This past week, precious few of us noticed that the last 500 American soldiers drove themselves across desert sands and out of Iraq, fulfilling President Barack Obama’s promise to end our engagement there by year’s end.
Now, I have a few bones to pick with the President. For one, the man who carried so many of my hopes for a better America after the dismal Bush-Cheney years would have made his way to Madison last winter to stand with the Wisconsinites protesting the union-busting efforts of a far-right governor and a Tea Party-dominated legislature.
For another, he would have stood with the Occupy folks in one city after another around the country and, earlier, kept single-payer healthcare “on the table” until the opposition blasted it off with dynamite.
And right along, he would have fought harder to keep people in their homes and back at work, any work, than he did safeguarding the pocketbooks of Wall Street plutocrats.
By the same token, the President Sharon and I endorsed all through the 2008 campaign also would have ended the Iraq War we had opposed so early and so fervently.
And so, we need to come to a full stop right there, because President Obama has ended the Iraq War—as cleanly and gracefully as anyone could reasonably expect. Even as LA Progressive pages sling arrows his way—pushing him from the Left, as some say we’re supposed to do—we must also applaud the skill, doggedness, and vision it took for him to bring that war to a close.
I don’t claim any great connection to the nation’s seats of power—the closest I ever got was the summer I spent bartending at The Dubliner, a well-used Irish drinking establishment at the bottom of Capitol Hill. But I do believe that Obama must have faced tremendous pressure to prolong the war, to extend it indefinitely, to establish a permanent encampment, from America’s military and its war industry backers—supported by an opposition party that thinks hamstringing a President at every turn in the midst of two misbegotten wars and an economic collapse deeper than any but the oldest among us can recall is something short of treason.
So, let’s pause now to honor President Obama and his administration. Then let’s take a moment to reflect on how best to honor the service of the men and women who fought in Iraq over the past decade.
In Like a Lion
How differently this war has ended from others in living memory. So far, Obama has made one speech “welcoming home” soldiers at Fort Bragg—no crowing or strutting, so understated you might have missed it had you been out that day doing your Christmas shopping. No doubt there’ll be more pomp and circumstance around the war’s end in this campaign season, but for now—dignified, reverential, utterly appropriate has been the order of the day.
Compare that to the nights of “shock and awe” that began this war, as our overwhelming technological might rained down holy hell on a virtually defenseless Baghdad—as if in their grotesque ugliness those nights of murderous destruction somehow counterbalanced the dark horror of the Twin Towers falling.
There was chest-thumping aplenty then, with Bush and Cheney and their minions swaggering before every available camera, edging each other aside to show what a bunch of tough nuts they were. Remember?
But not everyone joined the parade as America rushed to war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. From the start, some of us thought we were rushing into the wrong war in the wrong country for the wrong reasons. My Dad and I were among them.
As combat veterans—he in World War II and me in Vietnam—we came to our skepticism honestly. Early on, even as the bombs and missiles fell on Iraq and Iraqis, I remember talking with my Dad about how the books seemed to have been cooked, the evidence tampered with, to excuse this latest bit of American adventurism. It was just a gut feeling, but a deeply held one.
In an odd way, our wars had brought the two of us back together. In my late teens, I had morphed from a straight-A student, mind your P’s and Q’s kid, into Adolescent Rebellion Incarnate—the whiskey bottle that would rule my life into my 30s firmly in hand, on the road to a decade or more of poor decisions, one of which was to join the Army in 1968, in part to straighten out a life that had gone so badly awry.
Then, the second time I was wounded, as a foot soldier with the 9th Infantry Division patrolling along the Mekong River, I took a piece of shrapnel from a Chinese grenade that lodged in my right calf at precisely the point a piece of German 88-mm shell had lodged itself in my Dad’s leg 24 years earlier, as he prepared to lead his company of combat engineers across a different river into Aachen, Germany.
As with my Dad’s wound, the shrapnel could have pierced my head or my heart, in which case I would have joined the four Vietcong soldiers who died that evening. But it was my leg, so the impact merely knocked me to the ground, cutting the nerve in my lower right leg so I felt little pain and could defend myself until the firefight ended and I could be transported through a series of hospitals to Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, where my Dad and I first compared our similar wounds.
But long before that firefight, I had begun to lose faith in my country’s ability to tell the truth about what we were doing in Vietnam, a cynicism that grew as I returned to civilian life, saw what was going on with older and wiser eyes, and joined antiwar protests in New York City and back home in Minneapolis.
But I faced a terrible dissonance. On the one hand, I felt I had acquitted myself well in combat, acting honorably, calm and cool, for the most part, and not letting fear and anger make me into something I would hate myself for becoming.
On the other hand, there was the war—wrong and wrong-headed, foisted upon a believing public by the “Best and the Brightest” then, just as decades later this other war was foisted on an equally credulous populace by decidedly dimmer bulbs.
It was my Dad who helped me separate the two, allowing me to honor my own service and the service of my fellow soldiers—the great many of whom had acted honorably in combat, as I had—while repudiating a war we had no business fighting.
Just so, I can now honor the service of the military men and women who have fought so long in Iraq and are now returning—the great majority of whom who have acted honorably under fire—just as I hold fast to the notion that the Iraq invasion was undertaken for disreputable ends.
Tonight, my Dad rests in a hospital bed in Florida where he retired many years ago. My war wound has never bothered me much and now is just an ugly scar on my calf and parts of my foot I cannot feel, which will only occasionally stiffen and swell.
But my Dad always favored his right leg, damaging his knee and hip as the years passed. Now on his second hip replacement, he recently took a tumble, causing that hip to swell. His doctors don’t want to open up a man his age to remove the clot that has formed there.
Our prayers are with him, of course. We want him to keep right on trucking. At 94, he’s got a lively mind and quick wit. He loves to tell us how he has gone to the gym or played his piano or taken his wife Betty to dinner whenever we call. He keeps up with our magazine, too, occasionally sending us a note about something we have published.
More than anything, as we honor President Obama for the grace and courage to end the Iraq War, I want to have my Dad around because he gave me the greatest gift I can imagine. He taught me how to be a man in this world.
Editor, LA Progressive