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August 19, 2010

A Moment of Silence

Today, Grim reminds us, marks the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom:

4/2 SBCT rides out.

The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which left Iraq this week, was the final U.S. combat brigade to be pulled out of the country....

"Operation Iraqi Freedom ends on your watch!" exclaimed Col. John Norris, the head of the brigade.

"Hooah!" the soldiers roared, using an Army battle cry.

Shortly before midnight Saturday, a group of infantrymen boarded Stryker fighting vehicles, left an increasingly sparse base behind and began scanning the sides of a desolate highway for bombs. For many veterans, including some who made the same trip in the opposite direction years ago under fire, it was a fitting way to exit.

"They're leaving as heroes," Norris said of his soldiers. "I want them to walk home with pride in their hearts."

They are heroes. The advise and assist brigades, and the strong Special Operations contingent, remain behind for a time. It's a strange war that ends this way; but as Clausewitz said, war is the continuation of politics by other means. We're moving from war to a very tense political environment. That's more or less what we should expect. What comes next? Either compromise arises that allows tensions to ramp down, so that the political takes over from the war; or it goes the other way, and war blooms anew from the failure of politics.

This is a day I never thought would come. And yet I hoped for it every day, especially when it seemed that the sun would never come out again. I'd like to write something beautiful, something to stir the soul. Something to mark out this day - to etch it in my memory forever. But I can't find the necessary distance. What I will do is something I have asked you all to do so many times over the past 7 years. Please take a moment tonight after you get home from work, perhaps in that quiet moment just before you drop off to sleep, and say a silent prayer for all those who made this day possible.

Their faces have passed in silent review before me all day long: the ones who lifted me up with their courage, who put grief and fear and weariness aside and did what needed to be done. Those who never made it home. And those who came home forever changed; some for the worse, some for the better. Most probably somewhere in the middle. And all those who still keep watch on distant shores.

This week (in anticipation of this day) I've been uploading some of the thousands of old posts I deleted a while back. The war on terror ones are here. I spent my lunch hour re-reading some of them. So many memories, but the most poignant words were all written by others. A lot of the posts are sad, or angry. But I would like to think that today is a hopeful day for Iraq and so I'd like to re-post two of the happier ones. The first came to us via a Marine dad (our own JHD) writing about the return of his son:

I remember like it was yesterday when our young Marine came marching out on the parade deck of Parris Island sporting a brand new chevron proclaiming him a PFC in the United States Marine Corps! A merit stripe earned in the sand fleas and swamps of South Carolina. God how proud I was. I bet I stood a full two inches taller. His Mom squeezing my hand harder as his Training Battalion passed the stands. The tears of pride I enjoyed wiping from her cheeks. The virality, the strength, a man where a boy should stand. It was all there.

From that day forward our home became a staging area of sorts for the next four years and even now. Young Marines we met on that very same Parade Deck stopping in on their way one place or another knowing they would get a home cooked meal and lodging with others of their kind. After SOI they came in bunches, full of themselves, cocky, with the innate ability to use the F word as a noun, adjective, verb, adverb. All in the same sentence! Vulgar? Not for a minute. These are young men that enlisted in a time their country is at war, knowing full well what they were facing and where they were headed. They are young men "with the bark" on as the saying goes from my generation. Respectful to Mom and Sis to the max, loving them after minutes of meeting them. You could see the protection trait in them even then. The seriousness they held in their minds of what they were doing was embodied in their Moms and Sisters, Girlfriends and Fiancees, Wives and Daughters. A finer lot of young fire eaters you could never imagine!

What a difference three combat tours make. There is the weariness of too many death notices, too many faces who will never, now, drop by for a beer and a few laughs. And yet through the tears there is still hope and an abiding belief in the values that make this country great, in why we fight:

There he is. Stepping off that damn slow bus. You can see the death in his eyes from where you stand. The Stare. The flatness and lack of emotion shines from the depths of what used to be the light. You take in everything at a glance. The skinny form where the beef used to be. The scars already healed. The stiffness of his walk and the sheer power that exudes from him. The unbelievable animal magnetism that screams his manhood. You take that in as you watch his Mom and Sis attack him in a hug. There was a tiny flicker of light forming his his eyes when he first spied them that has now become a full glow that threatens to light up the night. Happiness for the first time in awhile envelops him. You worry that that deadness will return and has it entered his very soul. Thoughts only of a dad. But that light! Ah, you know he will heal, you know he stands true, you know he is loved, and love heals all!

But most of all, you stand there while the women folk fuss over him and notice the numbers missing. You notice the ones that aren't here. You witness the ones that he saw last as he put them in the MEDEVAC broken and bleeding surround him and shout to the rooftops with hilarity. You see the bond of real men and real brotherhood staring at you in the face. You stand there and remember that Pride from Parris Island and it washes over you anew! Then it is your turn and that young Marine walks up to you, shakes your hand looking you dead in the eye, and tells you he is home. There are no words to describe the Pride a dad has for his Son at that time. No words can do it justice. The pain he knows I carry for his Fallen Brothers because he carries it too. Were it I could carry his burdens and he understands. The meeting of a dad and his Son. The same as it's been throughout history. Two men that believe in one another.

Yeah, half the folks in this great nation that these young men and women sacrifice for will never, ever "get it". I will also never, ever stand down in their stead either. My strength is much greater than theirs. Mine was forged in the fires of Hell! Their's given them by men and women they will never understand.

The second is from Christmas of 2006:

Now that I work, I find I don't enjoy the yearly round of shopping, baking, decorating, and holiday parties as much as I used to. Too many 'to-do' items crammed into too few hours often leave me feeling more frantic than festive, and visions of sugarplums are displaced by shopping lists during those all too short winter nights before the alarm clock summons me to another round of holiday mayhem. At first, last Friday night seemed no different. I sat curled up on the sofa; a glass on wine in one hand and before me a stack of boxes full of Christmas cards, their envelopes hand-lettered with studious care:

"Fellow American"
"Happy Holidays!"
"Dear Soldier"
"USA Army"
"Troopers!"
"Dear Fellow Human"
"Dear Friend"
"Hello military person!"

...and the number one choice of first grade boys (often with a flag or other patriotic emblem): "Go USA!" Then there was my favorite in the bunch:

"Hellooooooo Troop!"

I had before me the work of grades K-5 of my daughter in law's elementary school destined for Operation Santa. My task for the evening, to read each one before sending them on to the next step in their journey: Carrie Constantini, who would make sure they got to their final destination.

After three years of writing about the global war on terror my faith, once almost boundless, had been at a low ebb. But as I sipped my glass of wine and read I began to smile, then to chuckle softly, then finally I was laughing out loud. Recently, Hillary Clinton took it on herself, out of her vast military experience, to advise General John Abizaid that "Hope is not a method" for winning wars.

The General responded:

“I would also say that despair is not a method.”

“When I come to Washington, I feel despair. When I’m in Iraq with my commanders, when I talk to my soldiers and Iraqi leadership, they are not despairing,”


Neither, apparently, are the children of this nation. Somehow they have managed to resist the waves of negativity emanating from Capitol Hill. As I opened card after card, messages of hope, faith, and reassurance came through loud and clear whether from tiny tots barely able to eke out a few letters or 5th graders who wrote lovely (and often literate) notes to our men and women in uniform:

"Thank you for all you do."

"Thanks so much for keeping us safe. I hope we win."

"Thank you for protecting our country."

"Win this war for us!"

"Go USA!"

"Stay safe!"

"You are very brave to fight for us."

Sometimes the message was very simple, like this one from a 5 year old:

"We love you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Of course, where there are children, there are questions. Lots of questions:

"Dear Troopers:

I wonder how you do all that fighting? Do people from other countrys come and fight you when you are sleeping?"

"What is your favorite book? What is your job in the military?"

Do you have a dog? Do you miss your Mom?

Do you like to wear suits?

"Are you scared? If I were fighting a war, I would be scared. I hope you are not scared and I hope that you come back soon."

"Can you read my handwriting? If not then I am writing to nobody."

Some told "their soldier" about their lives and asked for details in return, adding "please write back!". One boy displayed a touching regard for the privacy of his pen pal, adding that he'd like to have all his questions answered, but only "if it's not too personal". Some added their own special touches: one boy closed his card with the note, "Here is a little poem I wrote myself...Just to get you through the day." Another added a quote from Oscar Wilde. A girl made tons of extra homemade cards - a labor of love.

It is odd, on a winter's night, to look at war through the eyes of a child. To see what we adults have made so unbearably complex, reduced once more to first principles. Whose side are we on? Who do we want to win? Do we even want to win this war? A frequent (and wistful) thought, expressed in many ways but running like a constant thread through the holiday wishes sent to our troops was:

"Fight hard! We appreciate all you do. Please win this war for us."

"It would be nice to win."

Yes it would. It would be nice to win.

Go USA! And thank you. Thank you for all you do. We love you.

And we do, still. Thank you - all of you. "Thanks" seem so inadequate in light of all we have lost. And all you have won.

Posted by Cassandra at August 19, 2010 04:50 PM

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Comments

And they have performed magnificently well, under difficult conditions, made the more so by two administrations' mishandling.

I think President Bush the Younger erred when he proclaimed, as early as he did, that "major combat operations are over." (And I hear Mr Obama making substantially the same statement today.) And State did its usual botching of the attempts at peace that followed. Two many entrenched "career" "experts" on that payroll, and lots of administrations have had trouble doing the necessary purges.

And Mr Obama's constant proclamations of deadlines and withdrawal dates before the victory actually was had just added to the difficulties faced by those who are the ones invited to die for those decisions.

Good on these soldiers. Hooah, indeed.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at August 19, 2010 06:55 PM

The other night on a plane ride to Charlotte, NC, I sat next to a young man who could have been my son. He was on his way, along with some of his buddies, to Parris Island. He was a Marine enlistee. He was just 18, two years older than my oldest. He was joining because of 9/11. I told him that the husband of a "friend" of mine was a Marine Colonel, who was now retiring after 30 years in. I told him my "friend's" husband had come devilishly close to death that sunny day in September, 9 years ago.
Behind us on the same plane, was a guy from the 101st Airborne, who wore a shirt with the screaming eagle, along with a prosthetic for a left leg. As we waited to de-board, I wished the young man well, and good luck. I couldn't bear to turn and say anything to the man without a leg below his knee, because I was afraid I might just tear up. A grown man crying on an airplane, in public. He spoke softly and deeply to a couple of the boys deplaning; I hope they heed his words.
This war has cost us a lot, not the least of which was nearly 3,000 dead on Sept 11, 2001, not the least of which is the 4,418 dead in action in Iraq,nor the thousands more wounded, like the man behind me a few nights ago. And certainly not the tens of thousands of Iraqis who wanted a better future than Saddam Hussein and the Baathists, who have been ruthlessly killed by our common enemy in this struggle.

This country will move beyond this, just as it will someday move beyond Obama as President. History will turn the page.
But I wonder what will become of the "mystic bonds" that tie us together as Americans; what will become of them? I think a lot of things are broken beyond healing. A lot of people will talk about what a big mistake Iraq was, because they have been trained to say this by certain factions in our country.

Who will answer? I don't know. JarHeadDad has an answer, and it's a good one. I sorta feel the same way, though I know it is not as deep and profound as his feelings, because my son didn't do combat tours in Iraq. But I know it's not the only answer out there.

And though the last "combat units" have left Iraq, the War of which this is but one battle is not over. It may not be over in our lifetimes.

I wish I could say something profound, besides "thank you" to all the men and women who have served in an important and difficult cause, because of patriotism and other things that sometimes cause them to be reviled by others in our country.
But this is not the end. All I know for certain is that time marches on. And I remember. I hope everyone else remembers.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at August 19, 2010 09:14 PM

It has cost much, but we have gained much too. This is less obvious, but it is true.

For seven years, young men -- and some women -- have gone to Iraq and worked to liberate a people. They have, in the process, learned to face death; they have learned to manage cities; they have learned to command; and to lead by example.

One day, it will be clear just how great are the gifts we have won in Iraq. In time. Have faith.

Posted by: Grim at August 19, 2010 09:35 PM

Thank you, Grim.

Posted by: FbL at August 19, 2010 09:39 PM

I think a lot of things are broken beyond healing.

Nah. We'll get through this, too. Read, again the Declaration of Independence. Those men loved their mother country; they did not want to write those words, or take the subsequent actions. And throughout the subsequent war, roughly a third of the nascent country still so loved their mother country that they continued to support it. And another third just didn't give a damn. But those wounds healed.

And a while later, we fought ourselves in a bloody attempt to commit national suicide, and we healed those wounds.

And today we've made great progress in healing the wounds of slavery and of bigotry. Those wounds are healing.

We'll get through this. As Grim says, we'll be stronger, too. Just as we've become so after each of those earlier damages.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hinesq at August 19, 2010 10:25 PM

I don't know how many of you remember a post years ago. Someone - I believe it may have been Grim - asked us to write a unit in Iraq and send them words of encouragement.

I wrote several such notes but the one I remember best almost seemed to have been written more to reassure myself than the young man I thought I was writing to. I think I said something terribly silly about not being able to see clearly now what the meaning of all this is.

But that someday he would be able to look back and know that he and others like him shaped history. And so, in our small ways, do we all (whether we know it or not).

Thanks for being there, guys. All these years.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 19, 2010 10:51 PM

Things have been broken, and they may yet heal stronger and straighter than they were. Some of them already are.

For an example, several years ago the program Wreaths Across America came to Ft. Snelling, in Minneapolis / St. Paul Minnesota, and I went to help lay the wreaths. I was shanghaied into laying the wreath at the Vietnam Era Memorial there, one of a half-dozen people chosen for the different age group markers. That teared me up, but then for several hours afterward, as we laid the others, strangers came up to me, welcoming me home, some of those my age apologizing for their acts during the Vietnam protests. I was reduced to stammering "It was an honor, and a pleasure, to serve. You're welcome." Including to the -- I want to call them "baby Jarheads", they were so very young -- young Marines who'd thanked me and the other vets, just out of boot camp, helping elderly into and out of cars, opening and closing wheelchairs, handing out directions, coffee, and shoulders. We told them to go and be with their families; they laughed and declined. I don't remember if it was LT Smash or you who first pointed me at that event; thank you; I've rarely been prouder to be a Marine.

Dress Blues standing straight in the falling snow,

bending and reaching to help young and old.

There are some out there who are finally "getting it". There may not be many of them, but there are more than there were. The noisy anti-military crowds have faded away; there are not a dozen there on the bridge now on Wednesday, there used to be hundreds.

The writing of the milbloggers and their supporters are a big part of the reason why this is so. Their ink via pixel, publishing messages that the Narrative did not manage to squash. You, ma'am, are a part of that, and I thank you for what you've done.

Posted by: htom at August 20, 2010 12:15 AM

One day, it will be clear just how great are the gifts we have won in Iraq. In time. Have faith.

Grim's right.

I sent this in an e-mail last night:

* * * *

It's Ramadan. The newest class of kaydets is graduating, and we planned our traditional feedbag and awards presentation ceremony for the DFAC. No problem getting the VIP Room, but we had to be in at 1700 and out by 1830 -- well before sunset, so the Muslim kaydets (we have one Kurdish Yezidi in the class) wouldn't be able to eat.

Schoolhouse commander went to a local imam, and his verdict was, "The students have honored their teachers for all this time, and now the teachers are honoring their students. It would be a worse offense to refuse this hospitality than it would be to break Ramadan."

We all had supper together tonight and were out before sunset.

* * * *

When I first got here, the commander would have been taking his life in his hands just going outside the wire in uniform, let alone while visiting an imam.

Posted by: BillT at August 20, 2010 04:44 AM

Just because the combat troops are being withdrawn doesn't mean we don't have any people over there. One of my best friends will be at Marez until October...his battalion is a combat but is in Iraq for "aid and assistance." Let's keep in mind we still have a lot of US soldiers over there that we want to stay safe.

Posted by: Roz at August 20, 2010 07:09 AM

I'd like to write something beautiful, something to stir the soul. Something to mark out this day - to etch it in my memory forever. But I can't find the necessary distance.

I dunno Cass, I think you did a bang up job here.

Posted by: MikeD at August 20, 2010 03:23 PM

Hopefully we can use the counter-insurgency and insurgency learned in Iraq against whatever domestic insurgency or tyranny crops up in the US. Now that'd be killing two birds with one stone.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 20, 2010 04:07 PM

Last combat unit out... Hey guys, I'm still here! Come back, and bring some beer! Just kidding. Get home and enjoy it!

Posted by: Smart Grunt at August 21, 2010 08:48 PM

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