I have been on the road, following the "Romney for America" bus-capade in Pennsylvania. Thus as a change of pace, and on the occasion of impending Father's Day, herewith a guest post by Eric McMillan. He is a friend and one-time student in a writing course I taught, at the University of Chicago, who asks to be identified this way:
"Eric McMillan served ten years as an Army officer and commanded a Stryker infantry company in Iraq in 2007. He lives in Seattle and is at work on a novel."
By Eric McMillan
During my last tour in Iraq, I made it a habit to inquire after people's children. I found that by doing so I got through defenses, that people opened up, and even grew receptive to what I had to say. It was a splendid tactic that I used with sheiks and patriarchs and police chiefs. I used it with merchants, imams, mayors, and, sometimes, even insurgents in disguise. It's a trick that works especially well with soldiers, my own as well as Iraqi. In ten years in the Army, I discovered one thing I found consistently surprising: I never met a professional soldier who wanted his children to someday follow in his path.
As a boy, I idolized my father's service. He was a Navy man. Every year at Halloween, I pirated pieces of the uniform he'd hung in the spare closet. My childhood notebooks were full of doodles of tanks and helicopters. I turned every plaything I could get my hands on into a weapon. My father practically dragged me home by the ear one night after discovering me hacking away at the neighbor's prized azalea bushes with a plastic sword. Before honor or duty or country, there was the childhood code of the warrior, the boy's delight in destruction. I was never coerced or encouraged; I never needed to be. Soldiering was native to me.
If my father had reservations, he kept them to himself. He urged me instead to go into intelligence work. He steered me away from enlistment. "Be an officer," he admonished. There was more pay in it, more respect, and more social mobility. "Besides," he liked to remind me, "if you're an officer, you call the shots."
Maybe we were both naïve.
Despite his fears, he was proud of my choice to join the Army. The day he pinned the gold bars of a Second Lieutenant on my shoulders, he beamed. From the time I went to Jump School to the time I shipped off with my first platoon to a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, he encouraged me to think of the Army as not only a profession, as respectable as law or medicine, but as a calling. It was the war in Iraq that changed my father.
Not long ago, I was at a friend's wedding. During the reception I slipped outside as the partygoers danced and laughed and cavorted to loosen my tie and share a beer with an old Marine vet. He talked about Tet and the Battle for Hue, and I told him about Baghdad during the Surge. Then he confessed that he'd fought in a "misguided war." After it, he'd returned to Texas and made a killing in oil. I laughed at that. He didn't.
He turned angry, I thought with my presumptiveness.
"Goddamnit!" he said. "Do we ever learn?"
No, we don't. War is a drama of fathers and sons.
Late one evening in August 2007, a farmer and his wife brought a five-year old boy to the front gate of my combat outpost on the outskirts of Baghdad. The man laid his child at our feet and begged us to fix his son. The boy's lower back was peppered with shrapnel.
A group of us hovered over the wounded child, squinting and sweating, stripped down to our t-shirts. I tried to assemble a convoy to evacuate him while medics poured water over his back to wash away the blood and dust. While everyone was working hard to save the boy's life, I wondered why the parents had brought their son to us. For all they knew, we had done this to him.
We hadn't. An hour before, Sunni insurgents had lobbed a few rounds at an outpost five clicks to the south. There was no reason to think that there would be a five-year old boy playing near a "point of origin," so that unit launched an immediate counterbattery of artillery.
I didn't know that at the time. Even if I had, would it have mattered to the boy's parents? To them, one "Amriki" was as good or bad as another.
The boy stopped breathing. One of my medics cupped an emergency resuscitator around his nose and mouth, pressing it hard to keep a seal over his small face. My chief medic, Sergeant Skeen, began counting and alternating breaths and chest compressions. After a few minutes, Skeen looked at me and shook his head.
"He's done," he said.
What I remember most keenly about that moment was that I felt that I should have felt more than what I did. I didn't feel sorrow or even pity; I felt uncomfortable. It was as though I were watching a stranger taking a nap. I remember turning to face the other soldiers. Someone asked the obvious question: "What do we do now?"
The parents continued to watch their son silently, their garments covered in blood and flecks of gore, as though waiting for him to breathe again. They were so profoundly shocked that their faces didn't register any emotion. In a smug, crass corner of my mind, I remember thinking in an offhand way of what the Army taught us in "cultural sensitivity" training: Arabs believe in the mantra God willed it. And these people accepted their son's death. We loaded the boy's corpse into the back of our ambulance. The father came up to me without a word, and I told him, through an interpreter, to get in back with the body.
"I suppose it's the only decent thing to do," I remember saying to my soldiers.
I was trying to be what I thought a commander ought to be, stoic. It's hard to strike the right balance as a leader, to be authoritative yet compassionate. I will probably wonder for the rest of my life if I ever did that very well.
The last thing I remember about that day was the look on Johnny Res's face. He was one of my platoon sergeants, one of the best I ever saw. Johnny Res spent most of his life in the Ranger Regiment and did not shy away from putting his soldiers through "the suck" because he had little tolerance for weakness. Yet when I caught him looking at this boy, I knew he was thinking of his own sons: one just old enough to enlist, the other not much older than the kid on the stretcher. Res cried, just small tears. I wish to God I could have been more like him.
A week later, one of my patrols brought back a photograph from a village three clicks north of us. The insurgents, angered that the men in the village were cooperating with my company, caught them coming home from Friday evening's prayers. The gunmen wore ski masks; they fired blindly with their Kalashnikovs down a dirt street and then ran away. Their bullets ricocheted and one smacked right into the throat of an eight-year old boy.