Blood and treasure. Sons and daughters. And the truth.
This is the price we pay when making war. And as the third anniversary of our invasion of Iraq approaches, it is perhaps fitting and proper that we remember most of all that the cost is being borne disproportionally by those whose loved ones sacrifice all to serve their country.
It says something wicked about our society that usually, the only chance we get to meet their sons and daughters is by reading about their death in the obituaries. It is here we find out that they were loving brothers or sisters, or parents, or grandkids who loved life and were determined to live each day with a zest that some of us are envious. But if you read enough of these sad devotionals, one is struck by the overwhelming numbers who volunteered for the armed forces because they wished to “serve.”
This gives the lie to criticisms that most soldiers join the military because they can’t do anything else in civilian life, or for the educational benefits, or out of sheer boredom. While I’m sure there are some who join for those reasons, the idea that the United States military is a “mercenary army” is absurd. The all-volunteer force is perhaps the most astonishing success story in American history. Born out of necessity, nurtured through its infancy by a cadre of dedicated professionals who inculcated a sense of esprit de corps and a pride of mission into those who chose to serve, the volunteer military today is the most lethal fighting force in the history of human civilization largely because most of its members recognize a higher calling than the rest of us.
It does little good to place a technologically sophisticated piece of equipment into the hands of someone with no motivation to use it as part of an integrated whole. And that motivation comes from a desire to step outside of oneself, one’s own little corner of the world, and serve a purpose larger than the personal. For so many to do so leaves me grateful and not a little awestruck.
But the toll of this war is paid not just in the blood of the fallen nor in the psychological stress and terror borne by their surviving comrades, but also in the emotional carnage endured by the parents, spouses, and children who are either left behind to grieve their loss or who wait and wonder about their ultimate fate in the war zone. It is here that purgatory on earth can turn to either the heavenly blessings of a safe return or the hellish nightmare of the knock at the door, the chaplain, and the knowledge before a word is said that a world of pain has descended and life will never be the same.
H. Barry Holt and Joe Johnson have never met and do not know each other. What they have in common is that they are the fathers of soldiers. Both served in Iraq. One is dead. One is now home. But the stories of both fathers speak to us through the pain and anguish of separation.
Joe’s son Justin had been in Iraq a month when the dreaded knock on the door shattered their Easter Sunday 2 years ago with the news of sudden death. Joe was not there to comfort his family. He was at Fort Lewis in Washington trying to qualify to serve in a National Guard unit that was headed for Iraq. For you see, Joe too wanted to serve. And he wanted to be close to his son.
With the death of Justin, Joe concentrated on being with his family. But then a year ago, he changed his mind:
But last April 11, a year and a day after his son was killed, Johnson told his Iraq-bound Georgia National Guard unit, the 48th Infantry Brigade, he was ready to join them. They ended up at this dustblown base in Iraq’s far west, pulling escort duty for fuel convoys on the bomb-pocked desert highways from Jordan.
Why did he do it? The wiry lean Georgian, an easy-talking man with a boyish, sunburned face, tried to answer the question that won’t go away.
“It’s a lot of things combined,” he said. “One, a sense of duty. I was pissed off at the terrorists for 9/11 and other atrocities. Second, I’d only trained. I wanted combat.” And then, he said, “there’s some revenge involved. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t.”
Mr. Johnson’s passion for duty and revenge places him in a unique position – that of a participant and victim. One may wish to judge Mr. Johnson harshly for his feelings about Muslims of which he says he “has no love” for. But walk a mile in his shoes before answering whether or not you think him not worthy of your understanding and even admiration:
Somewhere along the way, however, the righteous passion cooled, as the over-aged corporal, like tens of thousands of other American soldiers here, faced the reality of Iraq.
Was it last Christmas morning, when roadside bombs rocked his convoy one after another, and Johnson thought he was next? Or was it when speeding civilian cars passed the Americans’ Humvees and Johnson failed to level his gun and open fire, which “I think anyone else,” fearing car bombs, “would have done.”
“I really don’t want to kill innocent people,” he now says. “I don’t want to live with that the rest of my life.”
For Mr. Holt, there was only feelings of helplessness and anxiety as he saw his boy off the war:
Although his first deployment to Iraq may have been inevitable, my wife and I were terrified when he received his orders, less than a year after he had enlisted as an uncertain and directionless 18-year-old and less than six months after basic training. Uncertain information from the Army meant we couldn’t be there to see him board the plane to war. But we managed to be there the week before, full of parental stoicism and quiet terror demonstrated through hugs and tears.
I generally accepted the reasons we went to war and worried about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Like many Americans, I believed that America had a moral duty to protect the oppressed of Iraq. But with my son in that war, my interest became much more parochial. Policy meant less than facts.
It should not surprise us that Mr. Holt’s focus regarding the war’s justification narrowed considerably once his precious creation shouldered arms and went into harm’s way. What is remarkable to me is the way he approached his pain and anxiety at being separated from his son:
I filled time between infrequent e-mails scouring the Internet for local newspapers showing pictures of his unit’s equipment being shrink-wrapped and loaded on transport ships. Think-tank Web sites gave information about bases in western Iraq, where he was headed. I devoured bits of information he gave me through e-mail and telephone calls, and slowly his story unfolded. I shuddered when he described his terrifying 36-hour convoy race from Kuwait to Anbar province. His girlfriend told us (he tried to protect us from such news) about the attack on his convoy and his using his newly minted “expert” qualification on the SAW light machine gun to kill an attacking Iraqi soldier.
I anguished over his descriptions of random mortar attacks on his base, and I chastised him for volunteering for “shotgun” duty on missions conducted by the combat unit he supported. But hearing nothing for long periods was so much worse. I had persistent nightmares about improvised explosive devices, mortar rounds, snipers and accidents, knowing nothing but fearing the worst. Every report of an attack triggered frantic efforts to unearth the latest news, each time followed by guilty relief that my son was not hurt and by shame that I was relieved that someone else had died. But I cried every time I saw lists of casualties as I scoured the names for soldiers and Marines from his home base or our hometown. Now they were my children, too.
It is perhaps most admirable that Mr. Holt could have room in his anxious, troubled heart to feel for the parents of those not coming back from Iraq. It speaks of a largeness of spirit that seems to be shared by so many parents, and wives, and husbands, and brothers and sisters of those who march to sound of the guns in the name of service. It is something that those of us who do not have a loved one serving seem to forget whether we support the war or oppose it; after all the talk, all the debate about policy and timetables and force structure and “cut and run” and “chickenhawks” there is the father, and the son, and the fear of separation and loss.
For Joe Johnson, his trial is almost complete. And while his service may have fulfilled some atavistic need in his soul, it is clear that he has come to terms with his loss:
“She’s ready for me to come home,” Joe Johnson concludes.
He will. His battalion exits Iraq in early May, when Johnson’s own enlistment term, coincidentally, expires. “That’s it,” he said, no re-enlistment for him.
But what about revenge?
“If I go home and didn’t kill a terrorist, it’s not going to ruin my life,” he said. “Maybe I’d just as soon not. I don’t know what it would do to my head.”
Once back home among the northwest Georgia pines, he has one last ceremonial act in mind, removing the silver-toned bracelet he’s worn on his right wrist throughout his deployment, bearing Justin’s name and date of death. Joe Johnson’s mission will have been accomplished.
For Mr. Holt, anxiety is his constant companion as he awaits word on whether or not his son will be redeployed to the war zone:
My view of the war hasn’t changed. I am concerned about mistakes made and whether it will be worth all the bloodshed. I wonder how long the troops will remain—will my son have to go back? Even though our thoughts are full of visits with son, daughter-in-law and grandson, in the back of my mind the worry persists. Rumors are that his unit will return to Iraq next fall. Will he survive?
Anxiety resurrects itself each time I see casualty lists, and I still cry over each soldier’s death. I am one with all the parents who lie sleepless every night worrying over their soldier children. Their children are still my children, and that feeling will never end. We are U.S Army and Marine parents, proud of all our sons and daughters who protect this country. But they have seen far too much for people so young, and I don’t want any of them to die.
My son is home and alive. He has done his duty and I don’t want him to go back.
Two men. Two fathers. Two sons. One dead, one alive. And yet they seem connected to something larger than the sum of who they are and what they have sacrificed. It is the special love a father has for his son. Beside that, all the issues of the war and the role of the United States in the world pale in comparison.
Love enduring, never faltering, from now till the end of our time here on earth is what makes life worth living. It is a love a father can understand whether his son is alive or dead. It is a love born of service to something higher than life itself.
And that may be something worth fighting for.