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.
The photograph of that dead boy is locked forever in my mind. I can call it up at will. Months later, during one firefight, I was maneuvering through narrow streets when some militia men set a stretcher down beside me. They were trying to evacuate one of their wounded fighters, a teenager. He'd taken a hit from a grenade, and his kneecaps were missing, his legs all busted up, bone shards visible through the rips in his trousers. He shook with agony. Our eyes met. To this day I can't remember what he looked like. But the boy in the photograph is clear in my mind. His eyes are wide open, as is his mouth. There is a shocking amount of bright red blood pooled underneath his neck. The struggle is still in his face.
The photo caused quite a stir at headquarters. There was a tremendous backlash when my superiors included it in a briefing to the Colonel, "the old man." Most of my superiors were fathers too, and they were angered by what they saw. They were angry with me for letting this happen on my turf, and they were angry with the enemy, and they were angry with themselves. They saw more than just a dead boy in that picture; they saw that we were fighting a war where this kind of thing would happen no matter how hard we tried to prevent it or how noble our intentions were. They saw failure.
When I went back to the village to speak with the imam and the boy's father a few days later, they invited me to sit in the imam's parlor, on a mat on the floor. They served me chai and were demure and respectful. It was like nothing had happened. I asked them not to let the boy's death go in vain and to help me bring the murderers to justice. They were tight-lipped. Then I asked them if they would accept blood money. No, they said. It became clear: they didn't want our help anymore.
During my time as a company commander, we suffered seven KIAs, four of them fathers. All four men left behind infants. Luigi Marciante was one of those casualties.
I remember Marciante because he drove a Stryker in my company headquarters and, in particular, I remember him because he never kept a package to himself. Downrange, when you get a package from home, it doesn't matter how many boxes of baby wipes and candy bars you already have stockpiled under your bunk. Soldiers horde everything that comes from home simply because it comes from home. Not Marciante. He once gave me an entire log of Copenhagen because he thought I could use it more than him. Especially shrewd soldiers see such gestures as the equivalent of prison trade, a way of acquiring rare commodities or ingratiating oneself. Marciante gave away the things he prized because he wanted to make other people happy.
The day he got back from R&R, he found me and showed me a picture of his newborn son. He'd made it home just in time for the birth and spent a week with his family. Then he had to say goodbye, get on a plane, and return to Iraq. Marciante was so incapable of containing his pride and excitement that he invited me to Jersey for the kid's confirmation.
"That's great, bud," I told him. I was working out the details of a mission, so I tried to rush him out of my planning bay. His joy was infectious though, and I cracked a smile after he left the room.
A month later, we pulled his body from a Stryker after it hit an IED. When I got to the scene, my Sergeant Major tried, unsuccessfully, to keep me from seeing him get hauled out of the wreckage. I shared that moment with him too.
Marciante's widow visited us a year later, after we redeployed, as part of the "Gold Star Family" program. She'd come to grasp what remained of her dead husband's life, his living memories. She wanted to talk with Luigi's friends, see the barracks where he'd lived, and show his son the framed picture of him on the battalion's memorial wall. The boy wobbled on his feet as he tried to keep his balance, his fist clutched around his mother's fingers.
She didn't say a word to me. I don't blame her; no apology I could offer suffices. The Army teaches us that a commander is responsible for everything that happens on his watch. Luigi Marciante didn't die just because I gave an order. There's far more to it than that, but I'll never be entirely convinced that I can wash my hands of it.
Maybe one day I'll be able to tell these stories to my son. Maybe that's why I write, to learn how to say what must be said. It's because of men like Marciante that I want to be a father. And if I've learned anything of compassion, than I hope that being a father does something right by those Iraqis who have lost sons.
I am blessed. I have a beautiful baby boy, who at present is struggling to learn how to use momentum in rolling over, how to use his arms when he crawls, how to use his tongue when eating solids. In our short time together, he has taught me more about love than I ever learned about hate in a decade of wartime.
One day, he'll start asking questions. He will want to know about the dusty company guidon hung on the wall, with crossed rifles on a field of infantry blue. He'll ask me to explain the inscription on the plaque below. Later, he will associate his father with the younger, stronger man in those photographs, bearing the weight of so much body armor and responsibility in all that heat. He may grow curious, when I teach him, how I learned to tuck the corners of his sheets or navigate without a GPS. And although I am proud of my service and my brothers-in-arms who still face tough combat in some unforgiving corners of the world, I've packed away all my uniforms. I've hidden my ribbons, my fatigues and gear.
There will come a day when there is nothing I can say or do. When that time comes, if he wants to follow his father's footsteps, he'll do it.
What will I do?
Two years after I came home from Iraq and a year before my wife and I found out that we were expecting a child, I stood beside my father at his mother's funeral. He didn't cry. I didn't think that odd. I am, after all, my father's son. I've seen him cry only two times in my entire life: when he sent me off to war in Iraq, and when he watched me go back a second time.