Sometimes the memories are benign, maybe pleasant such as one I often have of an evening shortly after we arrived on our base at Balad and settled in. It was early December in 2004. The day was pleasant and calm with just a slight wind, so we weren’t having the river silt and sand whipped stingingly into our faces this day. The day had been a pleasantly warm day in the 70’s, very spring-like. The base was mostly desert, but having a few trees and bushes here and there owing to our close proximity to the historic Tigris River, so it was not ugly, barren, desert. There was a kind of serene beauty to the land here. It was kind of hard to believe that we were walking in the Babylon of the Bible that I had always read about. It might have been an enjoyable experience had we not been there to fight a war. On this pleasant, calm day, with no mortar or rocket attacks on the base, many of us were strolling around the base with friends, learning the layout of the base and simply enjoying a quiet walk outside.
Well, it was relatively quiet – at least as quiet as it could be with the constant whine of generators everywhere, the sporadic rumble of military vehicles at all hours of the day and night as soldiers traversed the base and as convoys entered and departed the base; the harsh crunch of gravel as the vehicles drove across the open areas off the streets; the slow lazy roar of propeller driven aircraft or the occasional scream of fighter jets taking off from the runway a short mile away from our living and working areas. But at the present time, there were no attack warning sirens blaring and no explosions from rocket and mortar attacks nor were there any controlled explosions from the ordnance specialists destroying the seemingly endless caches of captured insurgent’s weapons and ammo. It was a rare time of relative quiet with a warm, pleasant breeze, and shortly after the sun went down, a full moon rose over the horizon looking larger than I had ever seen it before.
I remember thinking how ironic it was for all this peaceful beauty to be in this place at this moment even while such violent battles, skirmishes, or IEDs (improvised explosive devices or “roadside bombs”) were taking place somewhere throughout this country every single day, several times a day. And that violence often came to our base as we normally had several rocket or mortar attacks against the base every week. This was the insane contrast that I could never reconcile from my time in Iraq. There was so much beauty and even joyful moments with my people or my various colleague friends when we would be horsing around or enjoying moments of serious or playful conversation. Of course, the human spirit cannot take ceaseless drudgery or misery without breaking, so there had to be some kind of respite in the harshness of the environment and duties we were living through. Unlike all wars of the past, our troops in this modern war were denied the comfort of alcohol as the military has been overtaken by legalistic perfectionists or our spineless leaders have succumbed to the legalism of our Arab hosts, yielding to them meekly in political correctness as if we had not been the victors during our invasion and occupation.
I think that perhaps this is why there are so many suicides and why the PTSD rates are skyrocketing among our troops. They are being asked to take the harshness of a yearlong tour under Spartan conditions and constant danger with very little relief. I don’t think any of our soldiers in the past were expected to stay this long under such harsh conditions without relief. If they were allowed a few beers or shots of alcohol a couple of times a week, it would go a long way toward helping them cope, perhaps breaking the cycle of continuous adrenaline that eventually hardwires the PTSD symptoms into their bodies. As Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman is reported to have said, “War is Hell.” It most certainly is. The wholesale slaughter of people must bring great rejoicing to our spiritual enemies. There are few things more wicked and evil than war, except maybe the various political indoctrination or extermination camps of the 20th century.
Robert E. Lee once said, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” War has often been glorified in literature such as Homer’s Iliad or in so many movies. But to those who actually live it, it is rarely remembered as glorious. You would have to be almost heartless or narcissistic to encounter the horrific suffering and not be personally wounded by it since God has built into virtually all of us some normal empathy for the suffering of others. Getting back to the dream I mentioned at the beginning, I was trying to explain to some people how I felt about my memories of Iraq. The best way I could explain it was to tell them, “I want to forget, and I want to remember.” I wish many days that I could completely wipe those terrible memories clean from my mind. Yet, I understand that not remembering makes those experiences meaningless. I just cannot fathom, I cannot grapple with the thought that all that suffering meant nothing or that it was for nothing. So, no matter how painful the memory, I know that I must always remember. It is my way of ensuring that those people who died during our tour, and those who have died in all of our wars, did not die in vain.
If you have served in our Nation's armed forces, I thank you for your honorable contribution and I pray that you will have peace with your memories of that time.