Politics & Policy

This Violent Desert

A conversation between the generations about war.

Ian left the United States for the Persian Gulf three weeks ago today.

I was talking with a friend of mine in Houston yesterday. John told me that he and his father, a Vietnam War veteran, were reading Ian’s e-mails from the Persian Gulf together. For the first time the father was talking to his son about his two tours of duty in that war. And for the first time he saw his dad, a stoical man, weep over those experiences.

The conversation with John yesterday prepared me for the following e-mail exchange. The first message is from Ian. It arrived this morning and needs no comment.

Hello everyone.

Another sandstorm means I have time to write you all.

It is still unknown when this war will end. That means almost everyone on this base does not know when they are returning home.

When I left that Thursday morning in early March, I had to say goodbye to the four people I love the most. My little brothers were confused. “Why do you have to go?” was written all over their faces. When I was their young age, I surely would not have understood.

My mom was, of course, just miserable. She would have gone to any length to make sure I didn’t go if I did not want to go. (She probably would have succeeded!) Her reaction was something that I only partially understood. As a 19-year-old single male, I can not understand the depths of a mother’s love for her son.

I never saw tears in my dad’s eyes before that dark Thursday morning. As a strong and humorous man, he caught me off guard. Again, I can not understand the depths. But when I looked into their faces, I saw that they love me so much they were willing to let me go.

This makes it hard for me. I left everything I love to come to this violent desert. The difficulty is not the hardships I face here; it is facing the hardships without the ones I love.

Everyone finds ways to deal with the fear, pain, and suffering. I too have found a way. My life is not back in Michigan. It is here, now. I try to adjust as well as possible and deal with whatever comes my way. It is hard to accomplish this when I remember my other life back home.

It is not easy to be honest with myself and write what I feel. But a good friend of mine who is a highly decorated Vietnam Veteran told me that not talking about my experiences here is “pure bull****, partner!!!”

Thanks for listening.


Louise and I needed a few minutes to absorb what our son had written. We had been undone by the line, “The difficulty is not the hardships I face here; it is facing the hardships without the ones I love.”

A few minutes later we opened the next e-mail, called, “read this Mom and Dad.” It was then that we understood what had moved our son to write. Yesterday he had received a message from Jim Dunn, the Vietnam War veteran who had given his Michigan flag to Ian a few days before shipping off to Kuwait. In a recent e-mail, Ian had asked Jim how to deal with fear. This is what Jim wrote:

Dear Ian,

Thank you so much for the e-mails and all you are doing. I can’t begin to describe how much your correspondence means to me! I feel very connected with you and how you must feel. Please know that I am most happy to say that your family and all of us straphangers are very proud of you and all the guys you are with. We are truly grateful!

I am particularly grateful and honored that you took the Michigan flag and that it made a successful mission with your bird. If and when time permits, I would love to know more about your crew, pilot, and others. Are they also from Michigan? I had over 1,800 hours in the air in Nam and know how dangerous the sky can be in wartime. I also know how important the “sense of belonging” can be to both the mission and to your own mental health. After all, it impacts the life of so many.

Ian, I remember most how afraid I was when I first sensed the war was “for real.” I know the adrenaline rush and the ups and the downs. There were times, as I know there have been for you, that I thought it was surely over. I came to realize that if I had time to think that, then it surely wasn’t. Eventually I realized that putting everything I had into the job at hand was the only way to get beyond the fear.

I know, too, that things will eventually slow down. Somewhere along the way you will have time when you are alone with those fears and doubts. It’s okay — we all have had them and the truth is, they never go away. How you deal with them will make all the difference in the world. Talk. Find a buddy you can share them with. Write … whatever. Let the fears and doubts see the light of day and they won’t consume you later.

I once heard someone say, “We have to live life forwards but we can only understand it backwards.” Now that I have had some of that life behind me, I can say that it seems a very true statement. I believe we all deal with life’s tests differently. I have also learned (looking back) that while I don’t always know what works, I have a much better idea what doesn’t work. For me it helped to keep thinking of a saying I read in the Bible somewhere — “This too shall pass.” I also came to realize that while we all needed to “let it out” occasionally (i.e. get drunk), the parties were only temporary but the feelings always remained. They eventually would have to be faced.

Even though I thought of myself as relatively insignificant in “the big picture,” I came to understand that someday I would look back at my behavior and wonder, Did I meet the test? Did I act with honor? Was I afraid? Ian, I could go on endlessly with the questions — I know you have had them — but what I came to understand was that we all have had them, and that what mattered most was my response to them.

By pure luck, I think, the questions didn’t consume me because I had so much to do. Also, like you, I was surrounded by good people. Later I came to realize that I was doing what I was trained to do (in the Army and growing up). And while I prayed (after all, there are no atheists in foxholes), I never realized how much God was working in my life. I knew that I didn’t understand and that it wasn’t necessary to have all the answers right then. Remember, all this is understanding “backwards.”

Ian, I was never more alive than when I was the closest to dying. I never understood that! I did the right thing most of the time because I was surrounded by guys who were also trained to do the right thing. There is nothing good about war, but you will look back at what you did in response to it and put it to a constant test. How did I react? You’re human, buddy, and you won’t always react the same way. I have read your e-mails and talked with you. I know you know what is right. Stay tuned to that “inner voice” and don’t relax the standards.

One of the lessons of growing older is that I now realize I lacked the ability to savor some of my circumstances in life. Some things about war will be forever branded into my mind — the smell, the grit, the death. I’m sure you have already had some things take center stage. Others, I wished I had savored more. Like friendships, my own feelings, the people. You write well. Savor those moments and put them down for yourself for later. You may visit them often or you may not, but they will always be a part of who you are. Someday they will come to take on a meaning you will never know existed. You owe it to yourself, Ian.

Ian, when I was growing up after WWII, it was often said that GI’s “didn’t talk about those things.” It was somehow implied that the more quiet you were, the more heroic you were, the more action you saw. My model was just that — Don’t talk! Pure bull**** partner!!! I realize now that no one wanted to talk probably because no one wanted to listen or — perhaps more importantly — understood.

I know that doubts and questions have probably already come. You described it well in your e-mail (Real bombs real people). Keep talking. Leave the understanding to later. Take pictures of things. Anything. They, too, will give you time to look back and maybe help with the understanding. After Nam I had a whole new appreciation of poetry. The war awoke my senses and put them at a level that I am just now coming to appreciate. Read some poetry. You’re in a region that produced famous poets. Savor their works. Remember that it is all a part of you and you are changing as a result. It’s all normal, and there will be a day when you look back and understand, “This too shall pass!”

Ian, you have given so much to me. Thank you for your courage (yes — you are courageous!), your dedication, and your sacrifice. Please tell your fellow soldiers how much we admire their efforts and how close we hold them all in our prayers as a grateful Nation.

In closing I want to share a war story with you. When it’s time please feel free to share some with me. Remember, Ian, but for a few miles and a few years it’s all the same. When I first arrived in Nam I was a forward observer with an infantry company. My first patrol we had “contact” and air was called in. We were an infantry company of about 100. Planes dropped 500-pound bombs. Even though I was in the command unit (a brand new 2nd lieutenant) and surrounded by GI’s, I was scared s*******!!! We barely fired a shot. I learned right from the start how important every person’s job was. I never met the people that flew those planes or dropped those bombs. Yet they came whenever we asked and flew in all sorts of s***. I felt a sense of “belonging”. Later, I learned we had almost walked into a regiment that had set up an ambush and that the “air” had saved our lives. For the next year and a half it happened much the same way, over and over, guys that never met one another saving each others’ lives — just like you! It’s all a part of the brotherhood of war and for that I am truly grateful.

Thank you Ian for everything you are doing and for giving me a chance to share it with you!

Your buddy Jim

— Gleaves Whitney is editing a book of wartime speeches by American presidents, to be published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield. This is the fifth in a series of reports about his 19-year-old son Ian, who is serving in Kuwait with the Michigan Air National Guard.


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