Ruminations on Iraq

Here I sit, comfortably on my back deck with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, nine years and approximately 6,620 miles removed from my “home” on what was known as FOB Danger in Tikrit, Iraq. I’m older (though not necessarily wiser), married, a parent, a homeowner, and far beyond what I was in 2005. While I never fired my weapon in anger while there and spent most of my time as a fobbit, I still saw the elephant. The Fourth of July weekend isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be now. The first fireworks of the season always bring the “where the hell is the IDF coming from” feeling. Potholes, trash, and roadkill along the highway make me tense for a second, wondering if this one is going to be an IED. Crowds make my skin crawl. I was so uncomfortable not being armed when I was home on R&R that I purchased my first pistol and applied for my carry permit. Never mind the fact that my permit didn’t arrive until a month after I applied and two weeks after I returned to Iraq. I still traveled with that 1911 the entire time I was home.

None of this makes me special. Just one more Veteran who was lucky enough to come back in (mostly) the same condition I left in. Truth be told, my experiences weren’t all that bad. I didn’t have small arms fire aimed at me, I didn’t spend most of my time on the roads or patrolling on foot. My job had me working at Division HQ inside what used to be a palace built by Saddam Hussein for his mother. Pretty secure place to work. For that I am thankful and I am a bit disappointed. Part of me still wishes I had risked more, not that I didn’t try. “What? Convoy? Can I go?” “No.” “Dammit.” To this day, I’m still not sure if that was because I wanted to experience the dubious thrill of having small arms fire directed at me (which I would have taken personally…I mean you pretty well HAVE to) or because I was going stir-crazy staying on the FOB. We used to describe it as “prison with the guns facing outward” and that was an apt description. I think it was the latter, but as I said, I’m still not sure.

Whatever. It was my war. As noted above, I’m nine years removed from it and the stress reactions are fairly well under control. Still the occasional moment, but nowhere near what they were when I first came home. I’m still different. Just like the rest of the 2.5 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just like the 2.6 million who served in Vietnam. 5 million American men and women spanning four generations whose lives were changed permanently, be it by loss of life, limb, or just plain innocence.

Why bring this all up? Well, if you’ve paid attention to the news, a militant group calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, or ISIL, has steamrolled through northern and western Iraq in an attempt to start an Islamic caliphate spanning from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran. Actually, as of June 29th, they have declared the area they control in Syria and Iraq as a caliphate with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph.

(Note: I’ve included the links to ISIL and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi simply because I don’t want to explain background information. Yes, I’m lazy. I’m also stuck on the fact that ISIL used to be known as “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” or ISIS. Being a fan of Archer, I find that hilarious. One of these days I’m going to find a picture of one of them wearing a tactical turtleneck. The minute that happens, I’m making that bitch go viral. Oh, and the first fat jihadist I see will be dubbed “Pam”.)

So where was I? Oh yeah, 2014 – a bunch of jihadists running rampant over the area I was responsible for nine years ago. Mind you, I can’t speak for everyone else, but that pisses me off royally. Yes, it’s someone else’s country, but after you spend a year in a place, you tend to develop a concern for it. Even if we cursed it as a shithole and muttered “fuck these people” on a daily basis, it was still our area of responsibility. And now it belongs to a bunch of assholes cut from the same cloth as the ones who murdered Americans on September 11, 2001. While that pisses me off, it doesn’t piss me off nearly as much as the fact that they pretty much showed up and the Iraqi security forces cut and ran. Man, am I glad we spend all that time and money arming and training them! What an outstanding use of resources!

(Yes, I’ve seen the news that the Iraqis are fighting back, have allegedly taken back control of Tikrit and the Bayji oil refinery, yadda, yadda, yadda. I also remember the hilarity of watching Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf AKA Baghdad Bob in 2003, swearing to reporters that the Americans were not in Baghdad when one could clearly hear the sounds of battle outside. Therefore, I have exactly ZERO trust in “official” reports from Middle Eastern figures.)

All of that leads to this – where do we go from here? Do we say “Sorry suckers, better pick your nuts up and fight or you’re gonna be living under sharia in a hot minute”? Do we make a token effort involving aircraft and military advisers? Or do we give in to that urge to head right on back in to Iraq and get full-on involved in a war that really isn’t ours to fight? If we get involved, to what extent will the military be hamstrung by politicians in Washington D.C. AND Baghdad? Because that WILL happen. Without question. Don’t believe me? I’ve mentioned Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. None of those were failures because the U.S. military shied away from the task at hand. Those failures are squarely on policymakers in all four countries.

(Note: The U.S. military can play the hearts-and-minds game, however, their primary mission is to find the enemy and utterly destroy him. I spent 7 years in uniform, not once did my annual training involve how to make friends and influence people. It did involve a whole lot of accuracy with a weapon, finding my way around without a GPS, patching holes in people to keep them alive, and how not to be seen.)

As I mentioned before, it’s not really our fight. The hell of it is, I still have that small part of me that wants to go back. From what I’ve seen from many Veterans on social media, I’m not alone in that desire. Nine years older, out of date with training, 15 pounds overweight, with a hell of a lot more to risk than I did back then and yet I want to go back to Iraq. Jesus, maybe John Kerry was right and we really are some seriously dumb fucks who enlisted because we didn’t study hard enough to get into Stanford. Maybe we are a bunch of knuckle-draggers looking for the next fight. Or maybe we’re pissed at seeing treasure, time, effort, and blood expended on a people who seem to give less than a shit. And maybe we’re prototypical Veterans who want to see a job all the way through and are willing to break our asses to finish it. You decide on that one.

Question is, would it matter? Even if every OIF Veteran went back in and the policymakers kept their grubby little dickbeaters off the situation, would it ultimately change anything? Probably not. Most likely, it would just buy some time until the next group of power-hungry-assholes-using-religion-as-an-excuse-for-sociopathic-behavior showed up.

Allow me a romantic moment. The people who enter into military service are paladins at heart. People who want to make the world a better place, even if it means doing bad things to bad people. The movie Boondock Saints appeals to us because of the base message: that evil will flourish if we are indifferent. We are unable to be indifferent to evil. Whether it is learned or we’re wired that way from birth, we simply cannot just let it happen. I’ve hit on the sheepdog mentality before, that we live to protect the flock and confront the wolf. But there’s more to it. This isn’t our flock. Yes, many of us made friends with Iraqis while there and worry about them right now, but it’s not really our flock. However, their freedom to live as they wish is being taken from them by force and that is reprehensible to us.

Speaking for myself – I’m alternately known as “Dad” to my daughter, “Uncle Steve” to her cousins, “Mister Steve” to her Girl Scout troop, “Mister J-Ro” to one friend’s son, “Unky Teve” to another friend’s daughter, etc. Some of them have seen me frustrated and cranky (my daughter does refer to me as “Grumpy Cat” on a regular basis), but for the most part they know me as someone who cares about them. They haven’t seen the other part of me that likes to fight. That hates this situation so much it wants to be back in the sandbox. That immediately says “fuck these people, they don’t deserve my effort” yet wants to destroy ISIL so completely and viciously that others are reluctant to try again. The part of me that doesn’t care if they hate, so long as they fear.  I don’t want to let that devil out of its cage. It took too long putting him in there the first time around. But damn if he isn’t yammering away, beating on the bars, and howling for a righteous battle.

I know I’m not the only one with this issue. The hell of it is, what do we do? Yeah, this isn’t our fight, but it will be eventually. Will we be too old to fight it when it comes? Will the next generation be willing or even able to fight it?

Wish I had some answers.


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