We made it to Kuwait last night, where the temperature was over 100 degree F at 8:00 PM, hot enough to be pretty uncomfortable. Kuwait is very metropolitan, with houses and lights and highways that look like an average American city. It’s a sharp contrast to much of the area where our troops are now – Iraq and Afghanistan are much more primitive in comparison. I don’t know how the politics and customs compare, but the standard of living is much, much better for the average Kuwaiti than for the average Iraqi or Afghan. Of course, the per-capita income in Kuwait is much higher, due to the oil revenues. American troops are here as well, but somehow we aren’t fighting insurgents trying to take over the Kuwaiti government. Funny how prosperity seems to bring peace. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned there…
I will soon be flying back to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, to make my trip back to Do China. I sent an e-mail to my team chief, “Captain Kirk,” to let him know I made it back this far. The trip from the United States took over 18 hours (including a layover in Ireland), and my butt was pretty much dead when I arrived. I had a hard time sleeping on the DC-10 (airline seats aren’t made for sleeping), so I was wiped out from the flight, but I got a good night’s sleep here in Kuwait.
I’ve been talking to Soldiers from Iraq who like me are returning from their 2-week leave back home. It’s hard to imagine taking vacation from a war, but that’s kind of what we do when we go home. Modern transportation makes it possible, but going home and coming right back creates some mental schizophrenia – when I went home, I was back in my “normal” mode of existence, and now I have to start thinking in my tactical mode again. It’s so different I almost have to be two different people: one the normal father, husband and person I am back home, another the Soldier in Afghanistan, helping fight off the resurgent Taliban.
This has been a banner year for the Taliban, I have read. Back home, I had access to newspapers and Internet articles, and found out there has been more Taliban activity this year than any year since the Taliban were deposed by US forces in 2001 and 2002. There have been more attacks and bombings in Afghanistan this year, both on US forces and on other coalition forces. It was surprising to me to read how many Canadian Soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, for instance. In fact, I was shocked to see how many non-US Soldiers have died in this conflict.
I have concluded that for Reservists and National Guard Soldiers, being mobilized is much more disruptive for families than for Active Duty Soldiers. While we all volunteered for this, knowing we would likely be mobilized, the families are less prepared for long separations than Active Duty families, who go through periods of separation regularly. On active military installations, families bond together over periods of deployment to help one another out, and there are government resources available to help with family matters. For part-time military members, who usually live far from military bases, the resources are far away. In my own case, the nearest military installation is Great Lakes Naval Base, almost two hours away. My wife is the only military spouse anywhere in our neighborhood. The toll that separation takes on the family is pretty much borne in quiet, stoic perseverance. My wife confided to me when I was home that at times when I couldn’t call home for weeks at a time, she would sometimes call my voicemail, just to hear my voice. She remembered my telling her, “No news is good news,” while she listened to my voicemail announcement telling her to leave a message for me at the tone – a message I of course could not retrieve. She just wanted to hear my voice to feel reassured that nothing had happened to me yet.
Of course, active duty families worry, too. It’s difficult to be apart from the one you love for a year or more, or even for a few months. It’s hard for families to remain strong with recurring times far apart, and unfortunately many Army families fall apart from the strain. I believe we owe something to the families of Soldiers, Sailors Airmen and Marines who sacrifice a normal family life for the sake of serving our country. But it’s an expectation for people on active duty – it comes with the territory, as they say. More and more, it’s something families of part-time warriors cope with as well. From talking to my teammates, it’s a considerable drain on their families as well.
So while my time at home was a welcome break from the mental drain of my mission in Afghanistan, the time at home is over now, and I have to get my head back in the game. The good news is that I won’t have so long until I’m back home again, this time for good. Only four and a half more months, and I will return to stay, and someone else will pick up where I leave off.
When I was in Atlanta waiting to fly back, people would come up to me and thank me for serving. It was almost embarrassing – I felt like some sort of celebrity, even though I’m hardly famous. We walked from the USO to the ticketing counter in a large group, and all through the Atlanta airport, people applauded and cheered us. I didn’t know how to respond, whether to wave back or just walk on. I decided to smile to let them know I appreciated the gesture. I waved at a couple children on the way as well.
All along the way back, I was asked how things were going over here. Americans want to know that we are making an impact, but they want to hear it from us, the ones on the ground. Unlike the media, we don’t have an agenda for our answers. I have answered honestly to some of these questions that people in Afghanistan are very different than average Americans, and that success will take a long time.
I spoke a bit with a flight attendant en route to Kuwait who asked me this question. When I told her that people in Afghanistan were different, she said that had been her experience, too, to my surprise. She has spent a little time around some people in the Middle East, and felt their culture and values are much different than ours, too. In fact, anyone who has spent time here shares that opinion.
Flying from Chicago to Atlanta, the airline I flew upgraded my seat to First Class. It was a token gesture, since it was only an hour and a half flight, and I was not allowed to have any alcoholic drinks (again – not until I come home!). But it was still a nice thing to do.
Seated next to me was a gentleman who left Iraq back in 1968, and was now working for the US government doing translation services. Interestingly, he was an Iraqi Christian, something you almost never hear of any more. He said there were many Christians in Iraq years ago, but most have left the country due to rising animosity towards Christianity by many Middle Eastern Muslims. (I have a friend in the Chicago area whose family left Lebanon for similar reasons; they too are Christians.) I asked this man if the Iraqi Christians felt the same sense of tribal loyalties as Iraqi Muslims, and he said no. This was interesting to me – my feeling that Islam emphasizes tribal identity was validated in part by his comment. Unfortunately, tribal identity seems to lead increasingly to conflict in the Middle East, and is something Islam must come to terms with if the people in this part of the world wish to live in peace.
Not all Muslims live in conflict, however, as Kuwait proves. But Kuwaitis share a common ethnic identity, so there is less to fight about. It’s a vicious circle: poverty leads to desperation and fighting, which undermines economic improvement, which leads to more poverty, which then leads to more conflict. Until the people commit to peaceful coexistence, little will improve.
In the news, I read of how Iraqi tribal leaders are committing themselves to fight the terrorists who tear their country apart. This is good news, and opens up the possibility that there may be some progress. We must be patient with this.
In my opinion, there needs to be more dialogue between all parties. If war is a situation where people stop talking and start shooting, then the way back from fighting must involve talking. In Afghanistan, President Karzai has said he wants talks with the Taliban. Some may see this as encouraging the enemy, but I think it would be helpful. The only way all parties will agree to peace is if they talk to each other. Regardless of what one party may have done to the other, focusing on past wrongs will only result in endless conflict.
To that end, I also think that there should be more dialogue in the United States between Muslims and people of other faiths. Perhaps we could model the tolerance and peaceful coexistence we claim to want for the Middle East. Perhaps Muslims around the world could have dialogue and discover more common ground with those they consider infidels, and decide we deserve to be tolerated as well.
Perhaps God has a plan for all of this, and will work to bring about more understanding and greater peace and security in the world. I certainly hope this is the case.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.