More war letters

From a civil liberties-loving Army officer to a woman who's afraid of getting blown up at work to the girlfriend of a Marine who might be shipped to Iraq, Salon readers talk about life in America's pre-invasion Twilight Zone.


Salon readers
March 7, 2003 10:29PM (UTC)

Editor's note: How is the threat of war affecting your marriage, your dating, your home life? Are you talking with your parents or grandparents about their experiences of war? Are you worrying about your kids? Are you reassessing your plans? Does this seem like déjà vu, or like something unprecedented? How do you think the threat of war affects the way we view certain books and movies? Do particular works of art gain a new poignancy? Give it some thought, please, and write to us at warletters@salon.com. We will read them all and publish as many as we can.

Read Part 1 of "War Letters."

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It was a bad goddamned day

I am an Army officer, a professional infantryman, and as such I have attended all the requisite badge-producing courses and served in infantry units around the world. I am also an Airborne Ranger who is a "card carrying" member of the ACLU. (Can you believe that they actually give us cards?) Go figure, but when I swore that oath at my commissioning to "support and defend the Constitution" I took it literally and personally. Every once in a while you might catch a glimpse of my ugly mug on C-SPAN or PBS, or hear my voice on NPR. I spend a lot of time thinking about things like the Constitution and war, so that makes me somebody curious to talk to, I guess. But the bottom line is that in the end, it is my ass and those of my soldiers and friends on the line. That makes me the most ardent pacifist you might ever encounter. A pacifist with something personal and tangible to lose. But I am also a realist and a historian.

About 18 months ago some jackasses parked a Boeing product about 30 yards from the spot where I now work in the Pentagon as a strategist. They also killed a personal hero and friend in the WTC. It was a bad goddamned day.

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Today we stand on the brink of a political decision. I cannot influence that decision, personally. That would be a crime. (See, it's what we in the Army call a "bad thing" when the military gets involved in politics.) But I do have one option at my disposal: I can resign my commission. It is the moral duty of any officer to do so if he believes that actions being taken on behalf of the nation are in contravention to the ideals or intent of the Constitution or the nation. I take that responsibility pretty fuckin' seriously.

I chose not to resign. Moreover, in my role as a strategist I am supposed to look deeper, to use this infallible ball to discern the shape of things to come. And in doing so, with the moderate wisdom that the study of history might impart as well, I have come to the conclusion that it's unlikely that the nation will be safe, or as safe as it might be, 10 years from now unless we do this very hard thing now. (Barring a complete capitulation prior to hostilities on the part of Saddam and the Baath party.) I am supposed to make the nation safe. I have sworn to do so. I detest war, far more personally than those who stand to lose nothing but a few extra bucks at the gas pump and a slightly higher cost for their latte at their local coffee houses, and I cannot ignore the strategic realities or the implications for five and 10 years from now if this change is not made. And so, with stomach churning reluctance, I support this potential war. Even as I dream that the ends we do need might be met by some act less than war.

-- Robert L. Bateman
Major, Infantry

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I'm afraid I may lose a boyfriend, not to another woman but to another country

Today my boyfriend of four months (we are both in our early 30s) reports to his Marine Reserves staff sergeant to retake a urine screen he deliberately failed. Before he left we argued over something stupid. We are both worried about what may be in store for him -- the two worst situations loom: a dishonorable discharge or actually being sent to Iraq. As of now, he will be out of communication until the ordeal is over.

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This is a war I feel ambivalent about. I haven't had the kneejerk war-is-wrong reaction as I did during Desert Storm. I also don't believe our reasons for going are well founded or that an exit strategy exists. The idea of a war and the chaos that could ensue -- in the Middle East and the U.S. -- is frightening. So is the idea that a man that I may be falling in love with (although I haven't told him that yet) could be sent to the thick of this mess and suffer some kind of chemical or emotional damage that will impair him for life -- a life I'm interested in sharing.

At Christmas we talked about it. He was told he could count on being called in the next two months. I asked him not to go, still sure in my feelings that war was wrong and Bush was clueless at best. In January he said he wanted to go. He felt obligated by some kind of hormonal maleness. I told him to do what he needed to do, but that I was afraid for him. He is afraid too -- less of dying than of being exposed to chemical warfare. Still, before his next "muster" he injected some steroids that would be detected by the regular drug screen.

These questions also apply to George Bush. If I see my boyfriend's wrangling as a personality flaw that may eventually lead to our breakup, I see Bush's spastic disconnected flouting of international law and U.N. regulation as schizophrenic. How can we expect the Europeans to go along with us when we've pulled out of treaties, ignored international councils, and then demanded they participate?

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I see my boyfriend's wavering as selfish and not well thought-out -- how will a dishonorable discharge affect his career? What will they do to him before they let him go? Didn't he think that a war might start when he signed up two years ago? I know I asked him not to go, but do I have a right to do that? And does his compliance with a so wishfully expressed desire mean that he really likes me or that he has no character?

The stress of the situation wears on us both. We've given up three weekends of the past six to this war/military thing. If he goes there may be months of Sundays without him and no guarantee of his return. Would I commit to not dating anyone else if he goes? Probably, but what if he never comes back -- or, worse, comes back changed somehow and is no longer the person I know. As I mentioned, we fought this morning over something stupid. I cried, but not so much because of the fight. I cried because I am afraid of war. I am afraid of what's been happening in the Middle East roughly since the beginning of civilization. I am afraid of militant Islam and militant peace marchers and the U.S. military. I am afraid that I may lose a boyfriend I really like -- not to another woman but to another country, a cause other than that of happy relationship. And I am even afraid of losing him to my own country, which I love and respect over any other. I am afraid of my personal inconvenience and suffering -- and appalled at my own selfishness.

-- Name withheld

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I don't want to die for my job

I work two blocks from the White House. When I started my job about 18 months ago, I was astonished that I could take my graduate degree in creative writing and actually make a living with it. My parents, my friends from out of town, they're all impressed that I'm working at one of those historic buildings downtown.

Now I go to sleep every night wondering if I'll make it through the next day. We joke about it sometimes at work -- about how we're all screwed if someone sets off a dirty bomb near the White House, or sprays an aerosol bottle of chemical death. The security guard laughs and says I should wear my I.D. around the building so they can identify my body. Funny, but also not funny at all.

And all I can think about is how much I don't want to die for my job. I barely slept when they upped the terror level to orange, and I am firmly convinced this war will bring Israel-style bombings to the United States, and to my city. During the sniper attacks we would joke that we're safer in the city than the suburbs because the sniper could never find a place to park. Now I don't feel like any place is safe.

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Yet I know how irrational the 24/7 media hype is. I can recognize its harmful nature while also recognizing the impulse to check the New York Times and Salon every few minutes throughout the day for possible breaking news.

I'm determined to survive. I go to work every day and come home every night, thankful that I made it through another day. When the war starts, I'm not sure I can stay in D.C. and keep any kind of sanity.

-- Eve

I'm glad I have the duct tape

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I was lazily waking up one morning a few weeks ago when my girlfriend came back into the bedroom and informed me that the nation's terror-alert status had just been raised to red and that we were all supposed to go out and get three days of supplies, duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal off a room. I felt as if I'd been slammed back to the morning of 9/11. I was supposed to leave that September morning for a theater job in Philly, but my friend called me just before 9 a.m. and said, "Turn on your TV." I lived on 43rd Street and 10th Avenue, in Hell's Kitchen. My reaction to that day was numbness. I couldn't feel anything. Almost couldn't cry at what was happening, literally, down the street.

That same numb sensation crept over me as my girlfriend and I decided that we should get to the grocery store and get the aforementioned supplies. It was a rainy day in Los Angeles, and we expected a throng at Ralph's. But everyone seemed remarkably and scarily unaware. No one else was buying 2-1/2 gallon jugs of water, or beef jerky or SlimFast bars. We just thought maybe we were ahead of the curve and had saved ourselves from having to deal with the rush.

That immediate threat has yet to be realized. But my feelings about Saddam Hussein are thoroughly mixed. Yes, he hasn't done anything specific in the last 12 years, that the public is aware of, that would warrant going back in and finishing the job of a decade past. However, it also seems fairly obvious that were any given al-Qaida cell to come knocking on his palace door looking for milk and cookies, he wouldn't turn them away, even if he did ask them to use the back door.

The problem isn't Saddam. It is the radical fundamentalists that have twisted a holy text into a manifesto for jihad. Yes, I'm aware that the Koran isn't all smiles and prayers, but neither is the King James. Someone has to supply these people with the means to carry out their terror. Saddam may not be the triggerman, but he may very well be one of the guys driving the getaway car.

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The thing is that we the public cannot, and most probably should not, know everything the government knows. We may not agree with Bush's motivations and certainly not with his methods (I sure as hell didn't vote for him), but we must trust that he has more information than we do. This war on terrorism is nothing like WWII, where the enemy was clearly visible and there was no mistaking his ultimate goal. These people place no value on their own lives and will go to any lengths to see America crumble. Yeah, we probably should have shoved Israel to the negotiating table in the '80s when we were supporting them militarily. But we didn't. That course of action has led to a generation of young extremists who will clearly do anything to strike back at us.

Saddam is a bad man. Terrorists are real and don't like us at all. No one would disagree with those points. Maybe there is another option for dealing with Saddam. Maybe the terrorists will realize that America isn't all bad, even if we do carry the biggest stick on the playground and are a bit reckless with it sometimes. I don't see the terrorists coming over for milk and cookies anytime soon. I do trust our leadership to do what's right for the country, and hopefully the world. But I'm still scared, and I'm glad we got the last roll of duct tape.

-- Aaron Ramey

My husband was a surgeon in Da Nang and Jordan

From 1962 to 1972 I was an Army (Medical Corps) wife during that outspoken decade about the Vietnam War and civil rights issues. I was wearing two hats: one as part of a military family with a husband who served as a surgeon in Da Nang and Jordan. I had more mutual support and friendship among Army families stationed in Hawaii and Germany than before or since in civilian life. We experienced and resented the irrational aspects of many protesters who considered all those in the military mere killers with no conscience, worthy of hatred and scorn.

My other hat was that of a well-educated woman hoping for peace. I sewed peace patches on the jackets my children wore to an Army-sponsored school. And in Hawaii I helped organize the first Operation Headstart in connection with a church where many members had gone all the way to Selma to march.

Now as retired schoolteacher of social justice and world religions, with a graduate degree in theology and nine wonderful grandchildren, I have a sense of déjà vu, but with a sharper edge to the images. Now I do not see the impending war as an understandable intent to defend a country overseas from an unwanted takeover but an unnecessarily harsh initiative that seems part of a larger, stranger, seemingly more insidious strategy more dangerous and far-reaching than the Vietnam situation. This time around I am affected by greater sadness, shame and disappointment in our country's "trajectory" -- not only because of potential death and damage tolls or our needlessly alienating ourselves from many good countries, but because in comparison to the turmoil of a generation ago and despite many demonstrations recently, this time I feel less hopeful about our having a government that hopes to improve the quality of American life or cares a whit about the views of many well-informed and decent citizens.

-- Janette M. Cranshaw

I'm searching for a way to gain a little power

I'm a 22-year-old grad student in English at Miami University of Ohio. Starting around age 17, I went through a major transition from being extremely conservative (having been raised in a white upper-middle-class suburb) to becoming extremely liberal (having gone to a large public university and having met people outside my demographic). Through the transition, and through my entire life for that matter, I have been extremely conscious of what Barbara Prentice pointed out: Many Americans, especially young Americans, are sheltered, pampered and, as she put it, "comfortable."

This awareness doesn't prevent me from experiencing emotions and having opinions about what this country does to the rest of the world. This awareness extends to suspicion of how the privileged people running the government and the media are running it in such a way as to stay privileged. Did the alert level really need to be raised to orange, or are they manipulating us? Should I believe that Iraqis want the U.S. to save them from their evil dictator? Whose interests would it be in for me to believe either of those things?

Of course war veterans deserve our respect; my grandfather was one of the first Americans into two concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and I understand that I could not possibly understand what that was like for him. Having my own perceptions of and reactions to this war is not an insult to him -- he always worried that people weren't taking politics seriously enough.

I'm having a hard time figuring out where all the other Americans stand on this war, because every poll reports something different. I worry about how the war will affect my own family and friends, as well as people I don't know. I'm frightened, appalled, and aware of my own powerlessness. But I'm also searching for a way to gain a little power -- if not with regard to the impending war, then with regard to the greenhouse effect, the currently laughable fuel-efficiency standards, sweatshop labor, or any of the other terrifying problems facing the human race.

So instead of scoffing at attempts at reflection, perhaps we can acknowledge that we're privileged Americans and move on to asking what we can do with this privilege to improve the world. And reading what others have to say about it doesn't seem to me like a bad start.

-- Meg Triplett


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