Iraq is not my war. But I spent 14 months in Afghanistan, and am one of the only combat veterans known by my circle of DC friends. I receive many questions of what I think about ISIS steamrolling their way towards Baghdad.
The next time one of them raises the prospect of America involving itself in a third conflict in Iraq, I’m going to tell them about Dan Whitten.
Last week, I was headed to my air-conditioned office building in downtown Washington in the already scalding 9am heat. The humidity was so thick I practically waded through it.
Just before my sweat forced me into a foul mood, I spotted him in the crosswalk. I hadn’t seen Captain Daniel Whitten since we were in Afghanistan in 2008. He had been an officer in my company, but got called up to be an aide to one of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Generals. We weren’t close, but we were friendly. We shared a cigar together at Musa Qala. Just before the deployment, we ran into each other at a Fayetteville CarMax, each there with our wife, trying to sell the vehicles we wouldn’t need for the next fifteen months. We spent a couple hours talking baseball, and discussing a mutual friend from West Point who had washed out and now worked as an enlisted man in the same office I did.
The corners of my mouth lifted as I prepared to ask Cpt. Whitten—whom I could now just call “Dan”—what he was doing in a suit in DC, still wearing a pair of sporty Oakleys like he had back then.
Then I remembered it couldn’t be Dan Whitten. Because Dan Whitten is dead. He was killed by an IED when he came back to our battalion to take a company command for the next deployment. I passed shoulders with this man who looked like Dan and went on my way.
I’ve had a handful of these moments since 2008. I’ve seen Drak and Frazier and Cleaver at various times in different parts of the country. No matter the distance between me and my time in Afghanistan, their ghosts drag me back.
Washington, D.C., is more haunted than most places. When I first moved inside the Beltway to a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington that I shared with my daughter, my bus took me by Arlington National Cemetery every morning. If I strained, I could see section 60, where Charlie and Slip and Frazier rest.
And there are the monuments to Korea, Vietnam, and World War II. From in front of the Capitol building that was burnt by British troops in 1812, General Grant gazes at General Washington, and beyond him the Commander-in-Chief of the War of the Rebellion. Admiral Farragut looks over the square where my bus arrives each morning. The African-American Civil War veterans keep watch on the street where I drink. More heroes and remembrances and former installations dot the District than I know.
For all those ghosts that haunt This Town, the city that sends American men and women into harm’s way never seems to heed—forget remember—their warnings. We cast the specters in bronze and put their spirits on our lapels and car bumpers. We neglect to consider why they haunt us in the first place. These walls and figures and marble temples are placed for the deliberate purpose of remembering the awful brutality of war. How many tourists or even residents can point to Peace Circle on a map? Or can tell you what FDR says about war in his monument (he hates it)? Or know that the MLK, Jr., monument engraves opposition to war in stone?
Every day, those of us who live and work here walk by these ghosts without a second thought. We come home and turn on our televisions and watch other (usually) men who work in This Town argue over whether we’re leaving a war too fast, or if the third time would be a charm for Iraq. If we paused for a moment and listened to our ghosts, even those of the just wars, they would tell us that war is horrible, and that no matter how righteous the justification many will die needlessly. And yet, men and women who now wear the same uniform I did and took the same oath have pledged to go anywhere in the world in the name of their county, and are willing to die for it. They pledged, as Dan and Charlie and Drak and Slip and Frazier did, to do this without asking whether such a sacrifice would be worth it.
The least we can do, as a nation, is ask that question for them.
Richard Allen Smith is a former Army sergeant. He served five years on active duty, including a deployment to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division from February of 2007 to April of 2008. Smith is currently a graduate student in writing at Johns Hopkins University.