Friday, March 31, 2006

Respect Between Enemies

Jill Carroll, American hostage in Iraq, was released yesterday. Like the rest of the nation, I am encouraged by this turn of events. I hope that Ms. Carroll sees her family soon, and that her experiences will strengthen her resolve to report fairly the plight of the Iraqi people. This has been a landmark day for both Americans and Iraqis alike.

Unfortunately, I can't help but find some of the recent media coverage surrounding Ms. Carroll disturbing. The woman was held captive for three months. Ostensibly, her survival and later release can be linked to several factors:

1) Her experience as an Arabic linguist,

2) Her work in trying to accurately report about conditions in Iraq, and

3) Her willingness to respect local customs by donning a traditional Arab headdress (hijab) and robe (abaya) when reporting.

In a rational world, I would think Ms. Carroll's survival would carry an important lesson regarding foreign relations. Instead, we have men like John Podhoretz and Jonah Goldberg attacking Ms. Carroll's mental stability and patriotism, making personal attacks and countless tasteless references to Stockholm Syndrome. Regardless of whether or not such inferences carry weight, it makes me sick to see partisan pundits--on either end of the spectrum--attacking Ms. Carroll's unwillingness to use her experiences to support an ideology. Just because a captive brings back information about an enemy that doesn't fit with the current stereotype, that does not make her "mentally unstable" or a "Johnny Taliban." Such implications are little more than partisan sniping, intended to bolster a culturally relative agenda. They should disgust any human being with even a sliver of reason or compassion.

But on another note, the reactions to today's events also perturb me on a different level. They offend my sensibilities not just as a human being, but as an American soldier.

As I've mentioned before, I've been stationed for almost a year in Germany. I love it all; the food, the culture, and the people. When I venture off-post with my wife on the weekends, I make it a point to speak and learn as much German as possible. I learn something new every time I journey to the Marktplatz. I do this out of respect for the people of whose nation I am a guest, NOT because I'm somehow sympathetic to a German nation opposed to my government's occupation of Iraq. Disagreeing with party-line policies does not automatically make one an "enemy sympathizer." I pity anyone who might be foolish enough to believe otherwise.

One of the great dangers of military service, in any society, is the tendency that develops to dehumanize the enemy. The idea is that it's easier to oppress or obliterate a culture if one implies that the enemy is somehow "less than human." The medieval Christians did it. The Communists did it. The Nazis did it. And today, in trying to rally support for our war, we do it as well. And it happens in both cultures.

For every Al-Jazeera, there is a FOX News. For every bin Laden or Zarqawi, there is a Cheney or a Rumsfeld. And for every "infidel" or "occupier," there is yet another "raghead" or "haji."
Soldiers suffer from this problem on an extreme level. To a certain degree, it's a coping mechanism for dealing with the horrors of war. I understand that, despite never having been deployed myself. I expect that I may be guilty of the same behavior when I finally go "downrange." But nothing justifies bigotry. And that's what this is.

Whatever happened to the old idea of honor; of respect between enemies? The samurai of Japan understood it; the gladiators of ancient Rome understood it. Even the Latino youth gangs of California understand it. But what about us? For all the pride we take as Americans in our values (and I certainly do), honor and tolerance often get conveniently glossed over. The reasons people oppose us in our actions are as diverse as the backgrounds we share. If we ever hope to regain our standing in the international community, it is imperative that we remember how to view and treat our fellow human beings with respect, even when we are forced to stand against them in combat.

We face an adversary guilty of appalling atrocities: attacks on civilians, mass murder, even ethnic cleansing. But if Jill Carroll's life was spared by this same group, it was not because of some terrorist plot. It happened because in the face of war, across cultures, a brief glimmer of respect and compassion revealed itself. Whatever other brutalities this enemy may have committed, they have honored Ms. Carroll--and ALL Americans--by deciding that her life was simply too valuable to exploit or destroy. And shame on the ideologues who use this woman's trauma to further their own agendas.

For this honor, on this day, whatever else might happen, I truly respect my enemy. As should we all.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Like Hawks In The Nest

When I was a child in Florida, the fighter jets used to come in so low that the roaring of the engines caused our aluminum blinds to rattle. It used to be that I could run outside and, staring up into the sun, see the words "Navy" or "Marines" stenciled in black against the flat-gray undersides of their fuselages.

These sense-memories imprinted upon my brain have, in retrospect, come to define nearly every aspect of my life. To this day at commercial airports, small things like the smell of jet fuel or the whine of idling turbines take me back to being a scrawny kindergartner. Between flights, I'm once again riding my bike along the curving streets of NAS Cecil Field.

It's not a feeling that most people I talk to can understand.

My father joined the Navy when I was about three years old. When he took the oath of enlistment at 33, unable to become a fighter pilot himself, my father elected to do the next best thing--become an aviation weapons technician. My sister hadn't been born yet, and I had barely come to know my world as anything outside my front yard. When my mother and I found ourselves relocated to Tennessee, and later to Florida, I embraced the sudden changes with a certain childish sense of apathy. To me, the military family life was one that I came to accept as "normal."

I played with other children in preschools funded by the Department of Defense. My mother did her grocery shopping at Naval commissaries. When I went with my parents to the movies--"Top Gun" had been an early favorite--the screens showing the latest films were all property of the U.S. Navy. It's strange, the way that military life always tries to replicate the normalcy of the civilian world. All the same, even the very best attempts, the most well-appointed military neighborhoods, still manage to come off vaguely wrong. They reek of the hollow pastel cheer of 1950's suburbia. Looking back, I am reminded of bowls of waxen fruit; still life writ large. They struggle for authenticity, but they never fully shed that sallow, artificial cast.

When I was five years old, my father was called to serve a brief tour on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt. My mother, unemployed like so many wives, was left to care both for me and for my infant sister. To keep herself sane during that lonely time, she became involved with the local Squadron Wives Association. Social functions were the SWA's bread and butter, and when it was proposed that a homecoming party be prepared for the sailors and pilots, my mother helped to shoulder some of the burden for fundraising. On one occasion, she volunteered by manning a shift at a bake-sale table, inside one of the squadron hangars out at the airfield. Unfortunately, my mother was unable to find a sitter for that evening, so in order to fulfill both committments, my mother simply threw my baby sister into the car seat, and purchased me a Happy Meal, in a scene I've since come to recognize as typical of nearly all military moms.

I remember walking hand-in-hand with my mother through the hangar, all the while wearing poorly-fitted ear protection. The din had been tremendous, and staring down the length of the hangar I had gawked at the neat line of F/A-18s. The carrier-based strike fighters looked sleek and deadly, even with their wings folded, canopies open, and missile racks empty. I stared as they endured the intrusions of routine maintence like a roost of sleeping steel vultures.

Working through my Chicken McNuggets, I found myself the subject of adoring stares from other wives. Green-shirted crew chiefs shouted and waved down to me from atop the wing panels they were repairing. At five years old, I didn't mind--I liked the attention, and to be honest I was too busy watching the bustle of activity constantly running through the hangar. I remember watching intently as a crew chief stood chatting with a pilot in olive flight coveralls, both of them pointing to various features and noting deficiencies accrued to the plane since the most recent flight.

The pilot, most of all, held a special place in my attention. He was tall, perhaps in his early thirties, with lean features and tapered, sandy-blond hair. His manner was both friendly and professional, but even discounting his rank he seemed to tower over the enlisted personnel in a way that had nothing to do with his height. This one fighter pilot, to me, was the essence of maleness in military culture. He was tall, handsome, athletic; the very personification of the elite warrior. Some part of my developing brain struggled to capture everything possible about this image, perhaps logging it as my earliest conscious example of a male role model.

After a time, the pilot smiled and waved, striding over to the bulkhead against which I now sat. I remember how he squatted down to look at me, grinning as I hugged my Happy Meal box closer in a sudden gesture of shyness.

"Hi there," he said. "What's your name?"

I remember looking up at him, and then over to my mother, who was busy giggling with the other wives.

"Milo," I told him.

"Hi Milo," he said, smiling. "I'm Drew. Nice to meet you." He stuck out his hand, and I accepted it in a tentative handshake. I offered him a french fry. He smiled and silently declined.

"How old are you, Milo?" He looked back at the wives, now staring as much at him as they were at me. I didn't respond, but instead stuck my palm out, fingers splayed, in classic childhood fashion. Looking back to me, his eyes widened, never once losing their warmth.

"Wow, five huh? Almost grown up now."

I nodded. "Yep."

"Got a wife yet?" I shook my head no, nose wrinkling in feigned distaste. He laughed.

"You will someday, I bet." Glancing back at the women, he added. "See? Girls love a handsome guy like you."

"Nah." The laughter was growing audible now. I played it cool as best I could.

"What do you want to be when you grow up," he asked me.

"A pilot," I said, grinning. I noticed the way the man had straightened up with pride just a bit. I paused, then added, "or a paleontologist."

The pilot cocked his head at that. "A paleontologist," he repeated. "What's that?"

"He wants to study dinosaurs," my mother called out from the back.

"Dinosaurs, huh? A paleontologist. That's a pretty big word, isn't it?"

I nodded again. "Yep. I know lots of big words."

"I'll bet you do. You been readin' lots of books?"

"Uh huh."

"Wow." The pilot chuckled as he said this, and shook his head. "How old are you again?"

I splayed the fingers once again. "Five," I told him.

The pilot smiled quietly, and again shook his head in amazement. "Wow. Well, you keep readin' those books, and I'm sure you'll do whatever you want to." After a moment, he stood up. "Well, Milo, it was nice meeting you, but I think I'm gonna wander over here and grab one of these cookies the nice ladies are sellin'. You tell your future wife I said hi, now, ya hear?"

I nodded vigorously, and waved as he turned to go, one long french-fry dangling in my hands like a conductor's wand. "Nice meeting you."

"Yep," he said, waving, "Bye Milo."

"Bye Drew." I stared down into my Happy Meal, reaching in for the last Chicken McNugget. Pulling out, I looked up one last time and shouted, "Hey Drew?"

Drew looked back at me. "Yeah?"

I stuck my thumb up in the air. "No points for second place."

He laughed, along with the other wives, recognizing the then-popular words of Val Kilmer's bleach-blond fighter jock. "Right," he shot back.

"No points for second place."

Looking back on that exchange now, it amazes me just how much of that conversation--indeed, the entire military lifestyle--has shaped the way I've grown up. I grew up idolizing these men, men like my father, who left behind all they knew in order to endure hardship and sacrifice. These men were trained to kill, if necessary, in order to protect mysterious ideas like "freedom," and "democracy." Before I even understood death, I understood that killing and dying for these things was to be commended, regardless of the human cost. Each of the fighter planes that I longed to helm carried enough firepower to obliterate entire city blocks. To a five year old, however,"freedom" is a word more easily identifiable than "collateral damage."

Funny, how simply some concepts come to us as children.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Who Is Milo Freeman?

My name is Milo Freeman

"Milo Freeman," of course, is a pseudonym; the surname borrows from the name of my paternal great-grandmother, while "Milo" is a pet name from an old girlfriend, from the Greek Milos, or "Soldier." As of yet, I don't feel entirely comfortable posting under my real name, due to concerns about administrative repercussions. So, for the moment at least, Milo Freeman will have to suffice.

I should begin by divulging some information about myself. I'm a U.S. Army specialist with the Corps of Engineers, just shy of my 23rd birthday. I've been in the Army since early 2004, and have been serving on Active-Duty since July of 2005. I'm currently stationed in central Germany with my wife, and my unit has recently received orders to deploy to Iraq, sometime later this fall.

I grew up in a quiet harbor town on the shores of Lake Huron, and before I joined the Armed Services, I attended a university in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, with the intent of studying creative writing. In 2003, I disenrolled from school due to financial difficulties, and after spending several months effectively homeless, I took the oath of enlistment and entered Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. My reasons for joining are complex, but contrary to expectation, they have relatively little to do with my poverty at the time I enlisted.

One of my greatest passions has always been writing, as a means of recording and examining human experience. I begin this newest journal at a pivotal time in my life, for I am a soldier who has yet to know war, and as my unit prepares to leave for Iraq later this year, I will joining them to leave behind my wife, as well as my family, friends, and everything that I have ever known. To be honest, I have mixed feelings--I disagree with our presence in the Middle East, and all told, my politics and philosophy (Soto Zen Buddhist) lean heavily to the left. While I would never allow such leanings to interfere with the job I'm paid to do, my predispositions have taught me to discern carefully between the images we are fed by the media pundits, and the images which actually play out on the ground. Which image is more accurate, and to what degree, I have yet to ascertain.

Most of the soldiers I know are so wrapped up in their own self-images as servicemen, that when it comes to writing about military life, I can't help but feel that the resulting works come across often as two-dimensional and generic. I am not a typical grunt. What I intend to do here is provide a chronicle of military life leading up to, during, and after deployment, free of prejudice or excessive flag-waving patriotism. I have no intention of being the next Colby Buzzell. The only thing I want is to capture the world I serve in, and the men and women that I am slated to serve WITH. I intend to capture the conversations that go on between soldiers while inside the wire, and as I do so, I intend to publish along with them my personal musings, essays, and poetry, much of which may ultimately have nothing to do with Army life. If you came here looking for another Mom-and-apple-pie salute to the troops, expect to be disappointed. I'm proud of what I do for a living, but I refuse to be cited as an appendage to some political agenda, right or left.

My name is Milo Freeman, and this is my journal. What follows is a meditation on living, dying, spirituality, and personal relationships within the modern American war machine. All is quiet for the moment in garrison, but what looms distant now on the horizon will soon rush to meet us all by fall.

I'm glad to see you've come along, and I invite you to follow me on my journey.

Welcome to the Calm Before The Sand.