By J. Dawkins

My name is J Dawkins. I am a sergeant in the United States Army currently serving a fifteen-month deployment in an area west of Baghdad. We go on daily missions among the local Sunnis and right now our focus is almost completely counter-insurgency. I joined the army in 2004 with the specific intent of deploying, and now that I’ve been in Iraq for about six months, I wish to write somewhat about why I am here.

I suppose the shortest answer is that I felt so strongly we should not be here. It was in recognition of how small and powerless I felt in the face of a great nation determined to go to battle that I myself signed up in hopes that, by serving, I might someday better renounce war. I wanted to serve in Iraq to see firsthand the consequences of our actions. I wanted to be part of Iraq’s reconstruction. And I wanted to serve so that any criticism that I leveled at our government would be informed by love, by selfless service, and hard-gained experience. For these reasons, I’m so grateful to be here, and I continue to be angry that we are here.

I think the feeling of powerlessness is a common lot to many who find themselves at odds with the prevailing assumptions in the US. Much of what I do seems to come from a desire to combat that feeling of powerlessness by seeking out as much knowledge as I can. I began researching US foreign policy shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan and I continue to this day, studying anything that will help me better understand our relationship to the Middle East.

As a starting point for my studies I made a list of the rationale put forth by the administration in the lead up to the Iraq War. I then went back to the histories, the declassified documents, the policy papers and news archives to see if this rationale accurately reflected our demonstrated intentions for the region. It did not. Nor was it all about oil, as some have suggested. The real reasons are complex, and have more to do with the legacy of our Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union, along with a determination on the part of many in the first Bush administration to gain hegemony in the region through aggressive military maneuverings. This desire was coupled with three key assumptions. First, that democracy is a panacea for Middle Eastern instability. Second, Israel is the key ally in the war on terror, and though Saddam was not a threat to us, he was to Israel, which justified his removal. And third, such removal of Saddam would somehow lead to the fall of the Syrian, Iranian and, by extension, Hezbollah regimes.

One of the most interesting themes that emerged in my studying the rationale for the Iraq War was the immense power that a small group of people can wield over American foreign policy. I learned how vulnerable our unique democratic institution is in the absence of a politically literate populace. Without political transparency provided by the media to an informed public, it is very possible for our government and its policies to become hijacked, to be unduly influenced by a small group of people who do not have the majority’s best interests in mind. There is no conspiracy in this. They are no cabal. On the contrary, these influential groups are successful because they’ve been wise enough to learn and maneuver within the rules of the game. We would do well to follow suit, because ignorance of the Byzantine machinations of Washington will only keep us outside the loop — relegated to the margins, holding picket signs by our side, as policy passes us by.

I wish those promoting diplomacy and peace would get a little better at doing so. One of my favorite scriptures is when Jesus praises the unjust steward for his astuteness and then explains, “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” Too often, those who would be harmless as doves fail in their fight for peace by refusing to be serpent-wise. William Butler Yeats described this when he said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” I know that I remained willfully ignorant for too long because I felt overwhelmed at where to begin. I went about my days and left the government to its ways, hoping for the best all along. I am in Iraq now to learn from those mistakes, that I may be a clear voice of dissent against future campaigns for needless war (i.e., Iran).

And I suppose I am bound to fail. I am no biblical scholar, but one of the clearest themes in scripture is that of inevitable and all-encompassing world war. War was with us in the beginning with the hosts of heaven and has continued through the blood-dipped pages of time. It seems it will continue on until Armageddon. Clearly, war is built into the equation and, on some level, God has submitted to its necessity since apparently that’s how he plans on wrapping it all up. Good does not come from war, but rather despite it. And yet, even God seems to have been unable to come up with a better way to bring it all to a close.

In the end, this is of little consequence to me. I don’t have to stop war; the commandment is only to renounce it. I take comfort in knowing I have only to do the best I can. Despite the inevitability of failure I am bound to labor diligently when and where I am able — doing right if only because it is the right thing to do.

Even then, and with all that, the fact is I enjoy being here. I think going to war with Iraq was a disastrous decision, but I like that it has unintentionally empowered the long oppressed Shi’a of Iraq, even if that shift in power has brought to the surface profound underlying problems. Unfortunately, not only the Shi’a have gained from our coming here; our invasion did wonders for al Qaeda as well. It is shameful what a godsend the Iraq occupation has become for extremists all over the region who stream into this embattled land to cut their teeth fighting US forces. Yet, at the same time, I am so impressed with how the Iraqi Sunnis have maintained their characteristic religious moderation, despite a complete upheaval of their world. I am so grateful that serving here has allowed me a more nuanced view of the conflict.

Being here has convinced me that Iraq was not a critical part of the struggle against terrorism when we invaded it. Saddam was a distressing and destabilizing force, no doubt, but invading Iraq has set the “War on Terrorism” back unfathomably. For that reason I suppose I am reticent to accept the gratitude leveled at me and other soldiers for being here in the Middle East. It doesn’t seem right to be thanked for bandaging a man’s head if you were the one who bashed it in with a baseball bat. I feel uncomfortable with any pretension to patriotism or honor put upon my being here. I don’t think myself more noble or patriotic than any quiet and determined mother in the middle of America or Pakistan or anywhere that is teaching her child to be humble and true, to seek knowledge instead of platitudes, to seek prayer instead of posturing, love instead of pride. To me, that is what it means to obey the commandment to “renounce war and proclaim peace.” My decision is a weak and distant second: to renounce war by becoming a warrior. What a silly idea! It doesn’t make sense. I just spent a whole essay trying to explain it and I am nowhere convinced. Oh well. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.