Friday, July 13, 2007

What's It All About?

from Jacqueline

I promise, there is more to my life than lingering on the politics of the day, but sometimes I just can’t help it, I have to say what’s in my head (my family, at this point, are collectively cringing in their homes. Uh-oh, here she goes again). But sometimes, events and reflections in one’s personal life intersect with the news of the day.

My Uncle Jim died a few weeks ago, the first of my mother’s brothers to pass away. He was eighty three, and the oldest son in a family of ten kids – there are eight of them still living. When I was a child, my uncles were larger than life characters, men who drove a motley assortment of cars – or in Uncle Jim’s case a green van – and came down to our house in the country with most of the family on board because only a few of them could afford cars. My uncles were, to the utter delight of my cousins and I (about thirty of us, perhaps more), practical jokers and more than a little crazy. We’d be driving to the beach, hardly able to move because someone else’s elbow was in your side, and the convoy would stop at a junction, or pedestrian crossing. Without warning, Uncle Jim would leap out of his car and pretend to pick an argument with Uncle Charlie. Uncle Joe would come running up to join in, and before you knew it, there would be a crowd watching, with all us cousins giggling, our mothers sliding down in their seats. Then they would all get back in their cars and off we’d go, until the next game, whatever it might be. I loved those days when my quiet childhood was thrown asunder by the boisterous visitors.

As we all grew older, my cousins and I, those days became fewer until they ended. When I was at college in London, one of my cousins would occasionally turn up to see me, or I’d go to see them. We were all making our independent way in the world, but I still saw Uncle Jim throughout the course of my college years. I was walking across campus one day when, in the distance I saw a man waving to me. I squinted, stopped, looked again, and a cold shiver went down my spine. I looked around to see if anyone else was close by. If this was Uncle Jim, then anything could happen – he might pretend, in a loud voice, to be a bodyguard sent by my parents to take me home for staying out all night. But instead he said that he’d had some work in the area, and thought he’d drop by to see how I was doing. I thought my London family was perhaps wondering how the country kid was faring in the city. So we sat on a bench and began talking of matters of the world, of the things that didn’t make sense. “What’s it all about?” he asked, a question that was his hallmark and that often peppered his conversation. “What’s it all about?” And in my naiveté, I tried to answer him, until, realizing I couldn’t, we just sat together, each with our thoughts, trying to figure out the answers.

Uncle Jim came to see me quite a few times, and we’d sit and talk in that way, and I never did try to answer that question again. The problems of the world were beyond my ken.

My mother says that Jim was never quite the same after he went ashore on D-day and his best friend was shot to pieces before his eyes. He had to keep on running through the dead and dying, as he was part of a platoon with a mission to move into the villages and overcome the enemy.

I thought of Uncle Jim and his question this week, when I read news of a report has yet to be published in the United States, regarding a study of US military personnel at war in Iraq, and the comments they’ve made about some of the things they’ve done and the people they’ve become. It’s a confession, of sorts. Here are a few of them:

Sgt John Bruhns, 29, of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, described a typical raid. "You want to catch them off guard," he explained. "You want to catch them in their sleep ... You grab the man of the house. You rip him out of bed in front of his wife. You put him up against the wall... Then you go into a room and you tear the room to shreds. You'll ask 'Do you have any weapons? Do you have any anti-US propaganda?'

Sgt Dougherty described her squad leader shooting an Iraqi civilian in the back in 2003. "The mentality of my squad leader was like, 'Oh, we have to kill them over here so I don't have to kill them back in Colorado'," she said. "He just seemed to view every Iraqi as a potential terrorist."

'It would always happen. We always got the wrong house... people would make jokes about it, even before we'd go into a raid, like, 'Oh fuck, we're gonna get the wrong house'. Cause it would always happen. We always got the wrong house."

Here are some more:

"I had to go tell this woman that her husband was actually dead. We gave her money, we gave her, like, 10 crates of water, we gave the kids, I remember, maybe it was soccer balls and toys. We just didn't really know what else to do." (Lieutenant Jonathan Morgenstein, 35, of Arlington, Virginia, Marine Corps civil affairs unit. In Ramadi from August 2004 to March 2005)

"We were approaching this one house... and we're approaching, and they had a family dog. And it was barking ferociously, cause it's doing its job. And my squad leader, just out of nowhere, just shoots it... So I see this dog - I'm a huge animal lover... this dog has, like, these eyes on it and he's running around spraying blood all over the place. And like, you know, what the hell is going on? The family is sitting right there, with three little children and a mom and a dad, horrified. And I'm at a loss for words." (Specialist Philip Chrystal, 23, of Reno, 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade. In Kirkuk and Hawija on 11-month tour beginning November 2004)

"The car was approaching what was in my opinion a very poorly marked checkpoint... and probably didn't even see the soldiers... The guys got spooked and decided it was a possible threat, so they shot up the car. And they [the bodies] literally sat in the car for the next three days while we drove by them. (Sergeant Dustin Flatt, 33, of Denver, 18th Infantry Brigade, 1st Infantry Division. One-year from February 2004)

"I'll tell you the point where I really turned... [there was] this little, you know, pudgy little two-year-old child with the cute little pudgy legs and she has a bullet through her leg... An IED [improvised explosive device] went off, the gun-happy soldiers just started shooting anywhere and the baby got hit. And this baby looked at me... like asking me why. You know, 'Why do I have a bullet in my leg?'... I was just like, 'This is, this is it. This is ridiculous'." (Specialist Michael Harmon, 24, of Brooklyn, 167th Armour Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. In Al-Rashidiya on 13-month tour beginning in April 2003)

"A lot of guys really supported that whole concept that if they don't speak English and they have darker skin, they're not as human as us, so we can do what we want." (Specialist Josh Middleton, 23, of New York City, 2nd Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division. Four-month tour in Baghdad and Mosul beginning December 2004)

And here is a story my Uncle Jim told my mother, when he came home from France, after spending time in a hospital for men with shell-shock. Some of the details may be wrong, you know how stories can change over time. Uncle Jim and his platoon made it through enemy fire to a town that was thought to be evacuated. Running from building to building, with enemy snipers looking for them, their task was to move the enemy back, obviously, so that other troops could move further inland. They were crouching in doorways, trying not to be seen by the snipers, when a small boy came running down the street – having seen them, he was calling out to them, giving away their position. Someone shot the little boy right in front of my uncle, and it marked him for life. So, when I read the article – which will be published in full in The Nation at the end of the month – I felt every ounce of energy leave my body. I am so sick of all this killing. I’m sick that young men and women are put in a position where they take actions that will haunt them forever. I'm not excusing them, just achingly sad that it has come to this. And I am so sick that our voices are not heard, whether we are here in the USA, in Europe, or whether we are the 90% of Muslims who have had our religion snatched from us and rebundled by fundamentalists (and why hasn’t that 90% come out to raise a voice yet?).

I remember once, when I was in my mid-teens, hearing Uncle Jim talking to my mum. “I miss those days when they were all little kids, all of us playing around in the sea, having a lark.” I think he missed what I miss, those times of innocence.

I know I could turn my back on the news. I could shrug until it’s all over. But that would make me complicit. As the saying goes, “If you aren’t outraged, then you aren’t paying attention." Yet I cannot help but think of my Uncle Jim when I think of the scars on the soul left by this war. I think of sitting on a bench with him and that question lingering in the air.

What’s it all about?

FYI: The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness, by Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian, appears in the 30 July issue of The Nation


  1. You write so beautifully, Our J. Your uncle Jim sounds like my kind of guy, a real character. Every family needs at least one like that.

    Here's the biggest tragedy of any war: Our so-called leaders send those young people to war with a mission to kill. Soldiers make mistakes in the heat of battle. When they do, they are prosecuted as criminals while the true perpetrators get cushy jobs as head of the World Bank.

  2. Well said, Patty.

    Our J. you do write beautifully and soulfully of the real costs of war and the things that will affect society for decades to come. The armed forces covers up a lot of what happens to these people we ask to kill others when they come home. Some swallow it and move on, live with it. Others don't and their lives are a wreck, as well as the ones that they love. It's only in recent months has the media come out of its collective pro-war hole and begun to publicly address the apallingly bad conditions for returned soldiers, let alone their medical and mental care. In this day and age it is a crime against humanity by this government.

    My grandfather and my recently deceased uncle both lived with ongoing nightmares from their experiences received during their respective wars. There was no post traumatic stress therapy for them, they just 'got on' as it were. You'd think we'd do better by now.


  3. from Jacqueline

    Patty, you are so right - yes, one guy gets to be head of the World Bank, another is planning his library (whilte refusing to brook any suggestion he might have been wrong about going to war), and the other is holed up as Mr. Untouchable of the White House. Reminds me of that final scene in A Few Good Men, when the marines go down even though they were "just following orders."

    And Marianne, yes, the press is finally waking up after rolling over and playing dead for years now - and remember, it's all about the ratings when the news is considered entertainment. There is so much truth waiting to be given the light of day, I don't know if that much ground can be made up anytime soon.

  4. Jackie, your post brought tears to my eyes. I couldn't agree more with what you said. And I can hear the echoes of your outrage in your books, too, which is part of what makes them so powerful, and so much more than "just" mysteries.

    There is a beautiful play called A PIECE OF MY HEART (by Shirley Lauro), which deals with the horrors and the aftermath of Vietnam, as seen by women who were there - nurses, USO entertainers, and Red Cross volunteers. The play is based on the real-life stories of these women, and their words are haunting. In one particular moment, the women, now returned from Vietnam, suffer flashbacks brought on by simple things like bacon sizzling in a skillet. The sounds and their terrified memories build into a crescendo until one women screams to the helicopter in her memories: "Hey! Don't leave me - I hurt, too!"

    I think nowadays there is so much noise around the war that it drowns out that simple message: the soldiers hurt, too - and not just from physical wounds. Thank you for reminding us of that.

  5. from Jacqueline

    Kim, thank you so much for your comment. I've not heard of that play, but will definitely look out for it.

    And thank you for your comment on my books - I will take it to heart.

  6. So many images flashed in my mind reading your post today. How some leaders actually encourage dehumanizing a war and any "enemy." WWI - the Huns.... WWII - the Japs, Nips, etc.
    Now we have loads of people in the White House and plenty more in the US Department of Defense constantly spouting about how "We must keep the War on Terror an Awar Game!!"

    Away Game? As if this is all just something clean, neat and safe on a green lawn like a football game?

    Egads. I heard USAF and a Marine officers use that expression "away game" last month to my face in Rosslyn, Virginia. I felt like maggots had popped out of their mouths.

    "Away game". Let "other" people fight, die, get hurt, suffer. Not the decision makers kids: those Bush twins. US Senator Mrs. Clinton's Chelsea. None of the Cheney ilk. None of the Wolfowitz or Rumsefeld progency.

    I never have been a fan of the British monarchy providing an automatic head of a state, but I must say, at least one of their ilk actually trained and wanted to serve with his fellow citizens in actual harms way. And, I'm so glad to hear the new Prime Minister of the UK not saying "War on Terror" as if there really is one, could be one or should be one. Huzzah UK!

    "Away games". Aaargh. It's worse then those blatant racial and national nicknames from WWI and WWII.

    Yes, J., as another commenter posted, your mysteries have always been more than just about a who-done-it. You get to the deeper issues rising from a tragic war and so wonderfully also point to some solutions for helping individuals scared by such wars.

  7. Our J, I just finished reading Stephen Ambrose's accounts of D-Day, The Victors, following what happened from when they first ran up the beaches until Germany fell. I can't believe anyone who lived through that could have been unchanged.

    Horrible to read these accounts of Iraq. What a difference.... horrible. I can barely stand to read about it. Can't imagine what it's like in actuality.

    I will think of you and your Uncle Jim now forever, any time I hear someone ask what it's all about.

  8. from Jacqueline

    You're right, Cornelia - no one could have gone through D-Day and not been affected by it. I think that's why I get so upset about the continued conflicts - people just don't seem to learn, don't seem to be able to find any other way to settle their differences without sending young people to war. They have to send the young, because if they were older and wiser they might not give their lives so readily. There are so many things you could say about war, but at the end of the day, it is so terribly sad, a tragedy, all of it.

  9. I was not a combat infantryman.

    In a time when I could have been in Vietnam I was sent, much to my parents' relief, to Latin America. In those two years I came under fire twice, that's all, and both times it was over in less than a minute. Both times I was in places where, by law, we were not supposed to be.

    In those two years I saw things that I couldn't talk about which turned out OK because when I came home, nobody wanted to hear it. Civilians couldn't find Guatemala on a map and Vietnam veterans had their own exclusive fraternity that I couldn't be a part of.

    I think, looking back, that it was almost as hard on my parents as it was on me. They'd lost their joking boy. In his place was an angry and bitter drunk. It took me two years and a determined effort to regain my sense of humor.

    A few years before my father died I asked him if there was anything about my service that he wanted to know. He had lost a brother in the war and knew that there was no romance in this. He shook his head and said he was just happy I'd come home, that was all he needed to know.

    I was not a combat infantryman. I have not gone through what these young men are going through now. I was lucky.

    In the Civil War young men left their farms to enlist because they wanted to "see the elephant," the euphemism of the day for combat.

    One boy of the Union wrote home to his mother and said, "I have seen the elephant and I don't want to see him no more."

    I worry about my own nephews, both in Iraq, one a warrior, the other a surgeon, and I wonder what they'll be like when they return. I pray they'll return the kind, brave and honest young men they were before this experience.

    I'm so angry that this unholy crew of smug and strutting chickenhawks has treated our military like a rich man's toy. I grieve for what they've done to these brave young people and I wonder how much longer it will be before we rise up and say enough. That is enough.

    Patty, thank you for posting this and excuse me for going on so long.

    Next post, I promise I'll be more entertaining. It just may take a few days.

  10. Oh, sorry. Thank you Jacqueline, for posting this.

    And yes, I am an idiot.

  11. David, were in Guatemala during the civil war? If so, that's a wild coincidence. My fourth book addresses that war and its root cause. We should talk.

  12. patty,

    I followed the election of Carlos Arena very closely but my time and movement there was limited.

    I spent more time in Nicaragua and Honduras but my education in both those places was much less intense.

  13. David, thank you so much for your heartfelt comment, and for talking about your experiences in South America with us. As anyone will know from my posts and from my other writings, the issue of war and its aftermath is one that keeps on at me as much as I keep on about it.

    It is so easy, amid all the numbers, the statistics we are given regarding those men and women lost to war, to think of a collective "army" rather than the individuals who will be marked by their experiences for the rest of their lives. And it's not only that one person, but their families, their friends, their co-workers. If ever there was a trickle-down effect, it comes from war -only it's more often a torrent.

  14. Thanks for sharing the spirit of your Uncle Jim and for the preview of the piece to come - I will be looking for it at the end of the month.

    I just started reading this blog, and I love the variety.

  15. Kathy, thanks for joining us - we'll be looking out for your comments!

  16. I'll say again: it's so nice to know you people and share the world with. Your experiences, wisdom and wit make my world so much more enriched.

    I think I would have liked your Uncle Jim, Jacqueline. Your whole family sounds like a fine and funfilled bunch of original people.

    I have a number of books with personal accounts of conflict: a few are funny, some are sobering and scary, and some haunt you for a long time. I prefer to read those than watch the local media's version of 'war'. I've even started to read the accounts of some of the people returned from Iraq and Afghanistan now, now that there are more and more that aren't progagandized by the govt.

    David: you have such a great way with words. Love the "I'm so angry that this unholy crew of smug and strutting chickenhawks has treated our military like a rich man's toy." I tried to get a copy of your book last week to read through post dental surgery recovery: the reviews on were great and I was looking forward to it. But do you think I could find a copy ANYWHERE? No. Sigh.

    Halfway through Jimmy O's first one at the moment, which is huge improvement on the other one picked up and didn't finish.


    PS: If anyone wants to read my Body of Work review on Jacqueline's books, check out 'Reading Jacqueline Winspear' on my Muse du Jour site. :-D Shameless plug...