My grandfather served in World War I, my father in World War II. I was a Marine in Vietnam. The longest love affair of my life is with the United States Marine Corps. I believe in its values, its commitment, its ethic of sacrifice and excellence. In a soft world of self-indulgence, there’s no fat in the Marine Corps soul. I’m so proud of my service that forty years later tears still come to my eyes when I hear the first words of the Marine Corps hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli.”
Shortly after 9/11, my son David, who had just graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in English, enlisted with great idealism. He endured grueling training to become an Air Force pararescueman (which is like a Navy SEAL) and served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan with elite Special Operations troops. When he was in the war zone, I couldn’t answer the phone at night. I couldn’t watch the news. I couldn’t understand how the rest of the country was acting as if there weren’t a war on. And I was one of the lucky ones. My son came home.
With each tour in Iraq, my son’s idealism eroded. He no longer believed the war was crucial to America’s security. He still served with pride and dedication, but his dedication was no longer to the elusive goals of the war—it was to his own honor, to the men in his unit, and to its lifesaving mission. His team members were some of the finest Americans I’ve ever met. They did their duty and then some. But they deserved better. Everyone who has served and sacrificed in Iraq does.
When David finished his enlistment, he dedicated himself to helping wounded American veterans. He started a nonprofit and swam the Strait of Gibraltar with another military buddy to raise money. Matt Cook, whose story of his own service in Iraq appears in this issue (“ Soldier”), produced Swim, a documentary about their effort. The film features real men and women who were terribly injured and disfigured. They are among thousands of Iraq war veterans whose faces look like melted wax, who can’t see or hear or walk, whose disability benefits were delayed or denied, whose spouses lost their jobs trying to take care of them, who’ve lost their homes and been forgotten. More than a thousand a month attempt suicide. Twenty percent are affected with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, including David’s best friend.
When you send men and women to war, you don’t just ask them to risk their lives. You ask them to do what every fiber of their being and every value tells them not to do: You ask them to kill. There’d better be a good reason. You’d better be willing to use overwhelming force, and you’d better have clear objectives and a sound exit strategy. You’d better not run the war with such incompetence that many of its former military leaders believe it’s been botched ( Texas Monthly Talks ). Because if you abuse the patriotism and the sacrifice of the men and women you send to war, you create a hole in their souls—and in the soul of America.
When I see friends from the National Guard or the Reserves called up, then called up again, then called up yet again; when I see former troops who served multiple tours in the war zone pulled out of civilian life and sent back to the war; when I see talk show hosts and politicians cheerleading for a war they wouldn’t dream of serving in themselves, I take it personally. When the remains of dead young Americans are brought home in secret and some are cremated in pet cemeteries; when we’ve created nearly 5 million refugees in Iraq and taken in just 692; when we cage people without trials for years and treat them like animals; when supporters of the war oppose a new GI Bill that would give enough money for veterans like my son to go to college—when they say the men and women who served three and four war tours deserve only enough to cover a fraction of their college education, even though they gave 100 percent of their service—that’s personal too.
I’ve had enough of this war. I’ve had enough of the pictures of good American families, the mom with her arms around her children and the caption saying she’d just celebrated her wedding anniversary when she was killed in Iraq. I’ve had enough of the pictures of wounded Americans trying to learn to walk or talk or eat again. I’ve had enough of the pictures they won’t let us see but which I can too vividly imagine. Of the Iraqi children dead in our bombings, their homes destroyed, their families blown away. Of the millions of Iraqi refugees without homes or jobs. Of the return of Islamic fundamentalism to Iraq in our wake, with women murdered for not being married or not wearing a head scarf.
I’ve had enough of throwing billions of our hard-earned dollars down a rat hole of corruption. Fifteen billion unaccounted for by the Pentagon. Nine billion unaccounted for by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Another $1.8 billion in seized Iraqi assets that simply disappeared. When I’d finished my year in Vietnam, I couldn’t wait to get on that freedom bird and go home, but they wouldn’t let me leave. You know why? Because I’d signed out a shovel and hadn’t returned it. A shovel! The supply sergeant told me the taxpayers had paid for that shovel and I’d better bring it back or he wouldn’t sign my departure papers. I had to buy one for five bucks on the black market and turn it in before I got my ticket home. That’s how America used to do things.
How much will this war cost, all in? Three trillion dollars? Four (the current long-term estimate)? Think