Last week my husband and I received an e-mail from a friend who is serving with the 1st Armored Division in Iraq. It was a brief message, as all our correspondence with him as been, a few quick words about his life, the details of which we can no longer even pretend to grasp. Early in his stay, I spoke to him, even more briefly, on the phone. His voice was brittle, chopped by distance and technology, the satellite signal bouncing precariously from Baghdad to Missoula, Montana. And in the few sentences that passed between us before the line went dead, he was able only to convey one thing. It's hot here, he kept saying, hotter than you can imagine.
He didn't talk about the weather in his latest message. He'd been trasferred from a relatively cushy (not that there's anything cushy about Baghdad) position in the Green Zone to an outpost on the outer outskirts of the city. He reported being shelled at least one a day, and relayed the harrowing story of how, just days earlier, the armor vehicle in front of his had been blown up by a crude roadside bomb. Luckily, he said, there had been no injuries.
Short as the e-mail was, it brought the definite sense that our friend had been changed irreversibly by the war. He was worn down, tired of the daily reality. Things he'd cared intensely about months earlier had become to mean little or nothing to him. I hate to say or think it, but he seemed somehow overwhelmed by the futility of life. And he's one of the luckier ones.
A volunteer enlistee, our friend knew he would likely be going to Iraq when he joined the army. Unlike reservists or guardsmen, he left behind neither job nor family. This is his life, the one he signed up for, and, one would assume, the one he bargained for in the first place. And yet, knowing that he's facing a now indeterminate number of months and years in a place of gruesome brutality and constant fear, I can't help but feel he got a rather raw deal.
It has long been known that part of Donald Rumsfeld's vision for the future of American defense policy is an army made up entirely of professionals. One of the greatest obstacles to war has always been public opinion and the balance between cause and sacrifice. A professional army, as Donald Rumsfled has long known, greatly reduces public outrage over war by limiting war's necessary sacrifices to a small (and usually economically underpriviledged) segment of the population. This, coincidentally, is why the Department of Defense isn't concerned about the overwhelmingly long deployments of our reservists and national guardsmen. In the Rumsfeld scheme, these weekend warriors are just another obstacle to that entirely professional army, people to which the American voters can point to during a time of war and say: "it's your job, now go and do it."
Which brings me back to my friend in the 1st Armored Division. Of course any sane person should be able to agree that no one should be made to endure the ceaseless brutality of war for the stretches that are being required of our troops in Iraq today. It simple isn't humane to expect soldiers to remain actively deployed for years at a time, whether soldiering is their "job" or not. And certainly neither Donald Rumsfeld nor President Bush would accept such death sentences for themselves or their kin.
But as bad as these drawn out deployments are, there's a much more serious problem with an army made up of professional soldiers. For as much as my husband and I are unable to grasp the daily struggles our friend faces, at least we know they exist. And it struck me, reading that last e-mail from Baghdad, that if everybody in this country had a friend or relative or loved-one in Iraq, the war would be far more unpopular than it is today. Of course that's the beauty of the draft, no matter how odious a proposition universal military service is. It's part of what Donald Rumsfeld and those like him fear, a society where everyone is expected to make sacrifices for national security (unless of course your last name happens to be Cheney or Bush, but that's another issue), a country where the decision to wage war is tempered against those sacrifices. Now that would be democracy!