Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Around the time that the forlorn gold star mother Cindy Sheehan began her vigil outside the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas, I had dinner with a military officer who had commanded a battalion in Iraq.
"I lost five lieutenants in a year," he told me. "I collected body parts. I don't know how I'll ever get over that. And you just get the feeling that the rest of the country doesn't understand. They're not part of this. It's peacetime in America, and a few of us are at war."
We have had a long season of sunshine patriotism in the U.S. since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. We love our troops without qualification, and rightly so. They have fought with courage and restraint in a horrifying chaos of battle. The yellow ribbons and support our troops signs are heartfelt. But there is a growing sense this summer that mere patriotic displays just won't cut it anymore.
The military is frustrated by both the mission and the sense that the war isn't front and center for the rest of the country. There is a fair amount of anger among the returning troops, especially the noncareer soldiers, the National Guard and reservists whose tours were extended and then extended again. In a harrowing and exquisite new book, The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell (Penguin; 240 pages), a Florida National Guardsman named John Crawford writes about coming home from Iraq, "Every time I saw someone sitting contentedly inside a coffee shop or restaurant, I wanted to yell at them to wake them up."
The U.S. Army Europe last week invited me to attend a conference for senior officers in Stuttgart, Germany. Many of the officers had recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan; others were about to be deployed. As always, I was struck by how the core values of the military—service and discipline, both physical and intellectual—are so different from the perpetual American Mardi Gras. More than a few officers told me they were concerned by what was happening back home.
They sensed that public support for the war was waning and feared that once again they had been sent into a difficult situation with less than a total commitment from the country's political leaders, including the Commander in Chief. They echoed a question that the battalion commander who had lost five of his lieutenants had asked me. "Why hasn't the President issued a national call to service? I don't mean a draft," he said. "But if the President called on people to serve, they would. And not just in the military. My mother mentioned this the other day: 'Why aren't there the war-bond drives we had in World War II? Why aren't we being asked to collect clothing for the children of Iraq?'"
Other officers wondered why the American public was never asked to share in their grief, why the President never attended the funerals of the fallen. One general, who had presided over 162 memorial services in Iraq, told me how it worked:
"There's no coffin, just the inverted rifle, boots and helmet of the fallen. We call the roll, up to the name of the missing trooper. We call his name: Specialist Doe. Then a second time: Specialist John Doe. A third time: Specialist John R. Doe. And then taps is played. It really gets to you. It's an important emotional experience for the troops. It closes the door and enables you to move on."
We are told that George W. Bush often cries in private meetings with the families of the fallen. No doubt the President feels the intense pain and responsibility of having sent young people off to war.
Perhaps he feels the pain more intensely than other Presidents, knowing that the real war in Iraq, the one that began after he proclaimed that "major combat operations are over," was not anticipated by his Administration, a colossal failure of planning and execution. It is also possible that there is more than crude political calculation to the President's failure to attend funerals; his refusal to intrude upon the private grief of the families has presidential precedent. But the inability to acknowledge these terrible losses leaves an aching void in the rest of us. It isolates the general public from the suffering that is a dominant reality of life in military communities.
And that is why the awkward anguish of Cindy Sheehan has struck a chord, despite her naive politics and the ideology of some of her supporters. She represents all the tears not shed when the coffins came home without public notice. She is pain made manifest. It is only with a public acknowledgment of the unutterable agony this war has caused that we can begin a serious and long overdue conversation about Iraq, about why this war—which, unlike Vietnam, cannot be abandoned without serious consequences—is still worth fighting and why we should recommit the entire nation to the struggle. This is a failure of leadership, perhaps the signal failure of the Bush presidency.