I recently appeared on the November 11, 2003 episode of the Montel Williams show. The program featured guests who had lost loved ones in the war in Iraq. One of the guests, Kathy Dowdy, recalled hearing that her husband, 1st Sgt. Robert Dowdy, had been killed: "They found 11 shallow graves. One of the bodies was my husband. He was a first sergeant of 507th Main--Maintenance Unit. Couldn't ask for a better husband. Gave up his life for us. He took somebody else's place going to Iraq. He wasn't supposed to go to Kuwait at all," recalled Dowdy, tears streaming silently down her cheek.
1st Sgt. Dowdy was just one of 141 American servicemen who have been killed in Iraq since President Bush declared an end to the major fighting on May 1.
His sacrifice reminds us that war is a horror where one is ordered to kill strangers, to run in the face of enemy fire, to ignore the sight of his friends as they crumple to the ground. There is a scene in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, in which a young man has his arm blown off. He stumbles around, gazing at his shattered limb, unsure of what to do. War is confusion.
War is detached horror. I mention this only to point out that those Americans who grapple with war, do so to preserve man's best, his institutions of freedom, democracy, and individuality. Or as Mrs. Dowdy put it, "This is what career soldiers do."
Last week, 16 American servicemen were killed after their helicopter was shot down over Baghdad, in the deadliest attack against US forces since the war began on March 20. Reflecting concerns that US Troops are mired in a guerilla war, Senator Robert Byrd (R-W.VA) wrote in an Op-Ed that the occupation is "spiral[ing] out of control."
"Our military action in Iraq has forged a caldron of contempt for America, a dangerous brew that may poison the efforts of peace throughout the Middle East and result in the rapid invigoration of worldwide terrorism," continued Byrd.
As increasing numbers of American servicemen come home in caskets, the President's job approval rating has slipped to the mid-50s, after peaking around 90% following the September 11 attacks.
Marianne Rudden worries about the safety of her brother, Billy, who is stationed in Baghdad. "A month ago he was shot at. I didn't think he would be in the middle of the action." Rudden, who is a MD elementary school teacher, says she gets "very quiet inside" while leading the pledge of allegiance every morning. "Sometimes they even play "God Bless America" and wow do I have to fight the tears."
Still, Rudden remains supportive of the troops stationed in Iraq. "Billy says that morale is mostly high because the soldiers feel they are doing what they were trained to do. 'We want to be here. This is what we have trained for our entire lives,' he said in a recent email. That part doesn't get reported. He talks about how the Iraqi children follow them around and look up to the American soldiers."
This brings us to an even larger point: the opportunity to influence an entire generation of young men living in the Middle East. The administration's decision to depose Saddam Hussein represents the first meaningful step in 50 years of attacking the basic problem of hopelessness, tyranny and poverty in that region. This historic step will make democratic reform possible. Providing a sense of economic possibility is the key to curbing the fanaticism that has replicated throughout the region. Plainly, a person with a well defined sense of future possibilities, does not engage in suicide attacks
It is always tragic when US servicemen come home in caskets. We should be deeply sensible to their sacrifice. But having just celebrated Veteran's Day, it also seems an appropriate time to remember that this is a historic opportunity to carry hope and democracy into the Middle East, and to make the world safer.
As Montel, a former serviceman himself told me after the show, "You may criticize the administration, but never forget that these soldiers know before going in that this could cost their lives. They go anyway." Then, offering what had become a recurring phrase throughout the show, Montel added, "This is what career soldiers do. Sometimes as civilians we forget this. News of soldiers dying makes us uncomfortable. But soldiers have a different perspective. This is what they train for. And every career serviceman back home wishes he were right along side those troops in Iraq. They are heroes"