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Veterans Day Observed

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, November 10, 2006; 1:16 PM

In honor of Veterans Day, here's an excerpt from a remarkable book, Operation Homecoming , an anthology of eyewitness accounts, private journals, short stories and other writings about Iraq, Afghanistan and the home front, from U.S. troops and their families.

The book, published by Random House, is the result of an initiative by the National Endowment of the Arts.

In this essay, Sgt Sharon D. Allen writes about the nightly conversations at her base near Kirkush -- conversations during which members of her platoon go around and around trying to figure out why President Bush sent them to Iraq.

A member of the Ohio Army National Guard, Allen was shipped to Iraq in March 2004 with the 216th Engineer Battalion (Combat Heavy). She wrote the essay In June 2004.

Before reading further, please be aware that the excerpt contains profanity. The regular White House Briefing column will return on Monday.

The Circle, by Sgt. Sharon D. Allen

The camp is under red-lens light discipline, which means we can't use an unfiltered flashlight. It severely lessens our evening entertainment options. So, soon after we arrived, we began our strange nightly gatherings. You won't find it on any schedule, but you can set your watch by it. As the sun nudges the horizon and the gravel cools, some of us give up our battle with the ambient light and surrender our reading until the morning. Others collect up their poker winnings or grumble about their losses. And we all drag our chairs and cigarettes and joylessly warm water out to the gravel and talk. We call it "the circle." In the Army there is an incredibly varied cross section of society, and we are a diverse group. We have a couple kids straight out of high school, who'd either joined to get a little excitement out of life or to get a leg up on it so that they could go to college. We have older guys, who've already put in their time. They tend to be either jaded or genial, both in reaction to the accumulated bullshit slung at most soldiers who've been in the service for years. We have everyone from idealists to realists to fatalists, more than a few who began at one end of the spectrum and eventually meandered their way to the other.

I always find it amusing when people talk about "the military" vote, perspective, or whatever. My company has 170-some soldiers, and 170-some opinions. We might have more invested in foreign policy than people back home, but that doesn't mean we all agree on exactly what those policies should be. Two of the guys, Jeff and Sam, are brothers serving together here but in different platoons. They are both slightly to the left of extremely conservative, yet also very anti-Iraq war. Their father threatened to cut off his own head and send it in to Al-jazeera if his sons aren't returned home soon.

Jake is one of my best friends out here, and one of the most infuriating people I've ever known. Jake's a former Marine who comes from a Marine family and whose biggest regret is that this isn't "a real war," something on the scale of World War II or Vietnam. I usually point out to him that we didn't lose many people in the first few years of Vietnam, either. And then I say something about how I'm really [expletive deleted by] sorry that not enough of us have died for him to consider this a real war. If I had met Jake in a bar in the States and he had said half the bullshit he says here, well, we definitely would not have become friends. But he's here, too, so I guess he's entitled to his opinion. His son, Joey, will be joining us when he gets out of Basic. I wonder if his opinion will change then.

In the circle, we talk for hours not only about the reasons for this war, but for the previous one, too, and if we were ever justified in coming to this part of the world in the first place. At least in Desert Storm, some members of the circle argue, Iraq was the aggressor. Also, the whole world seemed to support us. Several of the soldiers in my platoon are former Marines and more than a few had been in the Gulf War. Desert Storm, they say, was to keep Iraq from taking over Kuwait. Naked aggression that had to be stopped. Simple as that.

Others shoot back that even so, we have no right to get involved in a situation that was a fiscal, not physical, threat, to us. Now we're trying to change an entire culture? And aren't we being naive or arrogant to think that we will make any long-term difference here, anyway? Tempers can get heated, and on some days, it probably isn't a good idea that we are all armed. Unfortunately, two of the guys, Jeff and Jake, are too big for me to punch.

One night we started arguing the hierarchy of evil world leaders, and where Saddam stood on that list. There are obviously worse men, so why Iraq? Why now? For every Saddam, there are ten more vicious dictators, and we can't get rid of them all. Of course, then we had to delve into Saddam's motivations, and if he's really such a bad guy. For the record, I was on the "yes, he's an inexcusable piece of shit" side of this argument.

Jake, of course, wonders if the country is really less dangerous now than under Hussein. He doesn't think there would be suicide bombers and IEDs littering the roads without our impetus. Haven't we made everything worse? the question is inevitably asked.

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