Michael Winship: Nothing civil about any war

Michael Winship

A beautiful and balmy spring day, perfect for a boat ride. The destination, 45 minutes away, was Fort Sumter, at the entrance to Charleston Harbor, the Union stronghold at which the first shots of the Civil War were fired, on April 12, 1861.

Confederate batteries blasted the fort for 33 straight hours. But at the beginning of this so-called War of Northern Aggression (which really is how a plantation guide described it to us Saturday afternoon), chivalry still prevailed. And irony.

U.S. Army Maj. William Anderson, Sumter’s commanding officer, had taught artillery at West Point. Now, the man commanding the shore batteries raining red-hot cannonballs down on him was one of his favorite students, Confederate Brigadier Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard.

At the end of four years’ fighting, more than 618,000 dead.

Coming back from Sumter, I thought back to the preceding evening. On public TV, I’d seen a drama called “My Son Jack,” the story of how Rudyard Kipling coerced the military into taking his deeply myopic son into the Royal Army during World War I. Jack Kipling became a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, and in September 1915, after just three weeks in France, died on the front lines. The day before had been his 18th birthday.

World War I. Another four years of fighting; this time, some 10 million military killed.

Then I thought back some more, to just a week and half ago, when I spent the weekend in Columbus, Ohio, with other writers and a group of some 40 veterans, almost all of whom have been in Iraq or Afghanistan or both. We all were there as part of a pilot program to discover whether the vets wanted to tell their stories by writing about them.

We were there to help, if we could, with suggestions, ideas, or just to hear them out.

Among the Ohio veterans with us in Columbus were several from Lima Company, part of the Marine Reserves’ 25th Regiment. On Aug. 3, 2005, a roadside bomb outside Haditha exploded in the middle of a Lima Company convoy, killing 14 Marines and their Iraqi interpreter. At the time, it was the deadliest such attack of the war. All of the veterans told us what they had seen. And as with every single encounter I’ve had with our enlisted men and women, the overwhelming feelings were awe at their commitment and skill and profound appreciation for their sense of duty and service.

To a person, they were unhappy with the way in which they felt the media has covered the fighting. They wish that there were more stories about the hospitals and schools they have helped build, about the townspeople with whom they have worked and come to know, those who simply want peace and an end to the violence.

They’re concerned about a sudden withdrawal from Iraq, not only for fear that the country will collapse even further or become a staging ground for greater Middle East unrest and terror, but because it will make them feel that they were there for naught.

It’s an understandable emotion but one that has to be weighed against difficult realities. As successful as the surge may be deemed, it has failed in the purpose for which it was publicly announced and originally intended: to stabilize the Iraqi government. A report released last week by the Pentagon’s National Defense University describes the war as “a major debacle,” adding, “Our efforts there were designed to enhance U.S. national security, but they have become, at least temporarily, an incubator for terrorism and have emboldened Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.”

In September, the Marines of Lima Company are headed back. President Bush said he told Gen. Petraeus that “he’ll have all the time he needs” in Iraq. Petraeus says, “Progress, while real, is fragile, and reversible.” So the light at the end of the tunnel is a pocket flash, vainly poking at the darkness with no particular aim or honestly stated purpose.

More than 5,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq. We will always honor heroism and valor under fire, the spirit that summons courage to protect the oppressed or the buddy in a foxhole. But 5,000 today is too many for too little.

Michael Winship is a freelance television writer in Manhattan and president of the Writers Guild of America, East.