I’ve been on the radio a lot lately publicizing ITRZ. Many of the interviews exhibit a similar echt-American format: rock music leading out of a station break, a keyed-up (usually male) announcer introducing the book and its author—then usually ten to thirty minutes of quick questions and short, hopefully pithy answers. The interaction between host and guest is theatrical, stagy, less a conversation than a performance intended to hold the attention of listeners in their kitchens, offices, cars.
One interview, however, was different. After rapid-fire questions in a rich baritone, the host of a Midwestern radio station ended the segment in a minor key. “Steven, I want to ask you something personal,” he said in a subdued tone. “My son is serving in Iraq and he’s stationed in Mosul. Can you tell me anything about that place?”
Suddenly the dynamic of our conversation changed. The host was no longer a morning drive-time personality easing his audience through the daily commute, but a concerned father worried about his son in a combat zone. In that moment, we seemed to cease being on the radio, but rather holding a private discussion. Equally subdued, I had to tell him that, unfortunately, I never made it to Mosul during my travels through Iraq and thus couldn’t provide him with any information. He thanked me, the technician podded up the rock and roll, the station break came and I was off the air.
I thought of that interview yesterday as news of U.S. personnel killed in a mess hall in Mosul came over the wires. I hope for the host’s sake that his son did not number among the casualties. But there are 22 families today who did not have such luck, and hundreds of additional ripples of tragedy are unsettling the surface of wartime America.
Two days after my discussion with the radio host, I found myself interviewing a lawyer for a magazine story about a topic unrelated to Iraq. As we wrapped up our phone conversation, he mentioned that his son had volunteered for the conflict and was about to ship out. Soon after that, I began receiving e-mails from people responding to ITRZ or this blog, telling me about their children or spouses who are in Iraq. Like the radio host and the lawyer, the attitude of these correspondents was identical: a mixture of patriotic pride, familial concern and unspoken prayer.
For me, the moment of recognition came a few days ago when I received an e-mail from a woman that included a photograph of her son stationed in Iraq. To my wife I said, “You know, it’s finally occurred to me: this is the real deal. This is war.” By that I meant, Iraq is not the relatively quick campaign in Afghanistan, the painless (for us) assault on Serbia, the casualty-light liberation of Kuwait. I would say this is more like Vietnam, but as I remember that conflict, those who were not soldiers either protested U.S. involvement or tried to forget the war even existed.
No, rather I think of World War II. Of course, the country mobilized far more citizens then, at a greater cost in blood and treasure. Today, however, we see thousands of National Guardsmen whom the conflict has plucked from daily life and hurled into a combat zone, leaving behind holes in the social and emotional fabric of American communities. If only for this reason we cannot, like Vietnam, ignore or forget our soldiers; their safety worries us each time we turn on the news. And the large number of families affected by the conflict reminds us that GIs are not anonymous figures on TV screens or abstract numbers on a casualty list, but sons and daughters and spouses taken from the heart of our nation to obscure and dangerous battlefields.
I wonder if a Northerner during the Civil War might not also have recognized this moment. Then, too, sons and fathers went to war in far-off places (most had never left their farms) to fight for a cause that was at once inspiring, ill understood, controversial and, at times, seemingly not worth the cost. Then, too, strange names like Gettysburg, Antietam and Chickamauga became as familiar as Baghdad, Falluja, Mosul are today. Then, too, in thousands of homes, people found their prayers had been answered with relief and joy, or sorrow and loss.
This Christmas season, as holiday lights blaze from the eaves and doorways of American houses, they are joined by smaller, more somber lights in darkened windows, burning for men and women who will not return from Iraq. Relative to other wars, there are not many of these memorials, and God willing, may it remain so. But this should not diminish the enormity of events. America is engaged in a struggle whose goals are uncertain, even as its demands increase upon communities large and small. For each family from whose windows the candles shine, payment has been high. Whether we agree with this conflict or not, let us remember, and thank these people, for their sacrifice. For them–for us–this is war. This is the real deal.
Posted by Steven Vincent