Portland photographer, Jim Lommasson sent me this message today “Hi Mary, I hope things are going well. Just want to let you know that the hand made book, I WOULDN’T WISH WAR ON MY WORST ENEMY is now in the permanent collection of The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. John’s title, and your letter…. Peace, Jim”
Jim put together an amazing photo exhibition entitled “Exit Wounds: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming” which premiered at the New American in Portland a couple of years back. The title was inspired by Jonathan Shay’s excellent book Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming
Since that time, the exhibition has toured the country and also been made into a handcrafted book, I Wouldn’t Wish War On My Worst Enemy, a quote from my son, with copies purchased by both Reed College and Yale University and proceeds benefiting Coffee Strong, a GI coffeehouse near Fort Lewis. To view a slide show of the premiere exhibition click here then click on Exhibitions and then Exit Wounds.
My disabled Marine son, John, was one of Jim’s subjects and one of his combat experiences was a feature of the exhibit, taking up an entire wall. A photo of a small child held by a Marine and below it, in an envelope, a letter I wrote to her and two other Iraqi women, entitled an Open Letter to Three Iraqi Women.
As America prepares to celebrate its independence from the tyranny of British rule it might be worth thinking about the consequences of using our might and hard earned freedom to invade another country. The devastation wrought upon those countries is sheltered from us by the mainstream media but the information is out there for those who care to take a look and PFC Bradley Manning is charged with releasing some of that information in a video entitled Collateral Murder.
An excellent book on the devastation wrought upon the psyche of those young men and women sent to war by their government, again by Shay, is Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. My boy’s character was undone in Iraq and the video above and the letter below tell a little bit of that story.
The steam has dissipated from my coffee cup as I strain to write this letter to the three of you. You don’t know me and one of you will never have an opportunity to read this letter but you have each left your mark upon my soul. Though I do not know your names you will recognize who you are and I speak to you woman to woman and mother to mother and mother to child.
If you don’t already know it, the US military can train a man to kill but cannot train that man how to handle it when he does. For this reason amongst many others my Marine son, John, who touched your lives in Iraq is in treatment along with other veterans of this and earlier wars. They are ten wounded warriors, five from the Iraq war and five from that earlier American fiasco, Vietnam.
John has bonded with one of these older Vietnam vets, “Old Man”, he calls him. The reason I am telling you about Old Man is that it took him thousands of bottles of alcohol, dozens of jobs, seven marriages and forty years to accept that he had never recovered from his war time experiences. They never recover really I want you to know that.
Our paths have crossed, tragically and we are connected now. This connection has provided me with certain details about your lives that I feel I have to share if only that some small light may be shed on dark places.
There was a firefight in Baghdad, a 360 degree battle with the Marines taking fire from all around and overhead. You were there, not as a participant just a civilian and you are my first connection though I learned of you last.
Training had the Marines firing back reflexively at anything that moved, vehicles, stray dogs a blur of a shirtsleeve. The Marine who fired upon your husband and two children was almost 100 yards away and he jerked his weapon up in horror at the end of the burst as he watched your family fall.
You didn’t know but he watched you run out to your family. He saw you in your light blue wrap as you went from one body to the other. He tried to avert his eyes as you picked up your dead child and then the other and wailed in your grief. He tried to look away but that light blue color was always in his peripheral vision, pulling at him drawing him back.
It might have been five, seven even ten minutes when unable to bear your grief any longer he swung the barrel around and fired. So you see we are connected because my son saw you die.
Does it matter to you about this man who killed you and your family? Perhaps not, but he hailed from what we call the Deep South. John called him a friend and at 6’5” and solid muscle he looked the perfect Marine but he has not fared well since that day in Baghdad. Within months of returning stateside, he amassed multiple alcohol related assault charges.
Finally he plunged over a beachside cliff and lay in a coma for months. Karma, John calls it or self imposed penance but he is only now relearning how to speak.
Not long ago I met a Lance Corporal who had determined during the siege on Fallujah that he must enter your home in search of combatants. He prepared and set a timed charge to blow a new doorway in the side of your building. He gathered intelligence assessed the situation and finally gave the order to blow the charge and his men darted through the newly opened breach and he followed closely behind.
You will remember him because when he entered to find your husband and children dead from the blast you were crying out, “lemad’a, lemad’a” (why, why?) You will remember him because when he saw what he had done his knees buckled and the blood drained from his twenty two year old face. You will remember him because he fell back against the wall and clutched at his chest and gasped for breath.
You saw his reaction. You watched him try and shoulder the enormity of the order he had given and when his eyes finally met yours you placed your hand on his cheek and said, “masha, Allah” (God’s will). Your compassion, your understanding and your forgiveness that day destroyed him.
He would give his life to undo what he did. Today he works hard to end our occupation of your country. I have thought of you every day since he told me your story.
You cannot be more than six now, if that. With luck you do not remember that October ’04 day in Ramadi when your parents died. With luck you are far away from Iraq now.
To you I feel the closest connection, the greatest responsibility and the deepest agony. You see your father wanted only to rescue you. He wanted only to grab you from your dead mother’s arms and he gave his life trying because he loved you so much.
My son and his sergeant did not understand. They mistook your father’s actions as a threat to their comrades and fired upon and killed him. So you see we are connected because my son killed your father.
When weapons platoon found you, scared and crying many of them including John fell apart. You undid them. You and your scared wide brown eyes and dark curls brought some of them to their knees.
They took your picture that day. You are a tiny bundle of pink and blue flowers and puffy sleeves set against the digital camouflage jacket of John’s sergeant who did not set you down for hours. Please know that John keeps your picture though he looks at it rarely because it hurts so much to remember.
What can I say to you? That I am sorry goes without saying. Does it help that my son suffers because of that day? Does it matter to your life that he will carry your image with him forever? No, I don’t see how it can but I will tell you I love you.
None of you can welcome this connection but I feel it nonetheless. Taking your families from each of you has also lost my son to me for he will never be the same. To each of you, Assalamu alaikum, peace be upon you.
A Marine mom