Well, it’s over. After 9 years in the suck, the last of us have rolled across the border and are heading home. I’m not an idiot, I know that the American hand in Iraq won’t truly be totally gone for years to come (if ever), but for now, the war is as “over” as it can ever be said to be.
And that’s got me thinking.
I did 3 tours in Iraq. Each one was a railway switch, changing the course of my life permanently. I can clearly mark two Myke Coles in the wake of that conflict. There was a Myke Cole pre-summer of ’06, and there is a Myke Cole post winter of ’09, where I rang in the new year in a concrete bunker in Camp Liberty, Baghdad.
I think about those changes. Finales like these are oddly seductive, because they tempt you to oversimplify. The constant question people ask me is: “how do you feel about having fought in Iraq?” As if that question is even answerable. But, as I said, it’s seductive. I have spent hours trying to answer that question myself. I try to distill the experience down to its component parts, to sift through the outcomes and make a determination, to find some kind of take-away.
But wars don’t work that way. At least, not for the intellectually honest. The hard truth is that war is like so many other things in life — protean, ambiguous, impossible to pin down. It is at once tragic and glorious, a crime and a triumph. After days of mulling over what happened and what I did there, I can only come to this lame conclusion: Things are different.
I don’t want to oversell my participation. I wasn’t slinging a rifle on a street corner in downtown Taji. But neither was I ladling soup in the US Embassy cafeteria. Iraq put cracks in my spine that will never heal. I am inappropriately hyper-vigilant. My sleep patterns will never recover. I am wracked with unquenchable guilt. My ability to relax, bad at the best of times, is pretty much gone. I have developed a cynicism that I don’t like at all, as well as a general suspicion that my law-enforcement friends call “cop’s eyes.” My faith in, not just my government, but all governments, is shaken. I participated in one of the most ruinous and costly (both in terms of human life and property and currency) events in history. You can’t have a war without people to fight in it. I was a participant, a belligerent. Iraq is my war every bit as much as it is Don Rumsfeld’s or Dick Cheney’s. And the worst price of all: I watched the most important relationship in my life wither, fracture and end. The veil is ripped away. I am like Ferro Maljinn at the end of The Last Argument of Kings. The demons, once revealed, can never be unseen. Whenever it’s quiet enough, I can hear them breathing.
Iraq cemented my bonds to my family, formerly fragile and tense. I have them back now, in a way that would never have happened without the prospect of my death galvanizing them into investing in our relationship. War placed me in a crucible where other people depended on me for their lives. It finally gave me a task where the price of failure was so high that I would do anything, including risking my own life, to avoid it. The result was a “leveling-up” of my general competence. So much so that when I stepped into responder roles for Deepwater Horizon and Hurricane Irene, I was able to smoothly handle operations and take on unfamiliar tasks without blinking, despite the crisis raging around me. Iraq supercharged my imagination, spun my literary voice, instilled a discipline and urgency in me that hadn’t been there before. My realization of my dream of being a professional writer would never have happened without it.
I am horrified at the degree of destruction wrought in these past 9 years. I cannot possibly wrap my mind around it. But I can say this, I am not sorry I went. Whether or not I agreed with the war, it was a fact on the ground. Ignoring it would do no good. There was a place there where I could slot in, help out. There are people, Iraqi and American, who are still alive because of what I did. There are men and women who got to stay at home with their families, because I stepped up and plugged the breach.
I remember that. To be honest, I cling to it. When I lie in bed and think about the tens of thousands of dead, I trot out that memory and offer it up. I cannot make sense of the size and scope of what happened there. The event has sent ripples through the entire world that will linger long after I am gone. When I try to pull the camera back and go through it all, the threads collapse. I am too close to the issue.
In the end, I am left with stark honesty. Lame and noncommittal as it sounds, it is the truth, and it’s all I’ve got.
I am horrified at what I did in Iraq.
I am proud of what I did in Iraq.
I went to 4 funerals outside my post at LSA Anaconda during my 2nd tour. Each time, I stood as they played Amazing Grace and wondered what it was I’d done to deserve to be the one above the ground instead of below it. When I read the civilian death toll (by most estimates, well over 105,000) I wonder why I’m sitting here in an airconditioned train station writing on my thousand dollar laptop, while many of them died without ever having had so much as a flu shot. I have friends who’re missing limbs, while I don’t have a scratch on me.
Just or unjust, I can’t trade places. I’m not going to kill myself. I can’t bring the dead back to life. Those are facts on the ground, like the war. Puzzling over them isn’t productive.
I said the post-Iraq Myke Cole had leveled up. That’s something I *can* work with. The guard, in its wisdom, has placed me in the response fleet. My operational focus is now almost entirely search-and-rescue. Iraq gave me patience, a stoic ability to work under pressure. I am attuned to dangers in a way I never was before. I have a new understanding of the fragility of human life. I have been cured of the macho appeal of warrior cults of violence. It has beaten back ethnocentrism, it has fostered compassion.
War has given me tools I can use to leave the world better than I found it. I can save lives. I can succor wounds. I can listen with a depth of sympathy I never had before. I can empathize to a degree I would have never known possible. I can HELP.
And I am going to try to do that, for all my days remaining.
I hope that’s enough.