A soldier assigned to a seven-man firing party readies his rifle during a 21-gun salute for Army Sgt. John W. Mele, 25, of Bunnell, Fla., during a burial service Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery. Mele died Sept. 14 in Arab Jabour, Iraq, of wounds suffered when an improvised explosive device detonated near his unit during combat operations. Mele was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division in Fort Stewart, Ga.
During the same week that right-wing blowhard Rush Limbaugh lashed out against what he called "phony soldiers," those (unlike the blowhard) who served their country but turned against the Iraq war (it's hard to imagine why), I talked to a soldier who had returned from Iraq.
He was anything but phony. He was actually very American in his contradictions, his passions, his thinking and his hopes.
Capt. Joshua Denton had a lot of time to think about a lot of things during his one-year tour of duty as an adviser to the Iraqi Army in the dangerous suburbs of Baghdad. Denton, a University of New Hampshire graduate and a recent transplant to Portsmouth, told me the alternative to thinking about dying courtesy of an insurgent roadside bomb was a necessary act of sanity.
"It could be too easy to think about dying," he told me during a lengthy conversation we had. One of his adviser teammates was in fact killed by a horrific roadside bomb. Seeing tortured and executed and blown-up bodies along the streets was a frequent thing.
So Denton thought about politics and foreign policy, history and the limits of military power. Most of all, this artillery officer thought about the beautifully mundane. "Getting an apartment, getting a dog, and working at Banana Republic," he said.
At least so far, Denton has had his wishes granted. He came to my attention via a tough and thoughtful letter he sent to the Portsmouth Herald, and I decided to give him a call to find out more (you can see the full letter on D4).
What I found was an Army officer who has joined countless other fellow junior officers in leaving the Army in record numbers. He's getting out of the Army for a number of personal reason, but one of the most important is this: "I've been against the foreign policy of this country since 9/11."
He said the Army is offering $20,000 bonuses to junior officers to stay in. But except those "lifers" who plan to make it a career, more and more junior officers are getting out with their sanity and their lives, he told me.
He studied political science and history at UNH, and has given considerable thought to the debacle in Iraq and why we need to get out as soon as possible.
"We are fighting a proxy war for them," he explained. When I asked who them was, he didn't hesitate. "Both sides: the Shias and the Sunnis. We are doing their dirty work and doing nothing positive for Iraq or ourselves."
He's thought a lot about the tangled web of politics of the war and the consequences of the almost unimaginable incompetence practiced from the beginning by the Bush administration. As he surveys the presidential primary environment and the political swamp in Washington, D.C., he is frustrated and more than a little angry.
"It's insulting," he said, of the "support the troops" mantra employed by Bush and other politicians seeking to obscure the dark reality of war.
"There are two camps now," he said about his assessment of military morale in Iraq. "One camp believes we need to get out because we can't win and are doing more harm than good. The other camp believes because so many have died, we can't leave because we owe it to them. But that's crazy."
Though a self-described progressive Democrat, he finds it hard to believe that the Democrats in Congress have not done more to stop Bush from keeping the war going. He's particularly harsh on the presidential candidates serving in the Senate who haven't done enough to stop it and shown a lack of spine while doing it.
In his letter, Denton took on two Democratic notables.
"If Sen. Clinton or Obama really cared about ending the war, they would filibuster any bill that reached the floor that did not have a timeline for a full withdrawal. They would filibuster any bill, every time, until they were medically incapable of going on with the filibuster. Such a bold and unprecedented move would almost certainly end their presidential bids. The political ambitions of Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama are more important than saving the life of a single American soldier."
Perhaps it's unfair to expect a presidential candidate to act as heroically as a soldier under fire, but Denton smartly brings out the contradictions between the political rhetoric and reality — the politics of the war are grinding on like the war itself.
While he was doing a lot of thinking in Iraq, Denton saw his mission change with the "surge." He said there was some decrease in violence in selected areas, but what he didn't see was any change in the political environment — which, according to Bush and war supporters, was the sole logic behind the surge. But like so many rationales over the past five years for this war or the latest strategy, the surge has become as meaningless as yesterday's press release.
Politicians of all stripes say there's no military solution, but Denton said the cold reality is that there's no political solution.
"We took the lid off" decades of political and sectarian tension in a country that had its identity and borders forced on it by colonial powers Britain and France nine decades ago.
"They don't want the same democracy we do because they don't understand it like we do," Denton said. "Their idea of democracy is to drive down the wrong side of the road, which they do all the time. Or during the massive looting" after Saddam Hussein fell.
Denton said he came to like and better understand the Iraqis and the hell they suffered daily. But he admits to hardly trusting any of them or anything they said because their loyalties often had little to do with what the United States is trying to accomplish (or destroy) in Iraq.
He has become a cold realist when it comes to the fate of Iraq and the Middle East.
"They need to have their civil war," he said.
Most of all, he said, this country needs to become energy independent as soon as possible, because "in 50 years when their oil runs out, we're not gonna care about Iraq. You know it and I know it."
Denton said he was still decompressing and probably would be for more than a year. He badly wants to get involved in politics and possibly political campaigns, but his two favorite candidates (Al Gore and Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin) are on the sidelines and he's mulling his options.
Earlier this month, he attended the Republican debate in Durham and shook the hand of Sen. John McCain. When McCain asked him if we were winning in Iraq, Denton told me he informed the former combat veteran and Vietnam War POW, "No, we aren't."
"I like McCain and respect him because at least he believes in something. But he's wrong," he said.
Like the country itself in its feelings about the war, he's on edge and uncertain.
Welcome home, Joshua Denton.
Political columnist Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Seacoast Sunday and the Portsmouth Herald. You can also reach his primary blog at thenewhampshireprimary.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.