Repost By Sebastian J. Bae via Foreign Policy
To my beloved children,
One day, you will be old enough to ask me about the war, about Iraq, about the dusty uniform hanging in the closet. You will expect stories of valor and glory, picturing your father as the grand protagonist in a heroic quest. Or maybe I have already told you about the war, confessing the ugly truths, sharing the moments of fleeting laughter, and revealing all the secret tears. Yet, I doubt I possessed the courage to tell you the truth — at least the whole truth. Every father wants to be the hero in his children’s eyes, no matter how briefly.
But the truth is your father was no great war hero. I did not storm into Saddam Hussein’s royal palace in a barrage of bullets and explosions. I did not drag men from fiery Humvees in a feat of unadulterated altruism. The war had many heroes, some of whom paid the ultimate price for Corps & Country, but your father was not one of them. Your father was a terrified nineteen year old plucked from suburbia, dropped in a distant country, fighting a war he barely understood. Your father was a starry-eyed boy chasing the ghosts of 9/11, believing he could change the world behind a rifle.
And I wonder what your school textbooks write about your father, his friends, and their war. Is history kind to us? Are we the latest generation of American heroes fighting for life, liberty, and democracy? Or has history measured us and found us wanting? Are we bloodthirsty killers, who fought a war of corporate greed and American imperialism?
But I doubt your father’s war will be found in the pages of your history books. Your father’s war will be lost amidst the controversy of Iraq and the horrors of Abu Ghraib, buried beneath the never-ending debate of how we could have won or how we failed. Your history book will teach you about the war, but nothing of the men and women who fought the war. There will be no chapter on how your father sobbed after a mosque blew up in Ramadi, ashamed he couldn’t save anyone. There will be no chapter on how your father secretly yearned for the coveted Combat Action Ribbon, proof he saw combat and emerged a battle-tested warrior. There will be no chapter on how your father stood behind a M240B machine gun day in and day out, scanning a city of strangers and only seeing enemies in every face – and how those fears chased him home. There will be no chapter on how your father was so confused, scared, ashamed, and desperate he almost killed himself at the age of twenty-two.
The war was ugly and a thousand shades of blurring gray, but the war was also a precious gift. The war gave your father his closest friends, men he calls brothers, and the reason why your middle name is Richard or Herbert. The war gave your father an insatiable hunger for life and beauty, leading him to travel to fifty-four countries by his twenty-sixth birthday. The war gave your father the strength to endure life’s endless obstacles because nothing could be harder than the long nights in Iraq. But most of all, the war taught your father the meaning of duty, sacrifice, love, and service.
In the end, the war indelibly shaped your father, some for the better, some for the worse. And a part of me will always be somewhere in Iraq, but I would like to think the best parts of me found their way into you.
Sebastian J. Bae, a major contributor to Best Defense, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions.