My story begins near Nasiriyah, Iraq, at a military base not far from where the Tower of Babel is said in the Bible to have stood.
It was Sept. 11, 2009, and it seemed that I and everyone on Contingency Operating Base Adder had gathered in the chapel for a 9/11 memorial service. The grief in the room hung like a fog around all the soldiers in their body armor, as they reflected on friends lost in Iraq and Afghanistan since that day.
Some soldiers shared stories of where they’d been when the towers tell. I didn’t tell mine, which was an experience many shared: A school day halted as teachers struggled to explain what was unfolding on television. The stories they told during that day’s memorial service were those of grief channeled into action. Grieving soldiers explained that 9/11 was the reason why everyone needed to be there, in Iraq.
Which was, to be frank, bullshit. There was no link between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. A year in Iraq wasn’t going to bring back the dead or kill the guys who flew the planes into the towers. What it would do and had done was lead to more tragedy. But for many of the soldiers in the room, tying 9/11 to their mission to Iraq gave meaning to their grief. Without a sense of purpose, what had been the point of their sacrifice?
No grief is scarier than grief without meaning. The philosopher Hayden White once wrote about a patient talking with a therapist about a traumatic event. “It is not that the patient does not know what those events were, does not know the facts,” White wrote. “On the contrary, he knows them all too well. He knows them so well, in fact, that he lives with them constantly.” What the patient is looking for, White writes, is a way of reframing painful experience. A story is a way of structuring the “facts in such a way to change the traumatic meaning and their significance.”
And that’s what we’ve done both individually and collectively with 9/11: shaped the incomprehensible into stories.
I was deployed in 2009, after the 2006 Sunni Awakening and the surge a year later that had created a small lull in the violence. In college history classes that I took afterward, I was the smug vet who said that maybe, just maybe, the surge had worked and the U.S. had created a semi-stable democratic-ish ally in the Middle East.
Except, I didn’t dare tell this theory to my roommate. Through the magic of random room draw, my sophomore-year college roommate was an Iraqi refugee. His name was Ammar. He was an incredible athlete, a gifted scientist, and an ardent fan of Philadelphia sports. I could talk with him about the Phillies, but I couldn’t talk with him about Iraq. For the whole year, I would work at my desk, and he would work at his, and the war lingered in the silence between us.
At the end of the school year, I finally asked him about Iraq. He told me about 2003, when whispers of invasion swirled around him, when he was still too young to make sense of it.
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He told me about watching the statue of Saddam fall down in Firdaus Square, and how that seemed like the beginning of a happy ending for Iraq. But then things got worse, and worse, and worse. He talked about his anger at the armed young men who roamed his city of Baghdad, and his anger at the U.S. soldiers who trashed the city in the process of saving it. He told me that by 2007, the year he left for America, Iraq was worse than it had been before the invasion.
Hearing Ammar’s story muddled my narrative.
And then, to further confuse my understanding of my service, the peace I thought had been established because of the Sunni Awakening turned out to be unsustainable. The tensions between the Shiite Iraqi government and Sunni tribesmen remained until ISIS arrived to exploit them. My mistake was believing the story of Iraq had ended at a point convenient to my narrative.
It’s something the writer and World War II veteran Kurt Vonnegut wrote about: “A story, after all, is as artificial as a mechanical bucking bronco in a drinking establishment… And it may be even worse for nations to try to be characters in stories.”
Were we not as a nation hoping that killing Osama Bin Laden would be the end of the movie? Would we—and Iraq—have fared better if we didn’t think of Saddam Hussein as the final villain? It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that as our wars have become more morally ambiguous, our war movies have redefined victory, where as long as you survive to the end you’re the winner. But history books are filled with stories of soldiers who fought inglorious wars and who have struggled to redefine their experiences.
There’s something else the philosopher White wrote about. The paradox of history is that the more we know about the past, the messier and more filled with contradictions our understanding of it becomes. There is no tidy end to war narratives, individually or collectively.
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Today, when I think of those who died on 9/11, or the men on my deployment who died from hidden bombs or mortars from nowhere or pistol shots to the temple, I don’t feel the anger that some other soldiers do. I don’t begrudge the way the surviving men and women responded to their grief, but I no longer feel qualified to decide who to hurt in order to feel better. Instead, when I think of that sadness, I am confronted with a powerful sensation, a desire to be silent.
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The views here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.