As I've written many times in the past, I believe the war in Iraq
unjust and illegal. However, my main concern about the war - the emotional
impetus for my continued protest
- is not necessarily the lives of the
Iraqi civilians, whose deaths I oppose more on an intellectual level than an
emotional one, but rather the lives of the many thousands of young U.S. and British soldiers
who are at risk right now in Iraq.
I did not come from a privileged background - far from it. My father was a
printing press operator, my mother a teaching assistant. I grew up in
Hagerstown, Maryland one block from the Washington County Hospital on (ironically enough) Hager Street. I lived in a crumbling 19th Century duplex, which had seen better days (most likely in the 19th Century). My family didn't have a lot, but we got by. Our neighborhood was working class, mostly white and wasn't exactly what comes to mind when
you think of "middle class" America.
Unlike kids from more moneyed backgrounds, my future was in question. There
were no grand plans for me to go to college, no lofty career ambitions. My father
thought for many years that I might follow in his and my grandfather's
footsteps and work in the printing plant that employed them, and my academic performance reinforced that belief. Through most of middle school and high school, I was
a C-student at best. But then I discovered that I was able to write -
something I'd done for years for fun, but never really thought about. My
freshman high school English teacher encouraged me, and for the
first time in my life I began to get A's in English. That eventually spread
to other subjects, such as Social Studies and History, which boosted my GPA
enough to make college a possibility.
But it was just that - a possibility. My parents had little money, and I
knew I didn't want to go to community college, which I saw as an extension
of high school. Naturally, I began entertaining thoughts about the military.
Not because I wanted to defend my country or fight in a war
(and the Gulf War was still fresh on my mind), but because of the college
money they promised after I got out.
However, my entering the military did not come to pass. I received my
acceptance letter to the University of Maryland on the day of my high school
graduation (I barely squeaked in, having languished on a waiting list for
months), and my father was so proud of me that he took out a loan to pay for
my first year. He was caught up in the emotion of the moment - I had just graduated
from high school, received the school scholarship for best performance in
English, how could he not try to find a way for me to go? But had that
letter not arrived on that day, my dad might have reacted differently. I might not have gone to the University of Maryland right out of
high school, nor would I be living in an "exclusive" Washington, D.C.
neighborhood right now. Instead, I might have gone into the Army.
So when I see these soldiers on television - kids who look not unlike the kids I
grew up with - I know that if circumstances in my life were different, I
might have been them. They didn't enter the military because they wanted to
wage a war against another country; they enlisted because they wanted a
better life for themselves. I know what it feels like to not have a future,
to see the middle class world on television and to desperately want to be a
part of that. I know the lengths people will go to achieve that kind of
life for themselves. This is not to say that everyone joins the military just to advance their lives -- many do enlist because they genuinely want to serve their country. But most of the people I know who serve or have served -- including both my parents -- joined for for the opportunities military service offers.
The military used to be a profession that all parts of society
participated in. The families of American aristocracy - the ultra rich -
had a long tradition of sending their children to military academies. Few
American men stayed out of many of our most celebrated wars - the American
Revolution, the American Civil War, the first two World Wars. Hemmingway
and his "lost generation" wrote excessively about what the First World War
did to them. Could anyone imagine our most celebrated writers serving
in the military today? It's almost unthinkable.
At some point in the late 20th Century, the upper middle class and the rich decided that the
military and service to this country was not for them. That they were too
good to serve - that it was a job for other people's children. Vietnam is a
prime example, with the vast majority of conscripts coming from the working
and lower classes. The sons of the rich - such as Dan Quayle and
George W. Bush - evaded service by pulling duty in the reserves. Even Al
Gore, who claims to have served in Vietnam, was in the relatively safe role
of a reporter. Few of today's political elites have any notion of military
service. And out of all our Senators and Congressmen, only one
representative has a child in the military.
And yet, my cousin Mark is serving, as is my mom's godson. Both young men
came from low-income, working class backgrounds. Both entered the service
to escape the futility of their lives. My cousin is in the 101st Airborne,
his unit having deployed to Iraq. My mom's godson is in the Air Force,
serving at the Prince Sultan Air Force base in Saudi Arabia. I don't want
them to die, while many others -- including myself -- have never served. It seems
Where are the sons and daughters of the "chicken hawks" who beat the drums
of war and demanded "regime change" in Iraq? Where are Jenna and Barbara
Bush? George P. Bush, Jeb Bush's son? Where are the children of Paul
Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld? Do they even know, or are
related to, anyone in the service?
I ask these questions, because these people engage us in war without having
to bear the emotional consequences. They don't have a vested interest in
the people who are putting their lives on the line, who are dying in Iraq.
It's easy to commit troops when you don't care about what happens to them.
When they're just pawns on a global chessboard, cannon fodder.
But I care. And despite all the good, legal and ethical reasons not to be
"liberating" Iraq, the most compelling reason for me now - the reason I
still march, still dissent - is the soldiers. It's the faces of the POW's
on television, chefs and mechanics that only entered the military for
college money, now being interrogated and tortured by Saddam loyalists on
television. They didn't sign up for this. The commercials and recruiters
spun the Army as a means to an end - as a stepping stone to an education, to
a better life. Aim high. Be all you can be. Army of one. They left the part out about dying.
If our administration is going to commit soldiers to war, they should commit
everyone. Perhaps if their own children were at risk, they would be less
quick to engage other countries in hostile actions. Maybe then they would
know the ultimate consequence of war - the sacrifice of life that's made. That
soldiers aren't just faceless instruments, but human beings with hopes and
dreams and loves and hates and fears and everything else. The military has
been dehumanized to the American public - and that needs to change.
Otherwise, our government will continue to send young people to die in
cynical engagements such as Iraq or Vietnam, where our National Security
interests really aren't at risk. When it's all about ideology or economics,
and not the safety of the American people.