Just shy of five years ago in February 2008 I returned from Iraq after a tour with our advisors to the Iraqi Army and Security forces in the far reaches of Al Anbar Province. I flew back to the United States on a chartered flight with about 200 other men and women, individual augments from the US Navy who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We had a few days in Kuwait to “decompress” and then were on our way home. Those that conducted our training in that time had been in Kuwait, at large bases, separated from home but enjoying creature comforts that made it feel that we were in “Little America.”
Our aircraft stopped at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for a crew change and refueling. While there the aircraft was filled to its capacity with servicemen and their families returning from Germany to the United States. Crying babies and screaming kids greeted us as we boarded the aircraft. Most of us had not slept in the 24 hours before we left Kuwait and were exhausted. I was wearing my last serviceable uniform.
The remaining part of the flight from Germany to Philadelphia was difficult. The new arrivals were coming from a peacetime world and we were coming our of combat zones, often isolated even from other Americans. When we landed we went from our aircraft, got our civilian tickets, clad in our desert camouflage and dragging our gear we were made to removed our belts and boots by the TSA agents. It was obvious from we had come but instead of a welcome we we treated as potential hijackers. We each flew back to our respective bases on different flights into the arms of waiting families that loved us but did not understand us and units, who had not shared our experience simply sent us back to work without recognition while those that had not deployed griped about how hard things were.
Today I was doing some counseling with a sailor and as we talked about life and the war a passage from Bernard Fall’s classic account of the French war in Indochina, Street Without Joy, came to mind. It reminded me of our experience returning from war, which could be seen as seemingly irrelevant incidents, but which pointed to a larger problem. It was so powerful that I decided to post much of it here.
In October 1953, Fall a journalist was covering the French war in Indochina. In between his stints with various French and allied units fighting the Viet Minh he made a travel stop over in Cambodia. He wrote of it:
“Sometimes, there occurs an almost irrelevant incident which, in the light of later developments, seems to have been a sign of the gods, a dreamlike warning which if heeded, could have changed fate- or so it seems.
One such incident occurred to me in October 1953 in Cambodia, at Siem-Reap, not far from the fabulous temples of Angkor-Wat…
A few French officers were still around, mainly as advisors to the newly-independent Cambodian Army….
When I went to the Transportation Office that afternoon at 1530, the Cambodian orderly told me apologetically that “le Lieutenant est alle au mess jouer au tennis avec le Capitaine” and that they might well stay there all afternoon. Since the convoy which I was expected to catch was supposed to leave at dawn, I decided to stroll over to the mess in order to get my travel documents signed there.
The Siem-Reap officers’ mess was a pleasant and well kept place; with its wide Cambodian-type verandahs, its parasol-shaded tables and the well-manicured lawns and beautifully red-sanded tennis court, it was an exact replica of all the other colonial officers’ messes from Port Said to Singapore, Saigon or even Manila, wherever the white man had set his foot in the course of building his ephemeral empires.
I found the two officers at the tennis court, in gleaming white French square-bottomed shorts…matching Lacoste tennis shirts and knee-long socks…
Since the men were in the midst of a set and I had little else to do, I set down at a neighboring table after a courteous bow to the ladies and watched the game, gladly enjoying the atmosphere of genteel civility and forgetting for a moment the war…
Then emerged from the verandah a soldier in French uniform. His small stature, brown skin and Western-type features showed him to be a Cambodian. He wore the blue field cap with the golden anchor of the Troupes Coloniales- the French “Marines”- and three golden chevrons of a master-sergeant. On his chest above the left breast of his suntan regulation shirt were three rows of multi-colored ribbons: croix de guerre with four citations, campaign ribbons with clasps of France’s every colonial campaign since the Moroccan pacification of 1926; the Italian campaign of 1943 and the drive to the Rhine of 1945. In his left hand, he carried several papers crossed diagonally with a tri-colored ribbon; travel orders, like mine, which also awaited the signature of one of the officers.
He maintained in the shadow of the verandah’s awnings until the officers interrupted their game and had joined the two women with their drinks, then strode over in a measured military step, came stiffly to attention in a military salute, and handed the orders for himself and his squad to the captain. The captain looked up in surprise, still with a half smile on his face from the remark made previously. His eyes opened suddenly as he understood that he was being interrupted. Obviously, he was annoyed but not really furious.
“Sergeant, you can see that I’m busy. Please wait until I have time to deal with your travel orders. Don’t worry. You will have them in time for the convoy.”
The sergeant stood stiffly at attention, some of his almost white hair glistening in the sun where it peeked from under the cap, his wizened face betraying no emotion whatsoever.
“A vous ordres, mon Capitaine.” A sharp salute, a snappy about face. The incident was closed, the officers had their drink and now resumed their game.
The sergeant resumed his watch near where the Cambodian messboys were following the game, but this time squatted down on his haunches, a favorite Cambodian position of repose which would leave most Europeans with partial paralysis for several hours afterwards. Almost without moving his head, he attentively followed the tennis game, his travel orders still tightly gripped in his left hand.
The sun began to set behind the trees of the garden and a slight cooling breeze rose from the nearby Lake Tonle-Sap, Cambodia’s inland sea. It was 1700.
All of a sudden, there rose from behind the trees, from the nearby French camp, the beautiful bell-clear sounds sounds of a bugle playing “lower the flag”- the signal, in which the French Army, marks the end of the working day as the colors are struck.
Nothing changed at the tennis court; the two officers continued to play their set, the women continued their chatter, and the messboys maintained their silent vigil.
Only the old sergeant moved. He was now standing stiffly at attention, his right hand raised to the cap in a flat-palmed salute of the French Army, facing in the direction from which the bugle tones came; saluting, as per regulations, France’s tricolor hidden behind the trees. The rays of the setting sun shone upon the immovable brown figure, catching the gold of the anchor and of the chevrons and one of the tiny metal stars of his ribbons.
Something very warm welled up in me. I felt like running over to the little Cambodian who had spent all of his life fighting for my country, and apologizing to him for my countrymen here who didn’t care about him, and for my countrymen in France who didn’t even care about their countrymen fighting in Indochina…
And in one single blinding flash, I knew that we were going to lose the war.”
Bernard Fall, Street Without Joy, Fourth edition, May 1967, Stackpole Books Harrisburg PA, pp. 291-294
I hadn’t thought about the passage in a long time, until it came to me today. When I read it I began to understand the feelings that I had in 2008 but could not comprehend. The fact is that a very few men and women, a small segment of the population, less than one half of one percent of Americans have been fighting the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan while the rest of the country, even parts of the military have been on the sidelines.
I realized when I came home that those that crammed the families from Germany onto our plane to save a few dollars, the TSA airport security agents and some of those in the units that we returned to didn’t understand. In fact it was as if they were not at war. I think I began to realize at that point that no matter how ardently that some of us served that our sacrifices would not produce the planned intent of those that sent us to war. I knew at that point, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it that we could not win this war. A war that only a portion of the military, was fighting while the bulk of the population lived in peace without any “skin in the game.”
We are so much like the French, the British and every other colonial or imperial power that it is frightening. We claim not to be an empire but we act like empires have throughout history. We place our footprint large of the globe, creating bastions of American culture in the midst of lands far different than us. Then we send a small percentage of our people to fight the wars that our nation’s leaders as well American and multinational businesses deem to be in our national interest, especially natural resources and commerce.
As the expeditionary forces fight the wars the bulk of the public is shielded from the horror of it. Many people are sympathetic to the war fighters but because they have not served are ignorant of what we face. Beguiled by the slick, high tech media presentations in the news and entertainment industry of war; they do not understand the cost. The representations in the media make war another spectator sport. At least the news no longer shows a nightly “body count” as was done in Vietnam.
Marine Major General Smedley Butler, a man awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor twice wrote shortly after his retirement in 1932:
“What is the cost of war? what is the bill? Major General Smedley Butler wrote: “This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all of its attendant miseries. Back -breaking taxation for generations and generations. For a great many years as a soldier I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not only until I retired to civilian life did I fully realize it….”
It is amazing what going to war will do to you. This is especially true when you can recognize what too few people see or even want to even think about. But then why should we expect anything different? There was no national call to arms after 9-11-2001 and our leaders told the people to do what they normally would do, and most importantly to “go shopping.”
Pray for Peace,