Monday, May 28, 2007

Supporting My Troop

"Something I planned just got a bunch of people killed."

Steve says it off-handedly. He does that – wraps conversational bombs in inconspicuous packages of tone and manner. With any of my other friends, I would immediately delve in. Because that's what I do: I ask questions, I draw people out. But I know he can't tell me details. Asking would just send us down a dead end. I've seen a lot of those over the years.

We're sitting at a bar in our hometown in the Heartland, about a thousand miles from where either of live now. All around us, working class singles are trying to hook up. I've just tucked my wife into bed at the hotel before coming out to wait for him. When he arrived (a half hour late, which is better than usual) I warned him about sitting next to me: Everyone with a line of sight has concluded I'm gay. I've been reading a book and sipping red wine, which makes me stand out like a pink ribbon on a yellow dress. The bookmark I absent-mindedly laid on the bar advertises a bookstore in San Francisco. Witches have been burned with less evidence.

Steve sat down with the confidence that comes from knowing you can break any man in the bar in half. Not that they know that, or need to. Steve is well muscled and in good shape, but not imposingly so. He's shorter than I am and (like me) graying at the temples. It's just that he's career Marine, and he's good at what he does.

Except, maybe, when something he plans gets a bunch of people killed.

Or maybe even then. It's a measure of how far Steve has come over the years that I can't assume his operation failed. He never said whether the recently departed bunch of people were American or Iraqi, military or civilian, friend or foe. But they were human, they were alive, and now they're not.

That's a bad thing.

When the attractive-but-aging bartender comes over, Steve orders a double shot of something that would put me on the floor. We're each in town to visit infirm parents – his father, my mother – and we've juggled things so that our paths cross. That's been hard to do these last few years. It was completely impossible, of course, during his tours of Iraq. And since making it home alive last summer, Steve has been particularly jealous of his time with his kids. (Four of them: Two boys and a girl from the long-lasting current marriage, and a grown boy from an ill-fated previous one. The youngest is something like five now, but I haven't seen him since he was three. I remember him as Destructo-Boy, who got into everything but was too cute to stay mad at.) These days his job involves responding to emergencies that don't appear in any news source I read, so our plans frequently fall through at the last minute.

An up-through-the-ranks Marine officer and a liberal blogger may seem like an odd friendship, but it's always been like that. We met at the beginning of my senior year of high school, when I was the achievement-oriented National Merit scholar who edited the school newspaper. Steve was an untameable junior whose stories made people roll on the floor with laughter. "You watch out for that boy," my Mom (then healthy) advised. "He's been around." And fortunately, she was right. Every high school kid should get himself arrested sometime, and without Steve, I never would have. He brought adventure to my life.

After high school, I accepted a scholarship far away and majored in mathematics. Steve took a job at the local Pepsi bottling plant. When I came home he'd introduce me to his co-workers, some of whom probably couldn't read. I'd shift back to the uneducated accent I'd grown up with, and I'd think: "We've finally grown apart." But inexplicably, we never did. I went to graduate school while Steve zig-zagged through a series of high-end working-class jobs: He sold powerboats, managed a night club, and finally opened a bar of his own, which failed. As I was finishing my Ph.D., he was realizing that he would soon be too old to join the Marines. I graduated; he enlisted.

The Corps was good for him. All his life, Steve had spent his nights dreaming elaborate, chivalrous dreams, the kind that make you want to believe in reincarnation. In the Corps, ideals of honor that seemed hopelessly old-fashioned in this era (and especially in my academic circles) brought his life into focus for the first time. The Corps harnessed the talents that his frustrated teachers had never sparked. Now he was the achievement-oriented one.

From the beginning, neither of us could describe our work. I was researching mathematical questions that I could barely state in common language, much less explain how I planned to answer them. His work was covert; I could just trace the outlines of it. When Reagan was cracking down on the Sandinistas, the Corps taught him Spanish. (He has read Don Quixote in the original. I, the intellectual, have not. In conversations about Latin American magical realism, I am bluffing but I don't think he is.) And they stationed him in Honduras. Doing what? "Jumping out of airplanes, coming in underwater. That kind of thing." That was as much detail as I got, but they gave him a medal for it. Afterward, he enthused about the superiority of his unit's Israeli armored vests: "I got shot in the chest at fifteen feet, and it just knocked me down and left a big bruise!" Why did his unit get special vests? Who shot him? I knew I couldn't ask.

During the first Gulf War the Corps left him in Florida to watch the Columbian drug cartels. They didn't need him. The war was short, and we had lots of allies. He understood their reasoning: Culture, in today's warfare, can be as important as terrain, and no satellite can spy it out for you. His mastery of Spanish and of Latin culture made him more valuable in this hemisphere. But he hated being left out. Marines don't wish for war any more than emergency room surgeons wish for car crashes, but everyone wants to test his skills and prove that he has mastered his training. This, Steve thought, was his generation's war, and he was missing it.

If we couldn't talk about events, we could at least discuss policy. If I couldn't ask specifics, I would ask hypotheticals. Late one night in the Clinton years, when his wife (also in the Corps) was safely asleep, I got him talking about females in combat. He was against it, because female Marines weren't held to the same physical standards as men. "If I'm in combat with somebody, I want to know that they're strong enough to carry me out."

He was also against gays in the military. I don't remember his reasons, and I doubt he remembers them now either. But in my ignorance of Marine culture, my follow-up question seemed natural: If he knew a guy in his unit was gay, would he look the other way while the other guys beat him up?

He was horrified. Any Marine under his command had been entrusted to his protection. That was the contract between him and his troops. "They follow my orders," he said, "and I do whatever I can to get them home safe." If that contract came into doubt, he believed, the whole Corps would fall apart.

Each of us evolved with time. I left mathematics for writing, which had been my first love in high school. At first I did the safe thing and wrote about computers. Later I raised enough courage to venture into politics and religion. Meanwhile, Steve was liberalizing. Now, at the bar, he rails about the homophobic idiots he has to deal with and the stupid things they say. He knows the Bible well enough to bait the fundamentalists in his unit, and he enjoys doing so. When he tells me that he has widely distributed my recent article about fundamentalism, I suspect the recipients were not pleased.

And we talk about Iraq. He believes, and has believed from the beginning, that the invasion was a mistake. (But he follows orders; the contract works both ways.) Knowing the importance of language and culture, he has read a translation of the Koran and has learned as much Arabic as he could. Things might be different, he thinks, if more people had done that. If more of our soldiers knew phrases beyond "Get down on the ground or I'll blow your head off." If they understood the Arab code of honor and knew not to kick down doors and search women while the men were away.

Things could have been different. "The locals," he says, "will try to end a discussion by telling you 'It's in the Book.' But if you know the Koran well enough to say 'But this is in the Book too,' the whole conversation changes."

He was part of the initial invasion force, and his first tour lasted long enough to see the beginnings of the occupation. Civilians were taking over, men appointed for their conservative ideology and their loyalty to the administration. They knew even less Arabic than the generals, less about Iraqis and Islam. I talked to Steve on the phone two months after President Bush's mission-accomplished photo op. "The real war is just starting now," he warned.

When I saw him later that summer, he had grown accustomed to telling people what they didn't want to hear. Sometimes he imagined I was disagreeing when I didn't think I was. The waste of life in Iraq was horrific, he said, and would rebound against us. It wasn't just the collateral damage of bombs or civilians shot by mistake. It was also the uncounted Iraqis who had died in the post-invasion anarchy, or because they got sick from spoiled food or contaminated water and couldn't get medical care. No American had intended these deaths, but the survivors would always blame us for them.

Some deaths stuck in his memory. In his trip out of Iraq, the convoy ran over a boy trying to beg food from coalition soldiers. Muslim practice, Steve knew, dictated the boy be buried within 24 hours. So he cut through piles of red tape and countermanded the order of a British officer (who outranked him) to let the parents take the body.

And then he came home to his own children.

The beggar's-body incident was part of a new theme in his stories: Conflict with superior officers, or manipulating the situation to embarrass them into doing the right thing. But wasn't he worried about his career? I asked. He wasn't. Within fairly broad limits, he felt free do what he thought was right and let the chips fall where they may. He was so close to having his twenty years in, so close to retirement, that he didn't need to be a careerist any more.

But when the twenty years were up, they didn't let him retire. They don't have to. It's all legal. It's in the fine print somewhere and (unlike some caught in what John Kerry called "the backdoor draft") Steve has never claimed that he didn't understand what he was signing. He can apply for retirement, but it's up to the Corps whether or not to accept his application. They accepted his wife's retirement, but not his.

I saw him again in the summer of 2004. Abu Ghraib was in the papers by then. Able to imagine being a prisoner himself someday, Steve was against any attempt to compromise the Geneva Conventions. People who wanted to "support our troops," he suggested, might start by supporting the Geneva Conventions. And he shook his head in dismay at Secretary Rumsfeld's suggestion that Abu Ghraib's victims might be compensated. Again, it was a cultural thing. "These guys have lost their honor," he told me. "They can't take money for that. They have to kill somebody."

Like him, maybe. The Corps sent him back for a second tour of Iraq, and then a third. It's easy to make the Marine Corps the villain here, but it was in a fix of its own. Bush and Rumsfeld had never made the preparations for a long war. They never specified where the troops would come from if a large army had to stay in Iraq for a long time. Official rhetoric has always pretended that things were about to turn around – after Baghdad fell, after Saddam was captured, after the handover of sovereignty, after a constitution was written, after a government was elected. There has always been some reason to pooh-pooh the need for a long-term budget and troop rotation plan, maybe with a draft. By the time Vice President Cheney made his famous claim that the insurgency was "in its last throes" Steve was back in the Sunni triangle.

"Same old, same old," he emailed. "We kill them, they kill us." But it was wearing on him. That much came through in his emails, despite the lack of detail.

In the bar in our hometown, I list the clues that I pieced together to deduce that he was involved in retaking Fallujah. I always suspected he dropped those clues like breadcrumbs, but he doesn't confess. And beyond acknowledging my cleverness, he doesn't say much about Fallujah. I know better than to ask.

He admits to having bad dreams now. (I don't know if he still gets the chivalrous medieval ones. I hope so.) And he acknowledges that he drinks too much in the evenings when he's away from home, which he often is. The two are related: Drinking cuts down on dreams. Like most Marines, though, he minimizes psychological issues. "Lots of people who have been in combat have bad dreams," he says. But then he adds, "Of course, most of them have only killed two or three people, not hundreds." It's another inconspicuously packaged bomb that I know not to unwrap.

What should happen now? We disagree. I've written for years that this situation isn't going to get any better, so we should stop killing people sooner rather than later. He acknowledges some of that point, and tells the story of his unit's mail clerk. The identifiable pieces they sent home to her parents only weighed 16 pounds. "We're getting 19-year-old girls killed now," he says, "and that's just wrong."

But in spite of the wrongness, he doesn't want to pull out. Partly, I think, he just hates losing. It goes against his whole character to slink away from a fight. And he asks, sensibly, what happens after we leave. He thinks the civil war that follows will devolve into mass slaughter of Sunnis by the Shia. (Not that the Shia are worse than the Sunnis, but there are more of them.) And what about the other Sunni countries? Will they just sit by and watch? Will their homegrown Islamist parties overthrow governments that try to sit by and watch? And what does Shiite Iran do then? And Turkey? And Israel?

I don't know. Personally, I'd be willing to watch a lot of strangers kill each other before I'd send him back to the war zone. How many? I don't know. Lots. But I have no right to make a call like that, and I know it.

I ask for his alternative. Well, he explains, insurgency is a fairly well understood phenomenon. The theory is almost mathematical. We could beat this one if we were willing to leave 400,000 troops there for the long haul.

I recognize this as the Shinseki Heresy; it thrives despite Cardinal RumsfeldÕs best efforts to stamp it out. And I ask, sensibly, where we would get 400,000 troops at this late date. He doesn't know.

The bar is closing, and we have no solution.

As we part, Steve has no immediate orders that will take him back to Iraq. But the Corps shows no signs of letting him retire, and there are only so many Marines to go around. So his number will come up again, sooner or later.

And he'll go. Because he could only get out of the Corps by abandoning the pension he's earned. Because his discharge papers would mark his entire career as "dishonorable." But mostly because he's a Marine and other Marines are dying. It's not in him to see other people dying and do nothing.

And I wonder, as we stagger to our separate cars, if that's what I'm doing. Will I see Steve again before he goes back to Iraq? Or ever?

Slowly, carefully, and very unheroically, I drive to the hotel, where my wife is safely asleep. And I wonder if I'll dream.

The conversation this piece is based on happened just after Christmas in 2005, and I first wrote it up in early 2006. I've resisted the temptation to update it. Steve is still alive and remains in the Marines.