Tag: #iraq

The Pity of War

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Old Beyond Their Years

I met Forrest and Lakin Huckabey at the recent Project Sanctuary Retreat where, again, I did K.P. duty.  And trust me, I’m not complaining.  Before the week was over, I got to know the couple well enough to ask if I could interview them for my blog.

When I called Forrest, all I got was a monotonous beep.  When I tried Lakin’s cell, she picked up.  “Yes,” she said in answer to my question about whether she remembered me, but, “Forrest is out picking mushrooms with the boys.  This spot in our home is about the only place around here we get cell reception.”  Before we’d hung up, we’d set a time to try again the following day.  I didn’t get through then either and even when we did finally connect a few days later, the reception was terrible until I called from our second floor bedroom.

Ranging in age from ten to one, the Huckabeys have five kids, all girls except four boys.  And you wonder why Lakin is studying to be a social worker?  Pregnant with their first child when she and Forrest were 16, they married when they graduated from high school.  Two of their children were born to his sisters who, according to Forrest, “are both junkies.”  The family lives lives 5 miles from Independence, Kansas, a slowly shrinking town of 10,000 tucked away in the far southeast corner of the state.  So, while you may not be exactly in the middle of nowhere from the Lakin’s front porch, you can see it from there.

A Soldier’s Story

Slight of build, Forrest signed a four year contract with the Army when he was 19.  Basic was at Ft. Benning, Georgia.  By age 20 he was at the front edge of a year long deployment to Afghanistan; click here to see Forrest as a young trooper.  While he was “down range,” another child was born.  Because of “shitty leadership,” he didn’t get a two week leave to be with Lakin when the baby was born.  Between deployments and training, he was rarely home with the family.

And then things really started going to hell in a hand basket.  While walking down a narrow alley in an Afghan village, “a grenade sailed over the mud wall next to me.  There was an open door nearby, but the platoon medic got to it before I could.  When I was 5 feet away, the grenade exploded.  My right side, including my elbow, was peppered with shrapnel.”

“Did you go to the hospital?”

“No.  I finished the patrol.  But I still have carpel tunnel.  And shrapnel kept working its way to the surface for weeks.  When it poked through my skin, I’d just pull it out.  And then,” Forrest continued, “there was the time a couple of weeks later when an RPG hit the other side of the rooftop parapet I was on.  I was out cold for a while,” he told me over the staticky connection.  “In total, I served two deployments.  During the second, I was a sniper.  But in the end, I had both PTSD and TBI.  I was finally given a medical discharge.”

A quality decision

What do you do with a story like this?  Told, at least as far as I could tell, without so much as a trace of self pity.  For my part, I changed the subject.

“How did your and Lakin’s marriage survive?”

“We saw what was going on all around us.  We saw all the marriages falling apart.  But we made a commitment to stick it out and not get a divorce.  We also found out about Operation Heal Our Patriots.  We applied and got accepted.”

“What’s Operation . . . ?”

. . . Heal Our Patriots.  It’s a ministry designed specifically for wounded vets.  It’s run by Franklin Graham and it tries to help the marriages of people like us by getting God into their lives.  We started with a retreat in on a lake in Alaska.  Since then, we stay in touch regularly online.  And have face to face meetings 2-3 times a year.”   (A high percentage of those pictured on the website’s photo gallery are either using canes or have artificial legs.  And those are just the visible injuries.)  

“The Army’s individual counseling just isn’t helpful,” Forrest told me.  “Those counselors don’t know what guys like me have been through.  And local churches?” Forrest said, “We’ve tried them. We’d like to be part of one.  But the several we’ve gone to just seem to be after your money.”

The conviction of things not seen

It wasn’t comfortable, but I did it anyway.  I asked him his opinion of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have dragged on nearly 20 years.  With no apparent end in sight.

“They’re tragic,” he answered.  “But they’re necessary.  I wanted to do what I could to help the kids and the women and the elders.”

And who am I to argue?










The Decline And Fall

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North To Alaska!  I’m goin’ north, the rush is on.

In fall of 1975, after graduating from CU Boulder with a European history degree, I headed North to Alaska to find my fortune.

An intrepid friend of mine, Jimmy Gray, had done it.  A few years before, he’d gone to Alaska’s North Slope and gotten a job working on the oil pipeline.  Like everyone, I knew the working conditions were brutal:  long hours, isolation, frigid temperatures. But, working on the pipeline paid more than almost anything else someone like me could do.  And, if you didn’t blow it, in a year or two you could have a sizable nest egg.

And, that’s what Jim did: his few years on the pipeline gave him a financial kick start on life.

But, for me, no dice.  By the time I got to Anchorage, for every unskilled job opening on the pipeline, there were at least 10 applicants cooling their heels in the union hiring hall waiting for a call that never came.

So, I went to plan B.  First, driving bus for the Anchorage school district.  And then, when school let out, driving taxi around Anchorage during the night shift-it was still dark at night when I first got to town.

The land of the midnight sun.

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Ever tried to work the night shift and then sleep during the day?  It isn’t easy; if I got five hours of sleep after driving taxi for twelve hours at night, I felt lucky.

So, I had plenty of time to read.  And I spent most of that time reading the second volume of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It’d belonged to my dad; his neat, cursive signature is still just inside the cover of both volumes.

Originally published about the time of the American Revolution, the book spans centuries and thousands of pages.  While modern scholars may quibble that it’s outdated, to a babe in the woods of history like me, it was a work of astonishing scholarship.

The man on the white horse.

At this point, decades on, do I remember much of what was in those thousands of pages? Not really.

But I do remember this much: the vaunted Roman Legions, which had originally conquered most of the known world during the time of the Republic, played a big part in bringing down the Empire.  Why?  Because the Legionnaires and their generals that had started out being the servants of the Republic wound up being the corrupt and cruel masters of the Empire.  They were better at court intrigue than at keeping the barbarians at bay.  Again and again, they made and unmade emperors. Sometimes in a matter of days; 193 AD is known as The Year of the Five Emperors.

And the very size of the empire became it’s Achilles heel.  With a frontier that stretched over thousands of miles and three continents, border incursions and wars were never ending.

History repeating itself.  Except on steroids.

Now, the American empire dwarfs the Roman empire.  And we suffer from many of the same distempers.

In eastern Europe we poke the nuclear armed Russian bear by pushing NATO right up to the Russian border.  In the South China Sea, rather than minding our own business, we delight in bearding nuclear armed China.  And this is not to mention our perpetual wars in the Middle East.

But, astonishingly, our own southern border remains a leaky sieve to a region rife with drugs and the murderous gang warfare that has left nearly 300,000 dead.  And anyone who has the temerity to suggest that the border be walled off is “racist”.

But did you see the news?  Trump is pulling US troops out of Syria.  Now, if he could just man up and do the same in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Those tribal, dark-age regions have been at war with one another for millennia.  And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.  So, yes, Virginia, I guess there is a Santa Claus.

For the love of money.  Blood money.

Our enormous military establishment has very little to do with national security.  And much more to do with money.  We spend more on arms than the next seven nations combined-several of whom are our allies.

And now the military is proposing that we spend morelots more.  Enough so that we can not only continue, indefinitely, to fight the low intensity wars in the Middle East that have become back page news.  But also to “rearm” to fight major conflicts against countries like Russia and China.

So, the defense contractors and their lobbyists will be on easy street.  As will the generals and admirals.  And their obedient political pets in the US House and Senate.

But what happens if we, the people, dare try to turn off the spigots?  Who knows?  But when a general on a white horse-or tank-comes riding into Washington, DC demanding that the gravy train start rolling again, don’t say you weren’t warned.










All Fall Down: The American Way of War


It’s As Lethal To Us As It Is To Our Enemies

Let me say up front that I’m a Clint Eastwood fan.  But to the extent he’s a publicist and apologist for American wars of aggression, count me out.

When I was a kid, Rawhide was a staple on our TV-but what’s really stuck with me is the theme song: “Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’

Then there was Eastwood as the ultra-tough, cigarillo chomping “Man With No Name” in the Spaghetti Westerns.  My junior high school buddies and I use to love climbing aboard an old Denver Tramway bus, dropping a dime in the fare box, and riding downtown to watch Clint gun down Eli Wallach at the elegant Paramount Theater.

I took a break from Eastwood during his Dirty Harry period. Although I can’t remember for sure, I imagine that I thought that I was too sophisticated by then for films that resolved all problems with a magnum .45 revolver.  The boycott continued with the orangutan (?!!) in the Every Which Way franchise; too silly to even give it a thought.  It was years before I seriously paid attention after that.

The movie that got me back on the band wagon was Gran Torino.  And, of all places, it happened at the YMCA camp at Estes Park during a retreat for men at my church.  Led by a gifted pastor, Rich Pilon, we watched the film. And then discussed its significance, including the obviously Christian symbolism as Eastwood, arms outstretched, dies in a hail of bullets to save a family from the savage predations of a criminal Hmong gang.

Sure, the film was imprinted with Eastwood’s trademark violence.  Or, rather, threat of violence-he doesn’t shoot anyone.  But it was far more than that.  It was thoughtful.  And thought provoking.  At multiple levels.

And best of all for me?  It touched on some of the taboos, like the high rates of black crime, which the rest of Hollywood so often misrepresents as the fault of a racist judicial system.  Imagine seeing this Gran Torino scene featuring black thugs in your typical Hollywood film.  You can’t-because there aren’t any.  (Interestingly, the cowardly, white “wanna be” thug in the scene is Eastwood’s son, Scott.)

Shooting Ourselves In The Foot.  Or Worse.

My most recent encounter with an Eastwood film was in our basement where, while working out on the elliptical, I happened to catch some snatches of American Sniper between flipping back and forth to avoid commercials.  The title alone was a dead give away: the war in Iraq.

I came in very near the end of the picture.  Scenes follow in rapid succession.  The lead character, Chris Kyle, is visiting maimed soldiers in a hospital.  He’s working the spotting scope for legless soldiers in wheel chairs at the rifle range.  He’s horsing around with a big pistol in the kitchen.  He’s bidding his wife and two little sons goodbye at the front door.  A foreboding shadow falls across the wife’s face.

At that point, I turned it off.  I couldn’t bear to watch what I thought would be the inevitable conclusion:  suicide.  According to a recent VA study, 20 veterans a day die from suicide.  More active service soldiers are succumbing to suicide than are being killed in combat.

And, sure enough, when I turned it back on a few minutes later, it’s Taps, the grieving widow, and the honor escort to the cemetery.  A suicide for sure, I thought.

Nonetheless, I put the film at the top of my Netflix list and watched it without commercial interruptions-but in segments that lasted only as long as I could endure the  elliptical.

There’s nothing understated or subtle about the harrowing combat scenes of this film; the bodies pile up like cordwood.  Mostly, of course, they’re anonymous Iraqi insurgents-for whom most of the audience feels no sympathy.

Our sympathies are reserved for the relatively few American casualties.  And, above all, for Kyle’s wife, Taya, as she endures four interminable deployments while trying to raise the kids of a father who is more often absent than not.  For obvious reasons, the marriage is on the rocks for a good part of the film.  And, sure enough, studies have shown that lengthy deployments significantly increase the risk of divorce among military couples.

This is a great film.  But almost certainly not for the reasons that made it the highest grossing US film of 2014.  And the highest grossing war film of all time. Or Eastwood’s highest grossing film to date.  No, the money is mostly about the shoot ’em up, the gripping suspense and the heart tugging human interest.

The Ripple Effects of Failure

No, this is a great film, because hidden in plain sight, it tells a story that cries out to be told: the calamity the war in Iraq has been for all involved.  America.  Iraq.  The US military.  And, perhaps most importantly, for the last vestiges of the notion that our country remains a limited republic.  Rather than a hideously overextended empire that is infected with all the vices that, if God is just, will inevitably lead to its fall.

The human costs to this country are almost unfathomable.  And are prominent in the film.  Nearly five thousand dead.  Tens of thousands of amputees, countless traumatic brain injuries and cases of mental illness, including suicides.   The enormous psychic toll extracted from the spouses, children and families of these physically and mentally maimed soldiers is a harrowing subtext of Sniper.

It’s almost obscene to set these human costs against the ruinous financial expense of our military adventure in Iraq.  But to fail to do so would be to ignore the elephant in the room of the movie.  Credible estimates from the CBO and others run as high as $3 trillion.  Most of which, of course, is borrowed.

While the film doesn’t touch directly on the financial burden of the war, it can be inferred from all the high tech, high cost weapons that constitute the American way of war. And which figure so prominently in the movie.  But while gold plated weaponry hasn’t won the war,  it sure has fattened the wallets of defense contractors and their lobbyists.  And allowed Congressmen to boast about “bringing home the bacon” when their district lands one of these lard laden plums.

Despite the undoubted courage of the American soldier, the film also makes clear it that we are no closer to “winning” now than we were when we first invaded Iraq fourteen long years ago.  (Even the ham-handed Soviets had the good sense to get out of Afghanistan after 10 bloody, futile years.)

And, this, despite the fact that the US is fighting an enemy that, relatively speaking, is armed with cheap, nearly stone age weapons: AK-47s, hand held rocket-propelled grenades, and improvised explosive devices.  But, more important than any weapon, an enemy also recklessly determined to defend his family, home, religion and country.

But if the human and fiscal cost of this interminable war has been high for this county, it pales by comparison with the price that Iraqis have paid.  Again, this is not a topic Sniper dwells on; but, once more, it’s hiding in plain sight.  Massive military and civilian casualties are the inevitable byproduct of the extraordinary violence that American weaponry rains down in a conflict largely fought in a densely populated urban setting.  And there are more than enough gory scenes of “collateral damage” in the film to drive home the point.

While estimates of Iraqi casualties vary wildly in the fog of war, they fall somewhere between 100,000 and 1.2 million.   It’s beyond doubt, moreover, that many of these casualties are non-combatants: women, children and the elderly.  Add to this the untold misery of the millions of Iraqi refugees and displaced persons that have been generated by the war, and to describe the conflict as a “calamity” is an understatement.

The Federalist Papers is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the US Constitution.  The catalogue of evils the Founding Fathers ascribed to standing, professional armies is well documented in the book: my edition has no less than 10 entries under the “standing armies, fear of” heading.  Among them?  The crippling expense.  The threat to liberty arising from the danger that citizens will come to look upon the military not as their protector, but as their master.

But what is most tragically ironic is that the book convincingly makes the case that this country doesn’t even need the gargantuan military establishment on which we now spend more than the next 8 nations combined.  

Why?  Because last time I looked, the map shows that this country is still surrounded by massive oceans.  In the Federalist No. 8, Alexander Hamilton argues that our situation is comparable to Great Britain’s which, due to the much narrower seas that border it, hasn’t been successfully invaded since the 11th century.  And, therefore, requires no more than a robust navy and and a small army.

Of course, I know that in the jet age we need an air force to protect us from intercontinental bombers.  And, even more importantly, an airtight missile defense given the world’s nut jobs, including the one in North Korea.

But why does a bloated, exorbitantly expensive military like the one with which we are currently burdened make any sense unless we’re enamored of playing the bumbling world cop?  Or we just like picking fights?  Or feel compelled to provide material for horror films like American Sniper.

So, hey, how’s this military industrial complex thing working out for us?  Not so well?  I agree. The catastrophes that have befallen our misadventures in Vietnam to Afghanistan and now Iraq amply prove the point.  The Soviets learned their lesson. Why can’t we?  Or, if we’re too proud to learn from the Russians, can’t we at least heed the advice of our Founding Fathers?