The following is a letter received by net poet and Vietnam Veteran Russ Vaughn. He requested that I post it on my site and I thought I'd share it here as well.
This will be my final letter from Iraq. I will be leaving the country in the next week and should be home in the United States soon after. Spring is now here in Iraq. The weather is pleasantly warm with the occasional sunny day. On a recent trip, I flew in a helicopter North of Baghdad over miles of small farms, criss-crossed by irrigation canals, each surrounded by bright green fields. It all gave an impression of timelessness, life unchanging but for the season. In the days since the elections it has been very quiet here and all my Marines remain safe. Everyone is very ready to go home.
Before I give my final impressions of Iraq, I have one final experience to relate. Recently I spent several days in Fallujah. As the largest battle fought in this war and the most brutal fight for the Marine Corps since Vietnam, the name "Fallujah" tends to engender visions of smoke and fire, death in the streets. I cannot speak for the condition of the city before and during the assault but what I witnessed was perhaps the most secure and peaceful urban area I have yet encountered in Iraq, including the Green Zone. For four days on security patrols in and around the city I did not even once hear the report of gunfire in anger or the echo of an explosion. Of course, when you systematically kill or capture every insurgent in a completely cordoned city and search, blast or burn every single structure, you can expect resistance to become light or nonexistent. My hosts were the warriors of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, who fought along the regiment's right flank during the battle and back-cleared the entire Northern sector of the city following the operation's conclusion. These men fought a grisly, tedious and exhausting battle street-by-street, block-by-block for almost two months.
For all my imagination, until I walked the streets, listened to the stories, saw the pictures and read the after action reports I had no concept of what a fight it had been. Covering enemy dead with ponchos as they went, they killed Muj (as they nicknamed the insurgents) in the streets or toppled buildings on top of them with mortars, artillery and aerial bombardment. They shot dogs and cats caught feasting on the dead, found the mutilated corpse of aid worker Margaret Hassan, discovered a torture chamber with full suits of human skin and refrigerated body parts right out of "Silence of the Lambs", opened a cellar with chained men who had starved to death and broke down doors to find rooms full of corpses, hands tied behind their backs, bullet holes in the back of their heads. These are just in the pictures I saw. The enemy they encountered was fanatical and often fought as if pumped up on drugs. His ethnicity was varied and his tactics ranged from insurgents attempting to cross the Euphrates River on inflated beach balls to houses detonated on top of Marines as they entered the first floor.
As I listened to the stories I Had visions of Henry V's warning before the walls of Harfleur to "take pity of your town and of your people, whiles yet my soldiers are in my command; whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace o'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds of heady murder, spoil and villany." I thought of all the times in history where invaders had systematically destroyed a city, extinguishing the population and sowing salt in the earth. Yet, for the battle damage on all sides, the city of Fallujah had more children and a more industrious citizenry than any other I encountered here in Iraq. Almost every house had been re-occupied following the invasion, gutters cleaned of garbage, white flags flying over newly patched garden walls, "Family Inside" written in large letters in both English and Arabic. Marines control access to the city; Marines mediate civic disputes; Marines provide food, water and are protecting those who are repairing city infrastructure; Marines patrol the streets, policing both the citizens of Fallujah and the Iraqi Army who sometimes abuse their authority. Fallujah is a city on lockdown and ironically is probably the safest and most progressive place in Iraq right now. I now understand why the citizens in a nearby neighborhood here in Baghdad worriedly asked the Army command we are attached to "What have we done? Why are Marines here?" when we began to patrol there. With that experience, I more or less close my time here in Iraq. I have a few more hurdles to overcome before I am home but now all tasks are related to ensuring a safe journey there.
Reflecting on what I have seen here in Iraq, the overwhelming emotion I feel is of pride, not In myself or even in my Marines, but in being an American. Patriotic sentiments tend to gravitate between cliché and taboo in the sensibilities of popular culture but if I was not defined before as a "patriot", I am now. I am very proud to have been a small part of this effort and to come from a nation where not only could such an effort be sustained but whose aim was the betterment of another people a world away. A few months ago, I was walking at night through a logistics yard and as I weaved between mountainous stacks of crates stamped with the names of a dozen nations, I was struck by how fortunate I was to be an American. The perspective bordered on the sublime. Just outside the wall lived people in poverty and squalor who had been subjected to their lot by a tyrannical ethnic and political minority who shrugged off human misery with the medieval belief that it was the "will of Allah." Not much has changed in the Middle East in the last few thousands of years, except for the religion and identity of the tyrant in question. Just South of where I sit now, in the city of Babylon in the 5th Century B.C., the Persian Xerxes planned his doomed invasion of Greece, his logisticians collecting mountains of supplies, compiled from the labors of subject millions. There is no difference between that tyrant 2500 years ago and Saddam Hussein whose palaces dot across this country like vainglorious lesions, one built just miles away from here, complete with fresh water dolphins in artificial lakes, observation towers with night clubs, and irrigated tree-lined walks, built in the midst of international sanctions levied against his country.
As I stood dwarfed by piles of water bottles and phone cable I realized two distinctions. The first is this: as countless millions of dollars are spent, what American citizen can truly point to the cost that this war has had on his quality of living? What a magnificent nation we live in where we can wage so massive an effort without bankrupting our citizenry in the process. The second contrast is our motive: for all the insinuations of imperialism, corporate benefit and hawkish war-mongering, the most dramatic moments I witnessed here revolved around an election not an exploitation. What other nation would spend such sums to give a people so far away self-determination? I am not advocating war. Being so far from home for so long, smelling and seeing the dead and placing Marines in harm's way are not truly enjoyable experiences. Yet I agree wholeheartedly with the much-criticized statement by General Mattis, it IS fun to wage war against a foe who seeks only his own self-gratification, who tortures, murders and abuses the weak.
You can opine all day long about Wilsonian self-determination, but without the will to do what is necessary to make such visions reality, they remain mere words. In short, as I give my farewell to this country in the next week, I leave with overwhelming pride in being an American and an unshakable belief, based in what I have seen here, that this effort will not fail. Whatever comes in Iraq, the impact of this invasion will not be as that of every other conqueror, relegated to a wind worn mound of stones in the desert.
I want to thank all of you who have taken the time to read these often-verbose letters. Just being able to write to this audience has been a great stress relief. I especially want to express my gratitude to those who have written to me both electronic and snail mail, sent care packages and kept me in their thoughts and prayers. This was without a doubt the best experience of my life thus far and would have not been so without the support and generosity you have shown my Marines and I.
Once I leave the country I will no longer be able to access this e-mail address. For those who are not sighing with relief at the end to these e-mails, my new email address, effective 15 March, is: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org I would love to hear from any and all who these letters reached.
Thanks once again for all you did for me
If you have a few spare moments why not drop him a line.