Thursday, December 23, 2004

Merry Christmas

I've been dealing with the usual stress of the holidays, worrying about how my poorly insulated pipes will fare during another cold spell and complaining about having to shuttle back and forth between parents, in-laws, grandparents, divorced parents and their families, etc. I didn't think I was acting like a spoiled child until I read about these families of soldiers killed in Iraq, spending their first of many Christmases without their loved ones:

Marianna Winchester, whose 25-year-old son died in September, eight days into his second tour of duty in Iraq, hung his Christmas stocking from the mantel, just below his baby pictures, just above the poster of him as an offensive lineman at the United States Naval Academy. Sitting on the couch, surrounded by ceramic snowmen that her son made as a child, she repeated what she said when a friend telephoned and asked how she was.

"Fine until you called," Mrs. Winchester said.

Jeanin Urbina, 17, the sister of a 29-year-old National Guardsman who was killed outside Baghdad on Nov. 29, described what this first Christmas without her brother was like. "Really there are a million different ways to say it: Christmas will never be the same," she said. "We don't really want to talk. We just want to start healing."

This saddens and sickens me. How many more people will have to die in a senseless war? A CNN military analyst said that things may be far different in Iraq a year from now, that things are likely to improve. And that may be. Perhaps 50 years from now we will realize that for all the criticism hurled at him, George W. Bush did the right thing. Yet I can't escape the conclusion that none of this had to happen. We owe it to the brave men and women who are willing to make the sacrifices the majority of us are not that those sacrifices will not be in vain. Time will tell if we have fulfilled that obligation.

Merry Christmas.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps because I have made these sacrifices (or, at least, risked the "ultimate sacrifice," which is an annoying euphemism for DEATH), I don't seem to share the same sense of loss that you do. And, yes, I have had to say goodbye to friends and colleagues lost in Desert Shield/Storm, Somalia and, now, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

We all signed up as volunteers. Everyone who raises his or her hands at the MEPPS depot before departing for boot camp or OCS knows the endgame might be a violent death far away from home.

But you must understand that this is a professional military, infused throughout with a warrior culture, and while each death is lamentable, an untimely mortality isn't touched in the barracks with the same sort of pathos you bathe it in.

I realize, verily, that parents and wives and sons and daughters and everyone else grieves over the fallen. Well, that's their lot in life, isn't it? From the warrior's perspective, however, it seems silly to differentiate Iraq's body count from the dead in Afghanistan or during any given year of military training (which also is quite dangerous).

Yes, this war was a choice, just as Afghanistan or Desert Storm or Somalia were foreign policy choices. But it also was a choice for these men to join up, and crocodile tears from those who didn't enlist seems odd to me, and strangely divorced from the reality of life in the military.

5:13 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Yeah, I get that it's their choice, smart guy. And you are right, I had no desire to join the military--never had, never will. But I'm sorry, I don't think that means I don't get to empathize with those who did, nor do I think that the fact that they enlisted justifies sending them to their deaths for no good reason.

"Crocodile tears"? I can't see into your heart, don't pretend you can see into mine. It's a bit hard to take from someone too gutless to sign their name to their opinion.

8:15 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Crocodile tears" is an apt metaphor. How do you empathize with the grief of these people? Your first recourse is to say that it's a "senseless war." The first name you mention in the invocation of the senselessness of the war is a political figure, George W. Bush. Then you add on the gratuitous, and cliched, sentiment that the collective "we" somehow "owe it" to the dead that we remember their "sacrifices were not in vain." And then, to trumpet the very vanity of their sacrifices, you say only "time will tell" whether their deaths were worth it.

Where is the true grief in this? They are crocodile tears because they're easily shed, then easily stacked behind the more pressing emotional cargo in the warehouse of your life -- the "poorly insulated pipes," the friction between "parents, in-laws" blah, blah, blah.

This is a written exercise for you, not a genuine moment of reflection. St. John would have suggested that you put some meaning to your words on this Christmas eve. How about visiting the wounded at VA hospitals nationwide? In Pittsburgh, there's a ward that features the psychologically shattered from all of our wars. They want visitors.

Although this is a war notable for the very small numbers of combat dead (relative to other conflicts), you can find dozens of family members in and around Pittsburgh who are mourning their losses. I talk to two of these families regularly. Not because I'm some sanctified better-than-you sort, but because they are decent people, and the holidays are hard for them and because they know I understand why their men died.

I'm not sure you do. The warrior culture is something very alien to what is portrayed in your acerbic "Merry Christmas" aside. They don't see the world the way you do, and they quite well appreciate the sacrifices fellow warriors make.

As for me being "gutless" because I don't sign a name on a blog, I would, perhaps, suggest that the ribbons and medals attached to my nameless name, not to mention the long white scars from wars past, are tribute enough to courage, and I don't need to brag about it with a signature attached to make it so.

10:39 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Frankly, our dialogues have grown tiresome, not because you argue with me, which is welcome, but because you insist on questioning my character. I'd respect your beliefs more if I felt you respected mine.

11:34 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't question your character. You're a decent, honorable man. I only question the way you choose to honor the dead with a "Merry Christmas" posting that seems intended more to flatter some notion of bloggish irony than to truly pay homage to the sacrifices of the dead in Iraq.

The article you spatchcocked came from the N.Y. Times. I would humbly submit that the words of NYT's Dexter Filkins, filed from Fallujah, were a more fitting tribute to the dead than this easy to write, but ultimately superficial, view of the homefront from James Barron.

I predict in the coming days the usual tripe about wistful doughboys wishing they were home for Christmas, somebody carving a turkey on the ramparts of Mosul and the irony of the day in honor of the Prince of Peace punctuated with gunfire echoing through Baghdad.

The Hallmark Card Barron submits in place of truly important journalism nevertheless claims its victims, I suppose, and I have no doubt that your feelings of regret for the dead and wounded are valid.

I would simply submit that for the professional, volunteer warriors in Iraq (and they truly see themselves as such) have no stomach for such sentimentalities, less so when you seek to debunk their very mission by calling it into question and pointing, easily, at the political head of the president.

It's easy to write J'accuse, W., just as easy, I suppose, to accuse someone of being "gutless."

But what are you trying to convey? What are you really saying? Merry Christmas, dead men, your sacrifice probably wasn't worth, and we should blame George W. Bush, and I want you to know that I feel bad about this "senseless" war, and I was against it, and maybe, someday, historians will validate your toil by saying, in the end, it was all worth it.

Yeah. Merry Christmas guys.

Why not this: Gentlemen, whatever our views of politics, or the worthwhile venture of this war, I honor the noble sacrifices you made to your country and your fellow men. You died, and instead of delving into W's complicity in your death, for one day this year I will simply remember you, with tears, for the loss of you. While I might not understand why soldiers do what they do, I, too, understand loss, and I will grieve alongside your families because, as an American and a Christian, that is what we do in this country.

God bless your souls. God bless your families. And God bless America. May Christ give us peace.

12:27 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I'm glad that we can get a little feisty and still remain, well, whatever we are.

Let me say a few things. I may have an outsized ego, but it is not that outsized. I don't think for a moment that my blog accomplishes anything. It is a "written exercise." I like to write and this is a forum for me to do it. Your direction to put action behind my words is more than fair. (On a range of issues, not just this one.)

I understand that professional soldiers view their role much more differently than I do, and they live in a culture that calls on them to make a range of sacrifices that are beyond the character of many people. I don't think for a moment that a decision made in Washington can diminish their valor or individual and collective acts of bravery and honor.

But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be concerned about their fate, even if we don't know them, or know their families. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't be outraged--even if that outrage only finds expression in our living rooms, or on letters-to-the-editors pages, or on blogs--when our military is used recklessly.

As you note, our soldiers accept their fates because they have to. But we don't. Yes, many of our modern wars are wars of choice and still necessary, and reasonable people can disagree over which ones are prudently fought and which aren't. I don't think this one is. A president may come along some day--perhaps he already has--who you think has betrayed the trust of the men and women who serve. Your past service may leave you better equipped to put those feelings to use, but I don't think it gives you any more right to those feelings than I do.

9:55 AM


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