The Lives That Begin and End at Age 21

This week, there are two compelling reasons for me to write this post.

As an Iraq War veteran, watching Charles Ferguson’s documentary, No End in Sight, left me frustrated at those such as Donald Rumsfeld whose arrogance cost American and Iraqi lives. As an officer in the College Democrats of America, the GAO’s report stating that Iraq has hardly made any political progress left me again questioning a flawed and failing policy.

When I joined the Marine Reserves in 2002, I did not expect to be deployed to a war I disagree with; but it was my duty and honor to serve alongside my fellow Marines in Iraq last year. From my experiences in the Marines and the College Democrats, I must say that the past two years have given me a whirlwind of an education. It is and will always be my duty to serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief, despite my personal opinion. But it is also my duty as an American to learn how our policies reflect on the ground, and whether we are making headway. After spending a deployment patrolling the streets of Fallujah, I learned a great deal. I learned a great deal every time I watched a Humvee get blown up by an IED. I learned a great deal every time I saw Iraqis identify themselves as Sunnis and Shi’ites, not Iraqis. I learned a great deal every time children raised their hands and asked for water, not candy.

It was those experiences that guided me to where I stand on the war today. When I was on post with many of the Iraqi Army soldiers, I noticed they had propaganda on the inner linings of their uniforms promoting Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army. One of the men we worked with asked me why the Marines were hunting al-Sadr and was trying to explain why al-Sadr was such a great person. I also spent a good deal of time with the Iraqi police and had to guard their police station from attacks since they would not show up for work when they felt danger. However, what’s more disturbing is that the Iraqi army is mostly Shi’ite, while the police are mostly Sunni. As a result, we had to prevent and break up fights between the army and police at jointly run checkpoints.

It takes moments like these for any soldier serving in a dangerous, hostile foreign land to ask themselves the true purpose of the mission. Iraq’s sectarian divides are so thoroughly ingrained that even those who fight in the name of Iraq do not claim allegiance to a central government, but to local religious leaders. When the incompetence and disorganization of al-Maliki’s government is so obvious after over four years, it is easy to see why so many are turning to local radical leaders for protection, revenge and basic needs.

Amid the chaos, the sectarian divisions, the lack in basic necessities and hostility towards American forces, I wondered why our nation’s finest youth are being sent to fight this war. The young people I’ve met serving our country are of the highest honor. With the average casualty age in Iraq at 21, the price they pay for this war so stubbornly mismanaged can only be described as tragic.

As I return to Bowdoin College to finish my senior year, I look at the faces of the young people who at age 21 are picking their majors in college — deciding how they want to begin their adult lives and make a difference in the world. I look at their excitement and their love towards life, and I think about the ones, at the same age, whose lives are ending in a foreign land thousands of miles away.

I don’t think I can ever put to words the toll of that tragic contrast. But it’s time we honor those who passed by bringing those still there home.

Published in the Huffington Post:

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