Monday, February 9, 2009

Thoughts on Casualties in Iraq & Afghanistan

Note: I did not personally know LCpl. Anderson or his family. This was an assignment for a class. I chose to write about LCpl. Anderson because of his age and because he was killed in action in Iraq.

Lance Corporal Norman W. Anderson III was killed in Iraq on October 19, 2005 by a suicide car bomber in Karabilah, a town on the Syrian border. His mission was to prevent insurgents from crossing between Iraq and Syria. LCpl. Anderson’s gravesite was one of the markers at Arlington that I was attracted to because he was 21 years old when he was killed in Iraq, making him a little more than three years my senior. This is someone I could have gone to high school with and the fact that LCpl. Anderson and I both come from very small communities is a fact that resonated with me.

Parkton, MD is a town of 6,600 located near the Pennsylvania border. My own hometown, Lancaster, MA, is a small town in central Massachusetts with a population of 7,380. LCpl. Anderson attended Hereford High School, a school I imagine to be very similar to Nashoba Regional, the high school I attended. After LCpl. Anderson was killed in Karabilah, his high school held a memorial for him before a home football game.

The visual I have of this memorial service is one I have formed from reading about LCpl. Anderson and his hometown. However, I feel like I have constructed a fairly accurate picture nonetheless. I picture the lights illuminating a football field, with both teams on bended knees as his former football coach addresses the crowd. The sense of belonging to a community was strong in Lancaster and I imagine the same to be true of Parkton. I don’t mean any romanticized or trite sense of superiority that often comes when people speak of the small towns they come from. Just that in a town of a few thousand, you are aware of the fact that your town is small and that in one way or another you are familiar with everyone on a very basic level.

Thus, in my memorial service, the people of Parkton would stand silently and watch as family members and former teammates recounted the life of LCpl. Norman W. Anderson III. Many people would cry, some would be overcome by an awkward sense of cowardice that, in light of LCpl. Anderson’s unimaginable sacrifice, makes them feel as though they are unworthy of even partaking in a moment of remembrance on his behalf. At least, that’s the feeling I kept coming back to as I passed the graves of World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans until I finally arrived at the edge of section 60 where soldiers from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom are buried. This feeling amplifies itself considerably when I realize that many of these soldiers are only slightly older than I am. Some of them are even younger. While I lived my life these past 8 years free from the thought of ever having to serve in the military, these people signed up to serve and ended up dying for it.

I don’t think I harbor any foolish notions about the glory of war. I am not even particularly patriotic. However, men and women like LCpl. Anderson will always overwhelm me with the epic tragedy of their sacrifices. I even feel guilty for wondering to myself as I look at the headstones of these soldiers if they actually believed in what they were doing. As it turns out, that isn’t always easy to discern. LCpl. Anderson’s godmother reported that before his death he had told his mother to “please remember I’m doing what I wanted to do.” However, one of his friends from home said that at LCpl. Anderson “didn’t seem too happy; he didn’t know why he was there.” This observation came at LCpl. Anderson’s wedding. He had returned from a tour in Afghanistan to marry his high school sweetheart. They spent their honeymoon at a Baltimore Inner Harbor hotel because he had to ship out to Iraq soon after the wedding day.

            The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shaped my generation’s perception of conflict in a way that the historical memory of World War II or Vietnam, accuracy of these memories aside, could not. It is interesting that even in the middle of these two wars, the historical memories of these conflicts are being written with two conflicting narratives, epitomized by Parkton, MD’s own reaction to the death of one of its citizens in Iraq. The WBAL news report emphasized LCpl. Anderson’s commitment to Country, God, and the Corps. It contained the quote from his godmother. It was adding to the narrative of noble sacrifice that people, and this is not exclusive to small towns, want to believe in. As Americans, we want to know our fighting men and women died courageously and committed to the mission and ideals we hold dear. In this story, there is no room for doubt about a soldier’s commitment to the mission. There is no place to question why a boy joined the Marines while still in high school or why a on his tombstone it does not list, as with Korea and Vietnam, the conflict he died in but rather the mission he died for: Operation Iraqi Freedom. Perhaps in fifty or one hundred years people won’t remember so well the ambiguity of the Iraq War. They might even confuse it with the Persian Gulf War. However, if any of these people visit section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and take the time to look at the grave of LCpl. Norman W. Anderson III, they’ll see that he died for the freedom of a downtrodden people and think, “Well at least he died for a good cause.”

            This is not to suggest that that isn’t the case. However, it seems that it isn’t honest to the memory of LCpl. Anderson, a man who himself may have harbored misgivings about an ambiguous fight in distant country. This is the other narrative of the war. One where we decry the leaders who lead us down the path to war. Where phased withdrawals and Vietnam comparisons shout down those who think we need to stay the course. In this narrative, the picture of LCpl. Anderson that his former coach keeps in his office and the memorial service in Parkton, MD are not seen as fitting tributes to a soldier. Instead they only serve as tragic reminders of the futility of the Iraq War and the countless Parktons who have had to memorialize their fallen soldiers. This also is a dishonest way to view the death of LCpl. Anderson. The two mutually exclusive narratives of these wars are fighting the battle over our national memory.

            While at Arlington, I saw a family mourning a soldier at a grave near to where LCpl. Anderson is buried. Seeing them there, more than anything, drove home what I have always felt to be the real problem with casualties and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops are supported and people call for troops to be brought home. Soldiers serve honorably and soldiers’ deaths are reported in newspapers. However, troops and soldiers have families. In the case of LCpl. Norman W. Anderson III he had a mother and a father, a best friend and a godmother, and a wife of a few months. He was a person who played football at Hereford High School. He grew up in Parkton, MD. In the memorial service I constructed in my head, I hope that the people looking out onto the field, in addition to the feelings of inadequacy and patriotism and pride they might be feeling in the wake of LCpl. Anderson’s sacrifice, would take the time to remember that he was a unique individual before he was a symbol of a noble cause or a failed war.