The End

 

Our memories are mostly memories of memories. We can trust the big ideas. The details are more suspect.

We pave over the particulars of our past with things from other events or things other people have told us about their experiences of the same event. It’s one of the reasons, besides the fact that people are fantastical liars, that we get caught telling tales so often.

Our past exists in a Gordian Knot of stored data in a biological wet organ just big enough to grow inside our skull. And so over time, all that’s left is the general idea of something that once happened to us. And even then only if we all agree on what that idea was and write it down. So that’s what I’m about to do, lest I forget this one and it vanishes like Roy Batty’s teardrops in rain.

Trust the big idea of this one. The details are post script constructs.

Ten years ago this week, I sat staring at a clip board at my desk in my troop space. On it was a long list of things that needed to get done.

Weapons inventories. Manifest check sheet. Will. Power of Attorney. Classified hard drive storage.

There was a line through each of them already.

The phone in the middle of the desk I shared with my Troop Master Chief rang. He picked it up, muttered a something inaudible and hung up. Then he looked at me. Of all the things I remember that day, it was the look.

We were due over at the North Island Naval Air station with the rest of my troop to get onto a C17 headed for Balad, Iraq in about an hour. But something had happened and we had to head over to the meeting room in SEAL Team ONE. And that something could really only be one thing.

Dan Cnossen, one of the Team’s platoon commanders, was injured in Afghanistan. He was a part of the team that had left the week before with some of my operators and analysts. I knew Dan a bit. Not that well. He lost both legs but survived.

We were about to say goodbye to our families on the tarmac, but the Skipper wanted us to know what happened to Dan. And to remind us that no one says nothing to no one. There was a process underway to let those who need to know, know.

This was the work.

As for Dan, he’s since gone to grad school at Harvard and won two Para-Olympic Gold Medals in the Bi-athlon. It’s true what Ruth said about people you know. If they never quit, they’re damn hard to beat. And there’s clearly no quit in Dan.

I left my wife and three kids on the Tarmac that day. It was the last time I would see my middle son before he was diagnosed with Autism. It was the last time I would see my youngest before he could walk. I slept on top of a conex box in a sleeping bag for the next 15 hours or so before we landed in Iraq.

I felt as bad as I’ve ever felt in my life. For a few minutes and then I buried it.

Those are the details of the day.

The big idea was that it was the end. Whatever I had built myself to be able to do, was done. All that was left was six months to play the game I’d spent the previous 15 years preparing for. And while many, maybe even most of my generation will tell you that the most important time in their lives was when they served, I won’t.

Because the most important time in my life was the ten years since I stopped.

None of us, no matter who we are, can fight forever. And few of us can find a market that fills up our lives talking about what it took to fight. The rest of us need to move on.

I put my family back together. I put myself back together. I found that kid that raised his right hand on the courtyard in Annapolis 20 years earlier who saw that world through bright eyes. Who hadn’t yet buried a lifetime of pain in the desert. Who hadn’t yet clung to countless unsustainable life hacks to numb the pain.

I founded a non-profit with my wife to help families with special needs.

I found a career in an industry that let me build on the experience I had but insisted I grow beyond it.

I found my voice in writing; a few million visits to this site, articles in the Washington Post, Playboy and a dozen other online venues.

I found faith. And in it, I found the strength to walk the next leg of the journey; the journey of a special needs father.

This blog is winding down. I’ve said most of what I need to say about politics in America. It’s not going anywhere. If I need to, I’ll say something here from time to time. But there’s work to be done. There are men out there on the same journey I’m on, in pain. Men who don’t know how to be who they are through the grinding task of special needs parenting.

It’s an unfair task. But I think I can help.

This September I’m launching a blog to provide some words of encouragement, hard lessons learned and a little salt and light to the fathers of special needs children. I know they won’t ask for help. I know they won’t tell people they’re hurting. I don’t need them to. I’ve been there.

And I’m coming to them.

Thank you all so much for the years of following this blog. You are all the reason I wrote. I hope it helped.

And if you’d like to follow my new page, I’ll send one last post with the info when we get it out.

The Veteran’s Paradox

Dick Winters became a production supervisor at a plastics adhesive factory after the war. He eventually bought a farm and started a business selling animal feed in Pennsylvania.

The books and movies about his life didn’t make him rich and famous. They didn’t start until 50 years after the war was over. He wrote his memoir at 86, no doubt with some arm twisting from a few publishers and agents.  Continue reading

Cowardice is Not Our Way

The war started for me while I ate dinner in the  wardroom of my ship, a navy destroyer, floating in the Arabian Gulf within eyesight of the coast of Iraq. The phone rang at the captain’s seat. My roommate answered, said “ok” and hung up.

“Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center.” he said.

That’s all we knew. I went up to the bridge and took over the watch. Minutes later, the phone in front of the captain’s chair on the bridge rang. It was my roommate down below.

“Someone just flew a plane into the other tower. The towers fell.”

I hung up the phone and looked around the bridge at the other men. They were kids. So was I. My feet felt like they were frozen to the deck. A hand on my shoulder snapped me out of it. It was the captain. He handed me a yellow sticky with some coordinates and nodded to the chart table. A subtle order that started the war. Then he climbed up into his seat on the right side of the bridge and sat down.

That’s when I heard it.

Over the marine band radio, the ones we used to talk to the other ships and boats in the area. We heard laughing. And cheering. And music. As the towers fell, we heard cheers of joy.

A little over a month later, the first shot in the war rumbled out of the forward missile launchers of my ship. I watched it from the same place I was standing when the towers fell. That night, as I went to sleep, safe in my stateroom, I had two thoughts before I drifted off. The first was that we were at war with an entire region; maybe even an entire religion. The second was that I never again wanted to fight it from the safety of a ship.

The next day, my ship was on the cover of every newspaper in the world.

Two years later I returned to that part of the world as promised, with a with a very different group and had a very different mission. The details of the what and the who aren’t important. But what I learned is.

The end to a hard nights work in that life was always signaled by the same two things. The light purple glow on the horizon of the dry flat earth. And the wailing of the call to prayer. One morning, as the low droning sound of Arabic echoed from the speakers over the harbor, one of the young officers from the partner unit my team worked with looked at me. He was a Muslim. And he was born and raised in the area in which we were working.

He was a friend.

“I wonder what that sounds like to you Lieutenant.” He smiled. “It sounds like God to me.”

We weren’t far from where they cheered over the radio on 9/11 in distance. But things were different between him and I. They always are when you do the work to close the distance between people.

That’s the lesson I learned.

My team conducted dozens of operations to fulfill objectives of the Global War on Terrorism on that deployment. My Muslim counterpart, and his team of Muslims, Christians and others were shoulder to shoulder with me on every one. I’d go back a third time a few years later. Hundreds of missions that time. On every one of them, a Muslim was the first one through the door. Sometimes, they were the only ones through the door.

Lying in my bed in my stateroom, ten years earlier, I’d gotten it wrong. We weren’t at war with a region. Or a religion. We were at war in a region that had a religion. And the Muslim men and women that fought with me were fighting because the first countries that radical Muslim terrorists invaded, were their own.

I’m not naive. I know there are people over there that don’t love America. I’m confident that there were even men I fought along side who hated me, my country and what I represented. Some I’m sure eventually wound up on the other side after I left. But there are also people over there that are just trying to get through this life in one piece. And feed their families. And keep them alive. And they don’t give a rip about anything other than that.

We don’t have to do anything for them. They aren’t American citizens. They aren’t protected by the laws of America. And who does and doesn’t enter the country is every bit the prerogative of the executive branch of the United States Government, whose leader we just elected.

Much of America is just waking up to the fact that, in the domain of immigration, the actions of our previous leaders were governed more by the societal norms of decency, charity and global leadership than they were by laws. And when it comes to immigration, the president can pretty much do whatever he wants, within the bounds of the very few laws that dictate how we address other people in other places.

We’re all realizing now that the choice we made this November was that decency, charity and global leadership are no longer a part of the American message to the rest of the world.

And maybe that’s fine. Maybe we should be ok with that in order to preserve our safety and our way of life.

Maybe not.

Maybe we’re pretty safe right now. One third of one percent of murders in America come from terrorist related violence. No fatal terrorist attacks in America have ever been conducted by someone coming from one of the seven countries for which we just banned the entry of refugees. And we are several times more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist.

And maybe our way of life isn’t so fragile.

We cast off the rule of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen by waging a bloody war against them because they taxed us without due representation. Over 22,000 of us were killed or wounded in a day at Antietam in a war to preserve our union and destroy the institution of slavery. We led the largest invasion in the history of man over the beaches at Normandy to free a continent we didn’t live on. And we put a man on the moon using slide rules and a pencil.

That’s our way of life. That’s America. We don’t hide behind a wall like a coward.

War is a Choice

War is a lot of things. It’s brotherhood and sacrifice and heroism. It’s one man giving his life to save others. It’s an entire society mobilizing towards a common and just end. It’s the free people of the world drawing a line in the sand against the encroachment of tyranny and casting it into the dustbin of history. It’s a struggle, to the death, in the name of good and freedom and liberty.

These are the things we need to believe about war in order to fight it. And service towards those ends is what we need to believe in order to honor those we ask to fight it for us. Because if you can’t then you run the risk of being reminded of exactly what war is.

Beyond the abstract visions that we sell ourselves to do it, war is a very real and terrible thing. War is the taxi driver in East Timor taking me 20 minutes out of our way to show me the sea wall on which his parents were lined up and shot. It’s the cooler sitting next to my desk full of the body parts of a teenager who blew himself up. It’s me looking at it uneasily, waiting for the technicians to come and take it away to try to identify him. War is the dozen women and children he killed the day before at a funeral. That’s what war was for me. I got off easy.

Because war is much worse.

It’s the 40 thousand civilians—men, women and children- killed by Nazi bombs from the sky in England during the blitz. War is the 300,000 Chinese killed in the Rape of Nanking. War is the 120,000 civilians killed during post invasion Iraq. And now war is the death squads going house to house in Aleppo killing women and children by the dozens. War is all of those things. Whether we sell those parts, or not.

War is one other thing. It’s a choice.

No matter how much we spin it. No matter how much we believe that our safety and the future of our society is at stake, war is always a choice. If the forces of evil are at our doorstep, inside our borders, marching on the capital itself, the movement to fight is a choice. Sometimes it’s the best choice. Sometimes it isn’t. But the iron die is never actually cast, no matter how much we need to believe it was. And the progression towards arms is never inevitable.

War is always a choice.

We point to the isolated atrocities of war as outliers. We think of them as extreme and rare cases to plug into our overall calculus of choice. They give us comfort, knowing there will never be another like it. There was only one My Lai massacre. There was one Abu Ghraib. There was only one Batan Death March. There was only one Andersonville. Those singular events are isolated. And they will never happen again. But the consistency of those sort of events are as much a part of modern war as artillery or tanks or ships. Rest assured, when we mobilize and march to war, someone somewhere will be sitting in their house in fear, having never lifted a finger to harm anyone, and they will be killed. It might be a stray bomb. It might be an accidental target. It might be a death squad or a chemical attack.

Sometimes it’s our fault. Sometimes it isn’t. But it’s going to happen. And it happened because somewhere someone chose it to in the name of something reasonably sellable-security, democracy, capitalism. Though the specifics of the horror are impossible to predict, the certainty of horror is not.

Aleppo has fallen. And the aftermath, death destruction and human tragedy in the streets, is the ultimate end to how modern cities fall in war. It was no different in Berlin. It was no different in Fallujah. And it wouldn’t have been any different in Tokyo, had we not avoided it by annihilating others from above with nuclear destruction. There will be blame to go around. There will be calls for war crime inquiries. And there will be calls for us to act.

To volunteer once again.

Man is a sentient, warring animal. We are capable of committing horrible transgressions in the name of our interests. And we are capable of feeling every ounce of pain it gives us. And now, as the grim events in Syria play out on our televisions and our social media feeds, we need to feel it. All of it. Because we should never miss the opportunity to account for the true costs of war. All of its death and suffering and cruel unfairness. And balance that against the true weight of our gains. And reflect honestly about what side of the ledger holds the most value.

So don’t turn away too quickly. And don’t point to other peoples as unique in their destruction. This is a habit of man. But it’s also a choice. And in these times of fresh tragedy, it’s important to remember that when we decide what to do next.