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When the reality of Iraq hits home

My nephew is in boot camp.

One month into it, I’m still having trouble getting used to the sound of those words.

My brother and I tried to talk him out of it more than a year ago at a backyard gathering in the San Francisco Bay Area. It turned into a disastrous family argument that ended in tears, with my mother traumatized and my sister (the recruit’s mother) terrified.

Don’t become a pawn, I told my nephew, for a president who misled us from the beginning and who will keep sacrificing lives in a vain and futile attempt to save face. The war in Iraq had been a reckless idea, I argued, and that was becoming clear even to many who once supported it.

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I didn’t expect him to listen to me, though. I haven’t been close enough to my nephew for him to heed my advice, and for that, I felt all the more helpless and guilty.

When my sister was diagnosed with cancer, my nephew delayed enlisting. But when she was finally in remission this past spring, he joined the Marines, and his letter to the family repeated some of what he’d said that day in my parents’ backyard.

“What I want for my life is to stand above the majority,” he wrote. “I believe in honor, discipline and courage.... I wish to be bigger than myself, to be a part of something more -- something important and significant.... I hope that you will understand my reasons for this decision and will continue to support me.”

My sister came to support her son’s courage and patriotism despite her fears. But as his departure approached, both she and my mother sank into states of serious depression that required treatment.

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My wife and I, as well as my sons, wrestled with our role in all of this.

What would be more irresponsible: not making a stronger effort to talk him out of it, or letting him go off on a dangerous mission without expressing our support?

My wife and I decided that it wasn’t our place to argue with our nephew. Instead, we told him that although we disagreed with his logic and felt there were better ways to make a contribution and demonstrate honor and courage, we loved him and wished him well.

At 21, he was free to run his own life. And about a month ago, off he went to San Diego.

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Now, with two months left in his training, I’d been hoping that the waning support for the war and the stepped-up calls for troop withdrawal would make it unlikely my nephew would ever be sent to Iraq.

So Thursday’s news of the president’s continued stubbornness was more than a little scary.

Despite growing criticism of his Iraq policy by members of his own party and a disappointing progress report on key goals -- not to mention that further military action may only spawn more enemies and make us less secure at home -- the president continued bullying Congress to give his troop “surge” strategy a couple more months to succeed before beginning a gradual withdrawal over the next nine months.

Two more months of staying the course could mean the difference between life and death for my nephew and for so many other soldiers.

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“If we continue to lose three or four troops a day, 1,000 more of our loved ones will be dead” by spring, said Nancy Lessin of Military Families Speak Out, which represents 3,500 veterans and family members who support a withdrawal rather than a buildup.

Some have argued that without a draft, enlisting in this war is a matter of choice, so what happens, happens.

But that’s not necessarily true in the case of National Guard troops who have been called up. And as for soldiers as young as my nephew, I don’t see enlistment as a well-informed choice but as a product of manipulation.

I’m thinking about the seductive recruiting posters I saw in the office at Hemet High School when I visited for a column about three grads who’d been killed in the war.

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I’m thinking, too, about the president’s campaign of deceit and simplification, in which he’d like us to believe that Iraq and the world are far less complicated than they truly are, and that we’ll all be safe as soon as his troop surge puts an end to Al Qaeda in Iraq and democracy blooms like a desert flower.

“The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us on September the 11th,” the president said Thursday in a typical war cry so careless with the truth that it made my blood boil.

I thought back again on that backyard battle at my parents’ house and how the war has torn families apart, cost thousands of lives here and in Iraq, and changed thousands more. Our family quarrel that night was really about just one thing:

The knock on the door.

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The one you begin fearing the moment a loved one signs up.

It’s not something the president has to worry about. I don’t know what his daughters are up to, but neither has signed up for the sacrifice he has asked so many others to make. To date, only one congressman has lost a child to the war, and only about 10 have a relative in combat.

“That’s one of the things we’ve said all along,” said Lessin, whose son is an Iraq war vet. “For the most part, Congress has no skin in the game.”

Yes, but how much easier it must be to sleep at night.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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