Despite being a perfect tool for learning to fly a new aircraft, I’ve always found the training in a full motion simulator to be frustrating. Unlike a video game, the visual and sensory cues create a realistic experience and generate a significant level of stress. There’s so much to learn, but in a training environment you never have enough time to get comfortable in the simulator. Just when you complete one emergency procedure and make it safely on the ground, the instructor puts you into another scenario—an engine fire, landing gear failure or pressurization problem—something new to test your knowledge and skills. It’s a humbling experience, and no matter how well you perform, what you come to understand is that there’s always something else that can go wrong. You have to be ready, rely on what you’ve learned from years of flying different aircraft and hope you’ve trained well enough to survive whatever comes at you.
There’s an old saying among pilots that any landing you walk away from is a successful one. It’s from the early days of aviation when a crash-landing was more common—before the technology and advanced training taught us a new way to define success. This past week I finished training on the Airbus 320, the same aircraft that “Sully” Sullenburger maneuvered on two failed engines over the George Washington Bridge and landed safely in the Hudson River. As pilots, we’ve all been trained to anticipate that scenario, and at some level I think we all wonder if we would succeed as he did.
After being away from the cockpit for several years, the training program was more challenging than I thought it would be, giving me a new appreciation for what Sully and his first officer were able to accomplish. The other day as we practiced an emergency evacuation procedure, I noticed on the checklist that part of the captain’s responsibility is to walk through the cabin and ensure that everyone was able to evacuate the aircraft. I thought of Sully, imagining him walking down the aisle as his plane floated in the Hudson, checking to ensure that everyone was safe before exciting onto the wing. It must have been a great feeling for him to know that everyone made it out unscathed. If several of his passengers had died in the landing, I don’t think he would have considered it a successful one.
A few weeks back, I was flying the night simulators, arriving at my hotel well past midnight. The late schedule meant mornings free instead of nights, coffee and 10 A.M. walks in downtown St. Paul to help clear the mistakes from my mind and focus on the new lesson ahead. On one walk I came across a statue of Herb Brooks, the coach of the Miracle on Ice Hockey Team that beat the Soviets back in 1980. Even before I read his name on the plaque, I knew who he was. His face and outstretched arms took me back to that moment in junior high as I watched a group of college students defeat the highly favored Soviets and then win the gold medal against Finland. I remember being glued to the T.V. as they outplayed the veteran Soviet team in a game they weren’t supposed to win.
Seeing the statue made me pause and reflect on all the emotions that are tied to a single victory so many years ago. For me, it’s the sheer joy of winning, of course, along with a youthful patriotism and the quintessential American notion that we can all overcome our obstacles and win despite the odds against us. But that’s my perspective—the still-lingering, American perspective—the team that actually won the game. But what about the team that lost? I began thinking about the psychological blow that I imagine, in retrospect, must have befallen the Soviets after losing to an inferior team—one motivated on their home soil in Lake Placid to win against all the odds. No one could have predicted it, and as I stood there, I wondered if that game was a precursor for what lay ahead for Moscow. Just two months prior, in December of 1979, the Russian Army had invaded Afghanistan, setting the stage for an arduous struggle against a combination of forces that Soviet strategists never envisioned.
While I’ve always considered their decade-long War in Afghanistan to be a humiliating and defining failure—one that precipitated the abrupt fall of the Soviet Union—I began to question the narrative I’d come to accept. It’s easy to make a connection between the two; after all, the Berlin Wall came crashing down later that year (1989), and with it, the Iron Curtain began to rust and crumble all around them. After revisiting historical accounts and essays about the Soviet occupation, though, I realized that characterizing Moscow’s decision to withdraw their soldiers as a defeat is problematic. As Lester Grau points out in his article, Breaking Contact without Leaving Chaos,
“When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, they did so in a coordinated, deliberate, professional manner, leaving behind a functioning government, an improved military and an advisory and economic effort insuring the continued viability of the government. The withdrawal was based on a coordinated diplomatic, economic and military plan permitting Soviet forces to withdraw in good order and the Afghan government to survive.”
While a few soldiers perished during the final withdrawal, there were no frantic helicopter departures from the embassy roof in Kabul, no enemy soldiers advancing on the cities or masses of terrified refugees fleeing their nation alongside the Soviets. On the contrary, in a symbolic gesture, The Russian Commander, General Boris Gromov, walked across the “Friendship” bridge with his son and a bouquet of flowers in hand—the last soldier to cross over the Amu Darya River during the exodus.
Like anything viewed through a narrow historical lens, the Cold War seems like such a simpler time—a time when we knew who the enemy was, a world where good and evil were framed in stark contrast to one another, and when a nation and military understood why their soldier’s lives might be sacrificed. The fear of nuclear war and the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) had embedded itself deep within the American subconscious for decades, resonating across a nation, reminding us of a need to be strong, to be vigilant and ensure that war should be limited and engaged in only as a last recourse. The most glaring exception to that philosophy, of course, was Vietnam. Despite the politicians declaring success in Southeast Asia and proclaiming victory in a war of attrition, my father said that he never felt as if victory on the ground was possible. He told me that it became clear that they were losing the war after his unit had retaken the same hill several times—at one point, finding his own trash next to a stump he’d sat upon during a previous operation. But the lessons of those years have clearly faded into the background. The specter of Vietnam, closeted for years by a brief Gulf War and a ticker-tape parade, lay in wait, though, as we all became enamored with shock and awe.
Along with most of America, I watched a sanitized version of the 2003 invasion of Iraq unfold on TV. Fueled by a deep-seated need for retribution in the aftermath of 9/11 and spurred on by uncertainty and fear, we reveled in the destruction of a corrupt regime. It felt good to win against a tyrant and remind the world that we would prevail in this new War on Terror. I listened to the military spokesmen and reports from embedded journalists—the play by play of this new war felt like a game—a struggle between two teams in which the world was asked to choose a side. I wrapped my own enthusiasm in the American flag, forgetting, despite everything I knew, what was actually happening on the ground—the death, destruction and suffering veiled behind phrases such as collateral damage, isolated insurgency, and friendly fire. I boxed myself off from what I knew: that all wars begin with the illusion of being short and decisive, but few of them actually are. I forgot what the stories of past conflicts warned me to expect—that thousands of young men and women would be returning home in silver boxes draped by that same flag, and that the rest would return as well, but a part of them would be buried forever amid the rubble of Fallujah, or in the sewage trenches of Kamaliyah, on the banks of the Tigris River, or in the eyes of the dead women and children of Haditha.
It was supposed to be a short war, with only the necessary military forces to strike a knockout blow, depose Saddam Hussein and set up a new regime—one that would be on our team in the struggles ahead. A war, suggested by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, which might be paid for with Iraqi oil proceeds. Yes, a quick and decisive victory with Iraqi soldiers laying down their arms, the citizens welcoming us as liberators and embracing the invaders on their home soil. Thirteen months later, when President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier declaring, “Mission Accomplished” and an end to major combat operations—it was a victory, right? Sovereignty was supposed to be handed over to the Iraqis a month later, a clear sign of success, but the reality couldn’t have been different. The real struggle was just beginning. Members of the disbanded Iraqi Army were choosing sides—Sunni and Shia—and our soldiers were caught in the middle of a conflict without a plan for success. While many have said that the scenario in a post-invasion Iraq couldn’t have been envisioned, the truth couldn’t have been more different. Not only did senior Generals understand the complications of this war, so too, did Vice President Cheney, who, in an interview regarding the first Gulf War, said that ousting Saddam Hussein would result in a “quagmire” and the death of many American soldiers. He couldn’t have been more correct.
The solution to the quagmire, of course, was the famous Surge, coupled with General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy. While its effectiveness will be debated for years to come, the repercussions on the soldiers who took part in the operations are not in doubt. An overstretched military was pushed to the breaking point, extending combat tours and adding new deployments to a weary and limited number of ground troops. In his brilliant book, The Good Soldiers, Pulitzer Prize winner, David Finkel, tells the story of the 2-16th Rangers, a unit deployed on the outskirts of Baghdad during the Surge. Their commander, Lt Col Ralph Kauzlarich, who would later be referred to by his men as, Lost Kauz, was famous for saying, “It’s all Good.” By the end of the unit’s tour, after fourteen of his soldiers had perished and another seventy-six had earned purple hearts—men burned beyond recognition, scarred from shrapnel or with amputations—Kauzlarich and his catch phrase had become the embodiment of self-delusion. As the 2-16th packed up in April of 2008 for the long flight home, their base was under attack and the battalion replacing them suffered their first casualty. Little had changed since the 2-16th arrived fifteen months before at the start of the Surge, and yet, unlike his disillusioned soldiers, Kauzlarich held onto the notion that “they had won.”
I’ve written before about the number of Americans killed in the war, as well as the untold number of Iraqi civilians who perished along the way, but recently I read a startling article that put so much of this nine-year war in perspective. It’s a story about the 900,000 Iraqi widows currently in the country—nearly 100,000 new ones from this past decade of war… widows, often with several children, who’ve lost everything. The photographs in the article are a reminder of the lingering repercussions of long, drawn-out wars, and how they shape the future. After years of studying conflicts and their effect on the individual and societies, I can’t escape the images that slowly build in my imagination—the people and their stories that emerge like some great storm cloud rising atop a Midwestern plain. I feel their presence, and when I imagine the years ahead, I see in their sad, defiant eyes the very foundation of tomorrow’s conflicts.
A generation of Iraqi children will always associate the death of their fathers and brothers with this war—the visible scars etched all around them in the rubble and pockmarked streets across their nation. Yes, The American War—a conflict that has reshaped millions of lives and fundamentally altered the future of so many people. So, who will lead these children as they grow into young men and women? While no one can know for certain, the past can always serve as a guide. In his book, Ghost Wars, about the CIA’s support of the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation, Steve Coll recounts the nearly tenfold rise in the number of Madrassas (fundamentalist Islamic schools) on the border of Pakistan during the war. By the end of the Soviet withdrawal, the number of Madrassas had grown to over 8000—schools to indoctrinate a generation of children, ensuring a willing pool of recruits to battle the communist regime in Kabul.
When the Soviet Union broke apart in late 1991, military and financial support for Afghanistan came to an abrupt end. Ironically, the puppet government in Kabul would survive into the spring of 1992, outlasting the great and powerful, Soviet Union. By April, though, Mujahideen forces ousted the Afghan government, igniting a horrible civil war that would pave the way for the Taliban and create a fertile ground for Al Qaeda. No one could have predicted the rise of this new force in the country—the Taliban, a word, which in Pashtu means, students. Yes, students from those Madrassas—boys who’d grown to fill the ranks of this new and barbaric regime—boys taught to adhere to the strictest and most ruthless version of Sharia Law—boys seduced by the allure of charismatic leaders like Mullah Muhammad Omar and Osama Bin Laden—boys who became the warriors/terrorists/freedom-fighters we are fighting today.
As our soldiers packed up and prepared to leave Iraq this past December, the citizens of a bombed-out Fallujah were dancing in the streets, arms raised in celebration, certain they’d won after ousting the invaders. But this was our victory, right? A success story in the end for America, wasn’t it? We can call it whatever we choose, of course: a victory, a defeat, a stalemate, a peaceful handover-of-power… the necessary label to frame the story for our own consumption. But labels don’t mean much to the soldiers or civilians caught in the middle—the fathers, mothers and children, or the brothers, sisters, friends and lovers ever touched by this war. They don’t need a label to know something that others can’t—a deep and abiding truth they’ll be living with for the rest of their lives—that the scars of war endure for a lifetime. Veterans will be haunted by the memories and images lodged within their subconscious as they cope with an altered vision of the world. Parents, spouses and children will struggle to understand and accept the person who has returned from war. Many of these combat veterans will lose themselves along the way, unable to escape their traumatic experiences, and some will choose a path with no future at all. According to the Veterans Administration, the V.A. Suicide Hotline receives 10,000 calls a month, with 950 Veterans attempting suicide—eighteen, of whom, succeed in killing themselves and putting their ghosts to rest.
This past fall, I had my post-military, physical exam at the V.A. Hospital in Minneapolis. Located next to the National Guard base and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, the main entrance is graced by a statue of a soldier helping a wounded colleague into the arms of a caregiver. Overhead, the sound of airplanes landing and taking off welcomed me as I walked into the building. Inside, surrounded by Veterans (mostly men), old and young alike, some in wheelchairs or with prosthetic arms, and many of the younger ones with a distant, hollow look in their eyes, I could feel the impetus of this essay building within me. The physical lasted most of the day, with a variety of tests, x-rays, and blood work scheduled throughout the hospital. Waiting there, I began to wonder about what these men were like as young boys, and how many of them, like me, had been looking for an adventure when they joined the military—a chance to be a part of something significant, serve their nation and see the world. And how many, I wondered, had suffered as my father had, and how many were still struggling with their own demons as they tried to move forward and build a life in the aftermath of their war experiences.
Outside, as I drove out of the parking lot, I noticed a sign pointing to a separate building next to the hospital. Above the covered entryway were the words, “Spinal Cord Injury And Disorder Center.” It was an entire wing dedicated to those injuries… a reflection of this war, I thought. The words and the building had a chilling effect on me in a way that the main hospital didn’t. I hadn’t been behind those doors, but I could imagine what I might see there.
Maybe it was the hospital, the sound of airplanes passing overhead, or that I was surrounded by the embodiment of war’s effect on the individual, but it made me think of writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince. He once said, “War is not an adventure. It is a disease. It is like typhus.” In that moment, Saint-Exupery’s words seemed to resonate more clearly than ever. He understood more than most, the truth of war, having experienced it up close as the Nazis invaded France in WW II. He devoted the last few years his life trying to stem the German onslaught by flying reconnaissance missions during the war, but he never saw the victory he longed for. He was shot down over the Mediterranean, perishing as his plane crashed into the sea.
As I finished up my last week of simulators, and readied myself for my first flight in the aircraft, I decided to revisit the statue of Herb Brooks, this time with my camera in hand. Since my first trip, I’d watched a few videos of the victory over the Soviets, as well as the gold medal match against Finland. The truth is, I still get goose bumps when I watch the final moments of those games, listening to the crowd countdown to victory and then erupt in utter joy. I felt my own boyish enthusiasm once again when Jim Craig, the U.S. goalie, draped in the American Flag, took a victory lap and then looked up into the crowd, asking “where’s my father?” It’s a beautiful moment, this feeling of real success, coupled with a longing to share the joy with his father.
For many of us who joined the military in the Eighties, that game was a reminder of how we all wanted to win in the struggle of our time—to defeat the Soviets and take pride in our nation. Like now, those were uncertain and challenging economic times for America. Our parent’s generation had struggled and lost a drawn out war in Vietnam, and back then, winning a hockey game seemed like much more than simply an Olympic victory. But in the end, it was just a game and nothing more. Winners and losers alike moved on, the crowds went home, and the players went on with their careers. Whenever I look at the statue or a picture of Herb Brooks, I’ll always be reminded of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, reminded of a victory of ideals between two nations. We felt good, because the victory was real, something tangible to point to as an indication of what we were capable of as a nation, but it wasn’t a call to arms. Seeing the game again, I was reminded of how much I still love the Olympics, and love watching those young athletes push themselves to compete in a venue without weapons. I also realized, as I stood in front of the statue that I’ve watched every Olympic Medal Game we’ve played since–over 30 years of games, hoping to recapture some of that magic, but we haven’t won since.
Over the last few months, I’ve noticed more and more how members of the military have become routine fixtures at major sporting events. Cameras from around the globe show our soldiers watching the games from a variety of bases and war zones. On the fields, giant flags are unfurled as expressions of unbridled patriotism, and while I understand the appreciation for our Armed Forces and their sacrifices, I’m concerned at the trend. If anything, we need to distance ourselves from the connection between sports and war. Combat is not a game, and while there are winners and losers in sports, we need to understand that soldiers don’t win or lose wars. At best, they merely survive the conflicts they’re engaged in. At the V.A., the sight of so many Veterans from across the years was a clear reminder how the statue outside the hospital represents far more than a commitment to healing those who fight for our nation. It is also a reminder about the suffering and survival in the aftermath of every war ever fought. The bronze figures belie the illusion of a swift and decisive victory expressed in empty phrases and lies that often spur a country to go to war, reminders of the individual and societal costs of war.
Nations and societies are the ones that ultimately win or lose along the way. By looking back and learning to listen and accept the lessons from the art and literature of past conflicts, it’s as if we can hear the early echoes of a nation’s demise in the footfall of soldiers marching off to war. Wrapping oneself too tightly in the flag can be a dangerous thing, clouding our vision, and distorting our ability to understand what the stories of war have taught us for years. Ultimately, seeing the world through the lens of conflict has prompted me to question old assumptions—to see the rhetoric of war for what it truly is without getting lost in the emotional pull of excessive patriotic zeal. I made that mistake back in 2003, but I’ve learned from my experience, and hope that the lessons will resonate across society, as well. I don’t believe that simply saying, “Mission Accomplished” or that we’re winning a “war of attrition” means a victory is on the horizon or that repeating the words, “It’s all good” has any basis in reality. I don’t believe that any landing you walk away from is a successful one. And no, I don’t believe that wrapping oneself too tightly in the American Flag ensures that every war we wage is the right one.
Recently, I’ve heard discussions about whether or not we should have a national parade to celebrate the end of the Iraq War. A few small ones have already taken place across the country, and while the discussion seems to center on giving the troops a proper welcome home, it feels disingenuous to me. Americans have learned the lessons of Vietnam, no longer vilifying the soldiers for what their nation has asked them to do. The war in Iraq is already fading into the background, and no parade can change the reality on the ground there or redefine what happened to the countless dead and wounded on both sides. Of the millions that served, who should take part, I wonder, and what exactly are we to celebrate? Was our nine-year war in Iraq a success? If so, what did we win? Tell me, because when I examine the costs of the war, when I see those soldiers at the V.A. hospital, speak with those suffering from PTSD or hear the news of deteriorating conditions in Iraq and the stories of orphaned children, I don’t sense a victory… It feels like a crash… like something we’re walking away from as a nation… just barely.
Until Next Time,
J. A. Moad II