Special to the Tribune-Star
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, my family and I gathered to watch the unending news reports and the searing images of our homeland under attack. At one point, my wife, Geri, turned to me and quietly said, “You’re going to have to go over there, aren’t you?”
Since that horrific day I have gone over there – twice, in fact; first Afghanistan and then to Iraq. The combat tours I served with the 76th Infantry Brigade were my first exposure to the reality of war. A real war bears no relationship to any book or movie. Real war is about human suffering and loss for all involved. My family and I have endured months of painful separation. I had to hold my youngest son Wyatt while he sobbed, wracked with grief, when I left for Afghanistan. But we have also been blessed when, by the grace of God, we shared the exhilaration of two joyous homecomings.
I have seen the cruelty and insanity of war. I have shivered in the icy blast of the winds of an Afghan winter. I have roasted in the blazing heat of Iraq while on patrol in nameless and forgotten villages. I have heard the whine of incoming rockets and felt the explosion of mortars. I have mourned the loss of fellow soldiers. I have struggled, like countless thousands of other soldiers, with loneliness and boredom.
However, those memories are not what I dwell upon 10 years after 9/11. I think instead of the remarkable resiliency and outstanding patriotism of the young Americans who are fighting our first war of the 21st century. I bear witness to the extraordinary sacrifice, dedication and courage of the American soldier. The young men and women with whom I have been honored to serve proudly carry forward the heritage of democracy, the heritage of freedom, and the heritage of unbounding determination in the face of a cruel and vicious enemy. It is the American fighting man and woman who has confronted and defeated the jihadists who have sworn death to Western science, culture, and civilization. We must never forget that the forces of darkness which our troops fight are fueled by blind dogmatism and a narrow religious fundamentalism that seeks to enslave humanity in the ignorance, superstition, and barbarity of the 9th century.
We who wear our country’s uniform give our all in the defense of our liberty and our republic. I wish every American could see and experience the extraordinary dedication to duty that our sons and daughters overseas put forth every day. Americans today moan and whine and complain about taxes, the government, and politics. The talking-head doomsayers and the cable-TV pundits speak about an America in decline. Too many Americans believe, speak and act as though all is lost and that we should simply surrender. My observations and experiences in two wars have convinced me that while we have problems, they can be conquered if all Americans believed, spoke, and acted like their sons and daughters in uniform.
Rather than bickering, we should unite on the common principles that bind us together as a nation. Instead of scrambling for more money and the illusion of happiness through material gain, we should rediscover the joys of caring for each other and contentment that comes from a simpler life. In place of the pursuit of wild fantasies and conspiracy theories about who is to blame we must realize that we are all to blame to the extent that we have demanded too much from America and given so little in return.
I have seen much, experienced much, and learned much in the last 10 years. But the most profound lesson I have learned is that this war is not a war of Christian against Muslim. In both Iraq and Afghanistan I carried with me on patrol an English translation of the Quran. I took time to read it, and to seriously study Islam and the people who call themselves Muslim. I am convinced that there is more that unites us than divides us. I have yet to read any passage of the Quran that, standing alone, would justify me killing a Muslim. After all, the word “Muslim” simply means “one who submits to the will of God.” Is there any Christian who could take offense to that simple idea?
The jihadists are not Muslims; they do not submit to the will of God. They submit to hate, intolerance, rage, and the black recesses of the human heart. The jihadists have killed far more Muslims than they have killed Christians. All Americans need to know that we have countless Muslim allies in the struggle against the perverted jihad of the suicide terrorists. Thousands of Muslim soldiers, policemen, and civilians have fought alongside and died with their American comrades in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have come to know well and call friend many of these brave and noble Muslims.
I often think about my translator in Iraq, a young Shia Muslim named Michael. His command of English was superb. We often talked about Iraq and America, the war, his family, and what he wanted for his nation. He was an Iraqi patriot who loved his country. He was also a devout Muslim of the Shia Twelver sect. He knew that by working with American troops he became a target for assassination. His hopes were actually quite simple. Like all of us, he wanted to be left alone in peace, to raise a family, and live a life of dignity and humanity. He told me of his admiration for America, not an admiration for our technological and military power, but who we were as individuals and the ideals of liberty and the rights of man that we embody as a nation.
Michael stands for me as a symbol of the potential for Muslim and Christian to live together in peace. Our faiths are complementary, not antagonistic. I did not try to convert him, and he did not try to convert me. We respected each other too much to engage in such trivialities. Michael helped me to understand that the people of Iraq want for Iraq what we Americans want for America. We are really not that different. Through the strange circumstances of war, I came to call Michael my friend. It is that friendship that gives me hope for the future.
Hal Johnston is chief deputy prosecutor in Knox County and a resident of Terre Haute.