Behind Enemy Lines
AnIraqi Freedom vet meets the war protestors.
I'm a Red Sox fan who lives in New York. Marines are taught to focus on the enemy perspective before any clash, so each year I don my Sox cap and ride the subway to some Yankee games to try to grasp how the other side thinks. My toes involuntarily curl when I hear women say, "Jeter is so hot."
Yesterday, on the same premise, I hopped on the subway and headed to the antiwar/anti-Bush rally. Like most Americans, I'm somewhere in the middle of two parties, though I heel starboard in rough seas. I support the war in Iraq and hoped to better understand the counterargument by walking among the electrified.
The platform at 72nd Street was not crowded. Nevertheless, I was shoved into the downtown train by a woman wearing a button that read: "If you're not OUTRAGED you aren't paying attention." She wasn't the exception; negativity fed the entire train as it headed down to the march. I was not offered any Kerry stickers when we arrived at 14th Street, but I had brought a supply of anti-Bush ammunition for cover. I chose a "Bush Lies, Who Dies!" sticker and stepped outside.
Union Square seemed to be a pre-march rally point. When I arrived at 10:45 a.m., a shrill voice was reverberating through a loudspeaker. Many people had their hands over their ears. The speaker was standing on an elevated platform behind a banner that read: "I Say NO!" She warned the crowd about growing military influence on young Americans. Spike Lee had sold out and was now directing Navy commercials. The Marine Corps had sponsored a NASCAR racer. Her best friend had been lured out of poverty and shipped to Iraq, where she had become pregnant. The Army was thinking of sending her back there following the birth. She finished by touting the virtues of our soldiers while disparaging the military services.
Michael Moore highlighted the inconsistency of this confused argument in Fahrenheit 9/11, where soldiers are: 1) mindless killers who listen to thrash metal on MP3 players while leveling towns, 2) sadists who cannot be held responsible for their own actions in light of terrible leadership, and 3) poor kids with no other options in life.The crowd now wants to embrace this soldier instead of spitting on her, but the underlying sentiment remains. Frankly, soldiers would rather be despised than pitied. Poor kids can be just as patriotic as middle-class kids.
I walked along 15th Street. A slew of flag-draped cardboard caskets were stacked on garbage bag tarps. Photographers were swarming among the organizers of this show, who were doing their best to display gravity. It was clear they were serious-minded, but there were not enough volunteers. Pallbearers were being recruited in haste. Flags were scraped on the concrete. This is not meant to be petty; any soldier cringes when the flag touches the ground. I was asked five separate times to carry a casket before I found one of the marshals, named Scott, who told me that the caskets were "symbols of the soldiers who had died for their country."
If this was meant to be symbolic, I wondered what country it was supposed to mirror. Fallen American soldiers are treated with the utmost care. Meticulous casualty-handling procedures on the battlefield and at home are rehearsed and rehearsed. Honor and dignity are paramount. What a shame the Pentagon chose to black out this careful tradition, in which our national humanity shines so brightly. Perhaps then these protestors would have understood what it looked like to me when two volunteers tipped their casket on its end to get situated. These were not symbols. These were props.
I walked for two hours with the crowd up Seventh Avenue toward Madison Square Garden. I met several people who were against Operation Iraqi Freedom and wanted our troops to be pulled out tomorrow. One was dressed as an Abu Ghraib prisoner. Another wore military fatigues and said he "liked desert camouflage." An articulate young man named Fareed was carrying an antidraft placard. Any forced field trip to Iraq would go through Canada, he said. There was no U.N. mandate, after all. There was no coalition. There was no threat to the United States. Fareed supported President Clinton's 78-day bombing campaign in Kosovo, however, on the principle of humanitarian intervention. Yes, he knew about the massive bombing of civilian infrastructure that turned the tide. Yes, he knew there was no U.N. blessing. Yes, he agreed U.S. security was never threatened. "[The] differences are … hard to describe," he said. "Bush just went about it wrong."
We now have an ironic situation where the men and women risking the most, the shock infantry troops on the front lines, are among the leading proponents of the effort in Iraq while an extreme wing of the Democratic Party seeks to protect them by bringing them home. I visited the Marines outside Fallujah last month, and the only time their morale dipped was when they were inactive for days on end. They were most satisfied living on the edge. How to reconcile the two?
Perhaps it's not for those of us who have not sacrificed to decide. In Central Park, I stumbled across a Quaker memorial to our fallen troops in which 972 pairs of combat boots had been carefully arranged by home state. The organizers did not lust for attention; it was a silent memorial overlooking a pond where people were picnicking. I found the boots representing Capt. Brent Morel of Tennessee, about whom I had written in Fallujah. Brent died a winner. He led a charge against an Iraqi insurgent machine-gun position across a quarter-mile of open ground. His men subsequently wiped out the enemy. Brent believed deeply in the cause. His men still do. Brent's wife, Brent's father and mother, Brent's men can judge memorials and protests like this. I can't.
Owen West, who took two leaves-of-absence from his job Goldman Sachs where he co-heads the veterans' network. to serve with the Marines in Iraq, is the author of The Snake Eaters: An Unlikely Band of Brothers and the Battle for the Soul of Iraq. He is also the author of two novels and numerous articles about adventure sports and military affairs. His writings can be found at www.westwrite.com.
Photographs of the Republican Convention protests by Owen West.