It is March, 2006. I am sitting on a bench outside a quonset-hut type structure at the Mortuary Unit offices at Balad AFB near Baladiat, Iraq. I am waiting to learn whether I will be given permission to accompany the remains of my colleague, Tom Fox, home (I was not).
In the waiting hours that stretch into a few days, I sit and smoke cigarettes and listen and talk with the young soldiers of the Unit.
One fellow (from Kentucky, I think) remembers Thanksgiving, 2005. He was there at Balad. Secretary Rumsfeld had come to heavily-fortified BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) and had a Thanksgiving meal – turkey and all the trimmings – with a select group of military personnel there. The meal was shown on television back home.
The young man sitting beside me in the dark laughs the bitter soldier-laugh of one far too young for such ‘wisdom’ and tell about how his mother was so excited that he had gotten to have such a fine meal. No matter what he told her, no matter how many times he explained it, she could not or would not believe that he and his compatriots had not been given the same treat – that this was a photo-op and he was not included.
I remember that moment when and if ever I am tempted to discount the impact of propaganda: there is a mother’s son somewhere whose mother will not believe that he did not have a wonderful, peaceful Thanksgiving respite, for she will believe the evidence of her eyes over the claims of her son who was there, living the reality the tv never showed.
CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) gave me many gifts; one I was not looking for was the unique vantage of standing at the margins of things. Even when my team and I were center stage in tragedy, a place we neither sought nor desired, we still stood at the edges, from where we bore our witness.
You learn many things from the margins.
One of my reminder lessons is that most soldiers around the world today or any day, will not be feasting on turkey with all the fixings. Most of them will be eating some version of MRE’s when in field. The ones from the US are well fed. But they’re not at a party. And neither are their enemies.
The obvious lesson: that whenever you see old men in suits in war zones, know that what you are seeing represents not reality but stagecraft.
The deeper lessons reside in the dark behind lit ends of cigarettes.