Where once the war in Iraq was defined in conversations with these men by untenable ideas - bringing democracy or defeating al-Qaeda - these days the war in Iraq is defined by different ways of expressing the idea of being weary. It is a theme that is endlessly reiterated as you travel around Iraq. 'The army is worn out. We are just keeping people in theatre who are exhausted,' says a soldier working for the US army public affairs office who is supposed to be telling me how well things have been going since the 'surge' in Baghdad began.There's a rather obvious and almost fatuous comparison here, brought to mind because I'm re-reading the Harry Potter series having finished #7: it's that Voldemort kills without compunction, mercy, or concern for who dies, and is equally ruthless to his supporters as to his enemies. Harry, on the other hand, feels every death personally, starting with the stunning death of someone he barely knew, Cedric Diggory at the end of HP4, and on through the deaths at the end of HP7. It's an almost facile but still accurate comparison: to Voldemort, those who stand in the way of his goal, or even who are recruited to achieve it, are "no more than numbers." His first words in Harry's hearing are: "Kill the spare." By book 7, he has almost achieved his goal by a ruthless slaughter of anyone he can reach, and he willingly sacrifices even his own supporters in his pursuit of power.
They are not supposed to talk like this. We are driving and another of the public affairs team adds bitterly: 'We should just be allowed to tell the media what is happening here. Let them know that people are worn out. So that their families know back home. But it's like we've become no more than numbers now.'
This is the face of evil. That our soldiers are no more than numbers, no more than markers in a game of some kind, in a bet, in an investment speculation. People are no longer people, they are widgets, gears, fungible goods. This is employment, American style, and even the Army is using it:
The first soldier starts in again. 'My husband was injured here. He hit an improvised explosive device. He already had a spinal injury. The blast shook out the plates. He's home now and has serious issues adapting. But I'm not allowed to go back home to see him. If I wanted to see him I'd have to take leave time (two weeks). And the army counts it.'Counts it, and makes you come back and give them that two weeks before you can go home, only to return again.
'I counted it the other day,' says a major whose partner is also a soldier. 'We have been married for five years. We added up the days. Because of Iraq and Afghanistan we have been together for just seven months. Seven months ... We are in a bad place. I don't know whether this marriage can survive it.'5 years of war, and where do we stand? Any closer to a goal than when we started? Is their sacrifice, even if it is only of their marriage, worth this? What have we asked of them, and why? Who are we to insist they pay this price? Add to this the fact that the soldiers now what is being reported at home:
When the soldiers talk like this there is resignation. There is a corrosive anger, too, that bubbles out, like the words pouring unbidden from a chaplain's assistant who has come to bless a patrol. 'Why don't you tell the truth? Why don't you journalists write that this army is exhausted?'They know that isn't being written because:
'...the soldier in Vietnam,' interjects Sergeant John Valentine from the same unit, 'did not get to see the coverage from home that these soldiers do. We see what is going on at home on the political scene. They think the war is going to end. Then we have the frustration and confusion. That is fatiguing. Mentally tiring.'The soldiers know the truth is not being told here. The all volunteer army is broken. A draft is politically impossible. The end of our dreams of empire may have finally come, at the hands of our most imperial President in U.S. history.
And us? We voted for it. Or allowed it. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. That's the ugly flip side of Niebuhr's evaluation that nation's cannot be moral agents. There is still a morality involved, because there are still people involved, still human lives involved; and in a democracy, the people are still the sovereign, the people still bear the ultimate responsibility. A responsibility we still fob off on the unfortunate individuals who don't have health insurance, or enough money to afford shelter, or who volunteer for military service.
Call the names. We are all responsible for this. Which makes no one responsible, since there is no one to shoulder this burden. How convenient.