It’s funny how the mind pushes and pulls and wrestles with memory. One morning last week I awoke and my memory flared into 1990-91.
In early August of 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army assaulted Kuwait—one of the USA’s strong allies—and that recollection kicked around in my thoughts.
When Iraq invaded, it surprised me because not too long before, Saddam Hussein had been our ally. His country fought a brutal, grinding, eight-year war against Iran in which the United States provided important support for Iraq.
And now, late 1990, they became our enemy because they’d overrun another of our allies. What could Saddam Hussein be thinking? Didn’t he believe that we’d react? Did he believe that the US would sit on its hands, and if so, how did he reach that conclusion?
Saddam Hussein, photo courtesy of the National Archives
Nevertheless, the event shocked me and as the days soldiered on, my spirit felt like ghosting around in camo khaki dungarees and a martial aura swelled my innards and the air I breathed churned; alive, alive, alive.
I tuned into the news every morning before heading to work and every evening after returning home. CNN blared out of my TV and all the retired generals who made a living as color commentators talked power, war, and our democratic principles.
Subsequent to our debacle in Vietnam, and then hightailing it out of Beirut in 1983 after terrorists blew up the embassy and killed hundreds of Marines, I suffered from wounded pride, so the saber rattling sung to me.
Betty and I lived out among the vineyards west of Graton, California, and I had a friend in the same vicinity who had been a Marine during the Vietnam War. He and I began to banter about strategy and combat and global politics. It was heady, and the urge to go to war filled my brain with Ideas that had not entered my head since I’d escaped into existential hiding after my service in Vietnam. Mud and blood and mangled bodies, the dead in graves registration—it all barged back
I know war, and that knowledge should have been sufficient to give me second thoughts about combat. Instead, a dose of jingo infested my soul and jangled the marrow of my bones, slithered around like a worm that grew and grew until it became an anaconda swallowing my feet, knees, midsection; my mind.
The word jingo can be defined as the strident support of policies skewed towards war.
In the Corps, my buddy was a pogue (person other than grunt) but he fancied himself an armchair combat quarterback and we bounced ideas off of each other about war and Hussein, how long it would take before we crushed him and his vaunted Republican Guard.
At that time Betty’s and my life in California felt unsettled, as if we didn’t belong in Graton. We’d only been there a few months. So maybe that’s why, one morning I called the Marine Corps recruiter in Sonoma County (Betty didn’t know about this and doesn’t know, now, until she proofreads this blog), and said, “I want to join up.”
He started asking me questions like my recruiter in 1966, and impatient to find out if I could go kill people, I interrupted and championed my experience: Vietnam, Siege of Khe Sanh, 0311 (MOS—rifleman) with a lot of combat. Hell, I’d ridden the elephant and looked the tiger in the eye. As I rattled off my bona fides he interrupted me and asked, “Sir, how old are you?”
I paused and mumbled, “Forty-three.”
He chuckled. I imagined his staff sergeant mug nodding, grinning, condescending.
He said, “You’re too old, sir.”
I scolded him with a tale about fixed bayonets and savage combat, eyeball to eyeball. It was probably out of politeness that he then bragged on me and said, “Yeah, I know all about Khe Sanh,” which is something a lot of the young Marines I talk to say. ”Yeah, I know all about Khe Sanh.”
They may know Faluja or Ramadi or some nasty place on a frozen ridge in Afghanistan, but they have no clue about Khe Sanh.
A pause ensued, like the moment you are sitting in a fighting hole with a comrade when a live Chicom grenade plops in the red mud between you and each of you waits for the other one to do something about it.
But that passed and I said, “Well, thank you,” and he said, “No problem.” That was in the days before anyone said “Thank you for your service.”
As the months wound into 1991, I often wondered what, in reality, I could have done to really help out our warriors who drove into Iraq in the early months of that year.
Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers
I mused about me being an advisor to young Marines as they landed in Iraq. Lecturing them about dealing with fear. I know fear. But then, learning to manage fear is something you gather when you are really…scared, not listening to somebody else tell you about it.
After the war was over, I felt proud of the young folks who fought in that event, and I felt like I was one with them. We’d all been tested in one conflict or another, or some of us anyway, and being in a way related to them and their efforts proved a comfort to me.
And then I began to think about how my Vietnam experiences, which I had felt were inconsequential, suddenly became relevant. Instead of hiding them from people, seedlings of my own pride appeared. For twenty-two years I’d been mostly silent, but now I could begin to speak about my war.
In early 1990, before Saddam Hussein perpetrated the invasion of Iraq, Betty and I attended an event where a gentleman who taught at the Navy’s language school in Monterey, California, talked about how so many countries in the Middle East were “tribes with flags,” and that a large number of those sovereign states were created to suit the post-World War I desires of European countries after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1991, when the US and its coalition allies decided not to–after defeating Iraq—go in and conquer the country, I wonder if we didn’t because our government believed that the only way to control the tribes over there was to keep Saddam in power, as brutal as his reign was.
But in 2003 we went back in and tore the country apart, and then tried to stay, and without much forethought about what the end game might look like. We dealt with disgruntled Iraqi warriors, and Al Qaeda in Iraq, and ISIS, and the turmoil in Syria, Lebanon, and all the subsequent chaos. And I believe we will be dealing with those countries, those “tribes,” again, somewhere down the road.
And pondering that notion, my elation about our initial invasion, my desire to go in and fight for what was right—or what I thought at the time was right—was, at best, an emotional and foolish reaction.
The jingo bells don’t jangle so sweetly for me now like they did in 1990.
Now, after writing this piece, I must ready myself—to deal with Betty.