Jeff Ackerman: History may be repeating itself in Iraq
November 29, 2005
Two Marines stood at opposite ends of John Lucente’s casket, meticulously folding the American flag that had covered it. Across the lawn, seven more Marines were preparing to raise their rifles in a 21-gun salute to the 19-year-old Bear River High School graduate who was killed in Iraq earlier this month.
I stood in the sun, a few feet from three uniformed Marines who looked fresh out of high school themselves, and I wondered what they were thinking beyond the sorrow of a lost comrade.
I wondered what they thought of this war as we stood together in a Nevada City cemetery. I wondered if they’d already been to Iraq and back and had seen the battlefields where 2,108-and-counting American soldiers have died so far.
Lance Cpl. Lucente saw it briefly. Long enough for an enemy hand grenade to find and kill him. He was part of what the military called Operation Steel Curtain, designed to locate and kill the insurgents who continue to stream across the Syrian border. Hundreds of miles of Iraq are bordered by Syria and Iran and thus afford the insurgents ample opportunity for reinforcements of men willing to die and kill in the name of something they call Holy.
Meanwhile, a pastor stood near Lance Cpl. John Lucente’s casket and told us that he had gone to “another address,” a place most in attendance assumed to be heaven.
One man kills in the name of his religion; another is buried in the name of his.
Religion can kill and it can heal. But I wonder if it can be right or wrong. What drives a man to strap himself with explosives and walk into a crowded hotel? They say it is a cowardly act, and there’s no question the killing of innocent people is cowardly. How powerful, though, must a belief, or a faith, be for a man to walk to his death to defend it? And how do we beat a people willing to die so readily for a cause, no matter how misguided we think it is?
“They came here to die,” is how one Marine gunnery sergeant described the insurgents where John Lucente would himself be killed. “No one’s ever heard of guys getting attacked from under a house.” The insurgents were reportedly crawling beneath the houses, firing machine guns capable of penetrating cement walls.
As we awoke Saturday morning to prepare to say goodbye to John Lucente, a similar service was being conducted a couple of thousand miles away in Biloxi, Miss., where Lance Cpl. Roger Deeds was being buried.
He was five years older than Lucente but died on the same day in essentially the same place. He’d already served one tour of duty in Iraq and had suffered injuries when a roadside bomb exploded near his armored car.
“As Marines carrying the casket of Lance Cpl. Roger W. Deeds lifted their hands to salute, Deeds’ 16-month-old son Alaric gently spoke the word new fathers eagerly wait to hear: ‘Da-Da.'”
That’s how a Biloxi newspaper reporter described the event in its Sunday edition.
Deeds also left behind a 7-week-old daughter he will never see.
I wanted to go to Lucente’s service because I needed to get as close as I could to the reality of this war. I wanted to get beyond the headlines and the talking heads so that I could feel the results of this war – the reality of a grieving mother and a father and a sister and brother being comforted by soldiers near the casket of a young man who just began to live his own life.
And on the way home I asked, once again, “Why?”
I like to believe that it’s freedom, although history tells a different story. If we take the time, history can tell us much about the prospects of war. In most cases, the prospects are not good. I have walked on battlefields where a similar war was waged in the name of freedom. There was no evidence of that. I asked the same question then as I did on Saturday. “Why?”
The history of Iraq itself offers its own clues on the prospect for victory in this war. During World War I, between 1914 and 1918, Britain overthrew an authoritarian regime in Baghdad. It then installed a political order that was respectful of British interests in the Persian Gulf. In the early 1920s there was a revolt, as the Shiites, Sunnis and even the Kurds joined in, killing and wounding thousands of British soldiers.
“By August of that year (1920), the desperate British commander even appealed to London for poison gas shells,” reads one historical account. “In the following years, Britain ceded control of the country to elitists from a former regime, made up mostly of Sunnis.”
That initial monarchy (King Faysal was crowned in 1921 after negotiations through Britain’s T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia”) would eventually lead to the dictator Saddam Hussein. They even had a constitution, defining the relationship between Britain and what would become Iraq.
Here’s what I believe: We need to bring the young men and women home as soon as possible. I believe in history, and history tells me that our notion of freedom is something Sunnis and Shiites and other fanatically religious people who populate that region simply do not comprehend. I believe that freedom is the kind of thing that cannot be forced upon a people by the point of a bayonet and that most value independence over freedom, if given a choice between a constitution and foreign occupation.
Here’s what I’d like to believe: That the future will tell us that John Lucente’s life was indeed lost in the name of freedom and that the people in Iraq will one day thank him and others for sacrificing their lives so that they can enjoy the freedoms we so often take for granted.
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