April 7, 2006
This will be the last letter I write home from Iraq. In the next few days, my Marines and I will leave Iraq and begin the journey home. We leave in our wake our brothers-in-arms, living and dead, two elections, a winter and spring past, and a city. The dust will return to its minarets with the approach of summer, which assumed the sum of our lives these past seven months.
It is very difficult to articulate my thoughts as I spend one of my final nights here. The Marines spent the day playing sports and are now spread about the tents in small groups — talking, laughing, playing cards, watching movies and enjoying this seemingly improbable respite.
As I played baseball with several fellow platoon commanders today, enjoying the intoxicating familiarity of ball and glove (so poignantly American), I had an overwhelming sense of the surreal. Only meters away stood the road along which I had driven countless times as I left friendly lines on patrol. In clear sight were the walls around our camp, the concrete demarcation between safety and the unpredictability outside. It seemed odd to enjoy simple pleasures while just beyond view was the far harsher and complex world where boredom, fear and fatigue were surmounted one by one (with small "Suribachis" along the way).
Stepping back to reflect, I find I leave Iraq with strengthened conviction for the justice of our mission. I know that we leave this place better than when we found it. Additionally, however, I believe I now can see how much more is at stake than just Iraqi freedom. To explain my meaning, I have to depart from both the well-deserved focus of my letters, the Marines, and the fortunate ancillary of their efforts, the Iraqi people, and focus on an entity that has been conspicuously absent from my writing — namely, the enemy.
Who are the insurgents? What kind of men are they? For those at home, the enemy's face is that of Usama and Zarqawi. His temperament is seen in a video of a hostage's plea for life, the spectacle of bloody decapitation, senseless riots against Danish cartoonists, and shameless attempts to spark civil war by desecration of places he purportedly holds sacred. For us here, while specific identity often remains elusive, the actions of those we fight are a powerful microcosm of the violence they would write globally at the expense of all other ways of life.
These men, eager to inflame all with their hatred, are not patriots. They are an alliance of the residue of Saddam's festering secular byproduct of Nazism/Baathism, with its caste-like division between Sunni and Shia; with common criminals, exploitive and greedy; and with foreign fanatics, fueled by the vaguest religious justifications towards a collision course with killing and death. All share the same goal: to destabilize Iraq in order to deny reform of the environment that gave their evil birth. Intimidation and murder are their stock-in-trade; petty assumption of power, large and small, their very transparent capital.
Most Iraqis understand, as a doctor told me one day as I spoke with him along a Fallujah street, that there is a better option than that of insurgency. Speaking with impeccable English, learned from his education and a detailed, if dated, appreciation of Western popular culture, he answered my questions on his response to the bombing in Samarra. He told me that he did not believe there would be a civil war. He described those who planted the bomb as "criminals" and "opportunists hungry for power." He told me that one day he would like to visit America because when you asked an American his nationality, he answered, "I am an American," and not, "I am a Shia," or "I am a Sunni." He said he hoped that one day Iraq, too, would be blessed with such stability and progress.
Yet, such reason and logic is not always the case. I have often wondered about the man who ended his life in a futile attempt to end mine, incinerating himself in a car bomb. What could possibly lead someone to take so dramatic an action with so little to gain? I believe the answer lies not in those who die, but in those puppeteers who, unwilling to sacrifice their own or the life, plunge the depths of poverty, naiveté and emotion for willing candidates. I can explain with an example.
Some time ago, I captured a teenager who blundered into our path with munitions intended for the enemy. That he blundered into us is all that saved this young man from immediate death. If he had been seen emplacing his weapon he would have died on the spot. Captured, he first denied any wrongdoing and then reversed himself, giving numerous cliché explanations for his actions — mostly indistinct religious and political arguments. When his father arrived on scene and realized what had occurred, he immediately began to denounce his son, furious for the embarrassment brought upon the tribe and village. Banished from returning home, the son broke down and admitted that he had been persuaded by another man to carry the weapon for the price of a few dollars. All he had hoped to gain for this act was the childish esteem of his peers and some cash to show for it. He did not hate Americans, but wanted to talk with my Marines and ask questions. He saw coalition forces in much the same way as an underage American teenager wishing to drink might see the local police. And yet, because of the calculated manipulations of an evil man, this youth's life is now forever changed.
I have heard that the movie "Syriana" shows the recruitment of young suicide bombers with moral ambivalence towards the recruiters and then ends with the demise of these misguided youth. Perhaps it would have been better to show the shredded remains of young lives, torn asunder by such machinations or the literal "bits and pieces" we found of the "martyrs" who have senselessly hurled themselves against us. In these tragedies, it is very clear the caliber of evil, exploitive and cowardice, which we fight here in Iraq and which, if uncontested, would infect the rest of the world.
There are two schools of thought in the study of history. The first is the traditional view of history as a tale of kings and presidents, battles and treaties, invention and discovery, all on a specific timeline. The second, generally considered the Marxist view of history, is often criticized as dehumanizing in its classification of all human action as the product of economic forces beyond our control. I bring these two perspectives forward because I believe that here in Iraq and in the world today we can see both.
The development of technology has brought with it unparalleled social and economic globalization. With this has come the easy dissemination of the non-state ideology of hate those who would commit acts of terror. Improved transportation and communication are the vehicles for their words and acts, crossing borders freely beyond the imagination of centuries old concepts of international law and order. The evil we confront here can loom larger over our own shores than any other we have ever encountered. From here in Iraq it is startling how incredibly easy it would be to export such tactics and to great effect.
Standing at the brink of this precipice, between order and disorder is a cast of "combatants." First among these is a 20-something Marine Cpl., whose simple decisions are not merely potentially mortal, but strategic in importance. To watch here or there, to talk to this person or the other, to search under or around, to kill or not to kill, in a world where the news media can distribute information minutes after it occurs, there is little limit to the effect one man's decision can have. Against him is an enemy who understands the strategic value of sensationalism and seeks to defeat our will with dramatic bloodshed. Fortunately, the young Marine is not alone but just as that doctor in the Fallujah street explained to me, is supported by many others: Iraqi Army soldiers, Iraqi Police, Iraqi civilians and interpreters. These men and women, by their willingness to serve, to vote and to help, risk with the young Marine not just their own lives, but also the lives of their families. Here a higher form of courage is undeniably evident. In the next line of "combatants" stands the terrorist financiers, recruiters and planners thousands of miles away from the bloodshed. Lastly, and most importantly, the average American civilian, who chooses daily to support, or not to support, the war and whose opinions carry such an incredible weight in this struggle. It is not a stretch to claim that ultimately the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and all wars fought against the menace we face, will be won or lost by those at home.
I do not claim to describe anything original in my thoughts here, but merely explain what I have read, learned and seen evidenced. I have little doubt that the evils we face here are not merely those of Iraq's situation, but of a much deeper and readily mobile mindset that has spread already and that can spread further throughout many nations.
Before closing an already long letter, I want to speak one last time of the heroes I have spent the last seven months beside and the honor due to them. A few years ago I visited Melbourne, Australia and in the course of traveling through the city I entered the Anglican St. Paul's Cathedral. Inside I found a funerary monument set amongst the towering solemnity of the Gothic architecture, a plaque dedicated, "Forward Undeterred, In Loving Memory" to one Capt. Malcolm Stuart Kennedy, a soldier of World War I, who was born in 1892. His education, commission, wounding, promotion, combat experiences, death of wounds in 1918 and subsequent burial were concisely recounted above a inscription which read, "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori," or "It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country." I was so struck by the plaque that I took a picture, though at the time I did not know why. Now, looking back, I think I understand. This plaque, so eloquent in its simplicity amidst the splendor of the cathedral, concisely elevates this otherwise anonymous soldier and the millions of those beside him, to the level of the sublime. The horrors he witnessed — the rot of corpses at Gallipoli and the blood red of the trenches of the Somme — all is wiped clean of its corporeal stench and to achieve a spiritual beauty. I have seen the same emotions at the monuments to America's wars, but never with such immediate power and grace.
Just as the citizens of Melbourne, faced with the horrendous human cost of World War I, were able to honor so solemnly those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, so must we ensure to likewise remember those who have fallen. We must remember those like Sgt. Adams and Cpl. Gettings, whose sacrifice must never become like the scrolling text across the bottom of our television screens — here and gone, telling of the "Dead in Iraq." There is nothing of this war of which to be ashamed. It is a sign of our strength, resilience and deep moral will that we can fend away America's enemies with one arm, while with the other we critique the war, the crimes of Abu Gharib and the alleged abuses of Guantanamo. It’s all from a nation where the effects of war do little to change the ebb and flow of everyday life. At the end of the day, the Marines here with me are professionals. As professionals, these men will risk all, regardless of the rhyme and reason of the war. They will do it simply because each values the oath he once took to the Constitution and each follows the orders of the president of the United States. When bullets start to fly and you realize someone is trying to kill you, all the op-ed pieces and public opinion mean very little. It is the shared honor that you swore to undertake that binds men like Capt. Walker and the millions who perished beside him almost one hundred years ago, in addition to the heroes I fought beside here, including Sgt. Adams, Cpl. Gettings, Cpl. Burchfield and Doc Engels.
As for me, this is the last time for several years that I will have the honor of leading and fighting beside combat Marines. I am headed to a "shore tour," which will put me on the rear echelons of this war. I am beginning to believe that it is true what they say — no billet can ever surpass that of platoon commander. I cannot complain, I have had a good run of it. As such, I want to take this last opportunity to express my gratitude to all those who, by their words, thoughts, prayers and actions, have sustained me amidst some of my most trying times. I speak for my Marines and myself in saying how critical your efforts were, and are. God bless you, God bless America and Semper Fidelis.
— 1st Lt. Brian Donlon
Read 1st Lt. Brian Donlon's previous letters from Iraq