Thought experiment. Someone you know, and who knows you, but not very well, says in public that you have no integrity. Like this: “You have no integrity. Zero. None. That’s what I think. This is my serious face.” How would you respond? Take a second with that thought.
According to a piece in Guernica, during a talk between Hassan Blasim, author of The Corpse Exhibition (an exceptional piece of writing, according to many whose opinions I trust) and a veteran moderator, one such moment occurred recently. Blasim asked the veteran: “All the time, I hear American soldiers say they are proud. But how can you carry a weapon and invade another country and call yourself proud?”
Helen Benedict, the piece’s author, and the one who relays that quote, is an author herself, and a professor of writing at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She makes many statements in her essay, titled The Moral Confusion of Post-War America that develop from Blasim’s question. She seems to feel that the choice to serve in war is an inherently bad one, and doesn’t understand how one could see or do or choose to see and do those things and still feel good about the experience, to honestly claim that one is proud. Of country, of self.
Helen is a friend. I don’t know Blasim, or his work, but I’ve read enough about it to have a healthy respect for his imagination and his talent. I’m going to attempt to answer the question, now, of why I believe what I did was – not just necessary, but good – despite the horrors – perhaps because of them. I should preface it by saying I have the utmost respect for Helen and her point of view, which is a view shared by my father and most of his friends, so far as I can tell – this is not surprising, given that they grew up during the Vietnam era, when the moral choices available to citizens and draftees were very different from the choices available to us today.
Assuming that Blasim really wanted an answer to his question, and wasn’t merely trolling the vet with a paradox designed to introduce intellectual discomfort, which is also fine. Blasim’s native Iraq (he lives in Finland) was invaded and plundered and destroyed by war. He’s entitled to his ideas about things – I’m not challenging his logic, or his position. He is correct.
I am an American soldier, and I carried and shot a rifle, and fired artillery and dropped bombs, and ordered people forward again and again, mostly to attack, and people died by my hand and by the hands of others who obeyed my orders. And I am proud of my service.
I didn’t get to go to Iraq. The first time, my unit was supposed to go and then, a month before the departure date the surge pushed us off the chart to Iraq and we were rerouted to Afghanistan. Everyone had been learning Arabic. The second time, my unit was supposed to go and then, three months before the departure date, the surge pulled us onto the chart to Afghanistan, so I didn’t see Iraq. But I joined to lead soldiers in Iraq, so that should count for something.
I also protested Iraq. I was on 1st Avenue with Aidan McGlaze, blocks from the UN, near 50th street. We watched Desmund Tutu. There were over 100,000 of us. I vocally and actively participated in this demonstration, and other smaller events, and felt fully committed to the notion that we should not invade. When we did, anyway, it was a bitter blow, and disillusioning in the way one probably imagines such things are for young men.
Blasim might ask why I didn’t do more, or less, and the answer is that it wouldn’t have mattered. America invaded Iraq despite my wishes, against my better judgement. This is the point at which he and I, and Helen and I part paths. Because once it became clear that the war was not going anywhere, that it was happening, an indisputable fact of our lives – that it would not end any time soon – I went to the Army recruiting station. Late November of 2004. Bush had four more years. Abu Ghraib was blowing up (though the original incident had occurred in May). We were still in Afghanistan.
In a country with a professional Army, the choice is not whether or not to avoid service. Everyone avoids service, by not being presented with a choice to avoid it or not. You get to not serve unless you really want to or need to. That’s fine, and acceptable, and in many ways all to the good. Save that in a country of rampant economic inequality, many more people need to than want to, and, ultimately, service becomes an economic obligation for some, while others can do as they like.
I felt that under such circumstances, I needed to serve, and this idea caught ahold of me like a conviction. I knew that war was wrong. I knew that killing and carrying a rifle would produce moral injury. I also understood that the people in my society, like me save for a trick of biographical history, who’d been compelled to serve for a variety of reasons, would return with moral injury, and I’d never be compelled to endure any privation.
My friends will tell you that I talk a lot about loving America, mostly in ironic terms. In truth, I feel a great affection to the country that my ancestors helped found, for which generations of ancestors have fought and toiled and bled, the country that allowed me to have a peaceful, moral upbringing, and the best education in the world, at a fantastic prep school (Hopkins) and a fantastic college (Yale). I feel, strongly, that the red, white and blue – the best of it – flows in my veins. I don’t begrudge that feeling to anyone – it’s an inclusive feeling. The best part about America, my favorite part, is that the promise is that anyone can share in that dream. My ancestors were peasants and nobility and drifters and criminals and schemers and farmers and lawyers. Like everyone. Come to America, take part in the dream, you’re welcome to be my brother and my sister.
I like that idea, although I know that in practice it rarely works out that way, and less and less as time goes on. So – why am I proud of my service? Because in every era, there is a war. Each generation faces its struggle – to participate or not. I chose to participate in the proper way this generation, which is correct for this generation in a way that it wasn’t for the Vietnam era, or for WWII, or for the Civil War.
I sympathize with Blasim, whose country has been ravaged by war and dictatorship and injustice, systematically – whose native country has been exploited by successive empires for centuries – whose birthplace, Iraq, was doomed by the British and French decades before he or I first drew breath. He talks about war, I’m told, as a series of ghosts that haunt the living, and each other. Well – I don’t feel particularly haunted by my ghosts – they are my guardians, the certainty that I will attempt to act a little bit better than they did, that I will avoid making the same mistakes they did.
And in Afghanistan, we did avoid those mistakes. We did make progress. We did good. I did that, carrying a rifle, because I represented the strong, and I was willing to stand up to the bullies in the areas where bullies called themselves Taliban, and they were defeated. They would not have been defeated without weapons. I suppose someone could talk about how the Taliban was given weapons by the CIA in the 80s, or through funding to Pakistan’s government, but that’s a ghost speaking. In the 1980s I was watching schools of minnows in a tidepool, or reading, or riding my bicycle. I don’t know what the 1980s are.
I’m sorry things have worked out the way they did in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and many places in the world. I understand now that the role of the writer is to help present people with truth, and I think Blasim has probably done that. Helen certainly has. In my opinion, the world is complicated, and one must sometimes hold opposing ideas in one’s head simultaneously. Like carrying a gun, and murder, and pride, and kindness. That’s not jingoism – that’s life, and participating in life.
Helen is correct in her view that war is awful, and should be avoided at all costs. I believe that and agree with her. I can’t disagree with any of her points, and I will stand side-by-side with her shouting against war until the day it breaks out. Once it has broken out – once Wotan’s spear has been shattered, and all the old alliances and civil obligations we owe each other as humans are gone, and the great calamity has returned for any reason, I believe that one must choose to participate if one can – if one is physically or emotionally able, if one is free from familial responsibilities (as I was) – to help bear some of that moral injury, to bring it home, and to digest it and move on with one’s life.
Blasim and Helen disagree with me on this point. I hope that Blasim wouldn’t hold it against me, and that Helen doesn’t, because I have great respect for them both as thinkers and writers – Helen through experience and Blasim by reputation. I’ve made choices in life, and am proud of them.