It’s been just over 5 years since the start of the Iraq war, and we’ve just passed another of those morbid little milestones that get so much attention in the press. This particular milestone has a nice round number on it – 4,000 – which apparently makes it somehow more important, or significant, or something than less neat numbers like 2526, or 3981, or 1135. The media’s spent a little while circling over the battlefield, waiting for the 4,000th American corpse to hit the ground. The milestone arrived and passed more or less on schedule, and the media will settle back down and wait for the next round number. But these numbers, round or otherwise are nonsense. They’re worse than meaningless. They allow us to care about this war on cue for some fraction of a news cycle. But by the time we’ve gone to the fridge, grabbed a beer, and slapped our fat asses back down on the sofa, things have moved on to the story of the drug-addled starlet’s custody fight with her 5th ex-husband. In six or seven months, when the number’s climbed to another round increment, the press will spare a few more minutes of air time and remind us to care again briefly. Between now and then, most of the deaths will be back below the fold on page A-39.
Somehow or another, I doubt that the parents of the 3683rd soldier to die are somehow injured less than the parents of the 4,000th. I doubt that the parents of the 4010th will feel any differently. And, of course, American soldiers aren’t the only ones who have died in the course of this disaster. We don’t know how many Iraqis have died. Every estimate that’s been published so far has been the subject of some controversy, because the different estimates aren’t in complete agreement with each other. After five years, the whole country is still so comprehensively screwed that it’s not possible to safely conduct the censuses and surveys needed to come up with an answer that everyone can agree with. The survivors of the family that becomes the collateral damage from an American air strike don’t mourn any less than the family of the American soldier killed by friendly fire.
Every single person who has died in this war leaves behind a hole. Their absence is felt by their families, by their friends, by their colleagues, no matter who they were or why they fought.
And those aren’t the only holes that are left.
When you tell the troops to go to war, you tell them to leave things behind. You pull them out of their everyday surroundings, out of their normal lives, out of their families, and you send them off together to fight. Their absence leaves holes while they’re gone. When they get back, it’s not always easy for them to fit back in. The holes change shape while they’re gone, and they do, too. The process of fitting things back together can be painful.
This is true even when the war is a necessary evil. Afghanistan makes sense to me. I don’t think the war there is being fought well, largely because of the war in Iraq and its demands on the resources needed there, but I understand why we went in there, and why there’s a need to keep troops there. But the troops are still sent there for long periods of time, and they sacrifice a lot along the way. So do the families who don’t go. The soldier misses things that the family experiences, and the family misses things the soldier experiences.
When my wife was in Afghanistan, she got to do some extraordinary things.
She became the first doctor that some people ever saw – young or old. Afghani villagers who had never really had reason to think about women doing anything other than having and raising children saw first hand that women are really capable of more.
I don’t know how much of an impact seeing that sort of thing might have on the older folks, but they weren’t the only ones watching what was going on there.
She also got to experience some things that were still extraordinary, but weren’t exactly all flowers and chocolates. Not everyone came home from that deployment.
The officer in the middle of the picture was the unit commander, someone my wife greatly respected and admired. He died a few months after the picture was taken, a victim of Blackwater’s disregard for rules, regulations, and rational behavior. There were other incidents while she was there that I still don’t know all the details of, but which had their own effects on her.
And there were the experiences that she missed while she was gone. She wasn’t away for long in terms of time as we understand it, but even a few months can be a very, very long time in the lives of children. Some of the moments that she was away from were as ordinary as a day in the backyard, or an afternoon spent helping clean up a garden.
Others were special – things like the first school bus ride.
She was home, briefly, for Christmas, then gone again for a few more months. By the time she came back, she’d missed several inches of growth between the two of them and a year of their education. The kids had changed. I’d changed. She’d changed. Fitting everything back together was not easy, and it often wasn’t pretty. But we managed. And a little more than a year later, we got to do it all again.
The second time, when she deployed to Iraq, was harder. She’d changed more by the time she got back, we’d changed more, and we had to start dealing with the whole process of putting the family back together again. The whole process wasn’t helped by our inability to comprehend why the whole Iraq thing was even necessary to begin with. At least with Afghanistan, we could fall back on the necessity of someone doing something. Even that limited comfort was gone when we dealt with Iraq.
I’ve just dragged you through some of my family’s personal pain that’s come from this war, but I didn’t do that to make the point that you should feel sorry for us. The message I’d like you to take away is very different: as bad as all of that is, we’re among the luckiest of those who have had to deal firsthand with this war. We’ve managed to fit ourselves back together fairly well. We’ll never recover the things that we’ve missed in each others lives, but we’re still a family. We’ve escaped with just about as little harm as we could expect.
Many other families don’t get off the hook so easily. PTSD and undiagnosed brain injuries take their toll on some troops, and some troops take that out on their families. Some families simply can’t manage to fit things back together comfortably more than a couple of times, and fall apart after the first, or second, or third, or fourth deployment. Some wounds force massive changes to future plans. Alcoholism, drug abuse, stress, the increased training needed to prepare for the virtually-inevitable next deployment, all of these things take a toll on soldiers and on families. All of this has a cost.
Iraq’s destroyed marriages, it’s wrecked families, it’s keeping people in the service dangling above the abyss by their fingertips, and the band plays merrily on. Bush keeps demanding more and more from fewer and fewer people, and does everything in his considerable power to make sure that the strain and sacrifice is shared by as few Americans as possible, because that keeps the great mass of apathetic people from getting any unhappier with him than they already are.
That’s the part, I think, that hurts the most. He’s not just demanding more from the military and their families; he’s doing his absolute best to make sure that he’s not demanding anything from anyone else. The Fortunate Son cares about his war enough to ask us to give more, more, more, but he doesn’t care enough about it – or us – to ask anyone else to pick up some of the load. It’s one thing to be asked to sacrifice in the service of something that’s necessary if unpleasant. But it’s something altogether different to have your sacrifices used for nothing more noble than the desire to avoid admitting a mistake.
More than 4,000 soldiers have died, but that’s a meaningless statistic. Every single one of those deaths was a very personal tragedy for any number of people, and all of that still just scratches the surface of the pain. Every soldier who has deployed has been affected by this. Every one of their families has been affected by this. The number of families in Iraq who have been hurt by this can’t even begin to be calculated. This entire thing has been an enormous source of distress in an enormous number of lives, but the President can’t seem to clearly state a reason that all of this pain continues to be necessary. He simply assures us that he knows that it all won’t be in vain.
I doubt I’m the only person not comforted by those assurances.