I returned today from a trip back East, to both Philadelphia and New York. On my flight from Philly to Minneapolis, I got to sit with an U.S. Army medic and soldier who was just coming back, hours ago, from Baghdad. We had a three-hour long, rambling conversation about the United States, Iraq, the future of the war, and media coverage. I’m not as bleary-eyed as he was, but I did get up at 3:30 am. Here is what I learned:
A lot of soldiers in Iraq, despite 7 years under President Bush, blame President Clinton for having done very little in the 1990s to stem and unroot Al Quaeda. The USS Cole was a defining moment in this history – many soldiers feel he was diddling around while fundamentalists in Afghanistan were gaining strength and sway. I didn’t ask about the relationship between 9/11 and Iraq, but the implication from this one soldier was that neither would have happened had the United States taken out Al Aqaeda ten years ago.
My soldier friend also told me that “CNN is a joke” – and that every single news vehicle (from any country) doesn’t have the big or little story on Iraq. He said he read the New York Times online every day and that it didn’t even begin to scratch the stories in and around Baghdad. He did say, a number of times, that he felt the U.S. was doing a lot of good there, though I kind of felt he was saying this out of some sense of obligation to those still serving there.
Another issue he brought up was the status of soldiers. The overall care he recieved in Baghdad was excellent, he told me. Every evening, they would have 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream available for dessert. The hospitals were superb and the medical care was top notch, for soldiers. In his estimation (he worked in the main U.S. hospital in Baghdad), 99% of all U.S. and Iraqi injuries were from IEDs and suicide bombers. There was absolutely nothing the U.S. could do to stop these, he explained, and there is no end in sight for a decrease in insurgency attacks.
I asked about the draft. He agreed with me that the U.S. will, indeed, have to institute a draft pretty soon if recruits aren’t being gained. Even the $40,000 sign up fee, the educational benefits, and quick-start career opportunity of the Army are not convincing young Americans to serve their country.
Perhaps most interesting was his photographs. He had taken many dozens of photos and showed them to me and other passenger on his laptop. He did not shoot blood or gore but he did clearly show the damage that tanks and other armored vehicles have sustained from various IEDs and bombs: the 5-inch thick glass windows pierced by a bomb, the 4-inch thick gash in the side of a Humvee, the demolished vehicles in the middle of the desert that are already sand-covered and useless. But he also showed me photographs of some of the holiest Christian and Muslim shrines in the country – places he went to with obvious risk. These were thousands of years old; some were pockmarked with recent bullets and armament while others stood intact.
After we deplaned, I ran into him again in the terminal. He said that people, in the past 12 hours since he’s returned, have said to him, over and over again, “Thank you.” And then he shook my hand and said to me, “Peace be with you.”