“Turn on the TV!” James shouted as he entered my college dorm room. “The war is starting!”
Are you serious? I’d just turned the damned thing off about a half hour earlier, getting sick of waiting for the fireworks that for all I knew wouldn’t be coming at all. I’d been glued to the TV all day, watching the cable news networks count down to the moment Bush’s 48-hour deadline for Saddam to leave Iraq reached 0:00. What an anti-climactic moment that had been. Once it came, the reporters started to remind everyone that this was just the count-down to the end of Bush’s cowboy-diplomacy deadline—that the actual fighting might not begin until the next day or later.
Thanks to James, I hadn’t completely missed the historical moment I’d been waiting for all day. The beginning of a war that might come to define my generation.
More than six years later, James reached me through a Facebook chat and informed me that he was enlisting in the military. That he’d very likely be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, but he’d given it a lot of thought and decided it’s what he wanted to do. The terrible economy had cost him his job a year earlier and in spite of his college-degree he couldn’t find any work elsewhere. The military seemed like his best option.
Throughout the years I’d also occasionally ponder joining the fighting, usually in my darkest moments when life seemed too overwhelming to figure out how to live it on my own. After graduating college with a relatively useless degree in philosophy, I spent the next couple of years just trying to figure out how to kill the remaining time I had left before death. The likelihood that there were far more years ahead of me than behind me would at times fill me with despair. I never seemed to fit in this world. What was I supposed to be doing here?
Important things were always happening, of course. Mostly too big to wrap my head around, too big to do anything about. Ever since September 11, the instant I heard someone in my high school classroom say the words, “They hit the second tower” I knew that I was probably one of those human beings cursed to live in interesting times. My sense of personal responsibility increased tenfold on that day and the weeks that followed.
After overcoming my initial reaction of anger and rage at the terrorists, I’d thought about it and decided that the best thing for the United States to do would be not to retaliate. We should go after the people responsible for the attack, but not invade an entire country. Not drop bombs that would kill innocent children and make those people hate us even more. After 9/11 we had a chance to show the world what an honorable nation we could be—to refrain from flexing our military muscles and instead focus only on the individuals responsible for the crime.
That was not a very popular position at the time, but I stood my ground and made my case to anyone who would listen. I pointed out that if we were in fact going to war, it would be people my age who would be doing the fighting. I asked everyone if they’d be willing to die for this cause. At that time, most said yes. Ultimately, most never did.
Had I believed in the cause, I might have enlisted. Had this been an event like Pearl Harbor in which my country had been attacked by an actual army from an actual nation that posed an actual existential threat to us, I would have followed in the footsteps of the “greatest generation” and gone to fight and die for my country.
But I never thought this was a noble cause. I didn’t think the fighting in Afghanistan was necessary, and I found the invasion of Iraq to be even less justifiable. If you’re going to put yourself in a position from which you might actually have to kill people—from which you might actually end up killing children—you’d better have a damned good reason, I thought. And giving my life a sense of purpose or direction never seemed good enough.
Those who’ve fought in these wars have my undying respect and admiration, but I just can’t make myself believe that their efforts have been for a good cause. They haven’t been fighting and dying for freedom. They haven’t even been fighting and dying for the United States of America. They’ve been fighting and dying (and killing and maiming) for Blackwater and KBR, for the military industrial complex, for neoconservative ideologues, and for multi-national corporations who have a vested interest in permanent warfare.
I could never be a part of that. All other considerations aside—the sense of accomplishment, the pride of my family, the benefits of being a veteran—none of these would be worth the sense of responsibility that I’d have to carry with me for the rest of my life for having been a part of one of history’s greatest crimes. And the invasion and occupation of Iraq was and always will be a crime in my mind, regardless of how it ultimately turns out.
But that doesn’t mean I consider the soldiers criminals. Far from it. They were following in the footsteps of their fathers, doing what they saw as the most noble thing they could do. In a sense I envy them. When the last decade becomes nothing more than a distant memory and the wars another chapter in the history books, they’ll be able to tell their grandchildren that they were there—that when their country made the call they stood up and answered it. No matter what the politics, that’s something to be proud of.
And what did I do? I partied with my college friends, I moved to California and relaxed on the beach, I flew to Germany to teach English to businesspeople, and I started a blog.
The Iraq war technically ends today. I’ve come a long way since that night in my dorm-room when James and I watched the bombs falling on Baghdad. I’m still not sure which direction my life is going, but I’m always thinking. These are interesting times, and the sense of historical responsibility is still nagging at me. And if I won’t fight, it seems all I can do now is write.
To all of my fellow millennials who fought in Iraq, who were injured, who died, or who watched their friends die: this one’s for you.