Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Questions of courage keep the war personal, from the boots on the ground to the White House

There is no honor in judging the courage of a soldier’s actions during a battle by those who weren’t there. And I’ve never been there. I’ve never served in the military. I can only wonder how I might respond to a threat to my life, real or perceived, during war. I can’t say whether the questions my conscience raises as I wonder from afar would even appear in the heat of battle.

But there is also no honor in downplaying or ignoring the death of innocent civilians in Iraq. The question of courage for us at home is an internal battle that begins with the will to consider the guilt for those lives lost. Is the war worth the sacrifice of our moral integrity? Is this question the same for those without loved ones in Iraq? Does it haunt our “commander-in-chief” as does me, the father of a soldier who has seen too much combat there?

Two months ago I listened to Darrell Anderson testify as I sat on the panel at a Citizen’s Hearing about the legality of the war. Anderson served in Iraq in 2004 with the 1st Armored Division. He encountered combat in Baghdad and Najaf and was awarded the Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel from a roadside bomb.

Those are Anderson’s credentials, so to speak, the simple summary of duty that leaves out the personal story. This part alone deserves to be honored in the traditional manner we recognize the courage of all who have served. But it’s another form of courage which I both admired and found myself stuttering to measure alongside that of other front line soldiers.

Anderson told the story of his unit being under fire during an April afternoon while guarding a police station in Baghdad. They had lost a few soldiers, leaving them all on edge. But as the night wore on he said it got quieter, which seemed to encourage some local residents to attempt to flee the area.

He was one of about 15 soldiers with weapons ready, including a 50-caliber machine gun. To ward off approaching vehicles that might have been armed with car bombs or desperate insurgents, they established a lighted perimeter. Three vehicles turned back without incident. The fourth one penetrated the lit perimeter and came to a stop in front of his position. Anderson’s orders were to fire, but he didn’t, and says that after the windows rolled down they saw two adults in the front seats and two children in the back.

The story appears longer in the words to tell it then the likely unfolding of the real event. Listening then, and thinking back now, there is no way to know how long Anderson’s mind considered what action he should take. Was it bravery that allowed him to wait, or fear of making a mistake? In this instance, are they the same, being that his life also appeared to be threatened?

Ever since listening to him testify I’ve believed Anderson’s act was an example of exceptionally disciplined courage. But letting it rest there hasn’t happened. Instead it’s built a courtroom conflict in my head where the jury continues to deliberate.

I have frequently been visited by a scene from the legendary battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolutionary War. I imagined myself as a soldier in another time, under the order “don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes” as the British Redcoats advanced up the hill.

Wondering how I would have responded in such as situation isn’t a new thought now. In my innocent youth I shook with the fear whenever I’d think about such a defining moment of courage. I could almost feel my eyes wander seeking signals from other soldiers, only to find them all intently focused on the approaching enemy. I imagined I’d never be brave enough to execute the will to hold off acting to save my life. I’d either fire too soon or flee. I’d fail.

But Anderson’s story hasn’t haunted me by calling forth a perceived cowardice from so long ago. My admiration for his bravery has become attached to the contradictory response from his superior officer who openly berated him for not firing as ordered and threatened him with punishment if he failed again.

It’s not difficult to reconcile the different eras of these wars. The Minutemen atop Bunker Hill faced an enemy in uniform carrying weapons in plain visible sight. Self defense wasn’t about guesswork. The orders that day stem from a strategy intended to make the most effective use the limited accuracy of the soldier’s muzzle loading muskets.

In Baghdad Anderson’s regiment was equipped with automatic weapons where the constant barrage of bullets diminished the absolute necessity for accuracy in every shot. And the approaching motor vehicle may have been delivering a bomb with the driver, a suicide mission by an enemy intended to inflict mass causalities on his unit.

The officers in charge in both battles would issue orders deemed essential to protect his troops while at the same time forming the strategy expected to win the battle. Even though they are focused on the entire unit’s performance and not the individual, the two are intertwined in the immediate fight and in the war itself.

But the battle in Baghdad never happened. And the lives of a family of civilians were spared. Wasn’t Anderson right to extend his courage on behalf of the innocent? Or do orders following the established rules of engagement take precedent? If the enemy’s strategy creates the uncertainty such as the kind that Anderson faced, shooting first and asking questions later seems to be in our soldiers’ best interest. Did Anderson wrongfully put his fellow soldiers at risk?

To declare Anderson acted with the highest level of courage also risks impugning the bravery of any soldier who follows orders in a similar situation. Their first act of courage is being there while I sit comfortably second guessing the wisdom of such orders and rules. I haven’t been able to muster the strength to openly consider Anderson a hero.

Perhaps the two month avoidance of analyzing the issue more precisely reaches into a personal dilemma. My oldest son was in Mosul and then Baghdad during a 16-month tour in Iraq. Did Michael face such a situation? If he did, how did he respond? As a staff sergeant would he have reprimanded Anderson’s failure to obey his orders?

Finally, the real haunting questions reveal themselves. Which choice would I want Michael to make? Does the taking of an innocent life matter less to me if he believed he was acting in self defense? Is it my selfish impulse that wants to interfere with my distinction between right and wrong? Have I been lacking the courage to ask him these questions because I’m just grateful he’s home, or because I don’t want to share his burden if he did kill a civilian in a similar set of circumstances?

We all want our soldiers to come home. These men and women represent us all, regardless of whether or not we support their mission in Iraq. So even though most Americans will never be confronted by the direct assault of the war’s psychological horror, these questions don’t belong to military families alone. They just reach more directly to test the core of our moral beliefs.

The country as a whole tries to measure the war’s success or failings by the number of U.S. fatalities. This global view asks another question. If success is even partly defined by the casualty count of our troops, when does the price become so high that the majority of Americans would choose failure to win over the loss any more U.S. soldiers?

The steady procession of flagged draped coffins arriving from Vietnam bled the collective compassionate heart of the nation’s people until it broke the back of our government and brought that war to its failed conclusion. It’s the reason why the Bush administration placed a prohibition on photographing the arrival of our dead from this war. But even better is to minimize our losses. Is this why our nation’s military leaders, civilian and uniformed, justify rules of engagement that immorally devalue the lives of innocent civilians?

President Bush and I have one thing in common as we consider whether Anderson acted heroically or in defiance of legitimate orders. We are both safe from the conflict. But my son fought in Iraq, and thus I have to look the demon in the eye and ask do I place Michael’s life ahead of a child caught in the crossfire.

Bush doesn’t see an individual soldier as I do. Giving us soulless phrases like collateral damage may keep the war impersonal, but he is fooling himself if he thinks the burden of guilt for every civilian death doesn’t rise from up the boots on the ground to the White House.


K56mickey said...

As a woman it's difficult for me to even imagine going to war, I was a tom boy who spent my days outdoors riding my bike and digging holes for dead birds but I never played war games other than Hide And Go Seek.

War is a horrible thing, I'm sure everyone can agree on that and in an ideal world there would be no wars, no conflicts brought about by religious differences, no disputes over land ownership, not even childhood fights over who gets to play with what toy. But it's not an ideal world and as my mind ponders the subject I'm wondering if it was ever meant to be. The human species isn't the only life form that fights over territory, most other animals do it too, maybe for survival but they still engage in their own forms of warfare.

I found audio of Darrell Anderson's testimony to the panel and also a press conference he gave on You Tube

I'm not sure why but I don't have much sympathy for him or his story like I do Lt. Watada, Anderson comes across as a cry baby to me. I would like to hear some other opinions from people that have been there and have even had to go back.

War is Hell...there is no doubt about that. Hell for everyone involved where innocent people have been and always will be killed. Modern warfare is far different than it used to be when the enemy was clearly defined by the color of their skin or the clothes they war. Viet Nam changed all of that, (and maybe Korea before that) where children became pawns used to distract soldiers or even kill them.

We can't know what went through Anderson's mind when he chose not to fire on the car carrying the family, I don't recall him saying what he was thinking either. Was it an educated guess? A gut reaction or maybe even a moment of fear? We'll never know just like we'll never know how he would have felt if his decision had been the wrong one. My gut is telling me that his decision may have been based on fear, is it possible he simple froze and no decision was made at all? He came home and ran to Canada...Lt. Watada refused to lead his troops into a war that he thought was illegal but he didn't run away.

We live in an age where kids spend hour upon hour in front of a little screen playing war games. They come of age and the military offers them a job, they know the likely hood of being sent into a war zone but do they really comprehend what war really is? It's blood and guts, your buddy's brain and who knows what else spraying you like rain on an ugly day. Can we judge the people that go nuts and take their anger out on people that look like the enemy? Remember, there is no uniform to let them know who is good and who is bad. War is Hell....

I've been a firm believer from the beginning that the current administration had it's own agenda when Bush lied to the American people about WMD and all of the other crap we were told but I'm wondering if some of these people who volunteered to serve have changed their minds and now take the position that because war crimes are being committed they can avoid the commitment they made when they signed up? War crimes....isn't war itself a crime?

Rich in Juneau said...

The idea behind the title of the piece was not to question or judge him or others.

Regardless of why Anderson enlisted and what he did after he returned, his story reached pretty deep into me because of Michael. My courage is tested every time I have to wonder about Michael's actions over there. Anderson's story leads me on a journey that draws me to wonder more than about being in a soldiers shoes. It shows me I am struggling with difficult emotional disturbances about the war that have nothing to do with courage in battle.

The question of courage should find some residence inside all of us, not just those in Iraq, their families, and the politicians. If we look at the acts of the soldiers alone, then we aren't looking inside ourselves, and like Bush, we skirt responsibility we all have for the innocent who are killed. That's the meaning behind guilt rising "up from the boots on the ground to the White House". It passes through us to get there.

by Rich in Juneau