It’s Over


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.

  • Shecky

    Myke, that’s one of the best com­men­taries on war I’ve ever read. Kudos.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffrey.easter Jef­frey Easter

    Very deep and wise words, my friend.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesrtuck James Ray Tuck Jr

    God bless you.

  • Paul Weimer

    Thank you, Myke. 

  • Lori­anne

    Thank you seems weak in light of the sac­ri­fices…  but its all i have.

  • http://twitter.com/Autumn2May Jennie

    We as civil­ians will never truly know what you in the
    mil­i­tary have given up so we can be free. 
    But know at least that you have our thanks.  Thank you for your ser­vice and thank you for
    sharing your experiences.

  • http://twitter.com/Autumn2May Jennie

    We as civil­ians will never truly know what you in the mil­i­tary have given up so we can be free. But know at least that you have our thanks. Thank you for your ser­vice and thank you for sharing your experiences.

  • http://twitter.com/Autumn2May Jennie

    And I totally posted that twice. XD Sorry. :)

  • Laura Hughes

    This is the most pro­found thing I’ve read or heard about the War in Iraq in 9 years. God bless you for your ser­vice and may he be with you always. Our entire country is indebted to you and your brothers. You are an incred­ible word­smith. I hope you con­tinue to write. Thank you Myke.

  • Jeff Williamson

    Thank you for your ser­vice and sac­ri­fices. Words of thanks are puny things at best, but know the feel­ings and emo­tions are real.

  • Cody

    Myke, I’m way late to the dis­cus­sion here, but nonethe­less I wanted to give you my sin­cere and pro­found thanks.  Most, if not all, of my com­fort and ease is due to the sac­ri­fices and bravery of men like you.  God bless and thanks again!

    And I’m vert much looking for­ward to get­ting my hands on the book within the next week!

  • http://myawfulreviews.blogspot.com/ Bryce

    Wow. Just, wow. This was really spe­cial to me, Myke. Thanks for being willing to share this part of you with us.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/patience.mason Patience H. C. Mason

    Oh, I love this one too.