No apologies

How I learned to fight for my country, proudly.

Published December 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Every day this week, perfectly nice latte-drinking, movie-going, please-and-thank-you Americans are trying to blow the heads off a bunch of Iraqis whose faces they'll never see. They'll try really hard to count their pulverized corpses (you get points for them, you know), but to visualize their faces? Not really. It's not that our G.I.s are evil, mind you, it's just that killing as many Iraqis as efficiently as possible is their job, and they take pride in doing it. I know, because it used to be my job and I took pride in it, too. Still do.

From 1980 to 1992, I was on active duty in the United States Air Force. My last overseas assignment was as chief of intelligence for Ankara Air Station, Turkey, a NATO-affiliated base. I got there in June 1989. When I left in late 1990, we were at war with our wacky neighbor to the south, Iraq. I rotated back to the world, and the Pentagon, and remained involved in the war effort till its conclusion. The war affected me in ways that I would never have predicted and have yet to effectively communicate to civilians and the unreconstructed liberals who expect me to be conflicted over my involvement.

I'm not. In fact, I tried hard to be even more directly involved. I volunteered to go to Saudi Arabia (in unsentimental G.I.-speak, "the Sandbox"), from which our troops were staging. I saluted smartly when I was deemed crucial and had to remain on active duty an extra year through the war's aftermath. Indeed, I sought out every opportunity to be heard on operational matters (read: I put my two cents in every chance I got on exactly how I thought the destruction of the enemy should proceed). My only regret is that I wasn't allowed hands-on participation or a more direct role in the decision-making that put "bombs on target."

I'm not bloodthirsty. I can't watch horror movies, people yelling at each other or a hypodermic needle piercing flesh. You cry, I cry. You puke, I puke. I'll walk away from a fight so fast you'd get dizzy. I only enlisted in the first place to get out of my neighborhood. No one was more shocked than I when I turned into Xena: Warrior Princess at the Gulf War's commencement. But I think I've figured out why I responded the way I did and why I wanted to get to the war zone.

Here's the reason that will disgust you: I was professionally curious to see if all the things we'd been simulating for so long would actually work. It's not as if, for instance, we could nonchalantly jam, say, Ecuador's communications one morning just to see if we were doing it right. Now, here was our chance. How much could we destroy with how little? You never know when you might run low on weapons, and a good officer plans ahead. How many could we really kill if we dropped this kind of bomb as opposed to that kind? Oh wait -- a few are getting away. Let's chase them down with something low and slow and see if we can't pick them off. Got em! Good job. Let's see what kinda damage those F-16s can really do when our pilots aren't just "shooting" gun cameras, photo op'ing what they would have destroyed had they not been shooting wussy blanks. Now we could blow those suckers up and see how good we'd gotten at body counting since 'Nam.

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After a decade of scurrying into chem gear while inspectors held stopwatches, after an entire career spent simulating enemy attacks by wearing signs that said, "Left foot blown off" or "HQ building destroyed," finally, we could put our skills to the test. Surgeons get to operate on real people with real appendicitis. Firemen get to battle real blazes and save real people from danger. But G.I.s with operational specialties rarely get to employ their skills. So, yes, we took professional pride in our work. We certainly didn't exult in the carnage (had anyone, he or she would have been sternly reprimanded and shunned). But neither were we squeamish about it. The duly elected commander in chief said, "Jump!" and we said, "How high, sir?" (I wouldn't dare speak for those directly engaged in battle. I'll never know how it feels to actually kill someone or to blow up a building with humans in it. I'm only speaking as one who helped direct the war effort generally.)

Here's the more understandable, forgivable reason for my militancy: guilt. Ten days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, I had a team of 10 in place in Saudi Arabia, quartered in the same barracks that would later be blown up (none of my people were hurt). I'd gone to Turkey from Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio: The team was drawn from the same people I'd just spent three years working and partying with. The team Leader, Capt. Annie Ganzy, had an infant less than 6 months old as well as a civilian husband and other children. We were girlfriends. For some reason, she came to symbolize all of them for me. I supposed that had I not known them, I wouldn't have been so emotionally involved, but I did know them and I couldn't sleep at night for fear that they'd be killed or disabled.

Not one of them complained about having been sent. Indeed, nearly everyone had volunteered and basically begrudged the team their places of honor in the war zone. Since they were there working for my programs, I was responsible for them. There was a level of command between us, but my being above them in that chain meant the buck stopped with me. In my whole life I never experienced such a sobering slap in the face of responsibility. What if they died? What if they were taken prisoner? What if the women were raped by enemy soldiers? What about torture? What if I made a mistake? What if they died? What if I made a mistake? What if they died?

It tormented me. It was me their families should hold accountable. Me who should have to put on my dress uniform and take the long walk up 10 driveways to inform families that their son, daughter, mother, father would never come home again. I was bedeviled in a way that I pray never to be again in my life. The only thing I could think to do was to volunteer to go myself, so that's what I did. I didn't think I should send them there without being willing to go myself. I was scared shitless the Air Force would actually send me to the war, but at least, finally, I was able to sleep again. I was able to live with the responsibility.

That sense of responsibility, of my duty to my team, was never far from my mind. It kept me, it kept all of us, focused to a pinpoint on the war effort. I never stood a chance of getting to the war zone because nearly everyone volunteered, I was told. (Besides, it just doesn't work that way. I know, I know, Maj. Houlihan was always putting in for those transfers on "M*A*S*H," then withdrawing them at the last minute when Hawkeye apologized, but that's just TV.) I had to try, though. There was too much at stake.

We G.I.s certainly knew that was a war about cheap oil -- rhetoric about the poor, invaded Kuwaitis notwithstanding -- but the fact remains that, for whatever reasons of geopolitical hegemony and petroleum reserves, Iraq was shooting at America. America is where my Mama lives. America is where all my stuff is. Iraq is going down. If Monaco shoots at us, for whatever reason, Monaco is going down. It's that simple. And also, I had lots of friends both in the air and on the ground over there and it truly, truly pissed me off that somebody was trying to hurt folks I'd been drinking, flirting and shopping with. In my heart of hearts, I knew that if you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself: I wanted to help keep my team, my friends and all those anonymous captains just like me alive and in one piece. To do that, I needed to be in the game. For me, the Gulf War was about people, not politics. Saving my friends meant killing as many Iraqis and visiting as much well-chosen destruction upon them as possible so that they A) surrendered post haste and B) never pulled that shit again. I left it to President Bush to pretty up the details.

Of course, Saddam is a special kind of crazy, so B) will never happen until he's in his solid gold mausoleum, but until then, I trust our G.I.s to kick ass, take names and make no apologies. Would I have been so unconflicted about Vietnam, Nicaragua or our Cold War activities in Africa? Probably not. As a matter of fact, during our Central America escapades in the 1980s, I steadfastly refused to volunteer for duties I suspected would send me on my way to Nicaragua; I thought our policies there disgusting. But I never kidded myself that I could be in the United States military and somehow morally opt out of a connection, however indirect, to that Central America policy. In for a penny, in for a pound. And make no mistake -- had I ended up with orders for Central America somehow, I would either have gone and given it 110 percent or resigned my commission.

An apolitical, civilian-controlled military is the difference between us and the strongman juntas of South America and Africa. There's a reason why we don't have military coups here -- G.I.s like me who kill who, when, how and for only as long as we're told by the duly elected civilians to whom we remain firmly subservient at all times. If you don't like what the duly elected civilians sent us off to do, throw the bums out next election. But you can't simultaneously send us off to wage war and expect us to hate ourselves for it (we tried that once, remember?). Nor can you expect us to be half-assed about it -- we'd have gotten ourselves and our buddies killed. What's worse, we'd have let America be defeated. We didn't enjoy the destruction, but we most definitely enjoyed the winning. We're only human.

By Debra Dickerson


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