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Bombs Over Baghdad

2003: On honeymooning overseas while your country invades another

Tom Chalkley

By Tim Hill | Posted 12/23/2009

On March 19, 2003, the most powerful military force on the planet began raining bombs on buildings across Baghdad, attempting to decapitate the most evil head on the planet from its oppressed corpus. A shattered leadership would soften the resistance for when the tanks rolled in. Six-plus years later, we know the premise was bogus: there were no bio-weapon tractor trailers, no chemical-bomb caches, and though a few right-wing wonks insisted otherwise, no connection to al-Qaida. Six-plus years and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

My wife and I decided to get married in February 2002, well before the Iraq invasion, but well into the Global War on Terror. U.S. and allied forces had invaded Afghanistan and deposed the Taliban. The president gave his "axis of terror" speech, so we knew it was just a matter of time. No way could we have predicted that 10 days before our ceremony bombs would drop on Baghdad.

There is never a perfect time to get engaged; we get married despite the world. Though I've had two friends deployed to the Middle East--one an Army reservist to Afghanistan, the other an Army enlistee who shipped off to Iraq--the war never really touched my fianc? and me. As one of the few men in my family who was never a soldier or sailor--and acutely reminded of it--war casts a complicated shadow. I felt its pull. I loathed it. I cultivated dread. I felt a mix of shame and anger. I became a war-buildup news fiend. It infused everything.

Marriage gave me hope. Yet it, too, seemed like going to war. It's the two of you against doubt and anxiety and the plain force of what can go wrong will go wrong. You say, screw the world, screw insecurity, we're doing this. You build the case in your head, a pact between emotion and reason, and you weave tiny compromises across your brain. You build a consensus through deliberation, instinct, and arm-twisting. You go in.

It sounds overwrought writing it now, but it made sense then. My fianc? and I went into it with our eyes wide. We were optimistic and a little older than the median marrying age. We were ready, shadows and all. We planned our wedding for March 29. Yet as the days approached, and we became more excited for the day, the dread increased. The president delivered an ultimatum to the Iraqi dictator on March 17: leave the country or we bomb. Two days later, the Baghdad skyline lit up with fire and tracer lines.

We went on with our plans, naturally. First, family arrived. Then friends. We coordinated sleeping arrangements, organized a party, put the finishing touches on the reception hall. I picked up my suit from the tailor; my fianc?'s mother and friends finished her dress. We wrote our vows.

There was no fighting, only warmness and light, and a really long ceremony. Our friends and family took turns speaking of the past, love, trust, duty, friendship, all the high-minded things we reserve for these moments. And so did our pastor. But he brought it back to the war: a brief mention, but it was enough. The world is fraught with fighting, death, and war. We fall in love and get married despite it all.

A few days later we were getting wasted in a pub in Doolin, Ireland. Folks at the bar bought us drinks. A stag party raged at the other end of the room. All was right with the world. There were no televisions. They would have showed U.S. tanks rolling into Baghdad. CNN would have reported casualties as troops encountered some resistance as they entered a city weakened by repeated bombing. We knew nothing of that. We stumbled back to our room.

We took a ferry from Galway to Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands. The midday Atlantic sun eased the early spring gusts that blew across the boat, and we felt warm, we felt grand. We checked into our B&B, a cottage used in Robert Flaherty's 1934 docu-drama Man of Aran, sipped hot tea, and ate cookies. We biked to Dun Aonghasa, a 3,500 year old cliff fort. The next day we biked to Dun Dubhchathair, another Neolithic fort. Both structures were tall rings of individually-stacked stones that formed a wide arc; cliffs plunging into Galway Bay protected the unwalled edge.

This place would be wide open to air strikes. Tanks and explosives would easily dislodge the maze-like walls that protected the hearth. Dun Dubhchathair, though, was destroyed by only time and wind. We sat on rocks, listening to waves crashing far below. We ate our packed lunch and enjoyed our solitude in this ancient place.

It didn't take long for the world to creep back in.

Any American who travels overseas becomes an emissary, so you'd best be ready to talk like a diplomat, whether you agree or not. The Irish (and English and Austrian) people we met wanted to talk war and U.S. foreign policy, and most, I sensed, expected to disagree.

The lady who sold handmade Aran sweaters wanted to talk war. The park ranger at Newgrange, a Neolithic ruin close to Dublin, wanted to talk war. Same with the owners of a B&B outside Dublin. So it went for several days, as we tooled across the country. We could offer nothing but a shrug. "Yeah, we don't like it either." Once we agreed with them, no one seemed to want to talk about it beyond a few generalities. I sensed disappointment.

At breakfast one morning, two British couples on holiday got the ball rolling, and one of the men asked, "What do you think of the U.S. invading Iraq?"

This time, I went into the breech: Americans hadn't experienced the effects of a devastating war on their own soil since the 1860s. We were hungry for a war with an Other. We were consumed with a near-fascist fever, fueled by psuedo-religious demagogues. We were on the verge of a right-wing revolution. I probably threw in the old sawhorse, "When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." I rambled off a list of anxieties, and once they left my lips and hung in the air, I heard myself. I sounded paranoid and ridiculous. What the hell did I really know? These are those moments when you realize you've been over-thinking something, and pouring your own prejudices into an event, mixing the fantastical with the plainly evident.

Marriage was marriage, war is war, and overdrinking an analogy is letting that schizoid beast out of its cave and trammel through your skull.

Our dining companions stared at me goggle-eyed. "Well . . ." one of the men trailed off, in a typical British demur, "let's hope it doesn't get that far." I smiled and nodded like an idiot and finished my black pudding and eggs.

As we were leaving, the B&B owners' pre-teen son helped us with our luggage. He asked, "What do you think of this war?" Before we could answer, he said, "I think it's fucking crap."

We laughed. "Yeah," I said. "You're probably right."

Our last night in Ireland we checked into a nondescript B&B in a Dublin suburb. The proprietress, a gentle older woman, hurried us into our room and flipped on our television. This is important, she said. The screen showed a statue of the Iraqi dictator tottering off its pedestal in a Baghdad public square. Hordes of men--a much smaller crowd than we would have expected--cheered its toppling. They swarmed, whacking it with their shoes.

"I don't think anything good will come of this," she said. "War begets war."

We watched the scene in silence. Once the proprietress explained the room and left, my wife turned off the TV, a gesture that said, there's really nothing we can do about this. We showered and got dressed. I thought about a long war, our soldiers being killed, Iraq being destroyed, and whether my reservist friend would be deployed. The same mixture of anger, anxiety, and shame other guys from military families must feel when everyone else is paying, or will pay, and you get the luxury of just reading about it. Though I made an ass of myself with the Brits, it felt good to get that stuff off my chest.

"Where is the metro station--we want to head into Dublin for dinner and some drinks," I heard my wife ask the proprietress. Fifteen minutes later, we were rolling through the northern edge of the city, ready to celebrate the last night of our honeymoon. There was the shadow, and the dread, but it receded. Now there was just our new life, our love, some dim halls and clanging glasses, some Irish music and a plate of delicious boxty, despite the world.

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