People I know or meet who understand that I have been to Iraq almost never ask me about the war. A river of understanding divides us, but I keep trying to throw pebbles of knowledge to the other side. I believe that they think there are demons hidden in the water, and their questions might rouse them. I have tried to bridge this river with a novel, and 85,000 words have carried me half way across. I hope to have the bridge finished by next year.
In the meantime, I thought about writing an essay on how I feel about the war. Words, sentences and paragraphs came to me in solitary moments. I finally decided to write some of them down, but I didn't like what I read. I always seemed to be taking a fire hose to a candle. Or the negative demons would rise from the water. But I didn't want to go that way. I knew that the essay had to be positive. Nobody wants to hear the complaints, real or imagined, of a fifty three year old man.
From the moment that I left Iraq on February 28, 2004 and unloaded my weapons at the Kuwaiti border, I have struggled to communicate what I learned there and how the experience of being there has changed my life. For this reason I have hesitated to speak my mind, but I made a promise when I was in Iraq, and I want to come forward now and speak what I believe.
I believe in the Iraqi people. I did not believe in them when I arrived in Iraq but I believed in them when I left. I had few occasions to meet the sullen and suspicious Sunnis of Ramadi. I spent most of my time among the majority Shia in towns like Hilla, Diwaniyah, Najaf, Karbala and Kut. The more that I came into contact with these people the more I was impressed with their industriousness, piety, courtesy, and sense of family. The most enduring memory for me is not of an Iraqi with his fist held high in anger, but of an Iraqi family, the mother in full length abaya carrying a baby and the father, walking ahead in a white dishdasha, and holding a small child.
I cannot forget the Iraqi woman who came forward, despite great personal danger, to lead the women’s rights center that we created in Karbala. I shared with her a picture of my family that I carried in my helmet. She gave me a postal card of Karbala to give to my daughter. I think of this woman often, and I do not even know her name. When I think of the sacrifices that I made, and the sacrifices that my family made, I believe that they were made for this woman.
I believe in the Iraqi people. I believe in the message of the Iraqi woman that I saw in the streets of Hillah. She looked at me, an American soldier wearing a helmet and body armor, and carrying a loaded weapon, and wasn’t afraid. If she had been, she would not have lifted her baby’s arm to wave at me.
Many times when I was in Iraq I was thanked, often by grown men in tears, for helping to remove the terror and the horror that had beset these men’s lives for over thirty years. And I promised them, each one, that this time we would see the job through, that after awakening them from their nightmare we would lead them to the democracy that they deserve. When I made that promise, I believed what I said. And I continue to believe it today.