From the Foxhole
Beyond the War Zone II
General Petraeus swapped for General McChrystal in Afghanistan
The names of the countries in which we are fighting no longer matter. This is what happens when war drags on interminably. It becomes enough to refer to the conflicts solely by the passage of time during which the dead and the bereft have multiplied insensibly.
At a point, it no longer matters what countries have been involved. After a certain amount of years, we refer to this or that conflict by how long it lasted: the Twelve-Years’ War; the Twenty-Seven Years’ War; the Hundred Years’ War. At a certain point, the initial reasons for the war no longer matter, either. Even the history books cannot enlighten us. At a certain point, it becomes bad taste to recall the specific names of the dead, as though by remembering individuals we reduce the grotesque loss of the whole, the force and the weight of the whole, which can never be measured by specific names—since each individual loss is incalculable.
Ask any of the grieving if it is otherwise, if they feel their loss as other than incalculable, if the consoling words of the politicians assuage their broken hearts, ring in their ears in some way other than hollow and rotten.
One general has been replaced with another, but the bereft don’t care whose name is attached to their letters of condolence.
Over the course of my service in Iraq, I was fortunate not be added to the rosters of the dead. Despite the many perils posed by a combat zone, I was spared my life. But my ordeal was just beginning. The emotional devastation that would destroy my personal and professional life was just beginning. The IED meant for me, that I lived in dread of on the dusty roads of Iraq, would not explode until after my return, as though on a time fuse.
In January 2009, three years after my return from combat, my skeleton was destroyed in a high-speed impact into a stand of trees while snowboarding. In the blink of an eye I blew up my body with injuries no less severe than if they had been fielded in the up-armored suburban I drove around Baghdad with no radio, no support and no overwatch—just tinted windows to conceal my identity and purpose. As I lay dying, it struck me that my turn had finally come, the one I had anticipated on so many dusty missions, the one I had tried to prepare myself for. And it occurred not by the side of the road in Iraq, as I had anticipated, but in the mountains of my own land.
There I lay with a shattered spine, a shattered pelvis, a shattered sternum, a shattered leg and a ruptured bladder slowly filling with blood and urine. Unable to exit my urethra, the mixture would burst my bladder in an agony exceeding that of broken bones.
I wrote about the grief and trauma I was enduring earlier, in a “Letter to a Dead Colonel” [ Feature, March 20-26, 2008]]. I lamented the death of my commander, Col. Westhusing, who shot himself during the last days of his tour in Iraq. In my letter I told him that I was grieving his death, tormented by the horrors of my experiences, that I was killing it in the mountains on a snowboard, shredding the clean white snow in an effort to find peace.
In reality, I was etching the outlines of my own violent death, with each risky descent getting closer to the exquisite end that would release me from the memories “insinuated into my life like falling leaves in an endless November, swirling about my feet, catching at my heels, crackling underfoot like small bones,” as I once wrote [ “Beyond the War Zone,” December 11-17, 2008]. There in the mountains, I was seeking an escape from the nightmares and the rage and the grief and the senselessness and the outrage and the shame and the guilt and the hopelessness that consumed me.
Who are we fighting and why? How many more must die while we figure this out, trading generals like baseball cards? These are questions we should ask as we celebrate Independence Day, not forgetting that other peoples in other lands may also yearn for the same thing—independence.
The national pastime of brute sluggery and violent occupation is destroying what remains of our soul. Just as I am become carrion, left to rot beneath a sun whose light no longer speaks to me, wounded to my core, so too goes this country in my stead. One general in for another solves nothing.
Alex Escué Limkin served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.