraq, The Greatest Story Ever Sold. During audience response time, a young man identified himself as a veteran of Iraq and was immediately given a standing ovation.

One problem with this over-the-top approval of our young warriors is that they know that they have, for the most part, done little to deserve it. They all joined the military for reasons that seemed good to them at the time and included things like a spirit of adventure, a hope for later government benefits, and difficulty obtaining other employment. Doubtless most of them were also motivated by a genuine and patriotic desire to serve their country, but getting blown up while driving down the road in an armored vehicle, while certainly unlucky, is hardly heroic.

As for the reservists and National Guardsmen who have been mobilized and sent to Iraq, they too signed up knowing that they might be called.

Soldiers confronted with combat soon realize that patriotism alone will not get them through the experience. They fight, as do all men at war, for survival and for those around them on whom their lives depend. They know that who lives and who dies is random and seldom a function of courage or the lack of it.

Most also recognize that there is not much constructive in what they are doing. In a recent e-mail home, one Marine officer described his environment as "like a level from Dante's Inferno." Who is the enemy? Who is planting the explosive devices that inflict most of the casualties? Sunnis? Shiites? Al-Qaida? Islamo-fascists?

This war is being fought, as usual, in the name of "freedom." But whose freedom? In a recent poll, 71 percent of Iraqis said they wanted U.S. forces to withdraw within a year. (One farmer, upon being asked if he had seen any foreign fighters in the area, replied, "Yes, you.") And how is any American freedom at stake in that place? If this war is the struggle between good and evil that the administration claims, why are not we all being asked to sacrifice to win it? Why does the U.S. Army look like the student body of a Southern community college rather than being representative of the whole society?

The soldiers know all this, which is why they look embarrassed by the adulation heaped upon them by people who have no understanding of what they have been through. If we have difficulty articulating the reasons for their sacrifices, what's the point in the applause, the ribbons, the care packages?

Maybe we would be better off getting a head start on the Iraq War Memorial, in front of which we can all, civilians and veterans alike, stand and shake our heads.

Gordon Livingston, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran who lives in Columbia, is the author of "And Never Stop Dancing." His e-mail is gslcvk@aol.com.

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