As the year comes to a close, I’m spending New Year’s Eve reflecting on two things that ended in 2011: my active duty service in the Marine Corps and the Iraq War. As I watched the last convoy make its way into Kuwait a couple weeks ago, I waxed nostalgic about my service in Iraq. Like many others, I think this war will go down as one of the worst mistakes in American history. Several people asked if, given my opposition to the war, I regretted my service there.
I missed most of the war. I graduated in 2004 and spent the next three years in DC and London working and attending graduate school. I watched the war descend into a bloody nightmare during those dark years. I did nothing. I didn’t fight, but nor did I protest.
Halfway through my year in London, as I watched the “surge” unfold, I snapped. I could no longer stomach the idea of passively continuing to watch this tragedy unfold. I had to do something, anything. The idea of looking in the mirror as a 65 year old man who didn’t serve his country in uniform repulsed me. So, I mailed my master’s thesis to London on 1 September 2007 and reported to OCS in Quantico three weeks later.
Why didn’t I protest? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s in my DNA and it’s certainly not how I was raised. Able bodied men in my family are just expected—not pressured—to join the military. It’s more than that though. I joined because I thought I could help.
War is a terrible thing that reveals the depths of humanity. But war simultaneously showcases the very best of humanity too. That’s because good men (and women) fight them. An ill-advised war, fought among a foreign people still requires a country’s best and brightest, maybe even more than a splendid little war fought for all the right reasons. Would we have ever heard of Abu Ghraib or My Lai if our very best were serving in the 320th Military Police Battalion or 1st Platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry?
One of the better books I read this year was Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars. The dramatis personæ for this riveting history of World War I Britain are not only generals, politicians, and propagandists, but also the war’s fiercest critics. Charlotte Despard, sister of Field Marshal John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, led a campaign against conscription and formed the Women’s Peace Crusade to protest war in general. Bertrand Russell was imprisoned for his pacifism and anti-war stance. Keir Hardie, Scottish labor and socialist leader, traveled Britain as well, leading a vociferous campaign to end the war. There were, of course, many others.
Their idealism notwithstanding, Cindy Sheehan and the anti-war activists of Code Pink, play a vital role in our democracy. Their protest is every bit as patriotic as my service. They stand up for what they believe and are actively engaged.
We’ve spent the last decade trying to export democracy. But democracy is the most difficult form of governance. It requires participation from both rulers and ruled. And contrary to our export variant, democracy does not end at the ballot box; that’s where it begins. Our President shouldn’t have to implore us to call Congress and make our voices heard. It shouldn’t take an acrimonious debate over the debt ceiling to get citizen participation. Matters of war and peace tower in importance over debt ceilings and health care.
As 2012 begins and the drums for war with Iran increase in volume and tempo, my wish is that nobody passively watches history unfold. Do what you think is right. Do what you feel compelled to do. Just don’t stand on the sidelines.
So, should war with Iran, or any other nation come, I know what I’ll be doing. What about you?