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The Costs of War | The Nation

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The Costs of War

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Almost a year ago, Tom Engelhardt, the editor of tomdispatch.com, began a correspondence with Teri Wills Allison, a mother from Texas whose son is in the military in Iraq. Out of that grew an invitation to Allison to write about how the situation personally affected her as a parent. The resulting essay, published in mid-October at tomdispatch.com, brought a flood of e-mail, selections from which Engelhardt also published at the site. "One thing struck me," Engelhardt said in introducing the letters. "Amid all the pundits opining and journalists reporting on the state of the nation, we almost never hear the voices of Americans who, like Teri Allison, have to deal with the fallout from the mess this Administration has created." Engelhardt said he was also struck by the offers of help directed to Allison and some of the people she wrote about. In their generosity of spirit, he wrote, the responses "offer a kind of hope and renewal all their own." With the permission of all those involved, and with thanks to tomdispatch.com, a project of The Nation Institute, we offer Allison's letter and a sampling of the responses.   --The Editors

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TERI WILLS ALLISON

Teri Wills Allison, a massage therapist and a member of Military Families Speak Out, lives near Austin, Texas.

I am not a pacifist. I am a mother. By nature, the two are incompatible, for even a cottontail rabbit will fight to protect her young. Violent action may well be necessary in defense of one's family or home (and that definition of home can easily be extended to community and beyond); but violence, no matter how warranted, always takes a heavy toll. And violence taken to the extreme--war--exacts the most extreme costs. A just war there may be, but there is no such thing as a good war. And the burdens of an unjust war are insufferable.

I know something about the costs of an unjust war, for my son, Nick--an infantryman in the US Army--is fighting one in Iraq. I don't speak for my son. I couldn't even if I wanted to, for all I hear through the Mom Filter is: "I'm fine, Mom, don't worry, I'm fine, everything is fine, fine, fine, we're fine, just fine." But I can tell you what some of the costs are as I live and breathe them.

First, the minor stuff: my constant feelings of dread and despair; the sweeping rage that alternates with petrifying fear; the torrents of tears that accompany a maddening sense of helplessness and vulnerability. My son is involved in a deadly situation that should never have been. I feel like a mother lion in a cage, my grown cub in danger, and all I can do is throw myself furiously against the bars...impotent to protect him. My tolerance for bullshit is zero, and I've snapped off more heads in the last several months than in all my forty-eight years combined.

For the first time in my life, and with great amazement and sorrow, I feel what can only be described as hatred. It took me a long time to admit it, but there it is. I loathe the hubris, the callousness and the lies of those in the Bush Administration who led us into this war. Truth be told, I even loathe the fallible and very human purveyors of those lies. I feel no satisfaction in this admission, only sadness and recognition. And hope that--given time--I can do better. I never wanted to hate anyone.

Xanax helps a bit. At least it holds the debilitating panic attacks somewhat at bay, so I can fake it through one more day. A friend in the same situation relies on a six-pack of beer every night; another has drifted into a la-la land of denial. Nice.

Then there is the wedge that's been driven between part of my extended family and me. They don't see this war as one based on lies. They've become evangelical believers in a false faith, swallowing Bush's fear-mongering, his chickenhawk posturing and strutting, and cheering his "bring 'em on" attitude as a sign of strength and resoluteness. Perhaps life is just easier that way. These are the same people who have known my son since he was a baby, who have held him and loved him and played with him, who have bought him birthday presents and taken him fishing. I don't know them anymore.

But enough of my whining. My son is alive and in one piece, unlike the 1,102 dead and 7,782 severely wounded American soldiers; which equals 8,884 blood-soaked uniforms, and doesn't even count the estimated 20,000 troops--not publicly reported by the Defense Department--medevacked out of Iraq for "non-combat related injuries." Every death, every injury, burns like a knife in my gut, for these are all America's sons and daughters. And I know I'm not immune to that knock on my door either.

And what of the Iraqi people? How many casualties have they suffered? How many tens of thousands of dead and wounded? How many Iraqi mothers have wept, weep now, for their lost children? I fear we will never know, for though the Pentagon has begun--almost gleefully--counting Iraqi insurgent deaths, there is little chance of getting an accurate verification of civilian casualties. You know, "collateral damage."

Yes, my son is alive and, as far as I know, well. I wish I could say the same for some of his friends.

One young man who was involved in heavy fighting during the invasion is now so debilitated by post-traumatic stress disorder that he routinely has flashbacks in which he smells burning flesh; he can't close his eyes without seeing people's heads squashed like frogs in the middle of the road, or dead and dying women and children, burned, bleeding and dismembered. Sometimes he hears the sounds of battle raging around him, and he has been hospitalized twice for suicidal tendencies. When he was home on leave, this 27-year-old man would crawl into his mother's room at night and sob in her lap for hours. Instead of getting treatment for PTSD, he has just received a "less than honorable" discharge from the Army. The rest of his unit redeploys to Iraq in February.

Another friend of Nick's was horrifically wounded when his Humvee stopped on an IED [improvised explosive device]. He didn't even have time to instinctively raise his arm and protect his face. Shrapnel ripped through his right eye, obliterating it to gooey shreds, and penetrated his brain. He has been in a coma since March. His mother spends every day with him in the hospital; his wife is devastated and their 112-year-old daughter doesn't know her daddy. But my son's friend is a fighter and so is making steady, incremental progress toward consciousness. He has a long hard struggle ahead of him, one that he need never have faced--and his family has had to fight every step of the way to get him the treatment he needs. So much for supporting the troops.

I go visit him every week, and it breaks my heart to see the burned faces, the missing limbs, the limps, the vacant stares one encounters in an acute-care military hospital. In front of the hospital there is a cannon, and every afternoon they blast that sucker off. You should see all the poor guys hit the pavement. Though many requests have been made to discontinue the practice for the sake of the returning wounded, the general in charge refuses. Boom.

Then there is Nick's 24-year-old Kurdish friend, the college-educated son of teachers, multilingual and highly intelligent. He works as a translator for the US Army for $600 a month and lives on base, where he is relatively safe. (Translators for private contractors, also living on base, make $7,200 a month.) He wants to travel to the States to continue his education, but no visas are now being issued from Iraq. Once the Army is through with him, will they just send him back into the streets, a virtual dead man for having worked with the Americans? My son places a high premium on loyalty to family and friends, and he has been raised to walk his talk. This must be a harsh and embittering lesson on just how unprincipled the rest of the world can be. My heart aches for his Iraqi friend as well as for him.

A year ago in January, when Nick left for Iraq, I granted myself permission to be stark-raving mad for the length of his deployment. By god, I've done a good job of it, without apology or excuse. And I dare say there are at least 139,999 other moms who have done the same--though taking troop rotations into consideration to maintain that magical number of 140,000 in the sand could put the number of crazed military moms as high as 300,000, maybe more. Right now, you might want to be careful about cutting in line in front of a middle-aged woman.

I know there are military moms who view the war in Iraq through different ideological lenses than mine. Sometimes I envy them. God, how much easier it must be to believe one's son or daughter is fighting for a just and noble cause! But no matter how hard I scrutinize the invasion and occupation of Iraq, all I see are lies, corruption and greed fueled by a powerful addiction to oil. Real soldiers get blown to tatters in their "Hummers," so that well-heeled American suburbanites can play in theirs.

For my family and me, the costs of this war are real and not abstract. By day, I fight my demons of dreaded possibility, beat them back into the shadows, into the dark recesses of my mind. Every night, they hiss and whisper a vile prognosis of gloom and desolation. I order the voices into silence, but too often they laugh at and mock my commands.

I wonder if George Bush ever hears these voices.

And I wonder, too...just how much are we willing to pay for a gallon of gas?

PRISCILLA AMMERMAN

Priscilla Ammerman, a long-term Mississippi resident, is a state purchasing agent.

I am the mother of identical 22-year-old twins, both members of the Mississippi Army National Guard. Both have been activated in the same unit for training here in Mississippi and for deployment to Iraq in January.

As luck would have it, my sons' unit also has another set of identical twins; they are only 19. This is one of the real consequences of the mobilization of National Guard units from small towns; we have brothers, sons and fathers, mothers and daughters, and all other combinations of relatives going to combat zones together.

I read Ms. Allison's comments and, finally, was able to identify with someone in this alternate universe I suddenly find myself residing in. I also feel her frustration, her fear, her all-encompassing anxiety and most of all her overriding anger.

Like Ms. Allison, I can no longer seem to communicate at all with my family's members, all of whom are also right-wing, religious, knee-jerk supporters of Bush. When they vaguely ask me how my sons are doing, I just as vaguely reply fine. I really have no one other than my husband to express my feelings to. Living in Mississippi precludes most thoughtful discussion of the war, the President or any other topic relating to this Administration.

My anger at this President has become so intense that I can no longer watch him on television or listen to him on NPR; I literally become physically ill. I recently e-mailed the White House to ask the President to do a little soul-searching late at night away from distraction by advisers, campaign staff, etc. I asked him to then ask himself if he thought this war was worth the sacrifice of his twins, because I sincerely felt that it was not worth the sacrifice of mine.

Needless to say, I got no reply. And since then, as I have read more and more about his personality, I have realized what a futile effort that query was, because it appears this man is seemingly incapable of introspection or self-doubt. He apparently has no comprehension of the suffering of others, either.

As the mother of twins going into combat together, I think I am facing a situation even more untenable than most. Because my sons have always been so close, I have to fear not only the loss of a child but the consequences of that loss on the other twin. Both sons have confided to me that their greatest fear is not dying--but coming back without their brother. I, of course, have absolutely no way to reassure either that his greatest fears will not come to fruition.

My husband and I can only pray daily that something can occur before January to keep them here. They are 22-year-old college students who should be studying for finals and going to keggers, not patrolling in a country where the enemy straps on explosives and uses his body as a guided weapon.

MARYELLEN WALTER

Maryellen Walter is an out-of-work telecommunications worker from the Midwest.

Teri Allison's letter put into words many of my own feelings. We are a blue-collar union family whose only two sons are now in Iraq, using the Army to pay for their educations. One son is an armor officer who earned an ROTC scholarship; the other is an enlisted medic who wants to finish his education on the GI Bill. They knew the risks and joined voluntarily. And were they serving in Afghanistan, it would be so much easier for me to bear, because that battle in the WOT [War on Terror] needed to be fought. Iraq is a huge wrong turn that seems to inflame the risk of terror, not diminish it.

We also have a contradiction about Iraq within our family. Our officer son's wife is a huge Bush supporter who views Iraq as the main stage of World War IV, and W. is her White Knight defending our civilization. I envy her the peace of mind that helps her cope with the separation and anxiety. But whistling past the graveyard gives me no such peace. If this is indeed an apocalyptic clash of civilizations, where is the national sense of urgency, why are so relatively few bearing the burden and why are we paying for it on credit?

MIKE ROEMHILDT

Mike Roemhildt, a music teacher, lives in Cloquet, Minnesota.

I just wanted to write to thank you for posting the letter, "The Costs of War." It expressed the feelings of my wife and me in a way that was so close to ours it was scary. Our son, age 19, is a tanker in the Army and has been to Iraq once already and will go back sometime this coming winter. Needless to say, we dread it very much. His first tour found him in an ambush, witnessing many horrible sights, IED explosions and mortar attacks, and finding himself in a position in which he had to kill. He seems to be handling things OK, though he drank for nearly three weeks upon his initial return. There was virtually no psych screening to speak of to identify those soldiers who might have problems. In fact, they were not even held more than a few hours on base before being released into the world!!!

I could certainly go on about my thoughts and feelings but my main purpose for writing was to thank you and to request that you forward this letter on to the author. It meant a lot to my wife and me to read another person's experiences and to discover that we are not alone.

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