Fifteen Years in Iraq: There Was No Place Safe There, or Here

Sgt. Francis D. Sommer in Afghanistan, c. 2007. (Photo: Jon Demlar) Sgt. Francis D. Sommer in Afghanistan, c. 2007. (Photo: Jon Demlar)

September 24, 2003.

“Are you someplace safe?”

“I’m in Iraq, Mom. There is no place safe.”

Even through the static, the echo, the satellite transmission into space and back again, from Mesopotamia all the way to Kansas, we could hear him rolling his eyes.

He was 20 years old, barely not a teenager.

He was supposed to go to Afghanistan. His company in the 10th Mountain Division had been training for Afghanistan for almost a year. My wife Heather and I still naively clung to the notion, in the early months of 2003, that Afghanistan might be safer. Or at least, maybe there was still a good reason for going there.

Our lives changed forever when Francis enlisted in 2002. Suddenly, we found ourselves in an immersion course in “Remedial Army.” The Army was new to us. Military life was new. Both my father and Heather’s served their tours in World War II before we were born, and then they were done. I had a student deferment during Vietnam.

A year out of high school, Francis had dim prospects. He’d gotten in trouble over a minor drug charge: an ounce of marijuana, two kids in a car smoking up, a squad car’s headlights suddenly flaming through the rear window. He was working as a cashier at a hardware store, ducking high school friends who’d show up at his register and ask what his plans were (because if you’re working here you must have plans for something better).

But he didn’t.

One day he came home with a sheaf of brochures, and within weeks, we were signing papers at the kitchen table with an Army staff sergeant in a stiff Class A uniform and a vaguely mid-Southern accent — the ubiquitous accent of the Army, we later discovered, no matter where you came from.

This was the slow-motion aftershock of 9/11, rumbling beneath our feet and releasing clouds of patriotism, nationalism and jingoism into the air. Francis wrote to us from Fort Benning about a pro-football player who’d just shown up to start training: a national emblem of self-sacrifice. All Francis gave up was a job in a hardware store. Now Pat Tillman raised the bar for every soon-to-be-recruit from all over the country, no matter his or her prospects.

We’d been attacked. “The Homeland” — a new phrase in our lexicon — was threatened, we were told.

Disillusion quickly set in for Francis and many others who deployed to Iraq, and eventually for the nation. Two men from his unit were killed within a month of his arrival. More than 300 American troops had been killed by the time we got that first phone call, and more than 200 since President Bush’s May 1, 2003, pronouncement that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

Doubts about the reasons for waging war soon arose even among soldiers.

“Support the troops, not the war!” Francis emailed to us from a base not far from Fallujah a couple of weeks after the Abu Ghraib atrocities became breaking news. He’d recently been sent on a nighttime mission to “pick a fight” with insurgents. His company surrounded an Iraqi village and blasted heavy metal at sleeping civilians as they kicked in doors in search of weapons — which they did not find.

The only consistent objective for this war seemed to be a vague sense that it was somehow about “defending our freedoms,” though how Iraqi civilians, who suffered far worse losses than the US invaders, threatened those freedoms was unclear.

Heather and I opposed this war from early on for all of the reasons that were eventually borne out — from the lies that promoted it to the likelihood that we’d end up in a desert version of Vietnam with no end in sight. But we also had a son deployed there, and now found ourselves balancing opposition to the war against the instinctive hope for his success and all who were with him.

This is not a new conundrum. Many families face this dilemma in every war. Adam Hochschild’s fine book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion: 1914-1918, portrays the lives of the fiery suffragist leader Charlotte Despard, one of the most outspoken opponents of the British entry into The Great War, and her brother, Sir John French, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force. Throughout the horrors and carnage of that war, arguably worsened by her brother’s poor decisions, Despard maintained a close and loving relationship with him, writing in 1917, at the depths of the war, “He is, I think, dearer to me than anyone else.”

The Bush administration was ingenious at marketing this war — and turning Americans against one another. Lapel pin flags and yellow-ribbon car magnets were weaponized to promote a war that was, as we saw it, little more than a criminal enterprise on behalf of oil interests and contractors closely tied to the Bush administration.

But more than support, they depended on indifference. Apathy was the mother of all marketing bombs — encouraging civilians to support the “war on terror” (now synonymous with the Iraq War) by going about their business in “The Homeland” as if there were no war. Go shopping. Play fantasy football. Watch reality shows. Drive bigger cars and buy more of them. Use even more gas.

This was our message to “the terrorists”: “We’re ignoring you. We’ve gone to the mall.”

And soon, Americans were largely ignoring the war itself, voting Bush and Cheney in for another four years of war because “if we make the wrong choice,” as Cheney speciously claimed, “then the danger is that we’ll get hit again.”

Now, 15 years later, the US is still in Iraq, and the continuing shock waves from the invasion on March 19, 2003, have swept over the Middle East, poisoned our politics and culture, and caused immeasurable tragedy for millions. Imagine what we might have done with the $5 trillion sunk into military operations in the region. Imagine the unlived lives of all the casualties, civilian and military.

We lost Francis not in the wars, but to them. He came home seasoned and decorated and damaged, physically and morally. One of the “invisible walking wounded” — with hearing loss, a hip injury, kidney damage, cognitive problems, PTSD and a deep sense of moral injury that he eased with drugs and alcohol.

He died alone in a car wreck three years after his discharge — his blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit.

He’d told his recruiter he wanted to do “the hardest things you can do in Army.” The recruiter came through. Francis went into the infantry and fought in some of the nastiest places each war could offer. His five years in the Army — he’d made sergeant — included a year in Iraq and a 16-month extended tour in Afghanistan, a good chunk of it in the Korengal Valley (the corngall, Francis would say).

The US presence in Iraq may be smaller now, but we are still there, as well as in Afghanistan, with no end in sight, and those countries have devolved into the very chaos about which not only civilians, but a number of high-ranking military officials warned the Bush administration. But even as most of the US discovered too late that we’d been conned on Iraq, we have continued the pattern of self-destruction that got us into both Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place.

The quagmire is now wider and deeper by magnitudes.