Citizen Green: Memorial Day reflections on wars abroad and at home


It’s Memorial Day, and appropriately the world as we know it is taking a collective breath.

I don’t have any direct connection to those killed in war, although I’ve known a few who came back damaged and lived out their days the best they could. If I could commend one reflection on the cost of war it would be The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan by J. Kael Weston, a State Department advisor who served in those countries from 2003 through 2010.

Weston’s insights are moving because he — as an American civilian advisor working with the US military — acknowledges the cost borne by both the Iraqi civilians and the US Marines on the frontlines of the war. Part of his job was to cultivate local collaborators to help secure the occupation in the Sunni-dominated Iraqi heartland.

“The Marine colonels and general and I used to stand up and say, ‘Yes, you know, Kamal was just killed, but unless you work with us, this war will not end,’” Weston told Terry Gross on a recent episode of WHYY’s “Fresh Air.” “And there is a moral honesty to that. But I think there was also a facilitation that we were trying to work, which is hard to think about because you wonder if maybe the more honorable and better thing to have done would’ve [been to say], ‘Here’s what I have to say in my job representing the US government in Fallujah. But here’s what I really want to tell you, which is, leave or, you know, protect your family. It’s not worth it because we won’t stay. Our endurance is not going to outlast the terrorists.’”

Weston also carries the burden of having ordered a mission in which 30 Marines and a Navy corpsman flew a helicopter into a remote area of Anbar province to support participation in an election, even though many Sunnis outside the major population centers of Fallujah and Ramadi had pledged to boycott the election. Flying low and fast over the desert, the helicopter crashed, taking all 31 men’s lives. In hindsight, Weston believes he made the wrong decision to order the mission — that the risk wasn’t worth the potential benefit.

Weston visited the burial sites of all 31 men, movingly describing some of the graves to Gross. The cemetery where Brian Bland is buried in Newcastle, Wyo. “sits above two rail lines and oil refinery,” Weston told Gross.

“These are places that aren’t the postcard that we see every Memorial Day at Arlington,” Gross said. “But I found them to be that much more powerful because of it.”

Bringing the focus back to the war at home, it’s not uncommon to find Democratic candidates on the campaign trail in North Carolina pledging to end mass incarceration, although not gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper. Some talk about the issue more than others, although most serious candidates are expected to at least have something to say about it. Adam Coker, an unabashed progressive in the 13th Congressional District who models himself after FDR and Jimmy Carter, makes “stopping mass incarceration” and “ending the war on drugs” central planks of his platform.

Even for Democratic politicians at the progressive end of the party, such positions would be scarcely imaginable before the publication of Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking 2010 book The New Jim Crow, or the upheavals that followed the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and countless other young, black men.

For Cooper, as a moderate Democrat whose law-and-order reputation rests on his experience as the state’s attorney general and who will need to court conservative white voters to defeat Republican incumbent Pat McCrory, any acknowledgment of the demands and aspirations of the Black Lives Matter movement may be a bridge too far. While declining to join a motion to vacate Kalvin Michael Smith’s sentence, Cooper said through a spokesperson that he wants to work with concerned citizens and college students “on systemic issues in the criminal justice system.” That might be the most we get.

Kamala Harris, the state attorney general in California who is running for US Senate this year, might best exemplify the Democrats’ challenges in addressing institutional racism in the criminal justice system. A black woman who made her career in law enforcement serving two terms as district attorney in San Francisco, she now presides over what the New York Times Magazine describes as “a giant law-enforcement apparatus, with a staff of almost 5,000 in a state with the country’s largest non-federal prison system.” A Times profile of Harris, which delves into her record as a proponent of a “smart on crime” philosophy, suggests limitations to the prospect of reform through respectable politics. The failures of “tough on crime” approaches since the 1970s, “in terms of both efficacy and human rights, have come sharply into view,” Emily Bazelon writes. “Harris embodies the party’s ambitions and contradictions on this issue as leaders try to navigate a swing in the opposite direction.”