Monday, December 12, 2011

My brother in Afghanistan

Last Friday I went to Zabar’s to select boxes of assorted nuts and dried fruits for my brother who is in Afghanistan with the Navy.  As the Christmas and Hanukah holidays are approaching, one family member will be missing from these festivities.  I think it was important to get this package in the mail, and not to forget those who are serving our country overseas and in harm’s way.

Until last May, Oscar was the principal at Anthony High School, just outside of El Paso, Texas.  He has been an educator for decades, but he has also been in the Navy Reserve for 22 years.  In other ways, Oscar also breaks the stereotype many of us might have of our military servicemen and women: he is in his 40’s, has a Master’s degree, and was working on his Doctorate.  Before he left for Afghanistan, Oscar was promoted to the rank of Chief Petty Officer in the Navy.  Administrators, teachers, and students from Anthony High School also recently sent him a care package.

It is strange to have a brother in places you read about in the newspaper’s front pages, where sectarian violence, for example, recently killed dozens of Afghanis and Improvised Explosive Devices still kill American soldiers in Humvees.  It is strange because on the one hand I know my brother well, but on the other hand he is in as remote and as foreign a place as I could imagine.

I worry about my brother, and I hope with a little luck and skill that he will return to El Paso safely.  My mother couldn’t stop crying for days after Oscar told her the news of his deployment.  Now she keeps a candle lit to the Virgen de Guadalupe in our living room, to ask Her to guide him home.  It is what we don’t know about his deployment, what our minds imagine, and what we see as ‘news’ about Afghanistan that is this cauldron of anxiety, fear, and hope.  Our family is proud of Oscar, because we know he is doing his duty for his country.

I believe many if not most Americans are smart enough to support our military, to remember and honor their sacrifices, but to judge the politicians in Washington by a different metric.  These politicians create American foreign policy, while the military is one of those instruments of that policy.  For example, I don’t believe we should have attacked Iraq to rid it of Saddam Hussein or the weapons of mass destruction that were never found.  That war was George W. Bush’s and Condoleezza Rice’s mistake, which of course they will never admit, because they are politicians.  They manipulated the fear after 9/11 to start a war that should never have happened.  From the start, we should have focused on Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda operated.

But not for one moment would I ever disparage soldiers, sailors or airmen for their service in Iraq.  On the contrary, I would thank them for doing their duty.  Once they are back home, I would do what I can to help them.  I also believe how that war was started is one thing, but how it was carried out and how it evolved are different matters.  You may start a war for the wrong reasons, but what happens during the long course of any war may have benefits.  So even saying ‘Iraq was a mistake’ is too simplistic.  We may not know for years what true effect we had in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Give Obama credit for winding down the Iraq war, and for beginning the process in Afghanistan.  I believe the majority of Americans support this policy, in part because we see our economic problems at home as paramount, but also because the marginal benefits of what we can do in Iraq and Afghanistan decrease each year.  Obama has cleaned up a lot of messes he inherited, and he has also fallen short as a leader at times, yet I give credit where credit is due.

You know, I am not a jingoistic patriot.  But I am a patriot.  It plays better for simplistic hurrahs, and in our TV culture with three-second attention spans, to wave the flag and spout unqualified red-white-and-blue accolades to motherhood, apple pie, and the United States of America.  But I do not always agree with my mother, although I still love her.  I prefer apple crisp to apple pie, and buñuelos with honey to both.  I support our military and my brother in the military.  But I will never stop thinking until I am dead, and that I am able to write what I think, even if it is critical of the United States, is one of the reasons why I know I am lucky to live in this country.

Before the holidays are over, and even after they are done and gone, connect with a military family, and invite them over for dinner or simply for a cup of coffee.  Send a member of our armed forces a care package this week.  Write him or her a letter.  When we go beyond our selves, when we do something good that is not necessary or even asked for, we are all ennobled.