No Atheists In The Trenches

I tend to keep a pretty observent eye on Memeorandum throughout the day as it has become a much needed rush to a person for whom even established internet moves too slow. when i first started blogging, that was my biggest problem, things didn’t move fast enough. Political campaigns, my all time favorite thing to cover, seem to move fast to the general public, but to me I wait an eternity from one headline to the next, eager for the next rivulet of information that allows me to continue adding details to the portrait I compose in my head.

And so, with CNN, ABC, MSNBC, CBS, and my other countless daily reads not able to keep up with my own voracious appetite, I turn to aggregators like Memeorandum to provide me with that quick hit, raw information and unfettered opinions hitting my veins and surging through my system.

This is what I do every day, sometimes for longer periods of time than many people stay awake (today I was up at six in the morning reading morning headlines, and have only taken two real breaks, my morning drive for breakfast, and my drive into work, which fortunately for me affords me plenty of time to live the news sucking life that I live).

As a blogger, it’s tricky. At any given moment there are dozens of new headlines floating around there, and for a good blogger, the test is to find one that is interesting enough to spark the reader’s imagination, and yet leaves you room, through either your own knowledge or creativity, to add something so that you don’t just become a part of the echo chamber.

There is also the problem of visibility. Every story you highlight is something of a gamble. With the Harry Reid/”incompetent” story, there is the voracity gamble, can you trust on the source document to be true? If you choose poorly, you run the risk of looking like an idiot.

But the visibility gamble is different. When I was writing for my own blog Left of Center oh so long ago, back when Alberto Gonzales was first tapped to be the AG, I remember trying to add to the overall outpour to stop his nomination. While others echoed about his disregard for the Geneva convention, I sought to add to the wind tunnel of voices his disregard for the Vienna convention as well.

It was a non starter. Needless to say, as you’re probably scratching your head right now, no one cared, nor should they as the Geneva convention issue has become far more significant than anything declared in the Vienna convention.

Such is life. The other problem with blogging and selecting stories is that often times you don’t pick the right stories. Lack of knowledge, about a subject, mischaracterization of the story based on the headline, lack of desire to stand in the echo chamber, and countless other reasons why sometimes bloggers such as myself will intentionally skip stories that they should not. And today, I came severely close to this.

The story in question has been at the top of memeorandum all day long, and from the headline and the snippet, it sounded dangerously close to some pious justification of the war, a neoconservative love fest that my cynical heart was simply too skeptical to bother with.

But you can only ignore something like that for so long before you look in to figure out what all the fuss is about. I’m glad I did, because the headline and opening prayer did little to prepare me for what I was in store for.

The article, Be Not Afraid, by Michael Yon is in its rawest estimation, pure eloquence. It is frontline philosophy peddled in the measured rhymes and meters of the kind of battle hardened poetry that one can only find in the trenches next to the bible and the assault rifle that the soldier swears by.

More important than its literary grace, however, is its honesty. It is the kind of honesty that we have thirsted for as we have sat on the sidelines and watched, not sure which soldiers to trust, growing more and more skeptical day after day as we see the promises of the administration fall flat and bloody in the desert sands of Iraq. There is the blatant admission of failure in the beginning, the mismanagement of the war, and a direct approach to what role we truly played in bringing al Qaeda into the fold.

Even more refreshing is when Yon disagrees. He does not destroy wholely the argument and the arguer which has become the typical vehicle of action in modern debate. He does not stand for the simple formula of destroy the man first, and if there are any remnants left of his argument after, laugh them off.

When he detracts from a reporter who never served, he does not mock him for his lack of service, he does not throw his uniform in the man’s face and blindly tells him he cannot understand the military life, or war. No, he instead lauds him, and seeks to respectfully disagree where so many of us, myself included, would launch a full on attack. Take no prisoners. We disagree so one of us has to leave the arena bloodied and destroyed.

It is in this context that I find myself most closely turned in my own opinion of the war in Iraq, perhaps a model for those with whom I disagree to model their own arguments.

I stand not swayed, however, though this is no loss upon the author’s arguments, no slight to his efforts. After all, what really does my opinion matter? And even if my opinion does matter, while it has not changed, from reading the article, I stand changed… slightly.

**

I don’t know what a six month cruise is like now. I hear that sailors get to go to far fewer ports, and I suppose theres a lot more bombing missions than there were when I last sailed aboard a Naval vessel. So I can’t know what it’s like now, I can only remember what it was like then.

You spend a lot of time out on the blue. You wake up, you go topside, and for the 180 days you are out to sea, for most of them all you see is water… endless expanses of water. It’s surreal, the kind of odd that doesn’t really get better as time passes, it gets worse.

Thousands of miles away from home, you find different ways to cope. For us we had two things. The first was WWF episodes supplied by my wife who dutifully sent out a package with a vhs of every WWF show that ran for the previous month.

The other thing was God.

I’m not overly religious, and never have been, but I’ll tell you, when it came to those six months in 2000, I was bible thumpin’ with the best of them. I had two bibles back then. A devotional couple’s bible that my friend gave me as my wife and I have always been at odds with each other, and when I visited Israel I purchased one of those novelty bibles that had water from the Red Sea, or the Dead Sea in a little vial on one cover, and sand from Jerusalem or Bethelehem or somewhere important in a vial on the other cover.

I read it every day.

I remember trying to drag my wife into this new found love for God. It changed my life, I explained. It could change hers too.

In the last phone call we ever had about the subject, sitting amid the sands of Bahrain, outside late at night the heat still causing sweat to trickle down my back and soak through my shirt, I heard her chuckle from several thousand miles away.

“There are no atheists in the trenches,” she said.

**

In the article, Yon tells of a doctor, a man amid a team of surgeons who, with blunt instruments and shaky hands, hack apart their patient, making him worse off with every failed procedure. This singular doctor, on the other hand, ignoring the tragically unsurgical precision of those around him, works the magic that so many of us who are not doctors can not understand.

In the midst of chaos, this doctor “healed” the Anbar province.

In the trenches himself, Yon never lost faith. But faith in God could do little to repair the damage that the US invasion was doing. In General Patraeus, Yon found someone else he could have faith in.

He holds that faith today, like the prayer card that he found in Anbar province and carries with him to this day. It is the kind of faith any service member needs. Whether you’re an engineer in the belly of a ship worried more about steam line ruptures that can boil you before you take your first step to the hatches out of the compartment, or a soldier strafing through the streets of Baghdad, your eyes carefully darting to and fro trying to find that glimmer of light or shift of movement that could mean the difference between seeing the enemy combatant in time to duck out of the way of enemy fire, or finding yourself coming home in a coffin with the American flag draped over it.

I’ve known atheists in the trenches, but when push comes to shove, everyone finds faith in something, and in a time of battle perhaps the only thing that comes second to God is your commanders.

**

She was right. I came home in the summer of 2000. The pier was crowded not just with loved ones but with radio stations and reporters. They make a big deal of this kind of thing here in Norfolk Virginia.

Floating among the sea of people, my wife stood there in a smart blue skirt suit, waving a feeble little sign beneath her umbrella, and I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. My dress white uniform flapping in the wind, my dixie cup hat nearly falling off twice, I caught up with her, wrapped her in my arms, and kissed her.

Two weeks later, I managed to lose my devout religiosity.

It’s not like I don’t believe in God, I do and with the exception of a brief period when I was younger, always have. But the technical aspect of faith, the routine of it, is not something I’ve bothered with most the time. After a lifetime of being soured on the church as an idea, and not one to enjoy having my own thoughts about God and creation curbed and molded by someone else’s, I’ve kept what faith I have to myself, tucked away in a quiet corner.

My far less religious wife calls it a crutch. I think that’s selling faith a little short. It is a bountiful and healthful thing, faith, one that pulls many people through tough times, and makes them better people during the good times. Church, when not abused, and when not abusing, can also be a good thing in society and individuals lives.

But there is a phenomenon with faith in the military. There is something in military life that necessitates faith in something, anything. You are, when all euphamisms have been cast aside, an expendable cog in a machine whose primary function is to kill and destroy. It’s a stark realization, and when you come to it, you need God, or Country, or even a belief in the “Officers Appointed Above” you to get through.

I can’t imagine how you get by without that kind of faith.

**

According to Yon we, and I mean the blogosphere, congress, the White House, the press, we all are in the stadium, shouting down at the surgeons wailing away on the operating table, their patient in turn wailing away, appearing on the verge of death, but only the skilled doctors closely monitoring the patient’s vitals, know that there is still time to save him.

Unfortunately, all analogies die.

Iraq is not a patient. Al Qaeda is not a cancer. And we are not doctors.

Since Yon did the honorable thing, and respectfully disagreed with Joe Galloway, I will do him the same honor. I appreciate his sentiments, and would like to express that I take his opinion with far more weight than any proponent of the surge I have heard to date.

I further want to say that I hope his vision holds true. I think that the chance of starting to pull out of Iraq in September is, at best, fifty fifty, and we will not know better the chances until reports have been filed, headlines published, and pundits have gotten a hold of everything and the spin wars begin.

I also want to say that his perspective is inherently closer than mine, his knowledge of events greater. And yet, I would still like to politely, and with all humility, disagree.

Or at least, show my skepticism.

First, I do not believe in the “follow us home” theme. I never have, and further more, even if they do follow us home, no one is going to like me saying this, let them come. As Americans, we have lost touch with the true grit we often say makes us who we are. We carved our place in the world with blood and valor, and one thing that has disgusted me is that we have lost touch with the single idea that freedom is not free.

Neoconservatives tout the phrase and then, without any concept of the irony, in the same screed will talk about fighting them over there so we don’t fight them over here, and they will follow us home if we don’t. All the meanwhile, people are willing to give up anything if it will make us more free.

I do not wish attacks on our lands, but I do not believe that preventing attacks here at home is a legitimate excuse to throw to the winds any conviction upon which this country was founded, any moral as a unified people by which we stand. Time and time again, we have tossed aside that which makes us free in the name of safety, and I’m willing to cede safety if it means having a full possession of my freedoms, and if it means not imposing military might where it does not morally belong.

Also, I find myself cynical towards Yon’s faith in Patraeus. I am not willing to close the door on the issue, but I do find myself lacking in trust. With me, and please, do not take this piece as an attempt to compare my ordeals to his in any way. I fully cede to him the severity of his service in light of my own.

But what I found with my own journey of service and faith is that the faith I had in service was not compatible with my true faith and belief. For me, God is in my soul, not in the pages of a book, and not within the four walls of a church. That is enough for me. But in the ordeal of my service, I squeezed out more faith than I really had. That and my family helped me through military service as I see myself as a generally weak person that did something that took, for me anyway, considerable strength.

In Yon’s situation, I have to wonder, how much of this faith is warranted, and how much of it is needed. Is this the blind hope that he needs to get himself through what he is doing, or is this the logical assessment of a man who has seen more than I ever will? I don’t know.

What I believe is that Yon believes that Patraeus is the right man for the right job. From what I have read, and the way I understand the Iraqi conflict, I think that no American commander can be the right man for the right job.

In essence it is his faith and knowledge against my own knowledge and lack of faith, and at this point, I suppose only time will tell.

But thank you, Mr. Yon, for at least giving me a beautiful argument, and something that I will no doubt contemplate long after I have this piece published.

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