Saturday, October 02, 2004

Collateral Damage

October 2, 2004

I sit and stare at my computer for hours at a time, hoping to find the words that convey my exact feelings, or the feelings of my battle buddies. Sometimes I am lucky because the words flow so easily. Other times, however, I struggle to articulate what I am feeling because I can’t make sense of it all. That struggle is in direct relation to the chaos that ensues outside the blast walls of the heavily guarded Green Zone. I don’t know if I will ever make sense of this madness. It frustrates me that I cannot wrap my head around just how significant this war on terror is for Iraq, America, and the world. As soldiers, we feel an enormous responsibility to succeed. We do not want to come home amidst a quagmire, wishing we could have done more, and feeling terrible that we could not.

We’re not stupid. We hear the news and read the papers. We hear the world believes we are failing. We read quotes from people who think there is a better way to do it. There are times when even we believe there is a better way. More and more, I am beginning to believe there is no ‘right’ way to fight the war on terror. There is no book to read, no diagram to study, and there is very little history from which to draw. This is not a conventional war.

Our enemy isn’t lying in a prone position behind a mountain of sandbags. Our enemy isn’t dressed in combat fatigues that easily define him. Our enemy isn’t backed by the majority of the men and women in his country. Our enemy is waking up, getting dressed, and making his way out to a car laced with explosives meant to kill heroic American soldiers and innocent Iraqis. Our enemy is backed by a relatively small group of thugs who lack the capacity to embrace freedom and democracy.

As the death toll rises for American soldiers, so too does the death toll for innocent Iraqis. For me, the rising number is very hard to hear, yet many pass it off as collateral damage – a by-product of the fight for freedom. An estimated 20 thousand Iraqis have died since the beginning of combat operations last year. Twenty-thousand. Take a minute to think about how large that number is. Now imagine it’s 20-thousand Americans.

I make this comparison only so you can better understand the price Iraqis are paying for their freedom. For the last thirty-five years, a murderous tyrant dictated their lives. Although they can now envision a life free of dictatorship, it’s still a struggle for them, and they are still losing countless numbers of their friends and families. Their lives are laced with fear, uncertainty, and instability. Although they understand democracy does not come easily, it doesn’t make it any harder for them to accept the loss.

When the conflict started, I didn’t think too much of collateral damage because I was consumed by patriotism and pride in my own country. I was unified with the rest of you because we were fighting for freedom. But I was reeling with pride from thousands of miles away, from the comforts of my living room. I wasn’t able to personalize the plight of the innocent Iraqis. Now, however, I have experienced a year of the reality that I used to view as colorful images mixed with creative words on television.

I have spent a year working to improve the lives of Iraqis. Because we have all sacrificed so much and have worked so hard, we take pride in this country and its citizens. When we see the dead pulled from the rubble created by bombs dropped from American warplanes or built by terrorists, it hurts just as much. I cradle my head in my hands each time I hear how many civilians died in a conflict no more than twenty miles away.

The War on Terror isn’t just about ensuring America’s freedoms. It’s also about ensuring Iraq’s freedoms. We have a responsibility to mourn the deaths of Iraqis and to respect the price they are paying. This is not something I did a year ago because it wasn’t personal to me. I would never sum up American casualties as collateral damage because it’s so much more than that.

In spite of the obvious differences between America and Iraq, one thing remains the same. We are all human beings with the same capacity to feel. An Iraqi who mourns the loss of a child is no less important than a family who mourns the loss of an American soldier. It’s a lot of things - tragic, painful, devastating, and hard to understand. But it should never be called collateral damage.

With Love,


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