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Veterans Day Observed

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
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 washingtonpost.com] 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.

You mean worse than when hundreds of thousands of people were executed, gassed, and tortured? the inevitable answer comes.

At least there wasn't so much random violence and bloodshed.

No, under Hussein it was all well-organized violence and bloodshed. People were scared to death to say the wrong thing.

Well, now they're scared to death to walk outside without getting blown up.

If we leave, this place will erupt into a civil war.

It probably will anyway. And it'll be our fault for lighting the fuse. . . .

And around and around we go.

I personally believe that living conditions are better now in Iraq than before we were here. I just don't know if they are safer. It seems to change from day to day. And even I wonder if one country can impose political stability and democracy on another.

Some point out that we did it in Japan and Germany. And technically, of course, the Iraqis can "vote out" a democracy if they prefer another system of rule. While I understand that most Americans believe democracy to be the best system of rule, we may also have to accept that it might not work for every culture. I sincerely want it to work, but Jeff and Jake hold out little hope.

Along with the whole question of mixing faith and politics, we're also dealing with a schismatic religion and people who loathe one another. A Sunni won't even use a toilet after a Shiite has. Now we want them to work together to create a new system of law? Then you throw in the Kurds, who are mainly Christian, of an entirely different culture, and whose claim to fame is that their mere existence is the one thing that brings the Sunnis and Shiites together. The Muslims and Kurds hate each other with a bloodthirsty passion most of us cannot even conceive. One member of the circle asked, "Jesus Christ himself couldn't get these people to get along. Do you really think Bush can?"

And where the hell are the weapons of mass destruction? (Here we go.)

Please, it's not like he didn't have them or use them before.

But did anyone think he was really going to use them on us?

He could have sold them to people who wanted to.

Some of the soldiers in my company, I'm told, still bear the scars of mustard gas from Desert Storm, and I've met Kurds whose family members were gassed to death. I don't know if Saddam shipped his stuff out to Syria or if he buried it, which, after being there and seeing the incredible expanse of nothingness that is Iraq, is in no way inconceivable. I don't know if Bush really thought we'd find any. He may have exaggerated the threat, but chemical warfare is nasty shit. Several of us have no problem if he was just staying on the safe side with this one.

Jeff and others don't think we're here to build a democracy or "make the world safer from terrorism." This led to a heated discussion about Bush's motivations. Halliburton, retribution (for Hussein's attempted assassination of Bush's dad), oil -- they all came up. I refuse to believe that we're only here for oil. A logical, removed argument could outline the reality that Americans do consume oil and need a friendly government in charge of reserves. But Canada and Mexico have oil, and it'd be a hell of a lot easier to invade them.

If we're here for humanitarian reasons, Jeff asked, then why didn't we go into Rwanda?

Yeah, but there's no oil in Bosnia or Kosovo either, someone countered. And we went in there.

I cannot believe that Bush or Cheney are risking hundreds of thousands of American lives so they or their friends can make a little money. Rumor has it they're both pretty well off anyway. Jeff rarely allows any benefit of the doubt when it comes to Bush. I don't think Jeff could say a good word about Bush with a gun to his head -- and some of us have, trust me, entertained the thought.

It gets pretty exhausting after a while. Things would be a lot less complicated if our government was totally innocent and Saddam's was totally guilty. Or if we hadn't been so buddy-buddy with him all those years before Desert Storm.

And speaking of old friends, someone asked if they thought we'd ever find Osama bin Laden. That was the whole point, right -- 9/11? There's hardly ever any mention in the news or by politicians about Afghanistan, and it's like the troops over there have been forgotten.

This last point we could all agree on. Maybe those of us in Iraq would be forgotten too, or worse. The public supported Vietnam for the first few years, too, then it changed. We don't know how we're going to be treated when we get home, but I think most people realize that you can be for the troops even if you're against the war.

Everyone says they are supporting us, but sometimes it seems that civilians have no idea about who soldiers really are. This, too, we all agreed on, that people back home have no concept of what troops go through. We're not robotic killing machines. We're regular Americans, just doing our jobs. This war has really tapped the National Guard, so the average soldier out here could be your mechanic or your plumber. Maybe your dentist. Or the girl at the cash register. I think we're all pretty proud of what we do, and, at heart, we're all patriotic. But we're not brainwashed, and we have differing opinions. And we realize that there wasn't only one reason for starting this war.

At least certainly not one obvious reason.

Because I honestly believe if there had been, in one of our endless discussions in the circle, we would have found it.

Excerpted from OPERATION HOMECOMING by Andrew Carroll. Copyright 2006 by Andrew Carroll. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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