{ By the Time We Get to Al Nasiriya }
Steve May
photography courtesy the Patterson family

shipman - steve mayPeace. Peace had finally come to the world with the Japanese surrender, and now it was night. Jack, age twenty-three, was celebrating with his Army Air Corps comrades in the Chinese jungle, drinking and playing cards. The war was over and godammit, they had won. One of the pilots, whose mission the next day would be to fly a load of money to another spot in China, decided to check his C-47 twin-engine transport to see if the weight was balanced. He left the thatched-roof hut and walked into the night. Not long after, a gunshot rang out. A Chinese guard had mistaken him for a looter and shot him. The pilots and crewman went for their guns.
   Jack was the pilot of his own twin-engine Skytrain in the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II, the last unquestionably just war in which our country has participated. His job was to drop cargo in support of allied incursions into enemy territory in Burma, and after that territory was no longer in question, to fly over the towering hump of the Himalayas into China. The weather was brutal. Often, the wooded hillsides surrounding one drop site or another would erupt in anti-aircraft and small arms fire. The target, up there in the air, but low enough to the ground to avoid radar detection and attract Japanese Zeros, was Jack's unarmed C-47: big and brownish green, a sitting duck.
   He will not tell you, exactly, if it was flying skill, general togetherness, or dumb luck (though he will hint it likely had more to do with the latter two), but Jack made it out alive, unlike several of his comrades and 405,399 of his countrymen. Jack would live on to witness the rapid ascent of his United States of America from the role of the western world's unsophisticated, isolationist, red-headed stepchild to its first true superpower. The ascent would take amazingly less than five years.
   Jack will tell you, though perhaps not too proudly, looking back, that as a vice president of a steel foundry, he supported the war in Vietnam, and explain that there was a well-respected, perfectly logical theory going around at the time that held that communism was like cancer, and one communist country lead to another, and if we didn't do something to stop the spread of that ideology, the Soviet Union's sphere of influence would grow out of control, and the whole world would be communist, and we, the free world, would be in trouble.
   Jack will also tell you, if you ask him, that he supported the first Gulf War, because Saddam Hussein's Iraq had been an aggressor, and the world had decided, collectively, that such aggression in a region as sensitive politically and economically as the Persian Gulf was intolerable.
   But if you ask him about the war that started last Wednesday, the one wherein the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have taken it upon themselves to invade Iraq for the purpose of disarming it of its "weapons of mass destruction" and replacing the oppressive, tyrannous, antagonistic "regime" of the aforesaid Saddam Hussein with one more democratic and free-thinking and "safe", he might surprise you. After a pause, he will tell you: He does not think it is a good idea.

Joe, 57, born in Pittsburgh during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, did not fight in the Vietnam War, but his best friend Jim did. Jim was born a few months before Joe on April 4, 1944. The two attended St. Joseph's elementary school and secondary school, and, eventually, Duquesne University. They graduated in the late spring of 1968, just after the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched their Tet Offensive, not long after Eddie Adams' famous photograph of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner with a single silent bullet in the head in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, appeared on the covers of newspapers around the globe. Joe became a teacher; Jim was drafted.
   "He figured it was only two years and he might as well go," Joe says. Jim trained in Colorado and, when he was finished, with two weeks before he was sent to fight, he bought a car and drove home across the countryside. Joe and Jim went for a drink at a local bar in Pittsburgh's Mount Oliver neighborhood, where they grew up, and shot pool. "He was a big guy, like 6'2", so the last thing I said to him before he left was, 'Don't get your ass shot off,'" Joe says. "That was the last thing I said to him."
   James Francis Polusney was killed in the province of Tay Ninh in South Vietnam on November 17, 1969. He was twenty-five-years old. His body was brought back to Mount Oliver and there was a viewing in a local funeral home. "There was glass over the coffin," Joe says, remembering. "I didn't want to look at him, but Mrs. Polusney said, 'Joe, you've known him your whole life, go over and look at him.'" Joe did. The person he found lying there dead in a coffin, in uniform, was not a boy, but a man. "He had a mustache," Joe says. He pauses. "I didn't remember him having a mustache."
   Joe opposed the war at the time, and opposes it now. In 1988, he made the trek from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C., found his best friend's name on the black Vietnam Wall, and cried. "Fifty thousand boys died for nothing," he says.

For someone born after Vietnam, war thus-far has looked and felt clinical and easy, approximately like this: We successfully invaded Grenada (nineteen Americans dead) and Panama (forty Americans dead) in about one day, combined; we defeated Iraq in the Gulf War in less than a week of fighting on the ground (363 Americans dead for the whole conflict), with most of the free world represented alongside us in one way or another. We watched all those on television, and the Gulf War in particular, with all its black-and-white video-game images of smart-bomb strikes on various Iraqi buildings, made for good, compelling TV. We were not shown the part about the innocent civilians dying of typhoid and cholera as a result of our bombing of usable water supplies.
   Also, do not forget, after seeing too many heart wrenching images of young children and their parents starving to death, we invaded Somalia (eight Americans dead), but after we caught a glimpse of the still-too-thin citizens of Mogadishu dragging the dead bodies of the U.S. servicemen through the streets, dancing around them, we got the hell out of there. Don't forget that in the mid-nineties, via the United Nations and NATO, we stuck our big toe in Bosnia and Kosovo, accidentally taking out the Chinese Embassy in Serbia in the latter military action.
   Post-September 11, our track record is mixed. We have toppled the Taliban government of Afghanistan in a lightening war, and, with our other hand, wiped out what we could of the al-Qaeda terrorist network in that country. But we tellingly failed to produce the dead or living corpse of either the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, or the deceptively Muppet-looking but seemingly impossible to pin down Osama Bin Laden, and we are now left with the broken, desolate pieces of an unstable, dangerous, mess of a country no one, not even the rule-by-hanging-and-Kalashnikov-rifle Taliban, could bring to order. We have shifted the weight of Afghanistan to our collective left hand. In our right hand—fist—we now have a new war.
   The news today, March 23, was far more brutal than we were used to: twenty Americans dead or missing, at least, and fifty wounded, at least, after things started going to shit around the city of Al Nasiriya, along the Euphrates River, about one hundred miles north of the Kuwaiti border.
   Things already started off on the wrong foot when an American Patriot missile was fired at a British Tornado fighter jet, killing two. But now we had the Army's 507th Maintenance Company making a wrong turn and driving into Al Nasiriya without an armored escort, coming under tank fire and suffering several injured and dead, several of the latter shot execution-style in the forehead; several more were taken prisoner and turned up later in the day on Iraqi television, beaten. In Al Nasiriya, the First Marine Expeditionary Force came under fire when a vehicle waving a white flag set up an ambush, with the wide-open American flanks coming under intense fire, an armored personal carrier taking a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade.

The problem, as Jack, who is my grandfather, sees it, is that the world is not together on this one. The United States failed spectacularly in its attempt to build consensus in favor of a war on Iraq, and is now left to go at it more or less alone with the UK. Victory, though Jack notes that it could come at greater American loss of life than anyone in this day and age is prepared to stomach, is a foregone conclusion, and was before a single Tomahawk Cruise Missile was fired. What will happen next, after we topple Hussein and disarm Iraq?
   For one, according to Jack, "There's a lot of Iraq and only one of us." Reorganizing an entire country into which we were not invited into our own mold—one much of the population of the aforementioned country despises—is going to be a daunting challenge to say the least. For two, Jack says, Iraq is not the only "rogue" country out there with weapons of mass destruction, and it will be impossible to disarm them all.
   So we are not only overextending ourselves and putting our own men and women in danger, "freeing" a country of a regime a majority of its people have been unwilling to overthrow, and entering ourselves into a costly logistical quagmire of dimensions the "nation-building"-basing Bush could never in his wildest dreams have foreseen. We are also not significantly increasing our own level of safety. "So what if we get their weapons of mass destruction," Jack says. "They're not the only ones. What are we going to do next? Invade Iran? Invade North Korea?"
   My grandfather is quick to note that, by his estimation, President Bush is a good, moral man. "But this time he's made a mistake," Jack says. Later in our conversation, over the telephone after dark on Sunday evening, my grandfather suggests, quite sadly, that we Americans might do best to return to our original isolationist ways, for the sake of safety and economic security.
   Joe, who is my father is quick to dismiss this war useless and dangerous. "I think it's stupid," he says of the new war. "I'm smarter than Bush is."
   There will be those who argue, and certainly many have argued, that this new war is about deterrence. Not only, the argument goes, shall we make the world a safer place by disarming Iraq, but we shall make it a safer place by showing it what fate awaits those "regimes" who do not march in step. But if September 11 has proven anything, it has proven that our enemies do not need weapons of mass destruction to wage war against us. All they need is determination, a target, and plane tickets. Indeed, as Matthew Parris argued in the March 22 issue of London's Sunday Times:

A rogue state may (it is true) occasionally sponsor a terrorist group. That is simple opportunism: even civilized states such as the US have done it. But states and terrorists are not natural allies. Terrorism is what some people resort to when unable to exercise their will through government. If ... Baghdad does prove the last capital in the world which dares raise a fist to Pax Americana, then what is the logical conclusion for (for instance) Islamists to draw? To quit al-Qaeda?
   I do not excuse the terrorist when I say that terrorism, which is not a natural way for humans to behave, is usually associated with popular despair. Individual terrorists may simply be wicked, but they will not get the community cover they need without endemic despair.
   Now look me in the eye and try to deny that, after the success of Shock and Awe, will come despair? Despair may not mount much resistance to a daisy-cutter, but, so long as there are jetliners and there are skyscrapers, despair will always be able to fly the one into the other.
   In the Chinese jungle, on the evening of VJ Day, Jack and his comrades put down their guns. One needless death was enough. In Iraq, with American forces—many of which have bypassed bloody Al Nasiriya altogether—sixty miles south of Baghdad, it is too late for that now, and all but the most radical and/or naive among us must now face that fact: We have no choice. This war, though we did not ask for it, or want it, though there was nothing we could do to stop it, is now ours. But we do not have to be silent.
   In his Sunday Times essay, Matthew Parris pointed out correctly: "George W. Bush is not America; he is the current U.S. president. It is not the same." Do not forget: Less than one year remains before the start 2004 presidential campaign. Let us dissenters sharpen our political knives and unite.

The author wishes to acknowledge the following sources: Jack Walker Russell, Walter Joseph May, the New York Times, the American War Library, and the Sunday Times (London). May James Poulusney rest in peace.

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