Iraq about death, but also about horrible fear
Most Americans with strong feelings about the war in Iraq have the luxuries of distance and abstraction. Some think the United States, by taking the war to Iraq, is saving lives that would otherwise be lost in terrorist attacks in our homeland. Others think the war is a blunder that not only wastes soldiers' lives but also inspires terrorists.
Death does not disturb these viewpoints because both sides understand death as a natural consequence of war. The hawks see daily casualty reports and say, "Thank God people are not dying here." The doves say, "See, I told you people would die."
Every once in awhile, however, a story from Iraq forces us to pause. We are reminded that our soldiers in Iraq are not super heroes, sometimes are not heroes at all. War is not just about life and death. It is also about fear, the gut-wrenching realization that every assignment may intersect with a sniper's bullet. For our soldiers in Iraq, every expedition may end with limbs or lives lost. Every day represents another effort to overcome the instinctual avoidance of danger.
One such story trickled back from Iraq on Monday. Cpl. Dustin Berg, 22, killed an Iraqi police officer in November 2003. Cpl. Berg had no malice. The only issue was whether he reasonably believed his life was in danger from the AK-47-toting Iraqi. An Iraqi who no doubt looked a whole lot like the other Arabs who were using AK-47s to kill Cpl. Berg's friends.
Cpl. Berg panicked and pulled the trigger. The Iraqi died.
"I thought I was going to die. ... I shouldn't have automatically considered him a threat," Cpl. Berg said. "I misread the situation."
For most of us, the penalty for misreading the situation at our job is getting fired. For a soldier, however, the penalty is life imprisonment.
In a panic, Cpl. Berg used the Iraqi's gun to shoot himself, hoping to thwart an investigation. Maybe even punishing himself as a bonus.
For Cpl. Berg and many other soldiers, the war in Iraq is not just a war against insurgents. It is a war against instinct. With every assignment, they have to master the overwhelming desire for flight as they risk their lives for goals that must seem abstract from that side of the world.
Whether our soldiers should be in Iraq or not, the equation is not simply life or death. Between those two extremes is fear. And, for Cpl. Berg, guilt.
Like all wars, the war in Iraq is hell. There are worse hells than death. As we decide whether to complete our mission or to declare it hopeless, we need to look not just at the dead, but at the damaged living.