A Letter from the Front
Below is not an essay; it is a letter to my family and friends that I wrote as I was waiting for dawn so I could attempt to cross into Iraq.
I was aware that the land route I planned to take from Basra to Baghdad likely carried, for an American like me, well over a 50% chance of death.
The letter below was what I was thinking at that moment.
December 14, 2005
There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil, between those striving for freedom and liberty, and those striving for death and destruction. You are aware of the heinous acts of the terrorists. Women and children massacred, innocent aid workers decapitated, indiscriminate murder. You are also aware of the heroic aspirations of the Iraqi people: liberty, democracy, security, normality. Those terrorists are not human but pure evil. For their goals to be thwarted, decent individuals must answer justice’s call for help. Unfortunately altruism is always in short supply. Not enough selfless individuals answered the call when Saddam Hussein purged Iraq of its virtuous. Not enough are willing to set aside the material ambitions of this transient world, put morality first, and risk their lives for the cause of humanity.
Life is not about money, fame, or power; life is about combating the forces of evil in the world, promoting justice, helping the misfortunate, and improving the welfare of our fellowman. Progress requires that we commit ourselves to such goals, despite the costs borne unto ourselves. We are not here on earth to hedonistically pleasure ourselves, but to serve each other and the creator. What deed is greater than sacrificing one’s luxuries for the benefit of those less blessed? It’s one thing to send money and support from the comfort of one’s home. It’s quite another to go and join the struggle between good and evil in person.
I know I can’t do much. I know I can’t stop all the carnage and save the innocent. But I also know I can’t just sit here. I can’t be like the rest, like those who feign empathy while staying home, enjoying peace, security, freedom—luxuries all. I feel guilty living in a big house, driving a nice car, and going to a great school. I feel guilty hanging out with friends in a café without the fear of a suicide bomber present. I feel guilty enjoying the multitude of blessings, which I did nothing to deserve, while people in Iraq, many of them much better then me, are in terrible anguish. This inexorable guilt I feel transforms into a boundless empathy for the distress of the misfortunate and into a compassionate love for my fellowman. That is the truth. I am affirmed in love for those dying in the cause of freedom. I am affirmed in love for the innocent women and children who are being slaughtered everyday. And to love is not a passive thing. To love is active voice. When I love, I do something, I function, I give myself. I do not love in order that I may be loved back again, but for the joy of loving. And every time I do that, I am freed from guilt. Love and kindness are never wasted. They always make a difference. They bless the one who receives them, and they bless the one who gives them.
I want to broaden my mind. We kids at Pine Crest School live such sheltered lives. I want to experience during my Christmas break the same hardships ordinary Iraqis face everyday, so that I may better empathize with their distress. I want to immerse myself in their environment in order to better comprehend the social and political elements that continue to sustain turmoil in the Middle East. I plan on doing humanitarian work with the Red Cross. I will give my mind, body, and spirit to helping Iraqis rebuild their lives. Hopefully I will get the chance to build houses, distribute food supplies, and bring a smile or two to some poor children.
I know going to Iraq will be incredibly risky. There are thousands of people who desperately want my head removed from my shoulders. There are millions of people over there that mildly prefer my demise merely because I am American. Nevertheless, I will go there to love and help my neighbor in distress, and if that endangers my life, so be it. On life’s journey, faith is nourishment, virtuous deeds are a shelter, wisdom is the light by day, and compassion is the protection by night. If a man lives a pure life, nothing can destroy him. We will all die someway, someday. Most people wish to die at a very old age with power and wealth. That is the popular ideal—and I find it corrupt. Immoral is the man who maliciously advances himself while ignoring the needs of others. I will be grateful to die amidst an ideal greater than that. However, please do not misunderstand me. I do not want to die. I have plenty of work ahead of me. So I will be most careful, and I shall return.
If I know what is needed and what is right, but do not act on my moral conscience, I will be a hypocrite. I want to live my days so that my nights are not full of regret. Therefore I must go.
It’s Christmas night in Baghdad. Against the cold air three American soldiers and I huddle over our makeshift fire—a bullet-ridden iron barrel jammed with scraps from a blasted wooden barricade. I begin my research into the true situation in Iraq, with notebook and voice recorder at hand, asking the soldiers about their experiences.
“Is progress really being made?”
Corporal Gamble, a gentle twenty-two year old replies, “Well, here and there you got something goin’ up, and here and there you got something goin’ down. We’re trying.”
“I want to help. I want to contribute to the reconstruction effort here. I’m sure the Iraqis need volunteers to help build houses, reconstruct infrastructure, or clean up the carnage after suicide bombings. Where are the offices of humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross?”
Corporal Gamble, astonished, asks, “You’re sixteen years old. Why would you want to put yourself through that hell? Didn’t you hear the explosions on your way into the city? Haven’t you seen the videos of insurgents beheading Americans!?”
You see, my parents were born in Iraq. Thirty-five years ago Saddam Hussein’s secret police tortured and executed my uncle and forced my father to flee the country. Long before President Bush, Iraqi exiles like my family dreamed of the day when Saddam Hussein would fall from power, and Iraq would finally emerge from his dark, tyrannical shadow to embrace a bright future. My heart has been captivated by this Dream, of a free, prosperous, democratic Iraq that would be a beacon of liberty in the Middle East. This Dream appeared on the brink of becoming a reality, until foreign jihadists and others with no conscience for humanity entered Iraq to sabotage it. For me, it is a matter of how I would feel if I believed in a dream, yet did nothing to prevent its death.
I read to Corporal Gamble the letter I wrote to my family and friends just before crossing the border…
Corporal Gamble replies, “I’ll help you in anyway I can. Unfortunately, most of the humanitarian organizations stopped operating in Baghdad after too many of their aid workers were killed.”
I’ll find something I think to myself. Not long afterwards the ground vibrates and I hear a rumble in the distance. Later I would find out that the vibration I felt was the crash of an apache helicopter in northwestern Baghdad bringing two pilots to their deaths.
The next morning I awoke to machine gun fire blazing a few blocks from my hotel room. That day I saw five car bombs rip through crowded city blocks in the distance, each time releasing a disturbing cloud of smoke into the deathly congested atmosphere of Baghdad, each time shaking the ground beneath my feet, informing me that at that very moment, innocent women and children were being scorched alive. Being so close to them at their last moment, literally feeling and hearing their deaths, connected me with their fate. Television provides ultimate distance. Those who have never been in such a situation are lucky, for once it is experienced, it seldom leaves. Even now when I read news reports of unprecedented killings and record death tolls, the feeling returns. My gut squeezes and my throat contracts. My eyes swell, and very often, I scream... a mixture of why’s! and no’s! and tears.
When I was twelve I got my first pair of glasses. When I put them on, I was amazed at how everything was more vibrant and alive; the trees were greener; the sky was brighter; the foliage crisper; everything sharper. It illuminated to me beauty in the world I had never before perceived. After several years however, I got used to the picture, and forgot how magnificent it was. My eyesight waned, and soon things were as dull as before.
Iraq gave me my second pair of glasses. There, I experienced life in the abyss. And upon emerging, I realized how much I previously took for granted, and I don’t mean just luxury goods and peace, but the small things, everything, the smell of nature, time with people you know you’ll see again, the day after tomorrow, the very essence of life itself. I awoke everyday in Iraq with the understanding that it would probably be my last. Yet somehow, none of them were. Still now, I haven’t fully emerged from that condition. Viewing everyday as a gift, I am consumed with pleasure from the minute details of the existence I feel blessed to experience. And I see… one does not know the light until one has experienced the dark.
I felt a painful sense of failure after being unable to realize my dream of doing humanitarian work in Iraq. It has been that pain that has driven me to establish The Society for Love & Justice, explore new ways of helping Iraq, and undertake new endeavors to undermine hatred, build tolerance, and simply make things better. I pray that the situation in Iraq will improve, and that one day I can go back there to see the people free, their dreams of liberty and peace realized. I will never give up hope.