Best Defense

Remembering War (IV): What stays with me now are the fragments

The silence on the plane ride to Saudi Arabia. The nightmares about poison gas. The “death letter” to my seven month old daughter. The Iraqi ID card with the numbers “1973” north of the breach.


Editor’s Note: Pete Blaber, in The Mission, The Men, and Mediscussed his frustration with operators and analysts who connect dots before collecting dots. This week, Paul Yingling challenges our inclination to do just that.

By Paul Yingling
Best Defense guest columnist

My memories of the Gulf War are small and sharp, like the fragments of a shattered mirror. The silence on the plane ride to Saudi Arabia. The nightmares about poison gas. The “death letter” to my seven month old daughter. The Iraqi ID card with the numbers “1973” north of the breach. Had I just killed a seventeen year-old boy? Eating peanut butter crackers during the movement to contact. The BMP that exploded behind us during the night battle. The twisted, burning tangle of metal and flesh on the highway. The stinking, choking blackness from the oil well fires. Playing softball in the desert. The heat. The flies.

Later, General Rhame gave a speech to explain what the 1st Infantry Division had accomplished in the war. The “Big Red One” breached the front line Iraqi defenses to facilitate the forward passage of the 1st British Armored Division and the VII Corps attack against Iraq’s Republican Guard. The division then attacked east, destroying the 37th Brigade of the 12th Iraqi Tank Division at the Battle of the 73 Easting. The division then cut off the retreat of Iraqi forces fleeing north from Kuwait. The line of carnage stretching between Kuwait and Iraq was named “the highway of death.”

When people ask me about the Gulf War, I tell them what the general told me. I don’t doubt that it’s true, or at least true enough to make sense. The general’s story is just that — a story with a beginning, middle and an end. I’m sure the general has his own fragmented memories of what happened. His fragments, like mine, are real but don’t really make sense. We create a narrative to help people understand what happened, but it’s reconstructed after the fact. When that BMP blew up behind me, I had no idea that it was part of the 37th Iraqi Brigade. I don’t even remember if the general said that in his speech. I looked up “First Infantry Division” on Wikipedia, and whoever wrote the article seemed to know where that BMP came from.

Mathematicians use linear regression to establish correlations between two variables. They plot the data on a graph, and draw a line that best fits the pattern created by the data points. The line might not actually touch any of the points. However, if drawn properly, it minimizes the distance between the points and the line. It might even tell a story about the relationship between the variables.

Historians have their own version of linear regression. At best, they seek out all of the available data points and try to connect the dots. The line they draw takes the form of a narrative — a story with a beginning, middle and an end. The best historians acknowledge that the story is provisional, based on the data points available. They wonder about the silences in history — the missing data from the losers, the powerless, and the inarticulate.

Not all scholars are so careful. Some start with the story and look for data points to confirm it. However, all stories, carefully constructed or otherwise, are lines that smooth out a jumble of dots. The distance between the line and the dot is the difference between the story and the truth.

After the United States invaded Iraq, I had a great deal to say and I said it with a great deal of confidence. The decision to invade was a blunder but not an irrevocable one. The U.S. military had to change the way it was organized, trained and equipped to prevail in irregular warfare. The generals leading the war were incompetent, or dishonest, or both.

Then, my audiences shared both my conclusions and my confidence. I had been to the dangerous places, I had read the great books and I knew the important people. I drew smooth, straight lines. I told simple, clear stories.

I spent the better part of a decade writing and fighting; for me, they were nearly the same thing. Somewhere along the way, I learned a great deal and became less sure of everything.

Now, hardly anybody asks me about my experiences in Iraq. If someone does ask, I’ll just shake my head in disgust or say only, “it was bad.” The conversation usually stops there, and it’s just as well. I no longer have a great deal to say. I cannot give a speech explaining the big picture. There is no story to tell; there is no line to connect the dots.

Now, I’m a history teacher. I challenge my kids to be skeptical of smooth, straight lines and simple, clear stories. I wonder along with them how experts know the things they say they know. I ask them to listen for the silences.

Someday, perhaps historians will make sense of it all. I hope they do their work carefully. My kids will be watching.

Every Memorial Day, I remember the people I lost in Iraq. Rafael. Joe. Jeffrey. Doug. Joe, Travis. Torre. Rowdy. I say their names, and the day and the place where each died. My memories of their deaths are the small, sharp fragments of shattered lives.

Paul Yingling is a high school teacher in Colorado Springs.

Photo credit: 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team/U.S. Army Europe Images/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1
A decade of Global Thinkers

A decade of Global Thinkers

The past year's 100 most influential thinkers and doers Read Now

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola