A Son Marches Home, A Father Wonders Why

My son has returned from the war. After a year in Iraq, he’s come back to his wife and the rest of us unharmed in body. I don’t know about his spirit. Soldiers must see and do things which may leave, if invisible, terrible scars. I hope that hasn’t happened to him.

My son is a real soldier. He is not some general’s adjutant. He was not in Emerald City, as the Green Zone is sardonically called by some people. That zone in Baghdad is where the politicians, the generals, the N.G.O. officials, businessmen and various forms of war profiteer reside in comparative safety while people like my son take the risks. My son was at the front, riding in those cheesy Humvees, the ones without the armor, the ones that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thinks are good enough for my son and the other men and women whom he sent to wage war with hand-me-down, just-make-do with-it equipment.

My son did make do with it; they all do. A National Guardsman, he was called up and did his duty, and he must have done it well in the eyes of his superiors, because they promoted him to staff sergeant. He did other than his military duty while he was there: He made friends with Iraqi family men and got a bunch of people back here in the States to send toys for these men’s children. My son is not a particularly political person. I don’t think he was trying to do something grand, like winning hearts and minds. I think he just wanted the children to have dolls and toy trucks and crayons and coloring books. There are other soldiers doing the same, and I can’t stand the thought that, while he was getting these few small things to Iraqi children, high officials in Washington were exchanging memos on just how much torture they could order our people to administer without shocking the conscience of the world.

When I first read about the torture programs, I thought how some parents’ sons and daughters would be ordered to do these things. I thought, “Thank goodness my son wasn’t told to do what people shouldn’t do to each other.” But I also thought how these memos and the orders to carry them out reflected on my son and all the others with whom he served, how others might look at my son in his uniform and say to themselves that maybe he ….

It is one thing if President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have inured themselves to disgrace and are indifferent to being thought of as brutes. But it is another thing for them to dump this bucketful on American men and women in the uniform of their country. The President repeats the word “freedom” ad nauseam; he might meditate on the shame he has brought on brave and dutiful men and women who deserve a better cause.

Abraham Lincoln said of soldiers who did serve in a better cause, ” … let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” My son comes home to hear his President rail against taxes on the rich, while asking that taxes be raised on veterans’ medical benefits. So much for the widow and the orphan.

The burden of this war, which we hear spoken of so often, has been borne by my son and a few thousand other men and women. They have made all the sacrifices that bombastic politicians so lightly speak of; they have borne all the risks, paid all the costs, while others have gotten rich off them, have gotten elected and re-elected off them-and, if not that, had the pleasure of swaggering around with a bully-boy American flag in their lapels and a ribbon stamped “I Support the Troops” on the hoods of their $45,000 automobiles and their pickup trucks.

The ribbons get me the most. Every time I saw one during the months that my son was in combat, his safety and his life in danger, I felt a shiver of anger. I wanted to wait in the parking lot for the owner of that big, fat, preposterous automobile and ask him: “Just how do you support the troops? How do you support my troop? Have you volunteered your blood to the Red Cross? Have you supported higher taxes to pay for the war? Have you volunteered for it yourself, encouraged your children to go? What have you done other than expropriate patriotic symbols that you have no special claim to display, to intimidate people who have had the social courage to question the death and maiming of so many of our people?” (To say nothing of the Iraqi people, who had suffered so much under Saddam’s tyranny, only to suffer again under American liberation.)

It is said that of all the children of all the Congresspersons and Senators, only one is on active duty in a combat zone. It has to be easier to make war when you know that you’ll be safe and will be sending other people’s children to fight it while your own loved ones are out of harm’s way. That goes part of the way toward explaining the ease with which our public personages threaten death and destruction on the peoples of this or that nation.

The observation I am making here is not the familiar complaint about fairness or equality or any of that kind of knee-trembling. It is the incontestable truth that the politicians and news personalities who talk so blithely about war would adopt a different and more cautious tone in their advocacy of killing others were they to know that a degree of risk attaches to themselves and their own kith and kin should war ensue. It would be a more peaceful world if the law read that the children of every elected official and every TV news celebrity would immediately be drafted on the commencement of hostilities.

It would not end wars, I’m sorry to say, but it would make them less frequent, and the reasons for fighting them would be starkly clear. My son was sent to fight a war which millions of his own countrymen had no particular interest in, whose aims fluctuated from month to month, and which the President could not explain without raising the suspicion that he was lying or-worse yet-that he was a confused, ill-informed hysteric with only fuzzy notions of why he was doing what he had already done.

For the close relatives and friends of a soldier in combat, it can never be easy, because they can’t know their soldier’s true situation. You can’t decide whether to turn on the TV or not. In the end, many of us choose not to watch-not only because some of the pictures are painful to see, but because Iraq is the worst-reported war since the Great War of 1914-18, which has no equal for official lying and withholding of information. The governments then thought they had to keep the truth from their peoples because they were afraid what would happen if the actual number of deaths on the battlefield got out.

In my son’s war, it is not yet possible to say how much of what was pumped out into the media was propaganda and lies, and how much was confusion, ineptitude, rock-headed stupidity, incompetence and ignorance masquerading as authoritative knowledge. This has been a war reported by terrified journalists rightly afraid to go out on the streets because they’re in danger of getting their throats slit; by journalists who are often inexperienced rookies sent into danger by editors short on scruples who will take any story-right, wrong or off-the-wall crazy-as long as they have a ratings pumper-upper.

It will be a long time, if ever, before we raise a statue to my son’s war. The President who presided over it has yet to attend the funeral of one of my son’s fallen comrades, so the marble cenotaphs will be a long time coming. This war has so tarnished military service that the President is forced to offer a $15,000 bounty to get people to re-up.

So my son is back, having served well and honorably, even as his President distances himself from those he sent to war. It will not necessarily be a good thing if one of the side effects of this war is to discourage men and women like my son from serving, thus forcing the government to recruit people of dubious character to join up for the money rather than enlisting men and women who want to serve their nation.

My son was sent to fight in a bad war, but he was a good soldier, and we would do well to remember that good soldiers are the guardians of the night.