So now we see how it is, this fist begets the spear
Weapons of war, symptoms of madness
Don’t let your eyes refuse to see, don’t let your ears refuse to hear
Or you ain’t never going to shake this sense of sadness
— Ray LaMontagne, “Hold You In My Arms”
ELEVEN YEARS AGO, on May 1, 2003, President Bush stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, with a big banner behind him saying “Mission Accomplished,” and declared victory in Iraq. About 96 percent of the American casualties in that misbegotten war occurred after that declaration of victory. Iraqis are still dying because of that war.
I am not a pacifist. I suppose I can imagine a scenario where using military force is necessary. For example, I would say that World War II was a necessary war, at least in principle — ignoring for the moment that the way the Allies actually executed that war was morally deficient in many ways.
The way the West has traditionally defined a “just war” can be summarized thus: The cause and the means should be just, there must be reasonable chance of success, and it should only be undertaken after all other means of resolving the underlying conflict have been exhausted.
The Iraq war fails this test utterly. It was based on deliberate lies, and was in no meaningful sense a last resort: weapons inspectors were in Iraq mere weeks before the beginning of the war and had found no weapons of mass destruction.
There was a famous photograph from that conflict taken by Luis Sinco on Nov. 9, 2004. It is of a weary, shell-shocked marine staring vacantly after spending a night pinned down by enemy fire during the Second Battle of Fallujah. His name was James Blake Miller, and when Dan Rather spoke reverently of him on the CBS Evening News, he was uncharacteristically emotional in describing that photograph.
When I saw that photograph, I too had a strong and emotional reaction. I felt sympathy for that Marine — Fallujah was some of the heaviest urban fighting since the battle of Hue during the Vietnam War, and Miller’s haunted face reflected that grim fact. I felt grateful that America still has young men willing to put their bodies and sanity at risk defending their nation.
Mostly, though, I felt a deep and abiding anger.
A large part of that anger was because of memories of my own military service. While I was never deployed to a war zone, I also was no headquarters type. I was in the kind of unit that would have deployed and seen combat if the need had arisen, led by many men who had been in combat in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
The vast bulk of the men I served with had come from the lower end of the economic scale – either poor rural whites or poor urban blacks and Hispanics. Lots of my fellow soldiers had grown up in the “hollers” in the Kentucky hill country. There were men in my basic training company who had the first pair of new shoes they’d ever owned issued to them by the Army. Very few had more than a high school education; even fewer were widely read or thought deeply about U.S. foreign policy, or much of anything else. The barracks conversations were about sports, women and where the party would be the next time we got a pass.
Having grown up in the Bay Area — the kind of place where deciding what kind of organic produce to buy is practically an anxiety-filled act of self-creation — I found this oddly refreshing. My comrades possessed a deeply practical approach to life that made my early-twenties existential angst seem reassuringly remote — silly, even.
My analytical tendencies never shut off entirely, however. I remember a senior NCO saying to me at some point, “What the (expletive) are you doing in the combat arms? You’re always thinking about stuff — you should be in college.”
My thoughts about the Army made me realize something very early on. I realized that there was an implicit deal between our nation’s soldiers and the nation they served. The deal is this: The nation will provide its fighting men with the finest equipment and best training it knew how to provide. The recipients of that training will then trust the nation not to actually put that training to the test without a damned good reason for doing so.
And that is why that photograph, and that war, made me angry. There are iconic photos of shell-shocked men from practically every conflict since the invention of photography. The nature of combat makes such photos all too common. George W. Bush bears a large part of the responsibility for putting that look on the face of James Miller, and that he did not have a damned good reason to do so broke the covenant this nation has with its fighting men.
Matt Talbot is a writer and poet, as well as an old Benicia hand. He works for a tech start-up in San Francisco.