Conversation with Robert
My daughter Mai did not consider Robert a suitor– he was an acquaintance– so we were surprised when he made the effort to come for a visit while on leave from active duty in Iraq. Perhaps he was fascinated with her Arab-American heritage, and her firm opposition to the war. The war had started six months previously, and the sentiment of the American people hadn’t yet turned against it.
I took the young people to brunch at a neighborhood pancake house, and we talked about the war. Robert told us he had “many stories to tell.” Mai and I sat in silent expectation, sensing his conflict in opening up to us.
“God, I hate the enemy,” he began, and fell silent.
“Who is the enemy?” I finally asked.
“Iraqis!” Robert answered, as if he were telling me something I should have known.
We sat at a table surrounded by other tables with children and overweight adults, retired couples and laborers. Loud voices praised ball games and the unseasonably good weather. Soft voices discussed the church agenda, and the declining health of the grandparents. The aromas of pancakes, omelets and coffee settled over the table, and the awkward moment dissipated when I offered Robert the milk and sugar.
“But isn’t it possible that the Iraqi soldier is just like you?” I asked. “He has parents, siblings, or a spouse and children? He is loved, just like you?”
“There’s no room for that kind of thinking in combat.”
“I know, ” I said.
“Tell us one of your stories!” Mai broke in. The corners of his mouth drooped a little, and his eyes widened. He sight seemed to reverse, looking into the mind that was now infected with war visions like viruses inserted into his soul.
“I’ll never forget looking down the barrel of my weapon and seeing an eye looking back at me. Everything around me was dark; it was night, and time stood still. It was just me and him. You’d be amazed at what goes through your mind.”
“What goes through your mind?” Mai and I asked together.
“Lots of stuff.”
“A few seconds seem like an hour.”
“What did you do?”
“I squeezed the trigger, and on that particular weapon the mechanism moves slow and smooth, to keep the barrel steady and not miss the target.”
“And what was your reaction when you realized you were still alive?”
“Run.” That’s all he said. We waited, but he seemed to be finished with that story.
“Did you ever think about writing down some of your experiences?” I asked, when I saw the tears about to spill from his eyes, but he wasn’t finished talking about combat.
“I’ve shot at lots of….things,” he said, hesitating at the word, avoiding it as he had avoided the word “gun”. He had to do what he had to do, whether he wanted to or not, and he adjusted his attitude to accept what he had to do. Would I would have done the same? How can you kill someone’s son, brother, husband, father? How can you determine whether your target is thinking the same way, or whether you are but a “thing” to him as he squeezes the trigger on his own weapon? The instinct to self-preservation crashes against the generic moral imperative that even an enemy learns in childhood: Love your neighbor as yourself.
A week after our pancake brunch, Robert returned to Iraq. Eight months after that, I asked my daughter, “Have you heard from Robert lately ? Is he still in Iraq?”
“Oh, no, Mom. He wrote me a few weeks ago from St. Louis. He didn’t re-enlist. He’s joining the priesthood! Can you imagine that!”
I could imagine that.
Several more years passed, and my daughter married an Iraqi whose family left Iraq as the soldiers entered it. Now we listen to his stories.