What I’ll tell my son about fighting in the Iraq war

Phil Klay, a veteran and author of the National Book Award-winning book “Redeployment,” explains the difficulty for service members trying figuring out what to say to family about their experience and role in fighting a war.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now another installment in our series of NewsHour essays.

    Essays are part of a long tradition at the NewsHour, and in the coming weeks and months, we hope to bring you a range of voices as varied as the ideas they will share with you.

    Tonight, as the U.S. steps ups its military role in Iraq and Syria, we hear from Phil Klay, who served as a Marine in Iraq and is the author of "Redeployment," a collection of short stories. It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014.

  • PHIL KLAY, Author, Redeployment:

    In January 2007, I arrived at a base on the banks of Lake Habbaniyah in Iraq's Anbar province.

    At the time, Anbar was the lost province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency. It was a tremendously violent place. In one of those early months, I set up a video teleconference call between some soldiers and their families back home. These soldiers were at the end of a 16-month deployment.

    It was only supposed to have been 12 months, but they'd been extended, so a year to the day after they arrived, they were still patrolling the banks of Lake Habbaniyah. And it was on one of those patrols that they lost two soldiers to an IED.

    They recovered the bodies, mourned their dead, and kept patrolling through a desert that seemed full of violence and devoid of hope. Before they got on air, a discussion broke out about what exactly they should tell their families. They couldn't tell the truth about how they felt. Their families were worried enough.

    Instead, they'd tell them proud, uplifting things.

    "We can tell them the truth when we get home," one of the soldiers said.

    It was quiet a moment, and then another asked, "Will we even tell them the truth then?"

    Not long after, that unit returned home and another took their place doing the same mission, patrolling the same banks of same Lake Habbaniyah, except they didn't come into Anbar, the lost province. They came into the Anbar awakening, right in the middle of the surge.

    Instead of 16 months of a seemingly endless grind of pointless violence, they spent seven months watching insurgent attacks plummet, markets open up, and local police forces swell.

    When they came home, they probably knew exactly what to tell their families: We're winning.

    Well, it didn't last. We Americans tried to wash our hands of Iraq, pulling out, not interfering after the 2010 elections, only to watch the unraveling of the fragile stability that had been achieved.

    Operation Iraqi Freedom may have ended, but Operation Inherent Resolve, our current military effort overseas, continues on. I wonder what the situation looks like to troops in Iraq right now. I wonder what they're telling their families. And I wonder, what do I say to my family now? What, when my son is old enough, do I tell him about my war?

    I volunteered, after all. All of us did. That's how we wage war now. A fraction serves, and a majority decides in hindsight which politician to blame it on.

    Most of us joined with the hope of making a positive difference in the world. Few of us, I think, got exactly what we asked for. Whatever we were thinking, part of joining the military is about risking yourself for a higher purpose.

    You don't get to decide the broad course of history, only your role within it. I wish I could evade responsibility for all that's gone wrong in Iraq and only think about the sacrifices of those I served with, the heroic efforts, the courage of the Iraqis I met, the lives of both Iraqis and Americans saved by the medical staff at my base.

    I wish I could only think about my deployment and how it ended, full of hope. But I can't. I'm an American citizen, responsible, just like every other citizen, for every part of the war, not just how I felt about the end of my part.

    In a democracy, everyone shares responsibility. Troops don't issue themselves orders. War is paid for by our tax dollars and ordered by politicians we as a people need to hold accountable.

    So, I guess this is what I will tell my son. I will tell him it's my job now and until I die to be an informed citizen. I will tell him about joining institutions, government or otherwise, that are working for a better world. I will tell him about failure.

    And I will tell him about the necessity of attempting to change the world and the necessity of facing the consequences when you try.

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