At some point during their deployment, many servicemen and women understandably become overwhelmed by the unrelenting strain of living in a combat zone. Twenty-seven-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant John McCary was serving in a HUMINT (Human Intelligence) Team attached to Task Force 1-34 Armor, 1st Infantry Division in the al-Anbar province of Iraq. Almost halfway through his one-year deployment, McCary reached a boiling point. On January 31, 2004, he vented in an e-mail to his family back in North Carolina about the increasing ruthlessness of the insurgents and the random, horrific violence claiming the lives of his fellow soldiers. But despite his palpable sense of anger and frustration, McCary emphasized that he knew more than ever what he was fighting for amidst the chaos of war.
We are dying. Not in some philosophical, chronological, 'the end comes for all of us sooner or later' sense. Just dying. Sure, it's an occupational hazard, and yeah, you can get killed walking down the street in Anytown, USA. But not like this. Not car bombs that leave craters in the road, not jeering crowds that celebrate your destruction. We thought we had turned the tide, turned the corner, beaten the defensive rush and were headed upfield, striding into the home stretch. But they are still here. They still strive for our demise. It's never been a fair fight, and we haven't always played nice.
But not like this. No one leaves the gate looking to kill, or looking to die. No one wakes up in the morning and says, "I sure hope blowing up a whole group of Iraqis goes well today." You may be worn out, hounded by hours on end of patrols, investigations, emergency responses, guard shifts, but you never wake up and think, today's the day we'll kill a whole bunch of 'em. There's no "kill 'em all let God sort 'em out." That's for suckers and cowards, people afraid to delve into the melee and fight it out, to sort it out like soldiers.
They've killed my friends. And not in some heroic fight to defend sovereign territory, not on some suicide mission to extract a prisoner or save a family in distress. Just standing out directing traffic. Just driving downtown to a meeting. Just going to work. All I can think is, "Those poor bastards. Those poor, poor bastards."
And the opposition, they've damned anyone with the gall to actually leave their homes in the morning, because they've killed their own, too. Indiscriminate is one word. 'Callous' does not even suffice. What battle cry says "Damn the eight year old boy and his little sister if they're in the area! Damn them all!?" What do you say to your men after you've scraped up the scalps of an entire Iraqi family off the road, right next to the shattered bodies of your soldiers, held together only by their shoelaces, body armor or helmets? "We're fighting the good fight?" I don't think so. We're just fighting. And now we're dying.
It's nothing new, not really. I know what that look is now, the one on the faces of WWII soldiers coming back from a patrol, Vietnam vets standing at the Wall. But now it's us. You know the little blurb from Connie Chung that says "2 Coalition Soldiers were killed at a checkpoint today after a car bomb exploded while waiting in line?" And you think, "ah, just two. At least it wasn't like thirty. At least it wasn't in a movie theatre, or the town square."
Yeah... I changed my mind about that one. When you sit at the memorial service, gazing down at the display: a pair of laced tan combat boots, a hastily printed 8"x10" photo, their service rifle, barrel down, their Kevlar helmet set on top of the buttstock, and you hear their friends say, "he talked about his son every night. He's two. He can hardly talk but his Dad just knew he would be a great linebacker." Or, "his wife is currently commanding a platoon elsewhere in Iraq. She will accompany the body home but has chosen to return to her own flock, to see them home safely though her husband will not join her. Our thoughts go out to their families." WHAT THOUGHTS?! What do you think? What good will you do knowing this? What help will you be, blubbering in the stands, snot drizzling from your nose, wishing you could have known beforehand, wishing you could have stopped it, pleading to God you could have taken their place, taken the suffering for them?
What do you say to the fathers of the men responsible, when you find them relaxing in their homes the next day, preparing for a meal? Should you simply strike them down for having birthed such an abomination? Or has the teeth-shattering punch in the face crunch of seeing a fallen comrade laid to rest sated your lust for blood and revenge?
Resolve, resolute, resolution, resoluteness. You feel... compelled, to respond. To what? On whom? Why? Will your children someday say, "I'm sure glad Dad died to make Iraq safer?" No. They died standing with their friends, doing their jobs, fulfilling some far-flung nearly non-existent notion called duty. They died because their friends could've died just as easily, and knowing that... they would never shirk their duties, never call in sick, never give in to fear, never let down. When you've held a conversation with a man, briefed him on his mission, his objective and reminded him of the potential consequences during the actioning of it, only to hear he never returned, and did not die gracefully, though blessedly quickly, prayerfully painlessly... you do not breathe the same ever after. Breath is sweet. Sleep is sweeter. Friends are priceless. And you cry. There's no point, no gain, no benefit but you are human and you must mourn. It is your nature.
It is also now undeniable, irrevocable, that you will see your mission through. You will strive every day, you will live, though you are not ever again sure why. Ideals... are so... far, far away from the burnt stink of charred metal. I, we, must see it through to the end. They have seen every instant, every mission, every chore, every day through, not to its end but to theirs. How can you ever deny, degrade, desecrate their sacrifice and loss with anything less than all you have? Their lives are lost, whether as a gift, laid down at the feet of their friends, or a pointless discard of precious life... I doubt I'll ever know.
I'm ok, Mom. I'm just a little... shaken, a little sad. I know this isn't any Divine mission. No God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha or other divinity ever decreed "Go get your body ripped to shreds, it's for the better." This is Man's doing. This is Man's War. And War it is. It is not fair, nor right, nor simple... nor is it over. I wish the presence of those responsible only to dissipate, to transform into average citizens, fathers, sons and brothers. I don't care about bloodlust, justice or revenge. But they... they... will not rest until our souls are wiped from this plane of existence, until we no longer exist in their world. Nothing less suffices. And so we will fight. I will not waiver, nor falter. Many of my fellows will cry for no mercy, no compassion. For those responsible, for those whose goal is destruction purely for effect, death only as a message, for whom killing is a means of communication, I cannot promise we, or I, will give pardon. With all, we will be harsh, and strict, but not unjust, not indiscriminate. And we will not give up. We cannot. Our lives are forever tied to those lost, and we cannot leave them now, as we might have were they still living.
We have... so little time... to mourn, so little time to sigh, to breathe, to laugh, to remember. To forget. Every day awaits us, impatient, impending. So now we rise, shunning tears, biting back trembling lips and stifling sobs of grief... and we walk, shoulder to shoulder... to the Call of Duty, in tribute to the Fallen.
McCary, himself, survived his tour of duty and returned home in September 2004. He was honorably discharged from the Army in April 2005.
Excerpted from Operation Homecoming, by Andrew Carroll, editor. Copyright (c) 2006 by Southern Arts Federation. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.