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July 01, 2009

Freedom Is Not Just An "American" Value

Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay
It's Independence Day.

It was with deeply mixed feelings yesterday that I listened to General Ray Odierno announce the withdrawal of American forces from the cities of Iraq.

What I remember most, now and then, is the sense of unreality; of disbelief. Sitting in rush hour traffic on I-495, golden sunlight streamed into my car just the way it did on that brilliant September morning in 2001. As I absorbed the matter of fact statements and the absence of combativeness in the voices of the press pool it seemed almost possible to believe none of the events of those intervening years had ever really happened. An invisible hand gently turned the page on grief, on anger, on the disbelieving horror of the past eight years.

But that was just an illusion; a trick of sunshine and the comforting banality of Beltway traffic. The fabric of history has changed forever in ways we are still struggling to understand. There is now no going back to the astonishing innocence of that Indian summer morning; no way to close the book on a story still unfolding before our disbelieving eyes.

There were no tears then. It was still too early for tears. In the empty space where shock and outrage ought to dwell, an unreal sense of numbness thickened the air as I responded to emails and answered phone calls on the 9th floor of my Tyson's Corner office building. I waited in the expectant void of a silently caught breath for news of my husband, the love of my life. As I mechanically checked items off my to-do list the familiar, slightly terse cadence I'd heard on the telephone just moments before a plane full of terrified passengers hit his office building played over and over again in the back of my mind: "Thank you. I just heard the news babe. We're watching it on CNN. Gotta go now."

"I love you, too." Click.

On the distant horizon a plume of grey smoke snaked slowly towards heaven as if calling down the furies upon a world suddenly gone mad. The tears would not come until later; much later:

In the hours following Brian's death, my emotions have run the spectrum. This evening, we went to the morgue on the local American base to retrieve Brian's body for the "angel flight" home. Servicemen in combat don't have the luxury of attending funerals of fallen comrades. The next best thing is to honor them as pallbearers from the morgue or ambulance to the helicopter in which their journey back to the states will begin.

In the morgue, I was able to spend a few minutes alone with Brian. I fought the tears but they too won their battle this night. As I held his head in my hands, I felt rage toward God and hatred toward Iraqis that I was unable to dispel. Standing up, I walked into the next room where Marines and soldiers were waiting quietly to carry Brian's body to the helicopter. I walked to the back of the room, the anger still seething. I stopped. There on the wall hung two flags, one American, one Iraqi. I paused. In addition to the American casualties, an Iraqi soldier was killed and several others were wounded during the day's battle. I glanced to my right. There, standing next to me was one of our Iraqi translators, mourning for Brian with tears streaming down his face. My hatred and rage melted away.

I reflected. This wasn't about Americans and Iraqis. This was about a noble man dying for a cause he believed in. I don't care about the reasons this war began, I cannot change the mistakes that have been made in its prosecution, and I have little stomach for the negative banter about the war that goes on back home in the U.S. In my simple way of thinking, we are allowing the Iraqi people the opportunity to experience freedoms they would otherwise never know. On an individual human level, life does not get much more meaningful than that. I put my arm around my interpreter's shoulder and pointed at the two flags. I looked into his eyes as tears welled yet again in mine. "We are brothers," I stated softly. His gaze met mine. He nodded and replied, "yes, brothers."

Hours later as we walked solemnly and silently to the helicopter landing zone in the early morning darkness, the Muslim call to prayer soulfully sounded throughout Ramadi. To my ears, it was a song of tranquility. This day, as all days, the sun will rise with the hope of peace. No matter the bitterness in how the day may end, it is that hope of peace in the dawn that gives life its precious meaning.

In real life - the one beyond the virtual world to which I was a complete stranger before 9/11, I've met Brian's Mom and Dad. I've met Marines years younger than my two sons are now; men I'd be tempted to call boys if it weren't for the unchildlike knowledge in their eyes and the unflappable assurance with which they stride forth on mechanical legs to engage with a future that must be very different from what they envisioned when they first stood on those yellow footprints. I've met dear friends whose corporeal presence, for years, was limited to typed characters in a tiny comment window.

How much has changed since the day I first stumbled onto this post on an unfamiliar site with the awkward mantle of "blog".

Sitting in that traffic jam yesterday afternoon, I found myself thinking of faces and names; people who perished on that day and during the long years thereafter, those who served in the armed forces, as contractors, in the State Department and FBI. And oddly, of journalists:

I'd wanted to introduce Layla to the Gary Cooper side of America, and I felt I'd succeeded. Instead of the evasive, over-subtle, windy Iraqi, fond of theory and abstraction, here was a to-the-point Yank, rolling up his sleeves with a can-do spirit of fair play and doing good. "I want to have a positive effect on this country's future," the Captain averred. "For example, whenever I learn of a contracting firm run by women, I put it at the top of my list for businesses I want to consider for future projects." I felt proud of my countryman; you couldn't ask for a more sincere guy.

Layla, however, flashed a tight, cynical smile. "How do you know," she began, "that the religious parties haven't put a woman's name on a company letterhead to win a bid? Maybe you are just funneling money to extremists posing as contractors." Pause. The Captain looked confused. "Religious parties? Extremists?"

Oh boy. Maa salaama Gary Cooper, as Layla and I gave our man a quick tutorial about the militant Shiites who have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola's Florence. The Captain seemed taken aback, having, as most Westerners--especially the troops stationed here--little idea of what goes on in the city. "I'll have to take this into consideration..." scratching his head, "I certainly hope none of these contracts are going to the wrong people." Not for the first time, I felt I was living in a Graham Greene novel, this about about a U.S. soldier--call it The Naive American--who finds what works so well in Power Point presentations has unpredictable results when applied to realities of Iraq. Or is that the story of our whole attempt to liberate this nation?

Collecting himself, "But should we really get involved in choosing one political group over another?" the Captain countered. "I mean, I've always believed that we shouldn't project American values onto other cultures--that we should let them be. Who is to say we are right and they are wrong?"

And there it was, the familiar Cultural-Values-Are-Relative argument, surprising though it was to hear it from a military man. But that, too, I realized, was part of American Naiveté: the belief, evidently filtering down from ivy-league academia to Main Street, U.S.A., that our values are no better (and usually worse) than those of foreign nations; that we have no right to judge "the Other;" and that imposing our way of life on the world is the sure path to the bleak morality of Empire (cue the Darth Vader theme).

But Layla would have none of it. "No, believe me!" she exclaimed, sitting forward on her stool. "These religious parties are wrong! Look at them, their corruption, their incompetence, their stupidity! Look at the way they treat women! How can you say you cannot judge them? Why shouldn't your apply your own cultural values?"

It was a moment I wish every muddle-headed college kid and Western-civilization-hating leftist could have witnessed: an Air Force Captain quoting chapter and verse from the new American Gospel of Multiculturalism, only to have a flesh and blood representative of "the Other" declare that he was incorrect, that discriminations and judgment between cultures are possible--necessary--especially when it comes to the absolutely unacceptable way Middle Eastern Arabs treat women. And though Layla would not have pushed the point this far, I couldn't resist. "You know, Captain," I said, "sometimes American values are just--better."

I still remember the day we learned that Steven was dead. I am re-reading In The Red Zone, mostly with tears running down my face. It's astonishing how much we forget over the years. Perhaps it's easier that way. But reading Steven's graceful prose has brought a flood of memories rushing back: Kevin Sites (without whom, oddly enough, VC would not exist).


MSgt. Ford, SSgt. Walding, and Captain Tony Odierno:

As [Master Sgt. Scott] Ford and Staff Sgt. John Wayne Walding returned fire, Walding was hit below his right knee. Ford turned and saw that the bullet "basically amputated his right leg right there on the battlefield."

Walding, of Groesbeck, Tex., recalled: "I literally grabbed my boot and put it in my crotch, then got the boot laces and tied it to my thigh, so it would not flop around. There was about two inches of meat holding my leg on." He put on a tourniquet, watching the blood flow out the stump to see when it was tight enough.

That bears repeating: "I literally grabbed my boot and put it in my crotch, then got the boot laces and tied it to my thigh, so it would not flop around". They do not teach that in CLS*.

If there's anything to smile about in the story it's that the guy's name is John Wayne.

It is difficult, now, to recall just how much blood and treasure has been spilled out to give Iraq a chance. Difficult to recall the laughter we'll never hear again and the faces missing from the table. But even looking backwards is easier sometimes than looking ahead to the difficult work that still lies before us:

I'm sorry, but I've just never bought into the idea that Afghanistan is the "good war." My husband has actually had someone say to him that at least his upcoming deployment is to Afghanistan, which serves a purpose and has meaning, unlike Iraq. I wholeheartedly reject that idea. I also disagree vehemently with Pres Obama when he said, "Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice..." As Neal Boortz said recently, all wars are a choice. None of the 9/11 hijackers came from Afghanistan, so please explain to me how Afghanistan wasn't a choice that was made.

I've been thinking about Afghanistan a lot lately, and I have a hard time feeling good about my husband going there. Frankly, I am not convinced that country deserves his effort.

Sarah's words are troubling, but I understand them. A few short months ago, with the possibility of my overly retirement-ready husband finally following through on the plans we laid in the summer of 2001 - plans that were disrupted by two wars and a seemingly endless stream of sad emails dropping into my inbox at all hours - I found myself thinking the very same thing.

I'm tired. Enough, already. Haven't we given enough?

Though the glib words had passed my lips several times already: "If that is what you feel you need to do, go with my blessing", I too found myself rebelling against an effort I thought was doomed to failure; rebelling against one more postponement of the dreams I'd resolutely put out of my mind for decades. Why?

Why indeed?

People of my generation who were born in democracies may take the freedom they enjoy for granted. This is certainly not the case for me or my people. I was born a decade after the murderous Ba'ath Party grabbed power in Baghdad in the sinister coup of July 1968. To us, the war brought an end to that 35-year-long nightmare and the beginning of an era of freedom, thanks to our friends in the coalition.

For me and many Iraqis, it was certainly worth it. Life is better today than it was before 2003. That is even though we were on the receiving end of this war in all its phases, from initial invasion through the bloody sectarian violence and terror that paralysed the country for years. Despite the high price in blood, today is brighter than yesterday. Above all, we have hope - something we did not have under Saddam's dictatorship - that tomorrow will be even brighter.

I would like to share two snapshots from Iraq that I hope will help you see why I believe Iraq is making solid progress towards liberty, prosperity and the rule of law. Recently, two stories dominated the media in Iraq. The first started when the ministry of trade was bombarded with allegations of rampant corruption. Corruption is a serious problem, but worse than corruption itself is if there is a lack of checks and balances that can stop it. In Iraq this used to happen all the time, but now a wind of change is blowing.

Pressure from the press, the public and partners in the Government forced the minister of trade to submit his resignation. Resignation alone was not deemed enough. The minister was arrested on Saturday as he was attempting to flee the country. He will join other corrupt officials in custody awaiting trial. The fascinating thing about this case is that the indicted minister is a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party.

Then there is the case of Kitabat, the prominent Iraqi online journal.

Kitabat, founded in 2002 by an Iraqi expatriate, has somewhat served the role of a shadow parliament in which people from across the Iraqi spectrum voice their opinions without censorship. Five months ago, Kitabat published an article in which the author accused the office of Maliki of nepotism and abuse of authority.

How did the Prime Minister respond to these, indeed unfounded, accusations? In Saddam's days the case would have been closed with a bullet to the dissident's head. It was common practice to send embassy officials on assassination missions armed with silent pistols or even axes, as was the case in the attempt on former PM Iyad Allawi's life in London in 1978. Instead, Maliki opted to go to a court of law and sue the author and the owner of Kitabat. Maliki's decision came under severe criticism from free press advocates who saw his action as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech.

Maliki ultimately yielded and dropped the case.

Oddly, in all the faces paraded before us yesterday in news and in memory, one face was inexplicably absent - that of the man without whom yesterday would have seemed an absurd and overwrought fantasy:

Barack Obama, who supported genocide in Iraq, did not have the decency to thank George W. Bush today. Nancy Pelosi could only mutter something about the war coming to an end.

The state-run media did not publish the remarks by Iraqi President Jalal Talibani to the American troops today. After all, Talibani has a record of thanking the US for liberating his country from the evil psychopath, Saddam Hussein.

The state-run media never seemed to appreciate his courage and gratitude much for some reason.

Three years ago on the eve of another Independence Day, I wrote these words:

About one week from now, we will celebrate the Fourth of July. All over America, these words will be read:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

What are those words worth, today? Not much, apparently. Do we still believe them? Are they still engraved on our hearts? Do we still believe that ALL men are created equal? I keep hearing that the Arabs are "not ready for democracy". I consider that an appallingly condescending statement.

I submit that in 1776, those words were not worth the parchment they were scribbled on. Utter and absolute rubbish.

They did not become real until nine long years of bloody, miserable warfare breathed life into them. They were purchased, truly, at the cost of incalculable human suffering.

Bloodshed. Starvation. Sickness. Injustice. Abuse. Ugliness. Imperfection of every sort imaginable. And as Ignatieff mentions at the beginning of his piece, they did not apply equally to every American for a long, long time. Not to the Irish, nor to women, nor to Jews, nor Catholics, nor blacks, nor non-landowners. But this experiment we call America truly did 'light a fire in the minds of men'. And that fire was seen from a great distance.

It became a beacon to others, even with all its imperfections, because it was better than what had come before. This glorious dream: this democracy. It remains an imperfectly-realized ideal, because humans are still flawed and we bring all our sins and weaknesses with us on this journey. But we are vastly improved for having reached beyond our baser selves, for having dared to dream. We are still improving. And so will the rest of the world, if we can find the courage and the resolve to help them. We are on a road to the stars, but we progress one faltering step at a time.

Who are we to think that Freedom is ours to spread, Ignatieff asks?

We were the First. We are the guardians of the flame. Not perfect beings, but in all the world the only ones, it seems, still naive enough, still brave enough, still daring enough to put our money where our mouths are. We are the only ones who are still willing to defend the dream with our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor.

Not all the time. Not in every single instance, because that is impossible. And honest liberals will admit that: in a universe with limited resources, choices must be made. But where we can, where it aligns with our interests and with the interests of the rest of the world: yes.

Our own Revolution was not without blemish. Innocent men were tarred and feathered. Families torn asunder. People bled, and suffered and starved. There was even [shudder] terrorism. But it lit a flame that has burned brightly for over 200 years. There are signs that this is happening in the MiddleEast: Arabs are looking at election day in Iraq and Afghanistan and demanding democratic reforms in Egypt and Lebanon and Kuwait. The fire in men's (and women's) hearts is spreading.

We would like certainty. We would like painless progress. We would like closure. We will not get any of those things.

On July 4th we must ask ourselves, what do we believe? Our military - brand new immigrants who enlist before the ink is dry on their visas - believe in those words so strongly that they will lay down their lives to spread the fire of democracy. They also believe (as I do) that their purpose is to serve American foreign policy aims, no matter how abstract and long-term they may seem. No matter how difficult to explain to the American people. No matter how frustrating in the short term.

Though it is over long, that post is unquestionably my favorite of the many thousands of posts I've written over the past 5 years. It encapsulates my hopes, my dreams, but most importantly my enduring belief that although the course may not be smooth, we are doing the right thing by history. The greatness of George Bush was that he understood something critical: freedom and democracy are not uniquely American values. They are a uniquely human set of values nurtured in the hearts of people to whom freedom is still a fragile, flickering flame. Bush was fond of a phrase that describes our aspirations well: we have lit a fire in the hearts of men.

That fire is the love of freedom, and if it is not carefully tended it will soon be extinguished by those who seek to root out the last vestiges of hope and replace it with cowed subservience. We stand today a nation in retreat from everything that makes us unique in the eyes of history. Today, the notion of American exceptionalism is scorned by our leaders: instead of championing our ideals we cravenly apologize for our all too human failings.

But no nation upon this earth is composed of perfect beings: we are the sum of our virtues and our flaws. We are not wrong to dream of a better world. Our imperfect hands are not yet too feeble to hold aloft the torch of freedom as our fathers and grandfathers did before us.

On the eve of Independence Day it is good to remember that liberty cannot survive without the will to defend our way of life. In a borderless world we can no longer huddle behind the comforting walls of outdated isolationism and chastened "pragmatism". This nation was not built by the practical but by the bold, and it will not long endure if we fear to champion the great ideas and bold ventures that took America from a few huddled colonies to a slumbering giant whose cities stretch from sea to shining sea. The past fades all too quickly before our weary eyes and unwilling memories. The future, as they say, is prologue:

What kind of world will we bequeath to our grandchildren? It may be decades before we know. But our actions today will have an incalculable effect on that far-off tomorrow. And if our policy is not firmly grounded in the spread of those long-ago words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...

...then I wonder if we shall not be the first Americans who fail to pass the blessings of liberty on to the next generation?

Even with all their attendent uncertainty, days like yesterday give me hope that America is still, despite her faults, a great nation. A nation of doers.

A nation of believers. Faith is not foolish - it is our birthright: something we drink in with our mother's milk and pour out to an increasingly cynical world in the form of American blood and American treasure. This is nothing to be ashamed of. We owe it to those who have gone before us - to those who fought and bled so that we could enjoy the blessings of liberty.

We owe it to our children.


Posted by Cassandra at July 1, 2009 06:58 AM

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Beautiful post, Cass. And beautifully written.

Posted by: MikeD at July 1, 2009 11:23 AM

Sorry it was so long.

As usual, I got carried away :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 1, 2009 11:35 AM

Smeared my makeup. Thanks.

Posted by: April at July 1, 2009 11:54 AM

"...we are the sum of our virtues and our flaws."

And what of optimism?

Posted by: spd rdr at July 1, 2009 12:15 PM

I don't have the answers.

I can only set down my thoughts, such as they are, and let people make of them what they will.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 1, 2009 12:29 PM

The click of the trigger on the mine below spd's left foot was at once both innocuous and deafening. The only word that entered his mind was "stuck." A rude word, hardly worth the drama of his current situation. But stuck he was, and no flowery adjectives would releive him from his predicament.

Posted by: spd rdr at July 1, 2009 02:25 PM

"What threw me off...", mused the Princess as she dislodged the troublesome legume beneath her mattress, "was the absence of the telltale 'Ya know..." :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 1, 2009 03:03 PM

Old college saying:

Lie down with vegetables
Wake up in the damned mulch

Posted by: spd rdr at July 1, 2009 06:50 PM

Lee Greenwood's 'God Bless the USA' came on while the Engineer and I were driving back down to the Homestead. It was a trick of the light; late afternoon...but every house we passed had a glow, and looked quiet and peaceful.

While we listened to the chorus...I thought about what it took to keep it peaceful. It isn't just living that way, it is being prepared to defend your right to freedom.

Then some obnoxious commenter said 'Thank you to our veterans!'

He interrupted the song.

He should be slapped.

Posted by: Cricket at July 1, 2009 06:52 PM

"Even with all their attendent uncertainty, days like yesterday give me hope that America is still, despite her faults, a great nation. A nation of doers.

A nation of believers. Faith is not foolish - it is our birthright: something we drink in with our mother's milk and pour out to an increasingly cynical world in the form of American blood and American treasure. This is nothing to be ashamed of. We owe it to those who have gone before us - to those who fought and bled so that we could enjoy the blessings of liberty.

We owe it to our children."

Love it! Thanks for that Cass.

And optimism, like Atlas, shoulders the weight for another day...

Posted by: bt-the resident-curmudgeon_hun at July 1, 2009 07:58 PM

What kind of curmudgeon says nice things like that?

You should be ashamed of yourself :)

Seriously, thank you.

Posted by: Cassandra at July 1, 2009 08:19 PM

As much as I wanted to snark that line, I didn't have it in me as I read the post. The reason I like Lee Greenwood's song is because he starts out with the hypothetical of losing everything but his family, and still being able to make something of himself because of freedom.

I was thinking about the Iraqis; they are taking baby steps and I believe they will succeed but their road is going to be bumpy. There is so much that *could* go wrong, BUT I refuse to believe that it was in vain. There will be many Iraqis that have seen what we have and will want that for themselves, and having a taste of it, will not let go of it.

Posted by: Cricket at July 1, 2009 08:23 PM

That is OK, Cricket. Do not be concerned.

Given my epic 'for the children' battles with KJ, he will take up the slack :p

Posted by: Cassandra at July 1, 2009 08:27 PM

"What kind of curmudgeon says nice things like that?"
Harrumph! Musta slipped.

Posted by: bt-the resident-curmudgeon_hun at July 1, 2009 09:02 PM


Posted by: Cassandra at July 1, 2009 09:25 PM

Oh...was that what you were doing on the search thread?


It was nice to hear from KJ. Well, it is nice to hear from all the Knaves.

You will be pleased to note that I am nearly over with my first accounting class; my tome has survived and my current professor is getting demanding.

Just think; he is insisting on us doing a table for missing numbers for an insurance claim. The nerve of some professors.


Posted by: Cricket at July 1, 2009 09:50 PM

Cass, I wish I could be as eloquent as you always seem to be. As others have said, beautiful post. Thanks.

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at July 1, 2009 11:03 PM

A wonderful post, Cassandra. Thank you.

Posted by: Elise at July 2, 2009 12:33 PM

Loved it! This foreigner looks upon America with great love, and no matter what some temporary residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue may like to think, America is - and will always be - a glowing example of a future that is attainable for all peoples of the world.

As your President Bush quote says: we have lit a fire in the hearts of men. And you continue to do so.

America most surely IS a great nation. And it IS YOU, her people, who make it so.

Thank you for this one.

Posted by: brat at July 2, 2009 09:47 PM

The mainstream media wouldn’t do it. So we are trying to get your important messages to the American people. 62 This post is a suggested read at, http://aresay.blogspot.com/

Posted by: Aresay at July 3, 2009 09:50 AM

Your very well-considered and well-composed furnished food for thought for me, an unapologetic liberal who nonetheless has great respect for neoconservative ideals, if not their practices. Your reading of our own revolution is particularly insightful and I agree that, for our faults, America has been, on balance, one of the most progressive forces in the history of human society.

But, for as much as I dearly hope that American intervention in Iraq will bring about a brighter future for the people of that country, I have to take exception with your characterization of the "greatness of George Bush." It would be one thing if he had argued from the outset that the purpose of the invasion was to spread democracy, but those who argue that that was the point all along suffer from very short memories. My recollection is that protecting ourselves from phantom WMD was the rationale and that liberating the Iraqi people was an afterthought, a justification that was substituted once all others proved hollow. And never mind that the decision-making process at the top was marked by secrecy, obfuscation and outright dishonesty, things not normally cited as cherished American values. Equally infuriating was the naivete the whole administration exhibited in assuming that the war would be effectively over once our tanks rolled into Baghdad. How many of our men and women in uniform, not to mention Iraqis, might still be alive today had our expectations and preparations reflected reality in that nation?

Not having been to Iraq, I have to reserve judgment on wisdom of the withdrawal. I generally believe that it is the prudent course to take, but if this war has taught us anything it is that history is primarily composed of unintended consequences. I might get my chance soon enough, though, as I plan on enlisting in the Army in October. Whatever I think about the rightness of either war, I can't sit idly by and not contribute something towards realizing the future that we all hope for in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the meantime, all luck and blessings to you, your family and everyone who reads this.

Posted by: grifter at July 21, 2009 10:32 PM