This is the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The media is doing a lot of retrospectives on this war. I will surely miss the reporting of Michael Kelly. He was a Washington Post columnist who volunteered to be “embedded” with U.S. forces. It was the first time I’d heard that term. And what courage it took for Michael Kelly – whose book, Martyr’s Day, is probably the best record we will have on the first Gulf War of 1990-91 – to voluntarily return to that blighted land. Michael Kelly could easily have sat out the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he had a passion for truth. And that passion cost him his life. He and his military driver were killed when their Humvee turned over, pinning them both.
I can never forget Kelly’s writing how Saddam Hussein’s brutal forces in Kuwait in 1991 would take young Kuwaiti men, beat them senseless, and then release them at their own front doors. Their distraught families would greet the returning prisoners with open arms. But Saddam’s marksmen were trained to shoot down the Kuwaitis in front of their families. Michael Kelly knew the evil we went to war to stop.
Carey Cash knows that evil, too. His book, A Table in the Presence, is the finest record of war I have ever read. Each chapter is a dramatic story of real life conflict as the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment goes into battle. Carey Cash was an all-American football player and the son of a Navy flier. If anyone was prepared to inflict deadly force on his country’s enemies, Lt. Cash was. But Carey Cash is a Navy chaplain. He records how he went into battle, but not into combat. The Geneva Convention provides, and Navy regulations confirm, that chaplains are exempt from carrying a weapon.
His faithful companion, Navy Second Class Petty Officer Redor Rufo, serves as Lt. Cash’s bodyguard. Rufo is a religious program specialist and he carries the weapon. From his Filipino boyhood, Rufo also carries knowledge of how to cook up panzet and lumpia. This will never fail to make you popular among Marines.
And Rufo, like Chaplain Cash, knew what was important in life. As he put his life on the line for his adopted country, Rufo waited for two hours in line to talk to his wife, if only for a few minutes. Carey Cash wrote of these phone calls that every word spoken was precious and every moment dear. They all know, although no one verbalizes it, that this call could be their last.
The book tells stories of Marines in combat in a graphic and realistic way. When some brave Marines are killed, Carey Cash does not sugar-coat their deaths, or minimize the intense pain that all their brothers feel. But there is no blood-and-gore for sensation’s sake. Carey Cash’s word portraits help us to know these warriors. We know them as living, breathing, vibrant personalities.
Ten years after the invasion and the toppling of Saddam’s statue, we can thank God for the end of this tyrant’s misrule in Baghdad. But the media obsessed on abuses by a handful of U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib prison. We heard about that incident for months.
There’s a better prison story. Carey Cash writes about villagers crying out: pree-sun! pree-sun! Lt. Cash’s unit liberates hundreds of boys from a living hell. These little boys are the sons of Iraqis considered unreliable by Saddam’s regime. Some of these pitiful lads are as young as eight. They are all emaciated, ragged, and dirty. They have been starved and tortured by Saddam and when they turned fifteen, he put them in the front lines of his army – cannon fodder for Iranians or Americans making war on Iraq.
Why is it I’ve never heard of this heroic rescue of hundreds by U.S. forces? Carey Cash’s book is the only record I’ve ever seen of this powerful and noble episode.
Our media moguls seem to get a lot of things wrong. For example there is a moving scene in the major movie by Stephen Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan. Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, is depicted reading a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a widowed mother of five sons from Massachusetts. Informed that all five of her sons have been killed in battle, the president tenders in his Letter to Mrs. Bixby a lasting tribute, the concluding lines of which Gen. Marshall has committed to memory. But it is from this experience that the military policy of not taking a widow’s sole surviving son stems. Saving Private Ryan was in truth never about saving just one American GI. It was about saving that foot soldier’s country.
We can view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same way. We can with care distinguish the policies pursued from the brave men who bear the burden of battle for our sake.
Americans in battle do not fight for Fallujah as much as they fight for Philadelphia; they fight for Kansas more than for Kandahar. Our all-volunteer armed forces understand that it is for Americans and our liberties that they are willing to lay down their lives.
That is why the country came to understand – some later than others – that our Vietnam veterans deserved honor whatever one thought of the Vietnam War. And so it is with the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the war in Afghanistan. Our Marines, our soldiers, and all of those who risked everything but honor so we may go about our lives, are worthy of deepest gratitude and highest respect.
Carey Cash says the hero of his book is the Lord. That is why his title, A Table in the Presence, is so compelling. His real experience was the fulfillment of Psalm 23. If you read only one book about America’s war in Iraq, read this one. They say there are no atheists in foxholes. Read Carey Cash’s book and you will know why.