Conflict here and in Iraq: The stories need to be told

The inevitable has happened. My National Guard unit - 15 photo- and broadcast journalists - has been called up for duty in Iraq. And I'm feeling a little conflicted about going over.

My conflict is fairly simple: how do I cover a war I never bought into, unlike the war I supported in Afghanistan?

But unlike the Democratic Party's candidates for president, I'm not going to re-argue old arguments. We're there for a long, long time, so we might as well get used to it.

That aside, let's get back to me (because, after all, this column is all about me!). Personally I'm scared. I'm scared of the mess we've made, scared of my life being taken for dubious reason and scared of my friends' lives possibly being taken as well.

My life is precious, so are the lives of my friends and comrades, and, now that you mention it, so are the lives of the Iraqi citizens.

My mother is unquestionably concerned. Dad, a retired Army staff sergeant with three tours in Vietnam and now a pacifist, says we shouldn't be there. Two of my brothers echo Dad's views. My other brother is in the Army, too, and thinks we should be in Iraq. I'm stuck in the middle.

Sure, taking out Saddam was a good move. But I'm not sure it was entirely necessary. In fact, some in the military aren't sure either. Some people here in Washington, D.C., think Iraq has distracted us from the greater issue at hand: terrorism, al Qaeda and Afghanistan.

But we're soldiers. We carry out orders regardless of our personal feelings. So I'm going.

My job in Iraq will be a lot different from the average soldier on the street. I have to write about what that grunt is doing. And I have to write about it glowingly.

I'm not sure that's even possible. If there's anything I've learned here in D.C., it's that everything is connected. The president calls for X to happen, and eventually that grunt is carrying out Policy Y. I'm there to write about it.

It's at this junction my internal conflict rears its ugly head: my leeriness of putting a positive spin on something if I know it wasn't quite up to par.

But that still doesn't explain my conflict.

I have wanted to go to war since coming home from my Kosovo deployments in 2000 and 2002. In fact, as funny as it sounds, I've been chomping at the bit to get over to Iraq for some time. But not to write about how great our war was.

No, I've been chomping to write the stories that only a few have tried writing - the story of how Pvt. Joe Snuffy or Sgt. Jane Smith is dealing with carrying out Policy Y under very brutal conditions.

The only thing that beats back my incompatible feelings comes from a book on war. Michael Herr wrote in "Dispatches," his excellent book about Vietnam, "War stories aren't anything more than stories about people." Unfortunately many journalists aren't writing those stories. They're writing about events and not people.

I want to write war stories. I want to write about how Pvt. John Doe from Juanita or North Rose Hill is dealing with the heat, the flies and being shot at.

I want to write how some soldiers are trying to bridge the incredible culture gap between us and the Iraqis.

I've seen a few stories like these from the civilian press, but far fewer from the military press.

Yet even while seeing and reporting, the overriding question of "Why are we here?" will still ring through my head. That's my biggest conflict. Can I overcome that? The answer is, for now anyway: "I don't know."

Unfortunately, the military press has succumbed to "brickwall-itis." They report schools reopening and hospitals resupplied with donated goods in the vain attempt that civilian media will relay those images back home. It's like an involuntary tic to hit your head against a brick wall in the hopes of pushing it down.

I can hear the heads smacking the brick wall now ... smack, smack, smack....

Those stories, though, aren't as sexy as bombings, ambushes and the resulting physical and mental damage accompanying them.

Don't get me wrong. We are doing great things in Iraq. Our reasons for going many have been, shall we say, suspect. But we're there now and there's literally no way out, so we might as well do something.

The real stories and images are Snuffy and Smith on the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah, or Mosul, doing something to make his time better for him and the Iraqis.

Now you probably see why I'm feeling so conflicted.

This will hopefully be the first of many of my own dispatches to the Courier from the front. In them, you'll see how I'm dealing with Iraq and maybe how Iraq is dealing with me.

Maybe the conflict I'm feeling now will be resolved by the time I come back in a year.

Army journalist Bill Putnam is the former assistant editor of the Kirkland Courier and former layout guy for the News.

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