One of the last missions CPT Mackinnon talked about was a goodwill mission to help the shantytowns celebrate Id al-Fitr, the closing days of Ramadan. Id al-Fitr is a joyous celebration that roughly approximates Christmas in both festivity and mirth, and CPT Mackinnon wanted to help the poorest of the poor celebrate in grand fashion.
And so on the day of ID al-Fitr we found ourselves loading our HMMWVs with boxes of dates, stuffed animals, soccer balls and candy. Loading up all these presents should have been a carefree process - but the wounds we had suffered were still suppurating. Our recent losses still boomed in our collective memory, and the constant hammering on our heart’s door seemed to poison the joy we should have felt.
As I watched our soldiers finishing preparing the loads their haphazard motions belied their discomfort, as if their actions were physically manifesting the turmoil in my own heart. For in those few minutes I was of two minds. The hard edged part of my being, the warrior spirit chiseled into the granite of my soul, recoiled at this mission of mercy. I barely recognized that shadow of my own consciousnes, it was too clotted with wrath to appear familiar. Its inchoate screech battered my will with naked fury – and with every hot beat of my heart I heard it cry out its need to ensure justice for our fallen.
The song of blood battered that still, focused part of my being that understood the importance of this mission. Even in the midst of the torrential onslaught it remained true, as if it were a relentless compass needle heeding only the soft field lines of conscience. The battle does not always go to the strong, and in that inner struggle it was the quiet voice of reason that prevailed over the ravenous anger. By time the HMMWVs were loaded I was no longer conflicted – I knew what my duty was. We had come to Iraq to build a more secure future for the country, and this mission was as good a start as any.
After the mission brief I pulled together the patrol and came clean, admitting my own struggle to unclench fists balled with anger. I could have just ordered the troops to pass out the gifts - they are disciplined to carry out orders they don’t agree with. But in my heart I knew that was just the easy way out, the last recourse for a poor leader. Instead I put into words the thoughts hanging over all our heads. My words didn’t provide any real insight, and they didn’t soothe old wounds. They just reminded these hardened troops that we weren’t here to bring the law of the sword, but to seed a friendly area with hope. In the end the only thing that would permanently undermine the AIF would be our mercy and goodwill. CPT Mackinnon believed this to be true until his dying day, and I would not dishonor him by abandoning his mission. With that said we loaded into the vehicles and sped towards the shantytowns.
As we drove into the first village I wondered if my words were worth the breath in my lungs, or if they had died in the space between my lips and their ears. Doubt crept into my thoughts for the first time, and I wondered if I even believed myself. As we dismounted several children came running out to meet us, dressed in their finest clothes. The moment I watched the first throng wash up the doubt disappeared, melted away by the exuberance of these happy upturned faces. As we walked along the village passing out small gifts to the children I looked around and noticed our soldiers were all smiling. The gunners still tracked their sectors with practiced care, but the troops walking the streets reflected the sea of joy around our convoy. Although the area was too poor to have any holiday decorations it seemed like everyone was dressed in their finest clothes. Men wore clean sets of clothing, and their wives were dressed in bright patterned burkhas as garish and jovial as a Hawaiian shirt. It seemed like every woman in the village was painted with thick coats of makeup, a subtle difference that stood in sharp contrast to the roughshod appearance of their patchwork homes. At a few of the homes I gathered together the families and snapped a Polaroid snapshot and handed the photo to the family patriarch. That simple gesture brought tears to several sets of eyes, photographs were obviously rare treasures in these bustling neighborhoods. By time our HMMWVs were emptied entire communities were laughing and cheering, and my soldiers looked over their work with justified pride. We returned to the FOB far stronger then when we left it.