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Conversations with America

Conversations with America: Brian Turner

Brian Turner

Julia Barton

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Every four years - if you discount the permanent campaign now always in the background - you get to hear the priorities of presidential candidates. The party platforms represent the direction a whole group of people want to steer our government. But maybe, we thought, here on the weekend there's a way to think more broadly about some of the issues facing our country. So we've asked some writers and thinkers what they believe should be on voters' minds as they cast their ballots. Our essay today comes from Iraq war veteran and poet Brian Turner.


In Iraq, I was an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, from 2003 to 2004. Over the course of a year, my platoon conducted a wide range of missions, from raids to convoy escort to simply patrolling the streets on foot. And there is one incident I'd like to share today that happened early on: In December of 2003, at the fire-base where we lived, just off the Tigris river and near the town of Balad, not too far north of Baghdad.

I was manning the front gate when a minivan pulled up after nightfall. The van's interior light illuminated a dim scene - inside, three guys were frantically talking and trying to help someone I couldn't see. I called up one of our translators and soon realized that these Iraqis had come to us seeking medical attention; their friend had been shot and seriously wounded at a nearby American checkpoint. And no matter how much I wanted to help them, when I called up for guidance I was ordered to refer them to their local hospital. I remember that van as it pulled away. One of the men inside stared at me for a moment, his hands covered in another man's blood.

Nearly five years have passed since then, and we've entered the last leg of the presidential election. It disturbs me that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are rarely a part of our national dialogue. If we do not see or hear of the war in news reports, that doesn't mean it's all basically over and ready to be written into a history book somewhere. Believe me, there are ten-year-old children in Iraq and Afghanistan who know what war is and will never rid it from their heads. And we now have a responsibility to them.

We have a responsibility to help the millions of Iraqis fleeing the war as refugees. It's a national embarrassment that Sweden has sheltered far, far more Iraqis than we have ourselves, and with little help from us. Because we invaded Iraq, we have a responsibility to those who have died there, as well as those who have been wounded or psychologically traumatized. Just as Ted Koppel once read the names of the brave Americans who sacrificed their lives in this war, we must one day read out the roll-call of the Iraqi dead. And that list is incredibly long. Of the studies done so far, even the very lowest figure for the death toll in Iraq is a number which staggers the imagination. We have a responsibility to respect the sovereign government of Iraq and to follow their guidelines for a timely and smartly conducted withdrawal. We also have a responsibility to our own soldiers and to those living in these war zones to discuss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without boiling the conversation down into simplified phrases like "winning the war." There is no "winning" here, only gradations of loss and the great need to begin the slow process of healing and rebuilding.

This isn't a football game where we cheer only for our team. Voters need to force the real issues and ensure that the candidates - as well as those who support them - confront the deep and difficult questions we have before us. In terms of Iraq and Afghanistan, I want to know: What will they do, specifically, to help the wounded veterans we now have returning home? What will they do to aid the countries of Iraq and Afghanistan in their efforts to rebuild and chart a new course?

If we shirk these responsibilities, our moral standing among the community of nations will rightfully slip in the world, even further than it has already. I don't want our nation to feel as I felt that night in Iraq, nearly five years ago, when the wounded came to me for help and I turned them away.

  • Music Bridge:
    How Do You Really Feel
    Artist: Breakestra
    CD: Hit The Floor (Ubiquity)
More stories from our Conversations with America series


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Brian Turner

    From Fresno, CA, 10/05/2008

    Hello everyone--

    I just wanted to stop by and say thank you so much for listening to this conversation and for taking the time to write your thoughts and comments here. My best to each of you, Brian.

    By Brian Douay

    From Seattle, WA, 09/28/2008

    I heard your commentary while driving and had to pull over as it resonated so powerfully for me. Thank you so much for speaking out on this issue, I have been trying to do the same in my small part of the world. I will be recording and forwarding this segment to everyone I know.
    Thank You!!

    By Ray Flanders

    From Newman, CA, 09/27/2008

    Your comments about "winning" are exactly what I have felt for a long time. I wish our leader and his potential successors would use the phrase "there are no real winners in any war," or something to that effect. It would go a long way to regaining respect around the world I believe.

    By Peter Kaye

    From CA, 09/27/2008

    Dear Brian,
    As a born and bred American who fumes and spins in exasperation at every aspect of "our" wars around the world, your thoughtful strength made me tearful with joy. Perhaps you might consider running for office?

    By Christopher Bonora

    From Modesto, CA, 09/27/2008

    Thank you for your very thoughtful commentary. I believe, like the citizens of other empires both recent and historic, we have become a people whom have been taught to value militarism, patriotism, and loyalty to country, for there sake alone, like tradition, without an analysis of our countries putative values,rule of law, justice, fairness, equality of rights. AS citizens of the United States of America at this juncture in time we need to be very analitical in regards to those values and the choices we make in choosing our civilian leaders.We also need to begin to teach our children,our future leaders,to think and question rather than myopic believing.

    By Bob, Sr. Powell

    From Greensboro, NC, 09/27/2008

    Thank you.

    By MaryElizabeth McIlvane

    From FL, 09/27/2008

    Thank you for your incredible words about wa4. Every time I hear someone speak of winning The War I shake to my core. You are right; no one wins with the incredible consequences experienced by every person involved. I hope to hear you speak at Valencia Community College in October.

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