Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Packer on Iraq Speech

George Packer's response to the President's speech last night offers a nuanced check-in for those of us who, like most Americans, have lost track of what's going on in Iraq. Early in the piece, Packer wryly notes that "August 31, 2010, will go down in history as the day Americans could start not thinking about the war without feeling guilty."

Among Packer's numerous insights, I found this one particularly noteworthy:

Vietnam and Korea were far more changed by American wars than Iraq. Only a small number of Iraqis had any encounters with Americans lasting more than a few minutes (the ruthlessness of the insurgency, as well as the heavy-handedness of American soldiers trying to act like policemen, made sure of it). American English didn’t become a vital part of street talk. Few Americans learned Arabic, and you rarely heard soldiers say they wanted to come back as civilians and bring their children ten or twenty years from now. Americans, with a few exceptions, didn’t fall in love with Iraq. On the other hand, many Iraqis were half in love with America by the time the first troops arrived in Baghdad; over the following months and years, they lost their illusions.


Peter Lucier said...

Mr. Kovarik

I listened to a program on American Forces radio the other day, about the five living generations in America. It prompted me to think about the number of generations of active Marines in the Marine Corps, and what events separate us. On the oldest end are three and four star generals who were platoon commanders in Vietnam, like the commandant, James Conway (a St. Louis native, graduate of Roosevelt High School) and Lt. Gen Hejlik, the commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force. Gen. Conway still talks about a Marine he lost as a Plt. Cmdr in Vietnam. On the youngest end, is my generation. Just as I am a child of the baby boomers, I am a Marine child of Iraq veterans, the first generation to go to war in 30 years. (My platoon commander and I agreed Persian Gulf doesn’t count, we weren’t there for long enough, and Marines didn’t fight, they were used as a feint.) My Drill Instructors at Boot Camp, my Combat Instructors at the School of Infantry, all had multiple Iraq pumps under their belts, in the hot years of 04-07. We were brought up in the Marine Corps on stories of Ramadi, Mosul, and Fallujah. We were under the tutelage of men vetted by combat, and we were anxious, not only for the title of Marine that they bore, but for the same vindication, the honor of combat veteran.

We grew up in an America where, Mr. Missey once told me, there was an article that asked the question, why can’t the Dow hit 50,000? An America absent any major enemy. An America of “the end of history” where the promise of gleaming alabaster cities seemed closer than ever. Then the towers collapsed and so did our illusions of invulnerability. Now instead, in high school we were flooded with images of Americans at war, and my brothers in my squad all agreed, we all in some way were pushed towards the military by it all. For the first time in years, the military wasn’t just an escape from a small town, or the inner city, or a ticket to college. It meant going to that old proving ground for manhood, the clash of arms, the smoke dust and fog of war.

But as we moved through schools, a little to our dismay, we slowly started to hear, and then with greater and greater frequency, Iraq was over. The ground our instructors, our military fathers walked, fought and struggled for, was not to be ours. Those names of cities and places became relegated, not to places we would one day patrol, but slowly became places of lore, and no doubt will one day be solely tale and legend, part of the Marine Corps legacy.

So, for me, August 31, 2010, Pres. Obama’s speech, although it may mean all the things Mr. Packer says, is nothing but the end to a generation, forever separating my peers and I from the current NCO’s, Staff NCO’s and Officers. My generation will never have to order personal body armor because its not provided to us, or weld steel plates to our HMMWV’s. But another war awaits, and in this war, the war in Afghanistan, my generation is already engaged. Marines that I went through Infantry School with, who were assigned to Third Battalion, First Marines, deployed in April to Afghanistan. The word of the first casualties and deaths are slowly making their way to us now. Will my generation be less jaded by the Afghan war than our fathers were by Iraq? Is Afghanistan the “right” war? We will have the satisfaction of a real victory, that eluded those before us? As I read more and more about Afghanistan today, a war that has shifted from Al-Queda to the Taliban, from foreign terrorists to home grown warriors, and the same difficulties of nation building we encountered in Iraq, the names of the cities and places we fight and die change, Hue City, Khe San, Ramadi, Fallujah, Marjah, and we’ve moved from the jungles of Vietnam of Gen. Conway, to the desert of Iraq of Ssgt Coburn and Cpl Jason Dunham, to the lowlands of and mountains of Afghanistan. But perhaps not all that much separates us, we living generations of Marines, we devil dogs.

framiko said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and lyrical response, Peter. You have a perspective on America's wars that I don't, and as always I admire your ability to express your ideas in words.

Some questions occur to me in reading what you wrote. Were the Marines not deployed to Afghanistan until recently? Or has the war in Afghanistan spanned more than one "generation" of Marines?

I'm teaching Beloved to my seniors right now, and today we talked about that old spiritual, "Study War No More." All that stuff about laying down the swords and shields down by the riverside, joining hands the whole world round, and studying war no more.

It occurred to me that what America did after 9/11 was exactly opposite to the sentiment of this song. We picked up our swords and shields even more tightly, studied war even more intently, and bullied the rest of the world to either join us or declare us their enemy.

And what good did it do? Here's what Jon Lee Anderson, the best war reporter I know of, says about Iraq:

"America has most clearly not met its responsibilities on behalf of the Iraqis, most of whom had no say in the warfare we brought to them seven years ago. We leave them a Saddam-free Iraq, yes, but with a bruised and battered society and a dysfunctional government which may—or may not—survive our troops’ phased withdrawal from the the country at the end of 2011.

"But Obama’s speech was not about the Iraqis, or really for them, either; it was directed at his American audience. Obama spoke about the great sacrifice Americans had made, in lives lost and money spent, and it is true, the price has been great. But just a quiet reminder, then, for the following facts may come back to haunt us: for every one American life lost in Iraq since 2003, the Iraqis have given twenty-five; and few nations in modern times have had their national patrimony as thoroughly trashed and looted as Iraq’s has—under our watch."

And by going to extended war in Afghanistan, it seems that we may have merely stepped into the snare that Osama bin Laden planted for us. Bin Laden saw the Soviet empire humiliated and drained by its adventure in Afghanistan, and so he figured miring America in a war there would be a good way to bring down our empire as well.

So I guess, given the generational span among Marines that you describe, I'm surprised that there doesn't seem to be more institutional memory about the disaster of the Vietnam War and more institutional resentment of the unfinished business and impossible missions in our current wars.