U.S. soldier sees personal mission fade in Iraq
A father who set out to avenge his son’s death yearns to go home
This has got to be one of the worst news items I’ve ever read, in terms of quality. I noticed it yesterday evening. Although MSNBC.com doesn’t seem to tell us this, it’s “By CHARLES J. HANLEY AP Special Correspondent” according to another source.
AL-ASAD, Iraq – In the desert chill, on the lonely nighttime roads of Iraq, Joe Johnson looks out over his machine gun and thinks of Justin.
It was on Easter morning 2004 that a chaplain and a colonel appeared on Joe and Jan Johnson’s Georgia doorstep with the news. Justin, the boy Joe had fished and hunted with, the soldier son who’d gone off to Iraq a month earlier, was suddenly dead at 22, killed by a roadside bomb planted in a Baghdad slum.
Today it’s Joe who mans the M-240 atop a Humvee, warily watching the sides of the road, an unlikely Army corporal at 48, a father who came here for revenge, a Christian missionary on a crusade against Islam, and a man who, after six months at war, is ready to go home.
“I shouldn’t even have come,” he now says. And if he leaves bloody Iraq with no blood on his hands, he says, that’s fine, too.
The stage is set. This was a one-man-war against Islam, a Christian on a “crusade” for “revenge” for his son’s death.
The Johnson family story is unique, even strange. But in a war where soldiers have heard an ever-changing medley of reasons for fighting, Joe Johnson’s may be as simple and direct as any — and to many, as troubling.
An “ever-changing medley of reasons”. If they keep saying it, maybe it will be true?
He wasn’t there that day the tragic news arrived in Rome, Ga. Instead, the self-employed house-builder was in Fort Lewis, Wash., trying to qualify for a place in a Washington National Guard unit ticketed for Iraq.
Seeking to serve
With six years of long-ago Army and Navy service, Johnson had joined the National Guard in 2003, wanting to serve his country again, this time in combat, and to go to Iraq while his son was there. A year with both husband and son at war would be easier on Jan than two years separately, he reasoned.
Now Murdoc’s confused. I thought this was for revenge. But the elder Johnson had already joined when the younger was killed. It says also that he had wanted to serve “in combat”, though I guess it’s not clear that combat was his intention at that point.
The death of Justin, a 1st Cavalry Division machine gunner, stunned his parents with a shock that lingers still.
“What were the odds, of thousands of people here, that somebody in my family would get killed?” the grieving father asked.
At that point, Johnson said, “I decided it was too soon to leave home.” Jan was too distraught.
Sounds very understandable.
But last April 11, a year and a day after his son was killed, Johnson told his Iraq-bound Georgia National Guard unit, the 48th Infantry Brigade, he was ready to join them. They ended up at this dust-blown base in Iraq’s far west, pulling escort duty for fuel convoys on the bomb-pocked desert highways from Jordan.
Sorting through the reasons
Why did he do it? The wiry lean Georgian, an easy-talking man with a boyish, sunburned face, tried to answer the question that won’t go away.
“It’s a lot of things combined,” he said. “One, a sense of duty. I was pissed off at the terrorists for 9/11 and other atrocities. Second, I’d only trained. I wanted combat.” And then, he said, “there’s some revenge involved. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t.”
The way this article is written, we don’t have any clue whatsoever what the reasons were. Previously we were told it was a one-man crusade against Islam. If we take this passage at face-value, it’s something very different.
Note that I’m not critical of Mr. Johnson. I’m critical of what appears to be, at best, a very sloppy piece of writing. At worst, it’s a complete hack job which seems to paint Mr. Johnson, the military, and the rationale for the campaign in Iraq with a very broad and condescending brush.
But there was more on the mind of this man who has done Church of God missionary work as far afield as Peru and the Arctic.
“I don’t really have love for Muslim people,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there are good Muslims. I try not to be racist.” Although he hasn’t read the Quran, or spoken with Muslims, he has “heard” the Islamic holy book “teaches to kill Jews and infidels. And it’s hard to love people who hate you.”
He could love Iraqi children, though, and said he’d hoped “to see them grow up to know right and wrong.”
Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but this sure looks like an attempt to make the focal point of the article look like an archetypal uninformed simpleton with a religious background.
Somewhere along the way, however, the righteous passion cooled, as the over-aged corporal, like tens of thousands of other American soldiers here, faced the reality of Iraq.
Was it last Christmas morning, when roadside bombs rocked his convoy one after another, and Johnson thought he was next? Or was it when speeding civilian cars passed the Americans’ Humvees and Johnson failed to level his gun and open fire, which “I think anyone else,” fearing car bombs, “would have done.”
“I really don’t want to kill innocent people,” he now says. “I don’t want to live with that the rest of my life.”
“I really don’t want to kill innocent people“?!? What does that mean? That, by “failing” to open fire, he was not following standard procedures to kill innocent people? Or that “anyone else” would just have killed innocent people because they “feared car bombs”?
Most of all, it might have been the telephone calls home to Jan, who was dealing not only with depression and other health problems, but also with the prospect that their elder soldier son, Josh, 26, might be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.
“I don’t like that Joe’s there,” Jan Johnson said when called by satellite telephone from al-Asad. “But it’s something he felt he had to do. People heal in different ways. This is how he heals after Justin’s death.”
“She’s ready for me to come home,” Joe Johnson concludes.
Again, the worry and fear are perfectly understandable. Who wants to be in a war zone? Who wants their family members to be there?
He will. His battalion exits Iraq in early May, when Johnson’s own enlistment term, coincidentally, expires. “That’s it,” he said, no re-enlistment for him.
Which is probably an important point to make, as the overall re-enlistment numbers of those who have seen combat don’t seem to support any point ever made by any critic of the military or the campaign in Iraq.
But what about revenge?
“If I go home and didn’t kill a terrorist, it’s not going to ruin my life,” he said. “Maybe I’d just as soon not. I don’t know what it would do to my head.”
Once back home among the northwest Georgia pines, he has one last ceremonial act in mind, removing the silver-toned bracelet he’s worn on his right wrist throughout his deployment, bearing Justin’s name and date of death. Joe Johnson’s mission will have been accomplished.
Whatever it was, he said, “I got it out of my system.”
Ah. Mission accomplished. We have a metaphor for the whole effort in Iraq: What began as one thing has turned into another and, now that it’s out of the system, will gladly be totally abandoned without accomplishing anything that was intended. If a regular “everyman” like this guy feels this way, everyone must.
Again, I hope I’m not being unfair to Mr. Johnson. It’s the writing and the author’s slant that I think are pathetic. Mr. Johnson has my admiration and gratitude for his service. I happen to think that many readers are going to be left with a rather negative (and unfair) opinion of Mr. Johnson. That’s pretty unfortunate.
Of course, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this wasn’t some sort of hatchet-job with a larger political point. Maybe there isn’t any attempt to pretend that revenge was a major motivating factor in (Bush’s? Rumsfeld’s? John Q. Public’s?) support for the invasion of Iraq. Maybe it was just a small human interest story with no greater meaning beyond the personal drama and trauma of a military family which has suffered much heartache and loss.
Front and center on MSNBC.com:
They always run small human interest items in that slot, right?